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Finishing your secondary education is a rite of passage.
For most students this means exams, after which you will choose a career pathway and move on with life. While this may be pretty straightforward for some, what if you don’t get the results you expected?
Here are five ways to cope with what can be a stressful situation.
We know that high-stakes testing like Year 12 exams put substantial pressure on you to achieve. Pressure from teachers, parents and even self-directed pressure from yourself only serves to intensify an already stressful situation.
And then the examination scenario can produce high levels of test anxiety that may negatively impact your performance. These exams are important and so associated stress is inevitable and to an extent even useful, because it motivates you to achieve.
But keep exams in context; your results don’t define you, and Year 12 results are not the only road to achievement – there are lots of avenues leading where you want to go in life.
Use some coping strategies
Being kind to yourself, rather than being overly self-critical, is a helpful way to deal with academic disappointment because it helps you look at the situation with empathy and balance.
Self-compassionate people are probably better at seeing an academic setback for what it is – a setback, and nothing more. This makes them less likely to blow the result out of proportion, and instead send a message to yourself that “I may have missed out on the score for that course, but I can work on other pathways to study that field”.
Another important strategy is called ‘engagement coping’, where you make an active effort to manage your results by:
- changing your emotional reaction e.g. shifting from anger to disappointment to acceptance
- changing some aspect of the stressful situation e.g. changing your course preferences
- adapting to the stressor e.g. putting the results in perspective and considering your options.
What can I learn from this?
People commonly attribute academic success to internal causes like ability, and academic disappointment to external causes like task difficulty or bad luck. Internal attributions are important because they encourage you to take responsibility for change.
For example, if you are disappointed with your results for external reasons, like being marked too hard, the questions being too difficult or bad luck, these attributions may make you feel better in the short-term but don’t help you plan to do better in the future.
But reflecting on factors within your control like study preparation and motivation (internal attributions) helps you consider your strengths and weaknesses and how to learn from this experience in the future.
Have a back-up plan
Tolerating imperfection and having the ability to deal with setbacks is an important life skill, but what does this actually mean in a real-world context?
As a school psychologist, I regularly work with young people in the lead up to their Year 12 exams, supporting them with a spectrum of concerns encompassing anxiety, healthy study habits and goal setting.
In particular, high achieving students are more likely to put themselves under greater strain to maintain their personal aspirations and reach the perceived expectations of others.
The ability to set goals is key to educational resilience. Goals create a sense of purpose and preparedness. My recommendation to students is to avoid ‘putting all their eggs in the one basket’; have a Plan A and work towards your target, but have a Plan B, C and D too, just in case.
Let loved ones know how they can support you
In the face of a disappointing outcome, it can be difficult for parents to know the best way to help.
Let your parents know you need their support and understanding, and that well-meaning anecdotes and stories of how others triumphed over similar setbacks may be helpful down the track but not right now.
Similarly, let them know that attempts to downplay your results by minimising them or dismissing them as ‘nothing to worry about’ are also unhelpful.
Instead, ask them to listen to what the results mean to you, and help you plan your next step.