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Dear Deborah,


My semester 1 results weren't as good as I was expecting and I'm worried I won't be able to keep up throughout my degree. How should I make sure I keep up and not get over stressed?


First of all, well done on getting through those first exams. I know. I can almost hear you telling me that I seem to be missing the point: your results. We’ll get to those. But first, it is worth taking a moment to think about what you have achieved and learned from these pesky exams because those are the foundations on which you’ll be building for the rest of your degree.


I am guessing that you are probably not used to disappointing results. Most people arrive at University with a history of performing well in exams. Often, students are used to being if not the top of the class, very near the top of the class. Most will come from a school environment where the expectations were clear, the volume and varieties of exam possibilities were limited and a teacher and/or parent were in the background nagging or cheering you on to do what you had to do. 


Then you get to University. Everyone is clever. Everyone appears to know their stuff (that word ‘appears’ is important – we will return to it). Everyone seems to be able to balance the joys and pressures of finding new friends, making the most of opportunities and enjoying George’s life whilst still getting the work done. There are academic staff you see, but no one relates to you in the same way as a teacher or a parent. The volume of material is vast and sometimes it is difficult. And there are so many unanswered, maybe unanswerable, questions about what level of knowledge is needed of any given topic, how an area is likely to be examined and what type of practice you should do to prepare for different assessments.


Semester one exams represent a challenge that extends well beyond the questions on the paper. It is as much about grappling with the transition to University study, adapting your style of learning and approach to study, finding a balance in your life that allows you to survive and maybe even to thrive as it is about the mark you receive at the end of the assessment. So, back to where I began: we need to stop and think about the achievement of completing those exams and then consider those results in that context.


The next step is to think about the wider context and the results themselves to see what we can learn. It will be different for everyone, but it is worth thinking about what happened from the day you arrived to the day you got those results. How did you decide what to learn and how did you go about learning it? Has that approach worked well for you? Are there some types of knowledge or skills where you might find value in mixing it up or changing your approach? What did you do when you found an area difficult or just boring? Did you persist? Are there particular areas or topics that caused you problems or did you struggle across the board? Did anything affect your exam performance on the day? Did you panic? Were you able to talk to anyone about your worries either before or after the exams? Might that be a good idea now?


Questions, questions. I could go on, but I won’t. However, it is really worth spending some time thinking about what happened and what you’ve learned from the experience taken as a whole. It will reveal a lot about how you’re experiencing University, your own preferences and priorities, your worries and preoccupations and it might, if you can share your thoughts with someone else, be the first step in feeling a bit less alone and anxious about what lies ahead.


I have over the years at St. George’s known many students who have had disappointing results. Those same students are now out in the world practising or working in careers and you would never know that they had some examination blips. Many of the people who teach you and whom you admire have failed or underperformed in exams at some stage in their academic and professional lives. I promise you that where you are now and what you are feeling at the moment is not where you will end up. It is horrible, discomforting and worrying to receive disappointing results, but it is a reflection only of what happened in that exam and the context within which you were working. It says nothing of your capability or your future.


Hold your head up. Take an honest look at what happened and why it turned out as it did. Talk to someone about your worries and remember: we offered you a place at St. George’s because we knew you had the potential to graduate, succeed and be a great ambassador for the University. That hasn’t changed.