You bombed the exam. Now what?

The class comes to an end. As you leave, you pick up your exam. You look at the grade in disbelief. There must be some mistake! You flip through each page, seeing answer after answer marked as wrong. You check the name on the exam again—is this really mine? It is still your name at the top of the first page. Yes, you bombed the exam.


Your College Coach has been there. I took a philosophy class in my first semester of freshman year. I enjoyed the class, and did not miss a single lecture. I studied a lot, reading the textbook and reviewing my notes. I was putting in about 3-5 hours per week just studying. I took the first exam, and thought I did okay—not great, but not bad. When I got my exam back, I was devastated to see the red F on the first page. But the comments on the last page hurt even more. There was a brief note that read “If you do not come to class, you cannot pass this class.” I wanted to scream “I came to every class, you moron!” While I do not remember the rest of my day, I imagine that I walked back to my dorm room in the rain, without a jacket or umbrella, cold, wet, and defeated.

The next day, I put together an action plan. I resolved to go see the professor during office hours. I was going to tell him that my performance on the exam was so bad that it was indistinguishable from a student that never attended lecture. I was going to ask what I needed to do better.

The professor was surprised to see me, and ended up being very helpful. I was told to stop reading the book entirely, and focus all of my effort on what was covered in lecture. I was confused that the professor told me not to read the book he assigned for his class, but okay, whatever. He then told me that my notes were grossly inadequate. I should have 4 pages of notes for each 55-minute lecture. I typically had a half page to a page. I now had a plan to improve. It worked. I ended up getting a B in the class.

When you fail an exam you prepared for, you need to re-group and develop a new plan. First, review the questions you got wrong. Determine if you thought you understood it (but did not), or if you just did not know. Visit your professor during office hours to review the exam. Go over each question you got wrong, and prepare to ask follow-up questions like “I though the answer was C. Can you tell me why answer C is wrong in this case?” Have the professor review the notes you take in class. Ask if your notes are adequate, or if you should be taking more notes. Tell the professor how you prepared for the exam and how much time you spent, and ask what you might do differently next time.

On graduation day, nearly everyone that receives a diploma will have failed at least one exam in college. It happens to almost everyone. The trick is to let that F be a temporary set-back. Don’t let it define you. Regroup, develop a new plan, and overcome.

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