How to deal with exam results disappointment

If you didn’t get the exam results you wanted this summer, you may be feeling disappointed, worried about the future, guilty or left out. These are all normal emotions and usually they will pass. But in some cases, these feelings can tip over into depression. So here is some advice for those of you who are struggling to come to terms with your exam results.

Remember, exam results don’t necessarily determine success

If you didn’t get the grades to secure the university place you wanted, it may feel like the end of the world. But some of the world’s most successful people experienced setbacks and disappointments. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb, was ejected from school due to his ‘poor performance’. Steven Spielberg, arguably the most successful film director in Hollywood, was rejected by the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts multiple times.

Last year The Guardian told the stories of five students who were initially devastated by their exam results, but who went on to enjoy successful careers. Read their stories here.

And remember, success comes in all different shapes and sizes. It doesn’t have to mean straight A-grades. If you are working towards goals that fulfil you, even if it’s slow going, you’re on the right path.

Map out all the options

If your results have led to a change of plan, your head might feel like a jumble of different options, or you may feel like your options have been taken away. So it’s important to sit down and map out all the potential paths you could take from here. Firstly, you may still get a place on the course you want. If that’s not possible, other options may include:

  • Resits
  • Gap year
  • Choosing an alternative course
  • Choosing an alternative university
  • Vocational training or apprenticeships
  • Considering your job opportunities
  • Internship
  • Voluntary work

For each option, note down the pros and cons. Also note down the skills and support you might need to get there. This may include emotional support, financial support or practical help.

It may also help to write down some of the good things and bad things about the course you had originally planned to take. This may seem like a sad exercise, but it’s important to acknowledge what has been lost. Writing down the not-so-great things about it will also help you feel more in-balance again. When we’re sad about a loss we tend to focus on the good parts of what we have missed out on. But it is rare for a situation to be 100% positive.

Beware black-and-white thinking

At a difficult time, it’s really important to be kind to yourself. When we’ve had a disappointment, it’s easy to fall into a ‘black and white thinking’ trap. Black and white thinking can be characterised by statements like “I always mess up”, “I’m useless” or “Nothing ever goes right for me”. Remember, there are always shades of grey in between.

We all make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we’re ‘hopeless’. If your best friend didn’t get the results they needed, would you dream of telling them “you’re useless”? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d tell them that it’s a setback, not to give up, and to believe in their skills and talents. Apply the same thinking to yourself.

Self-care

Whatever your results, times of change can be stressful and scary. Practising good self-care will help you cope with feelings of trepidation about the future. This includes:

  • Eating well
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Talking about how you feel
  • Taking time to do things you enjoy
  • Keeping in regular contact with your circle of friends and family
  • Avoid using alcohol, tobacco or drugs to cope with exam stress

Feelings of loss, sadness, anger, guilt or worry are completely normal. Acknowledge them, but if things start to overwhelm you, it’s important not to go through it in silence. It can feel isolating if your friends are all celebrating. It can also be difficult to manage your family’s hopes and expectations. But talking about how you feel doesn’t make you a downer or a disappointment. You may find they want to talk too. But if it’s proving difficult, you can get help from an outside organisation. The following may be useful:

Samaritans – Talk to a volunteer for free and in confidence, 24/7.

Young Minds – A guide to mental health support for young adults.

Childline – A guide to dealing with exam results.

My Possible Self is a mental health app that can reduce stress, anxiety and mild-to-moderate depression in eight weeks. It can be particularly useful in times of change, or when you’re struggling with low self-esteem. Download the app and try our free module Managing Fear and Anxiety.