Exams: Failing Does Not Mean You Are a Failure

April 26, 2021

Louis Tay

During my GCE A-levels, which is a high-stakes pre-university examination in Singapore, I fell ill. The A-levels being a national exam, there was no way to postpone it. Before one of my papers, I swallowed some over-the-counter pills and hoped for the best.

All I could during the exam was stare at the questions – and my fogged-up brain was not churning up answers quickly enough. I came out from the exam hall with a pit in my stomach. The results came out and confirmed my dreaded fears – I flunked that paper I worked so hard for. I felt like a failure.


The process of preparing and sitting through an examination is stressful.

But exams can be even more nerve-racking when tied to our self-worth. It is not uncommon to believe that through our exam results, we can:

  • Show others we are competent.
  • Show others we are smart.
  • Show others we are worthy.

Our sense of self-worth is so fundamental that we can lose our sense of hope, direction, and purpose if it is threatened. More importantly, research shows that basing our sense of worth on external sources like approval from others has mental health consequences.

In failing my exam, I had to rethink where I drew my sense of self-worth. I realized that I had relied on flimsy external sources like academic performance, how I compared to others, and what others thought of me. In a turnabout, I started taking steps to develop my self-worth based on my mindset and behaviors. Instead of a results-contingent self-worth, I focused on my attitude toward challenging circumstances – like how I prepare for an exam and how I react to failing one. It freed me from the shackles of circumstance and anxiety.

Remember - failing on exams does not mean that you are a failure. More to the point, failing does not mean you are worthless – or worth less. It is one single event in life that does not determine whom you choose to become.

As you prepare for your exams, I encourage you to separate your self-worth from your exam results. You may find greater freedom and enjoyment in learning. And research suggests that it may even help you perform better on exams.

Be well,

Dr. Louis Tay

Tay is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences. He has expertise in well-being, assessments, and data science.  Be sure to check back each week for another wellness tip of the week!

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