Alleviating Guilt About Failed Exams

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Reader’s Question

I am a 17-year-old girl who has just found out that I have done horribly on my A levels. I am not the greatest student, I never was, but I put a lot of effort into these exams and only managed to pass two of them. I passed French with an E and Spanish with a C; I failed Business and Economics, ICT and English Lit. To be honest I was not expecting much better.

This actually was not the worst of it — when I heard my parents’ voices and saw their faces when I told them, I was even more devastated. I know I have let them down, even though they say I have not. They’re worried I will not get into a good college, and will therefore have a hard life. I feel extremely guilty and need someone to turn to and to give me some advice.

Psychologist’s Reply

School can be very stressful for many teenagers — especially as they approach the end of high school and feel the pressure of college approaching. It sounds as if you are experiencing a lot of worry and guilt about the consequences of these grades. An event such as a low exam grade can create two paths: one of thinking catastrophically about the event, or one that mobilizes you to create alternate plans to achieve a goal.

When we catastrophize an event, we think about it as bigger and farther reaching than it actually is. It is the thoughts about the event that create the big worry and guilty feelings.

For example, catastrophic thinking about an exam grade might sound like this:

A) I failed my exam.
B) Because I failed my exam, I’m not going to get into college.
C) Because I failed my exam, I’m not going to go to college, and therefore my life will be ruined.

Thinking more rationally (and less catastrophically) about the event of a failed exam might instead sound like this:

A) I failed my exam.
B) Because I failed my exam, my grades won’t be as high as I had hoped, so maybe I could talk to someone who can help me do better in school or can help me consider my post-high-school options so that I can work toward my goals.
C) Although I failed my exam, it’s not the end of the world, and I have other choices to help me meet my goals and live successfully.

Which sequence makes the worry and guilt smaller for you?

While grades certainly can impact a student’s educational choices, it is important to consider what options exist for you. Enlisting the help of your parents, a guidance counselor, a trusted teacher and/or your school psychologist could help you expand your options and ways of dealing with these exam grades. It sounds like your parents want to support you, but perhaps they aren’t sure how to help. Because this is weighing on you heavily, it sounds as if you have a good relationship with your parents and want them to be proud of you.

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You mention that you are “not the greatest student.” Every student has areas in which they struggle and areas that come more easily to them. However, when individuals struggle with school in every subject, it can be helpful to have a professional assess and pinpoint what might be interfering with school success. Sometimes students have greater difficulty reading and comprehending information, sometimes students have difficulty with their memory or their attentiveness, sometimes students have not learned effective methods for studying, and sometimes anxiety or worry interferes with learning and test-taking. A school psychologist could help determine which of these might be interfering with your school success and could help implement a plan for you to improve your school experience.

My first suggestion would be for you to show what you have written here to your parents, and to perhaps set up a time to talk with your school’s psychologist. I think you can find some help in alleviating the worry and guilt that you are experiencing by enlisting a team that can help you make an action plan to assist you in defining and reaching your goals.

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