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5 Ways to Bounce Back from Failing an Exam

Here's how to end the cycle of rumination and move forward.

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Photo by José Alejandro Cuffia on Unsplash
Photo by José Alejandro Cuffia on Unsplash

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Everyone takes tests. Exams constitute an appreciable proportion of education, and trail professionals like physicians and accountants throughout their careers. A single test can make the difference in preserving an opportunity and jeopardizing a future. Ideally, we’d ace every exam, but that’s just not the reality — sometimes we fail. Here are some tips to keep moving forward when a test goes badly.

Resist the urge to agonize over the test

As a college student, I am too familiar with the impulse to convene with my peers immediately after an exam and deliberate over every question. Fixating on what you think you missed will not help you after the exam is over. Let it go. Focus on moving forward with your day rather than conjecturing how miserably you failed or ruminating over every conceivable ramification of an unsatisfactory test grade.

Do something you love, no matter how small

Failure can evoke frustration and the unshakeable feeling that you’ll be devoid of happiness forever. Remind yourself that these feelings are temporary by engaging in activities that bring you joy — doing so reinforces that life goes on and everything will be okay. As little as a few minutes doodling, gardening, reading, dancing, or singing along to your favorite song may ameliorate your mood.

Sweat out your emotions

Exercising: a productive activity that improves mood by producing endorphins and reducing stress hormones like cortisol. Lace up your sneakers, turn on upbeat music that motivates you, and get moving. Release your frustration as you sweat, and then applaud yourself for prioritizing your health. Let the movement invigorate and prepare you to tackle any other challenges that you encounter.

Spend time with someone who makes you laugh

If you allow yourself to wallow alone, you enable yourself to fixate on all the ways that the test went wrong. Counteract your negative emotions with positive ones. Reach out to your loved ones, especially those who have a special gift for knowing exactly what to say or do to make you laugh. Distract yourself with humor, nostalgia, and silliness. Roll down a grassy hill or watch your favorite comedian.

Make a plan for the future

Accept that you can’t change the past, and focus on what you can control: the future. Can you mitigate the damage or take the test again? How can you study differently for the next exam? Assess what went wrong, and plan to improve. Use this moment as a learning opportunity, and forget what could have been. Assemble your resources and breathe. This is just a test. You are not a failure.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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