Putting failure into perspective

7 July 2021

Failing exams can be a scary prospect, but UCL student Valeria has some tips and tricks to help you put things into perspective, think about the bigger picture and take it all in your stride.

Student with laptop

One consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the pressure to be productive round-the-clock. Students, don’t let a single minute of this period of isolation go to waste; budding entrepreneurs, have you considered monetising that hobby?

I must confess, I was trapped by the messaging. Confined to my bedroom, with a mounting workload over the course of the year and lockdown barring off any distractions in the outside world, I struggled to impose a work-life boundary, finding myself plagued by school and work commitments; Slack messages out of hours, my inbox flooded after coming home from a quiet walk, a never-ending checklist of academic papers to read. Increasingly, I felt unable to leave my desk, in fear that if I left for even a second, things would spiral out of control.

The cost of being on overdrive materialised soon enough. Halfway through exams, I began to feel deep pain in my fingers, which gradually spread up into my arms and, eventually, complete numbness; I woke up one morning to virtually no mobility in my arms, struggling to grasp the bedcovers or pick up a toothbrush. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had developed a trapped nerve in my neck due to prolonged posture and stress, impairing my ability to concentrate on my work, so much so that in one of exam, I forgot to answer an entire question worth 50% of the final module grade - ouch.

Needless to say, my exam season did not go to plan. Coming to terms with failure after putting in months of hard work has been an upsetting and demoralising journey for a chronic perfectionist hell-bent on getting things right first time round, and it’s still a work in progress. For anyone else facing the prospect of failing a module, the entire year, or just didn’t make the grade classification you were aiming for, here is my advice for dealing with a disappointing result.

Striking the right balance

Integral to my embarrassing exam mistake was simply that I wasn’t striking a healthy work-life balance – a lifestyle reckoning I’d spent most of the year trying to avoid. This is not just a bad habit personal to me, but a generational affliction. Trapped nerves are a common workplace ‘injury’, symptomatic of a modern lifestyle that glorifies overwork and chronic stress as markers of success, but the cumulative effect of long working hours can snowball into life-threatening conditions. Alarming statistics published by the WHO suggest that long working hours are killing thousands annually, a presenteeism trend likely worsened by the pandemic as we spiral head-first into an occupational health crisis. A culture of overwork that associates workaholism with success has become dangerously pervasive: the jarring entrepreneurial catchphrases ‘rise and grind’ and ‘nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week’; a frightening new wave of YouTube productivity channels bombarding our feeds with ‘15 hours study with me, no breaks’. Added to that the precarious job market and greater financial instability facing young people, our generation risks all work and no play to secure those name-brand work placements and graduate jobs.

With the model of ‘blended teaching’ sweeping the university curriculum for the upcoming academic year, and more and more employers permanently ditching the office in favour of remote work, it’s crucial to protect your health from the detrimental effects of school and work-related fatigue by drawing a bold line between work and leisure, and making sure others respect your downtime. After years of thinking I was physically invincible with characteristically youthful arrogance, working in overdrive inevitably led to burnout. I learnt the hard way that self-care is not optional; neglecting your wellbeing will dampen your resilience and exacerbate underlying mental health problems. Being strict about taking breaks and actively monitoring your wellbeing, you will put yourself in a much better position to deal with exam season next time around.

Rebuilding yourself after failure

When I first realised that I had missed a question on my paper, my immediate reaction was ‘I knew I couldn’t do this’. Many students will be familiar with the concept of imposter syndrome, and this setback made me feel like all my fears had been realised, and that I had been exposed as the fraud I really was. I also felt ashamed for having fallen at the last hurdle and needing to ask for help with my face flat on the ground. To say that the chapter was a blow to my pride would be an understatement, and it took a while to shake off those thoughts of inadequacy and impending doom that had been building up since I started university. In a competitive environment replete with high-achieving students, it’s very easy to get caught up in the junior rat race and constantly compare your performance to others.

Speaking to friends and family, I came to understand it in a different light. In a world where people broadcast their triumphs, but not the trial and tribulations in getting there, it’s easy to believe that successful people never fail. Cheesy as it may sound, learn to see failure as a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to go at it at a second, third, fourth time, fearlessly. To me, it served as a wake-up call that I shouldn’t be so precious about perfection; university is just as much about the process of learning as it is about the end results.  

So, as 8 July looms, and the recurring nightmares about results intensify, I encourage you to put your final grades in context. It has been a very difficult 18months for the world and whatever happens, just managing to get through exams, whether that was seamlessly, or with a few hiccups along the way, remember that the only person you should be comparing yourself to is the past you.

Support available from Student Support and Wellbeing

Student Support and Wellbeing have lots of support available, including additional appointments with advisers. Call us on 020 7679 0100 between 9 and 10am to make an appointment for the same day, or submit an enquiry via askUCL and we will contact you to make an appointment, which can be via video call, phone call, or Microsoft Teams chat.

Valeria Fernandez Soriano, LLB Law