News Article

Dealing with fear of failure during exam season

Scarlet explores the effects of labelling at school and self-inflicted fear of failure, and how this can impact wellbeing. 

I was the student who was nominated ‘most likely to become Prime Minister’ at school when I was 16. The student who was always strategically sat next to those who struggled academically in the hopes that I would ‘rub off’ on them. 

I suppose it didn’t help that I was quite vocal about my opinions in class (probably where the most likely to become prime minister nomination came from…), but even from a young age I was very aware of the labels that I carried as I passed from year to year. 

One of my most formative experiences where I felt that I had ‘failed’ was in my second year of high school, when after an unsuccessful maths test, I was moved down a set. I remember coming back inside after break on the first day of term, whilst we were all queueing up to go into class, I imagined the eyes of 40 students surrounding me walking into the ‘lesser’ class. Of course, this isn’t what happened, but the damage had been done. 

Every school report, parents evening, and time I answered a question in class, gave me a short-term sense of gratification that I was amongst the best in my class, in my year, even. This didn’t come without an even more prevalent sense of dread when we moved onto the next topic in class, and I realised I had to push myself further and further to be my best because that’s what was expected of me. 

Those around me in class would roll their eyes when another test came back marked as A*. What was worse was when I didn’t do as well, and the eventual sharing of marks came around, some would even rejoice in their scoring higher than me, without a single thought of how it would make me feel. 

I expect that as students at King’s many of you have experienced the same in school and know how this could develop my ‘fear of failure’ anytime I had to sit an exam, or complete an assignment. I have never worked as hard as I did during those years of A-Levels, constantly wondering why I couldn’t be as good as those who got amazing grades without trying, or those who just always seemed to do better then me, no matter how hard I tried. I was so scared to lose, and those amazing achievements I earned didn’t really feel mine to celebrate at all. 

Results day came around and after opening my envelope I saw the two A’s and a B, I began to cry. Convinced that I hadn’t done well enough to get into university, I even called the admissions team on results day to check that they hadn’t made a mistake in letting me into King’s without the full entry requirements. Nothing my family or friends, or UCAS, could tell me would convince me that I had gotten onto that next step, and I could now relax. 

I was into university! I had achieved amazing grades! Why was I so upset??? 

As a student at King’s now, I look back on how the labels I gained at school grew into an expectation I had of myself to constantly place academic achievements over my own personal wellbeing. This experience may not be for everyone, but for my own wellness I had to choose to adjust these expectations in order to continue my own personal development. 

As a final year student, my experience at university has been so much more than the grades I have achieved. I have learnt what it means to be a part of a community of students, advocating for issues they care about. I have experienced love, loss, independence and grown into an adult.  

If you are reading this, please don’t get the impression that I still don’t have an overwhelming fear of failure, I still do. I suppose that although I still get those feelings, after years of practice I am able to try and rationalise with myself that there are so many other things that matter, and this is just the next step onto better things. 

Whether I end up the next prime minister (doubtful!) or making a career of writing blog posts like this one, I know now that I have done my best to take care of myself, and that is enough. 

If you have been affected by anything mentioned in this article, or need extra support, check out the KCLSU Wellbeing Hub, including the extra support links.?? 


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