The 3-Step Method to get Over a Failed Exam Without Crying

Yes, it happens to all of us. One day we need to deal with failure. And how huge is the disappointment when you learned so hard and failed anyway.

Follow the Acceptance-Analysis-Action plan

But what to do and how to recover when you fail an exam? There are 3 major steps to recover from a failed test:

  1. Acceptance: Accept your failure, don’t dwell on it, take responsibility. Keep in mind you are not alone and that it is not personal. Failure is always temporary if you decide to deal with it rather than reliving it.
  2. Analysis: Find the reasons for your failure. Though this is hard to swallow this is 99.9% your responsibility because of a mistake you made and you need to find it.
  3. Action: Figure out how to do better next time or what you can do instead. Regain your motivation and try it again.

The Triple-A method is the best way to overcome the exam failure and use it to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Let’s take a look at the detailed steps necessary. 

1. Acceptance

This is most likely the hardest of the 3 steps because it forces you to deal with your emotions. I still remember when I was 17 and failed the theoretical driver’s license test. I was the only one in the whole class. What an embarrassment. I will never forget the faces of everyone when the teacher publicly announced the results – a mixture of pity and malicious joy. For me that was a big deal back then, I wish I would have known the steps below.

Take responsibility

Don’t fool yourself. It was most likely your fault. Don’t try to find excuses like “It was too noisy in the test room” or “The questions were much harder than I expected”. The number one reason is probably that you just did not prepare enough – in my case, I did not learn enough on purpose because I thought: How hard can it be?”. So, the most important thing to do is to tell yourself: I am responsible, no one else. Do not try to blame the teacher or your fellow classmates, the weather or other circumstances. If something else was part of the problem that means you made a wrong decision that led to it (like picking the wrong teacher or study material). We will have a closerlook at all the possible reasons in the analysis section.

It is not personal

This failure has nothing to do with you personally. No one wants you to fail and the exam or test was not made to trick you in any way. Failing an exam does not define your personality. The way you deal with it does. A failed exam is not a disaster it’s an opportunity. The things you can learn by analysing a failure can be much more valuable in the long run than just passing the test.

It happens to anyone

When I failed the driver’s license I was indeed the only one on that day and that felt pretty awful. Still, I wasn’t the first one to fail and I won’t be the last. What worked best for me though was to completely isolate my failure from others. In the end, what does it matter if others pass or not? Focus on yourself, be happy for others when they pass but don’t use other peoples failure to make yourself feel better. But what might others think of you? The truth is most likely: Nobody really cares.

Still not convinced? Take a look at a couple of amazing people who failed and got over it to achieve greatness:

  • Thomas Edison – There is almost no article about motivation and failure without him. “I haven’t failed. I just found 10000 ways that don’t work” he said when trying to create a light-bulb.
  • Michael Jordan – One of the greatest basketball players said: “I have failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed”
  • Stephen King – He submitted his first novel “Carrie” 30 times and was rejected. His wife encouraged him to try one more time and that’s when he succeeded. This according to many business people is the number 1 reason why people are not successful. They give up 1 step before the major breakthrough never knowing how close they got.

Failure is temporary

If you decide to find the problem and work on a solution failure is temporary. Of course, I eventually got my driver’s license because the simple problem was I felt too confident and thought I didn’t need to study for such a simple test. For my rerun I learned hard, I knew all the questions and answers so I made sure that failure was not an option. I have heard people that failed an exam telling me things like: “Maybe this is not for me” or “I think I am not a <Whatever exam they failed> person”. If you want to or need to pass a test there is always a way to accomplish that. I put together tons of tips and tricks on this website to share the experience of my test taking endeavors and I am convinced that with the right tools and mindset anyone can pass any exam.

Talk about it openly

I once heard a statement from somebody who described how people react when you tell them your problems and failures. He said: “80% of people don’t care and the other 20% are happy you failed in the first place”.  That sounds a bit dark but there is probably more truth to it then we want to admit. I refuse to believe my family doesn’t care so I always discuss these things and failures with them. Talking about it makes it much easier to accept it but what is more valuable is that other people see you in a different way. They might be able to give you advice on what they think the reason is you didn’t pass and probably even offer you help. Having someone to check in on you, doing practice tests or study with you can be an enourmes support.

Do something for yourself

Failing an exam is something really discouraging. Even if you think you don’t deserve a treat just go out with some friends, do something fun, have a long movie night with junk food and beer or play your favorite video game (always my choice). Take your mind off the disappointment and get your mood up. This prepares much better for a more rational analysis of what happened and why you failed the exam. So let’s find out.

2. Analysis

So, emotions are out of the way – now you need to figure out what went wrong, learn from it and move on.

Make sure to find all the problems

Most of the time it seems obvious: You just haven’t learned enough. But there are a couple of other reasons.

  • You learned enough but didn’t know the full syllabus
  • You picked the wrong book(s) to study
  • The teacher (You picked!) was not able to explain the material
  • You forgot what you learned too soon
  • You had a blackout because you were too nervous
  • You were overconfident
  • You made sloppy mistakes and accidentally picked the wrong answers
  • The question types and style was not what you have expected

All these reasons have one thing in common. They could have been avoided by a more careful preparation. Learning for an exam is not only knowing the facts. There are a lot of things that should not be left to chance during the preparation and even on the exam day itself.

Find a solution

Let’s take a look at possible reasons and solutions:

You did not study enough.

Reasons for this might be:

  1. Procrastination – How to deal with procrastination fills entire books and online courses and there usually is not one single reason or solution. If this is an exam or you picked yourself you might want to ask yourself: Why can I not motivate myself to learn about a topic I picked myself? Maybe a solution is to acknowledge that this is not a direction you would like to go. I never needed to motivate myself to learn something like programming I was really passionate about. I just couldn’t wait to read the next book or take the next course.
  2. Not enough time – This is quite simple. If you did not have enough time your study plan was simply not good enough. Most of the exam providers give you a number of study hours to be able to pass the test so look out for that information or contact the provider, they are usually very helpful. Once you have that number and know how many hours you can spare every day you can calculate the time you need. Make sure to include some buffer for unforeseen events. Keep the last day before the test out of the calculation (that day should be for repetition only) and make sure you include some time everyday for review of the material from the day before.
  3. Overconfidence – This is a dangerous reason because feeling confident is a good thing. Realizing that you don’t know what you think you know just doesn’t happen because nothing seems to be wrong. I always make sure I get my hands on as many practice tests as I can get so that I really find out if I would pass a test with the knowledge I have.

You studied the wrong things

  1. You didn’t look at the syllabus – Every exam provider publishes a lot of details about how the exam is going to look like. This includes the number of questions, time, passing score, type of questions (multiple choice, multiple answers, fill in the gap, correlation tec.), prerequisites and other useful information. Most of the providers also give you a detailed list of topics including a percentage or number of questions from that item that appear in the exam. This is usually very helpful because if you have a weakness in one specific area you can easily figure out if a subject you are very good at can compensate for your shortcoming. I have taken exams where the syllabus even had a reference next to the topics on where to find the information in specific recommended books.
  2. You did not do a proper material research – I still remember the times when going to a library was the only option to find and prepare for a test. With all the possibilities a student has through the internet nowadays with direct access to books, courses, podcasts, tutorial, YouTube videos etc. not doing a proper research is a crime.
  3. You did not check the credibility of the author(s) of your study material – Always check the credentials of your study material. If the exam provider recommends certain books you can be sure the exam is most likely based on that material. But if you pick your own books or other study resources make sure you doublecheck that the material is worth your time. Read my article about how to read a book to find out more.

You had an anxiety blackout

  1. You are generally afraid of tests and exams – This is a difficult subject because anxiety may have different causes. You can take the anxiety test on this website as a reference to find out how serious the problem is and if it is better to get professional help. I also went to a coach once when I wanted to decide whether to leave my secure job and move to China and how to deal with the fear to make that decision. The discussion and tools the coach presented were very helpful but in particular, I remember I advice that I still use today. The coach told me to image the worst possible thing that could happen. If you do that when you go to a test the answer is usually: “Nothing”. When you will not lose your home, health, friends or anything of value. It might cost you a bit of money and self-confidence but nothing that cannot easily be replaced. Just try this method before your next decision.
  2. You freaked out during the exam – If you follow the recipe I describe in this article freaking out during a test can be avoided completely. Go through the questions 3 times, answer the easy ones first, then use the techniques I describe in the article to give your best answer and guess the rest. If you really know that you cannot make it because there is just too much you don’t know the best thing to do is to try to memorize as much as you can from the things you cannot answer. This way you can already prepare for your rerun. But still, give every question at least your best guess and don’t just give up or leave. You might get lucky!

Write down lessons learned

While this is a very common technique in Project Management I am surprised it is not used more often as a tool in personal life. I keep a small journal where I write down what I have learned not only from failures but also from successful things I have done. There is no special format, just date, topic and some simple sentences that describe the event and what could have gone better. And there is always something. This collection of improvements is basically the source of this blog. And each time I am doing a task I already experienced ones I check my lessons learned journal to remind myself not to make the same mistakes again.

But just to be clear, the lessons learned journal is not supposed to be a list of bad things. Always try to see both sides of an action, write down the things that worked, these are actionyou want to do more of or even improve to be more efficient.

You accepted and own the failure, you now know exactly what happened and have your emotions under control. So what now? The final step is to take action.

3. Action

Now that you have a list of reasons why you failed and started a lessons-learned journal it is time to take action.

Make a decision

Decide if you want to repeat the exam. If you found out that the whole topic is not where you see yourself in the future you might just decide not to waste your time on another try. But it is important to figure out what to do instead, don’t just do nothing – keep on learning.

Make a new plan

Do a thorough research of the exam and the material this time. They sit down and make a detailed study plan. 

Book a new exam

Now that you know how much time you really need to go ahead and book a new exam. This makes your decision final and hopefully sparks your motivation with the firm commitment that failure is not an option this time.

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