So you failed your first exam: Now what?

Shivangi Nanda and Noah Henriques

So you failed your first exam. It’s normal; maybe you didn’t study the content well and the best you could do were educated guesses—or maybe you did study enough, but the test questions still seemed like they were written in a foreign language. Maybe you were tired, maybe you were stressed, maybe you were sick—there are a variety of factors that can prevent us from doing our best. Then comes the sinking feeling in our gut when we don’t get the score we hoped for. In these moments, it’s easy to get discouraged, lose focus and perhaps even call it quits on studying forever—I know we’ve wanted to sometimes. And at a school as academically competitive as Case Western Reserve University, these feelings can be inflated by the success of our peers.

I’m sure all of us have felt this way at some point; it’s part of the college experience. After finally receiving our exam, we scan through our mistakes, becoming even more discouraged the longer we look. While learning from previous errors is good, we cannot allow ourselves to dwell on them. We have to keep moving forward and work to be better. So to help you out, we wanted to share some tips that have helped us cope with bad grades and get in a better mindset for the next exam.


  1. Don’t let yourself spiral! 


It sounds simple, but thinking about how badly you’ve messed up is a slippery slope. Try to put things into perspective. Even if it is the worst case scenario and your GPA will never recover, keep in mind that there are other options. For most jobs, GPA doesn’t play a huge role in your future placement—it’s been shown time and time again that characteristics like good social skills and leadership are what really matter. You might be saying, “I’m going into grad school, so I can’t just brush it off.” In that case, consider reaching out to your professor for extra credit, or take a gap semester to improve your GPA or gain valuable work experience. It may sound naive or optimistic, but there is almost always another option, and you can almost always find somebody in your corner to help you along the way.


  1. Learn from mistakes


In order to improve on future exams, it’s often a good idea to rationalize what exactly went wrong. When we’re able to understand the reasons why something emotionally significant happened, we don’t feel so strongly about it. So if you can figure out that you didn’t do as well as you wanted on the test because you didn’t study the right material, it helps you establish a solid base for improvement in the future and to be more calm and rational about the situation. It provides a clear problem—a problem that you can find a solution to. 


  1. Take a break


If the pressure to fix your mistakes becomes overwhelming, stepping away from your work is a valid option. It is definitely hard to dissociate yourself from a bad grade, but occupying ourselves with something else can help. By engaging our attention elsewhere, anxiety about our recent setback can decrease. If you’re able to, a particularly helpful option is exercise, even if it’s just a short walk. Along with being a distraction, it can help you get some fresh air, interact with others and improve your health and self-esteem. 


  1. What to do next


Now that you’re in a better headspace, what can you do to change for the future? If you’re like us and have a bad habit of procrastinating, try to make a plan about it! Having a plan helps you stay aware of how much you’re able to study, but also reduces possible anxiety and stress about failure.  Chances are you’ve heard this before, and it hasn’t worked out very well for you. But the key component that many people can gloss over is that the plan has to be comfortable and attainable for you. Some of the specifics can come from previous experiences with making plans, or like me, from things you’ve read online. Maybe you need every hour of every week before the day of your exam laid out, or maybe a vague agenda is sufficient. Whatever your planning style, the most important thing is to stick with the plan until it becomes a regular feature of your daily routine. 

If you still feel like it’s too daunting to try and manage everything you need to study for—especially those STEM classes—we have some excellent academic resources on campus to help you. For difficult classes, office hours can be a great option, as you get direct input and advice from the person most knowledgeable about the course. In addition to office hours, Supplemental Instruction/TA sessions can be a great way to test your knowledge of course content and get advice from students who have likely already taken the course. If you want more one-on-one help, peer tutors are also available for most major courses, and the hours are usually very flexible. 

College isn’t a sprint: pacing yourself is vital for success. We need to know when to slow down and take breaks, especially when we are faced with unforeseen setbacks. Being able to calm down, make corrections and reach out for help are crucial to performing at our best. We hope that with this list of tips, you’ll be better equipped to face failure, get back up, take a breath and try again.