Recently I was reading a book that told a story of an aspiring navy seal who was trying to pass a major exam in order to be accepted into the program. He failed his first exam and then failed again on his second attempt. Both times left his self-esteem shaken. I started thinking about what the best way would be to recover your confidence after failing a test. I did some research and this is what I found out.
So how do you regain confidence after failing an exam? Recognize that it is completely normal for people to fail an exam. Take an objective approach. You failed but that doesn’t make you a failure. Consider it your first attempt. Put it into context. Refocus your attention on what is going right, and create a new plan to fulfill your goals.
Let’s make a distinction between two types of tests and determine what it will take to figure out what to do next.
Let’s call the two types of exams: Series Exams and Pass/Fail Exams. See the explanation below.
- Series Exams This group of exams is part of a curriculum. For example, a college course may require you to take 4 major exams during the course. (By the way, I know what it is like to need to pass the last test so that you can pass the course. This situation causes the course to be both a series exam and pass/fail exam.)
- Pass/Fail Exams Tests that determine a large portion of the next part of your life. I have listed some examples of these types of tests below:
- Medical Exam
- Police Exam
- Foreign Service
Clearly it is easier to deal with test failures where there are subsequent tests that give you the option to bring up your grade, whereas failing a pass/fail exam such as listed under point number 2 can require you to dig a bit deeper recovering your confidence.
Failing a test is a horrible experience especially when you did all you could to prepare yourself. It has a way of planting a seed of doubt about whether you are on the right path.
Self-doubt can come in like a wrecking ball, and you may find yourself wondering whether the plans you had are really meant to be.
By the end of this post, you will know the answer to that question and what you can do to recover your glitched self-image.
First it is important to understand that you are not alone.
Understanding the odds of failing a test
Just how common is failing an important exam?
I did some research on exam failure stats for us to get a sense of it, and this is what I was able to drum up.
I can’t imagine a more disheartening experience than for a budding physician to fail their boards. I figured this was a good place to start.
How many doctors fail their exams?
Like me, you may not have known that between 2013 and 2017 there were anywhere from 10 to 14% of all internal medicine doctors who failed their exam the first time.
Now imagine how many doctors across the United States take their boards (final exams) each year.
Hint: it’s in the thousands. You can see all the stats here.
How many lawyers fail the bar exam?
To further demonstrate how common it is to bomb an exam, I did some research on how many lawyers fail the bar exam on their first try?
Here is the answer:
Across the United States, the first time exam failure rate ranges from 17%-58% depending on which state you look at.
In this field it can be as substantial as more than 50% fail.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in academic stats, but there is an age old question that I think is appropriate to mention here.
Do you know what they call a nurse who was a “C” student?
Answer: NurseJoke origin unknown
The point is that at the end of college, you will be in a career and no one will care whether you made a 78 or 92 on that test you took in your first year of college.
Expand and shift your perspective on test taking.
Once you shift your perspective on just how common it is to fail an exam, you may find yourself able to breathe a bit easier. The experience isn’t unique to you.
The real test is what you do after learning
Now that you know that failing an exam is pretty “normal,” where do you go from here?
Here are the 14 tips to regaining self-confidence after failing a test:
Understand that failing an exam is common
As discussed above, it is normal to have this experience. It isn’t unique to you. A little bit of objectivity and de-personalizing the experience a can go a long ways.
Besides there may have been extenuating circumstances that didn’t help you perform your best.
Focus on you.
Identify all of the things that were at play leading up to the exam. How were you eating? Sleeping? How much time were you taking for yourself to recharge? What other life circumstances might have caused you to lack in performance.
Identifying what was going on for you might give you some clues on how you need to rearrange or manage your life so that you are taking a more holistic approach to performing well on exams.
We aren’t looking for excuses here. We are looking for areas that have an impact on performance that are being managed ideally.
Feed the flame of forgiveness:
You’ve got to forgive yourself for the failure. It’s tough. I can be my worst critic and while that can propel me to high levels of performance, it can also kill all the motivation I have for something.
Ask yourself if you are being to hard on yourself and whose voice is in your head that is keeping you from your forgiveness. Once you identify where the thoughts are coming from, you should be able to create some distance between them and what really happened.
Just like in a video game. You lost all your lives, but if you stay committed, you can regenerate yourself and get another life and another shot at conquering the exam.
The game isn’t over until you are six feet under. I like to run the rocking chair test on experiences that leave me feeling low after failure.
Here’s how it works. Imagine you are eighty years old, sitting on an old wooden porch on a rocking chair thinking back about your life.
Will you be glad you pushed through or will you regret something? If you think you might lean towards regret, it’s time to take action and get back in the game.
Get some help like tutoring or online educational learning
I believe that for most things there is always a way to learn something. Often this may require to go off the grid for your learning.
What do I mean by that?
I mean, if you are a college student
You’d be surprised at what you can find to help you learn. If you learn best in a group, you might want to see if there is a local group that gets together to focus on a specific subject.
If there isn’t consider forming one yourself.
At first, it might feel awkward asking for help or creating a “support” study group, but get over it and get on with it. Don’t let that be what stops you from achieving the goals you have set out to achieve.
Take some time off (but not too long)
Great athletes have been known to do this. Mental capacity is going to be proportionate to how stretched you are. Rest can be just what you need to regroup.
I like to take time off to let my mind relax. It helps me get more creative and generates more energy for the work that I set out to do.
There is a book called Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg.
They studied what professional athletes did to take their games to a whole new level.
One of the keys that they discovered was adequate rest. The high performance athletes were serious about sleep, rest and recovery.
What do you do when you get some free time on your hands? Do you try to fill it, reasoning that you don’t have time to rest?
Get perspective and re-calibrate your expectations
It’s important to separate yourself from your emotions. You need to change your perspective. Put the experience into context. Failing at something doesn’t make
We see people fail on talent shows all of the time. We think nothing of it. You may be in your head about this to much.
What are the unwritten expectations that you have of yourself?
Maybe you have an unspoken rule that says that you have to win at everything. This ushers in a tremendous amount of pressure and could be what is holding you back.
Take a sheet of paper and write down what you truly expect of yourself when it comes to passing tests and achieving your goals and what not achieving your goals means for you.
Once you get clear on them, consider whether they are reasonable. Manage them.
Manage your self-talk
Attached to the expectations are usually strings of expression that you tell yourself when you don’t accomplish what you set out to achieve.
What do you tell yourself?
I tend to tell myself I’m stupid or don’t have what it takes.
But when your self-talk wants to tell you are a fraud, don’t have what it takes or aren’t cut out for something, I recommend telling it where to go.
At the end of the day, you get to decide how your life goes. You get to make the choice. Chances are all of the negative self-talk isn’t really yours to own.
It might be a replaying record from your childhood, from authority figures or from past experiences that you’ve had that tend resurface when you aren’t feeling empowered.
Don’t vilify your failure
It’s easy to exaggerate the meaning of your failure. We can transform what is as simple as “not passing a test” into the academic equivalent of the boogeyman.
Don’t run from this or let it affect you. Just like there was nothing in your closet when you are a kid, there is nothing here either.
See the setback as temporary. It will pass given enough time.
Adjust your Study Habits
What kind of a study person? Do you do better by yourself or a group?
Identify how you retain information the best
I remember one of the nursing tests I took that I bombed. It was a test on the cardiovascular system (heart and
They did really well, but I didn’t.
I was busy trying to pay my bills and was working at a restaurant. I went around and asked 10 friends who did well on the test to tell me why they did well.
All of them said that it just clicked for them. So, I asked them to explain the heart function in their words. Each time, I got a little different perspective on how it worked, until it just “clicked” for me.
I excelled in psych (because it clicked.) Recognize that you are always going to have different areas in life that naturally make more sense to you than others.
How I knew whether I understood something was that I could explain it in my own words.
I also reviewed the test when possible.
I realized that I was at a disadvantage. I had a language barrier. There were little nuance things that I didn’t translate right in my hand.
It helped to cut myself a bit of slack and recognize that I needed to be more careful.
Don’t give up
It’s important to remember that giving up is permanent but defeat is only temporary.
In a conversation my husband had with an elite NFL player, the player told him that you have to want it more than anyone else, and what you do when you are tired, feeling run down, or temporarily defeated is where the true test happens.
If you are just starting out at something and realize it isn’t for you, that is one thing.
But, if you have been working to achieve this goal for a while, it’s not time to give up.
I have my clients set huge goals. Goals that inspire them, but that are also difficult to achieve.
The reason is because I am more interested in who they become on their journey to their goal rather than achieving the goal itself.
I’m not saying to be whimsical about goal setting. I am saying that you should be focused on what type of person you become on your way to your goal.
A temporary setback like failing a test is in itself a great test of character, mental fortitude, and the willingness to endure.
Visualize test success and expect it
Do you picture looking up your score to find that you passed?
Sometimes, (I’ve been guilty of this) I say that I have what it takes to succeed, but when I do pass, or when I do have success, I am literally blown back by it.
Crazy right? It’s easy to say we believe something, but look at your actions. Your actions reveal what you believe.
So, if you are already planning on changing majors, careers or paths because of the results you got, you can be sure that you don’t believe it.
What if you really did?
Take time to really visualize it. Run the race in your head. Pro athletes do this all the time and studies support how effective this can be to achieving your goals.
Shift your focus to what you are thankful for and what is going right
If you find yourself in an absolute funk after failing the test, take out a sheet of paper and right down 21 things you are thankful for.
At first, it might be difficult, but what I find happens when I do this is that it really shifts my perspective and gets me connected to all of things that are going right.
Maybe you are thankful for having eyes to be able to read these words. Others don’t and can’t.
As you refocus on what you are thankful for, the gratitude can refill your gas tank to continue on your journey.
I had a very successful businessman tell me that he hadn’t set out to do what he was doing. He set out to do something else entirely. He wanted to set up a Internet Service Provider which failed miserably. However, that ended up sending him down a path to creating different websites and tools on the internet. At the end of it all, he was met with tremendous success.
Life is a bit like this. Most of us resist the failure. But, if you embrace it, you may end up being thankful for it later on.
Trust the public not the professor. In today’s age, it’s important to remember that there is a major gap between what we are taught is the right way to do things and what actually works.
What do I mean? Let me give you an example. I was never a great writer in high school or college. My ENC101 class professor couldn’t care less about the work I turned in.
But yet, I am the one sitting here writing this article for you. I’m not trained, but this is what I do.
Think of the singers that have become some of the greatest names in pop history. Again, not a single vocal lesson.
The only cap there is on what you accomplish is you.
Certainly there are tests that if failed will prevent you from being able to pursue a career, but there are many examples of individuals who have failed a test and retaken it sometimes multiple times.
I want to put this into perspective. These are people that have gone through at least four years of college. Then they have gone through three to four more years of medical or law school.
Wouldn’t you agree that they have taken their fair share of tests?
So, what do you do when you are staring down an “F” at the end of taking an exam?
It depends on what you have invested. Ask yourself the question, what have I put into this?
Even though you may feel like giving up, you may be pretty far down the road. You may have put a lot of physical, mental or emotional energy into this.
I know that pushing that last little bit can be super tough. However there is value in completing a task. For instance, what if you have decided that you just don’t want to be a doctor any more and you have invested 12 years of your life, it’s best to finish everything and once you are doctor decide whether you want to be a doctor.
Otherwise, it’s an opportunity to lose your self-esteem and sense of self.
How we show up in life for others correlates to the way we show up for ourselves. Our relationship to ourselves is immensely important. Our level of self-respect sets the tone for how others respect us, and many other things in life are related to how we relate to ourselves. Think love and romance, education and achievement.
In order to preserve your own dignity and self-respect, it is advisable to do whatever it takes to finish. Finish the race. You’ve got more to lose than just the degree.
So many of my mistakes in life started with small compromises.
I wish the best for you.
What if it is a test that has lasting implications.
If the failure is an attempt not a final verdict, then the game isn’t over. You can create another shot.
The lasting implications might be a loss of time or money, but you are worth it, and your goal will be worth it when you get there. Keep moving.
Remember failure doesn’t mean failed until you quit trying. It’s simply time to increase your skills.
Take inventory of went right and wrong and go back to the drawing board.
There are so many ways to learn with today’s technology.
Find someone who can help you sharpen your skills and don’t give up. Register for the test again.
Change your approach and go for it.
How to pick yourself up after a bad exam
First off, time is going to make a big difference. If it has only been a few hours since learning that you failed the test, you may be feeling raw, like you’ve been sucker-punched.
I’ve had upsets in life that left me feeling the same way, and the best thing to do right away is get it off your chest.
I remember being so enraged one time that I pulled into a dollar store parking lot. Went inside, bought a broom and two bags of ice.
I then drove to a nearby warehouse / industrial park that had some vacant land next door. There was a big block of concrete left on the vacant land.
I took the bags of ice and laid them out on the concrete slab and just beat the tar out of them with the broom handle.
I was so mad I could scream and taking out my aggression on the ice helped.
Once I calmed down I tried tossing the broken pieces of ice in the air and them hit them like a baseball using the broom as a bat.
It turned into game. First just hitting the ice with the tiny broom was tough. Once I got the hang of it though, I tried to see how far I could hit it.
My point here is to defuse the upset. You may be mad at yourself for failing. Maybe it doesn’t seem fair. Maybe the odds were stacked against you.
But wallowing won’t help. You’ve got to purge the fury and come up with a regroup-game plan once you are thinking straight again.
I think I failed my exam what should I do?
The truth is there is nothing you can do until you get the results. I know it can be hard during the time interval in between completing the exam and getting the score, but you are going to have to be patient.
If you find yourself panicking without cause, get out of the house, dorm, apartment, etc. and go have some fun. It’ll do you some good.
Sitting around terrified whether you passed or failed isn’t going to do you any good
What should I do if I failed my exam and I’m now depressed?
If you failed, it is natural to feel depressed. I’m not talking about clinical depression here. For that, talk to a professional.
I’m talking about being down, low and feeling a huge burden of disappointment.
This is a good time to think about things you love to do and go do them, and find a friend and tell them what is going on for you.
One thing that helps me is to take 3 minutes (set a timer) and write everything out on a piece of paper that disgusts you about the situation and how you are feeling.
This helps me purge the emotional weight of a situation.
How to calm down after failing a test
Failing a test you worked hard for can be devastating. If the last item isn’t helping, you can dig deeper to figure out what is really going on.
Sometimes you may need to enlist the help of a professional for this, but you’ve got to get access to the record that is playing in your mind and find out where it is coming from so you can go to work on it
In order to go deeper, ask yourself the following questions and write them out. (I do really mean write them out because you don’t want to stay in a passive mode here. You won’t be able to shake the funk.)
- Have you dealt with this before? If yes, how did you recover?
- What does the situation remind you of?
- What other failure have you had in your life that this draws on or remind you of?
I like to remind myself that if I am the best in my class, then I may be in the wrong class.
It’s a good practice to take on challenging situations. Those are the ones that will teach you the most.
If everything were easy, it might be boring.
Finally, if you aren’t failing, you aren’t pushing hard enough.
Let the experience be a great life lesson that propels you onto bigger challenges, setbacks, and accomplishments.