Preparing for the emotional rollercoaster of awaiting exam results

Man holding sign saying 'lawyered'Have you seen the episode of ‘How I met Your Mother’ where Marshall is waiting to see if he passed the New York state bar exams?  The conflict is that he lost his password and can’t log into the candidate portal, which means he was to wait even longer to see if he passed or not. The writers did a masterful job building suspense and tension. If you are waiting for exam results, you might feel the same way. Everything is on the line while you wait.

Sometimes waiting for results feels more stressful than taking exams, but no matter, all you can do is sit tight.  I try to keep calm, but for the first few weeks that’s virtually impossible.  Here is how I have learned to cope.

As soon as I leave the exam room, it’s very helpful to write a summary of the question attempted and my response.  As time passes and my cortisol levels decrease, it becomes quite challenging to recall exam day at all, never mind the details of the paper.  Brief notes on my paper help me make sense of the Examiner’s Report and assess my skills.

During the first few weeks after exams, my thought process usually follows something like the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Written word denialDenial is underrated as a coping mechanism, so go for it. Indulge in it. Embrace it, because while it lasts, it feels really, really good. Immediately after exams, there is a sense of euphoria that I answered the question at all, and I feel confident about my paper.  I like to reconstruct it in outline form and use that to determine where I need to improve.

In the English department, we had to write three papers on each exam, select from a slate of approximately 16 questions, and we had three hours to write. In the post-graduate law department, we answer one of two questions presented and have one hour to write. It feels like so much more is on the line in the law degree exams, with depth of knowledge being severely tested. Okay, that is definitely stressful. Keeping in mind the distinguished faculty we write for is also stressful and contributes to my sense of denial during the exam aftermath.

Next comes anger. Frustration is a more accurate term.  When I start thinking objectively, I must be prepared to suddenly realize everything I should have written. I begin to question the questions I had to choose from, the one I ultimately wrote on, and how on earth I ever got myself into studying law at such a highly regarded school in the first place. That is a frustrating frame of mind.

Now, does this sound like bargaining? Please. Just. Let. Me. Pass. The. Exam. If I’m lucky, even if it’s by a hair, please let me pass. I don’t care if I pass by the slimmest margin. Well, I do, but I don’t. By this stage, I am fully aware of my deficits and have started remedial study work for next term. All I can think about is doing better next time around, if only I have passed.

Person looking upA mild depression normally comes along as the weeks tick by and something of an existential crisis ensues. To tell the truth, it’s probably more angst than depression, but it’s uncomfortable none the less. Will the marks ever arrive? What are the examiners doing? Can I move on to my next courses with any confidence? Did. I. Pass?

By the time acceptance comes along, it’s usually because I’m too exhausted to indulge in anything else. My hands are thrown up in the air, and I give in to the fact that I did the best I could. By this time, I have come to realize what my mark will be, if I passed credibly or have an issue to sort out next term. With Pass/Fail grades, it’s hard to pin what you can do for progress, so my internal study reviews based on my exam paper are extremely useful in getting past this last stage.

Preparing physically for the emotional roller coaster I know is coming helps too. I plan extra exercise, refine my diet, stay away from study materials for a few weeks, and try to concentrate on a special project or two that I know I will enjoy.  After two or three weeks, the books are calling me and I’m onto the next Study Guides. The optimist in me carries me over the line every time.

In Shakespeare’s words ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place,’ and wait for your exam results with a sense of humor. You did your best, it’s in the can as they say, and there is nothing you can do but wait until it’s time to view your results. Just don’t lose your password.

Caowrites is enrolled in the Postgraduate Laws Programme. She previously earned a BA English degree and blogged regularly about her experience. She studies by distance learning in the United States


One thought on “Preparing for the emotional rollercoaster of awaiting exam results

  1. Every professor who writes advice on exam taking – that I know of – advises you not to do post mortums on or speculate on how you did. As for myself – if I have a feel for the material – was not pushed for time – and was able to write my thoughts in a more or less coherent and organized manner – I usually leave the exam room if not relaxed – relieved. In less than a week I take my jurisprudence exam – after it is over I will begin planning for my next year’s programme. Basically, if you feel you did well you probably did – however, if you didn’t approach the exam with confidence and leave the exam room with at least that level of confidence you may not have done so great. As I write this I wish for everyone first class marks.

    James Gilliam 2nd Year LLB


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