How to stop stressing over exam results

Techniques to prevent students from falling prey to thinking errors can help them overcome irrational fears and aid with any decision-making they have to do once the results are out.
Techniques to prevent students from falling prey to thinking errors can help them overcome irrational fears and aid with any decision-making they have to do once the results are out.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

Students can fight negative thoughts by engaging in cognitive restructuring process

Exams are an almost unavoidable part of young people's lives - and, inevitably, some people perform better than others. But what is more important than taking exams is how students manage the results of their exams - especially if they aren't what was expected.

When the results are negative, it can be easy to come up with thoughts such as "I will never succeed in my life", "I've disappointed my parents" or "everyone is better than me".

Although it might feel like these thoughts are valid at the time, most of these statements are contaminated with thinking errors.

One example of a thinking error is what's known as "dichotomous thinking". This happens when people perceive things in black or white terms - it's either a success or a failure. There's also "fortune telling"; this is expressed when people believe they know what is going to happen: "I will fail again."

Another type of thinking error is "catastrophising", which is when you think the worst possible outcome will occur - for example: "If I fail the exams, I will be unemployed for the rest of my life."

In these situations, it's easy to "over-generalise", where you extend any conclusions you reach about one thing to cover everything. People do this by using absolute terms - "always" or "never" - such as: "Since I failed this exam, I will always fail in everything." It's common, too, for people to "discount the positives" and underestimate their strengths, thinking along the lines of: "The last time I did a good job was only because I was lucky."


To fix these types of thoughts, you can engage in a process known as "cognitive restructuring". This has been used by psychologists who adopt the cognitive behavioural approach to help people who experience anxiety or depression. According to this approach, people experience such problems because they keep dwelling on negative thoughts to the extent that they become addicted to such a thinking pattern.

Negative thoughts, then, lead to specific bodily symptoms, such as butterflies in the stomach, as well as negative emotions, such as excessive worrying. They can also lead to avoidance behaviours - for example, when students do not want to re-sit exams - all of which traps people eventually into a vicious circle.


Cognitive restructuring can be used to fix any harmful thoughts and protect students against experiencing negative feelings. This technique involves a series of steps. To start, you can use a Thought Record Sheet to record your feelings. This might include ranking your feelings and thoughts over a particular day - such as sadness, 80 per cent, and irrational thoughts such as: "I will always fail." This can help to identify any thinking errors you make, such as over-generalising or catastrophising.

You can also use some challenging questions to test the validity of your thoughts, such as: "Do I have a crystal ball in front me that allows me to see the future?" You can then use all of this to hopefully come up with more adaptive responses, such as: "Passing A-level exams is not the only route to success."


Using this technique can feel like a battle between the irrational and the rational aspects of one's self - where each side tries to convince the other about its rightness. That's why by focusing on the evidence you can test the validity of your automatic thoughts based on facts.

The battle between the irrational and the rational selves is ongoing for most people, but knowing how to challenge the validity of one's thoughts can help you to remain realistic most of the time. These techniques can hopefully help you calm your nerves ahead of results day, but should also help you with any decision-making you have to do once the results are in.

• The writer is a lecturer in health/exercise psychology at the University of Hull

• This article first appeared in

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2018, with the headline 'How to stop stressing over exam results'. Print Edition | Subscribe