What to do if You Really, Really Mess up Your Exams

So, you messed up an exam, huh?

We’ve all been there. Strolling into the exam hall, with a smirk on your face, answers right at the front of your brain and pure confidence in your ability to crush this exam. Fast-forward two hours later, and you’re a broken human. Crawling out of the exam hall, head in your hands and wondering if it’s time to drop out, or cancel your college applications and apply for a paper route instead.

Instead of mentally beating yourself up (and trying your hardest not to punch your friend who gleefully got every answer right), it’s time to be constructive.

Let it out.

First things first, give yourself half an hour to panic. It’s natural, and if you don’t get those feels out now then they’re probably gonna come back to haunt you. Let yourself scream, cry, run around or get under your covers. Whichever way you deal with things best.

Now, once that half an hour is over, it’s time to move on. Look forward. Focus on the positives – and there are some, believe me.

Find your friends.

Make yourself feel better about shitty exams by finding other people who also found it shitty. There are probably lots of them. When this math paper turned out to be harder than predicted, the world took to Twitter to complain. Nothing brightens your day quite like the realization that you’re not alone.

Once you’ve got your newfound friends and you’ve bonded over your hatred of exams, look at it constructively. If you’re fresh out of the hall, then chances are you have no idea what grade you’ll have yet (remember – it might not be half as bad as you thought). If, on the other hand, you’ve just got your results back and you really have messed it up, then try and figure out why. If there’s one particular element of your exam you struggled with, speak to friends who got it right (or were more confident, at least) and learn where you went wrong. Who knows, this might be the beginning of your Community-style study group.

Reach out to your prof.

Once the exam is over, your prof should be allowed to speak to you about it. Pick apart the areas you felt went the worst and tell this to your professor. Look at where you went wrong and ask them for help and advice. If they can’t speak to you straight away after the exam, ask them if you can have a quick meeting over the next few days when you can discuss it properly.

If you think the exam went really badly, and you’re a bit emotional, it might be a good idea to wait a while instead of speaking straight after—when you’ve managed to calm down a bit. Write yourself a short list of what went wrong and how you think you could change it next time, and show this to your professor too.

If it’s more down to your technique – structure, timings or evidence, then past exams are probably gonna be your best friend for the next few weeks. I hate to say it, and you’re probably bored of hearing it, but past exams are the closest thing you’ll get to authentic exam practice, and if you do them properly – with set times, and prepare properly, you’ll improve your technique every time.

Consider dropping the class. 

For real. If it’s a mandatory class, then obviously that’s not an option. But if it isn’t, and maybe you’re just flat out struggling in the class itself, it could be worth speaking to the head of department to see if you can transfer or drop. We all have our strengths, weaknesses, and interests—things you’re willing to work harder on than others. Just because you struggle with one subject, doesn’t mean you won’t be an expert at something else.

On the other hand, if you’re struggling with this subject because you’re putting all of your energy into a different one, it could mean that you need to focus more on time management rather than changing the course. Maybe your other subjects are a lot heavier and require much more study time, but it’s important to remember that a good balance of studies is crucial to succeed, and maybe, even just for a short while, it’s time to readjust your ratios and spend more time on the area you’re currently struggling with. It’ll all pay off by the time exams next come around!

Be cool.

This is not the end of the world. Everyone has bad days, and fucking up one exam is not going to have a hugely detrimental effect on the rest of your life. If you messed up that badly, and it looks like it’s going to affect further study applications, then it might be worth emailing your colleges and explaining, up front, what went wrong and what you’ve learned from it as a result. Colleges and universities don’t just want a set of letters on a sheet of paper; they’ll be looking for personality and outside achievements too.

Worst comes to worst, take up an interesting and/or unique hobby that relates to the real job you want to have one day, and every time your poor exam mark gets mentioned at interviews, talk about your real life experience instead.

*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.
Georgie Darling

Georgie Darling

Georgie Darling is a student journalist at the University of Sheffield who enjoys travelling, photography and writing. She is currently working towards achieving her NCTJ, BJTC and PPA accreditations and is eager to start her career as a journalist.