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3 ways to Overcome Exam Failure… from personal experience

Have you recently failed a medical exam? I sincerely hope that you never do, but sadly I am seeing this happen more and more – across the board – from MRCGP AKT to PLAB, from MSRA to Medical School. Failing an exam can have an extreme effect on some people’s self-esteem (not always thankfully) – from confidence dips through to impact on career and family, this can be especially hard for medical students and junior doctors.

In this blog, I’ll share with you a personal story of my own medical exam failure and what I eventually learnt from it. Looking back I’m surprised at how much failure taught me and even how with hard work, you can still struggle. 

When I was in my fourth year of medical school I failed my exam – the very first time I had failed. It hit me really hard. I knew a lot of doctors who had failed exams and got over it easily, however it took about three weeks for me to overcome it. I’d never had any experience failing exams before and I genuinely felt that I had let down myself, my tutors and even my parents. What made it worse was that all my friends passed. Over time, and now looking back, I realised that at some point failure is inevitable – be it medical school exams or further into your NHS career – but how you learn from those failures and come out a winner is what matters. 

There are three things that I wish I knew back then, that can help you accept and overcome failure better, without being too hard on yourself.

You Are Allowed to Feel Down

First and foremost, it is okay for you to feel down when you fail. It is an obvious human reaction and a show of natural human emotion. As I mentioned, I was down for almost three weeks when I first got my medical exam results, and realised I had failed. You are bound to feel down with all that pressure and anxiety, especially when you are a medic – traditionally high-achievers throughout high school

Allowing yourself space to feel bad is important. There is nothing wrong in feeling like rubbish for a day or two, or maybe crying it out. It neither makes you look bad or weak. Looking back at when I failed all those years ago I wish I would have given myself that chance to recover, instead of pretending to be brave and forcing myself to have a positive attitude. 

Put Your Failure into Perspective

Secondly, use perspective to put failure in its proper place. When you fail at something, it can feel like the end of the world. However with hindsight, of course you realise this is not true. Telling someone to have perspective is easy – but how can you practically do it?

Focus on two types of perspective – longitudinal and horizontal. Longitudinal perspective allows you to look forward and backwards – along time. First, think of the long career ahead of you, and then think of the already-long career behind you (you may have already overcome high school, A-levels, undergraduate studies or even some postgraduate exams). Focus on what you have to achieve in front of you, and all the things you have achieved behind you. Very quickly you’ll realise that failing an exam or module is just a tiny blip in the path. Though it might seem huge at the time, it is a very minor hindrance in your 30 or 40 odd years as a medical professional. 

Now add to this horizontal perspective. Right here at this point in your life, look left and right. Though the exam failure seems to be at the centre of your universe at this point, laterally you have so much – family, friends, hobbies, interests – there is so much width in the present that puts failed exams into perspective.

When you combine both the longitudinal and the horizontal, the failure can start to seem like a much smaller dot in the overall picture.

You Don’t need to start from Scratch Again

There are many different options if you are wondering how to move on from medical exam failure. You can resit, and spend more time revising the areas where you slipped up in your last exam.

Always remember that when you restart after exam failure, you aren’t starting from zero again. You already have a fairly strong starting point for your next attempt – one which you didn’t have in your previous one. You should have more of an understanding of the syllabus and be able to highlight areas for improvement, be that in knowledge gaps, problem-solving or study techniques. That means when it comes to sitting your next exam you will be in a better position than the first time you sat it. 

This time around your preparation is different, your methods are different and you have a better chance at meeting your goal in future exams. Most importantly, you have a good base to start with – 40%, 50%, whatever it might be, it is not zero. Keep telling yourself that you do not have to do it all over again. You already know a fair bit – the need now is to re-focus, and target gaps from the last time – whether knowledge, technique or both. 

Get to know your weak points and work on them — hone in your revision plan so you’re revising these areas specifically. Create a study plan that suits your study habits and stick to it. Attend study groups, watch explanatory videos, make flash cards — do whatever works for you to help you retain the information you need to expand and improve on your knowledge and retention. 

 You are always at a much higher point after you fail. You have learned a lot already and are now better placed to hit the future exams hard again. 

In Summary

  1. You are allowed to feel down – take some time to heal and improve your mindset after the initial hit of results day.

  2. Put your failure into perspective. Medical education and medical careers are vast and complex – you have already achieved so much you can achieve more.

  3. You don’t need to start from scratch again – you may just need tweaks to your study habits, study techniques, and study time.

These three things together can work wonders in helping you accept failure much better and emerge as a winner, with a more positive attitude going further.

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About us

Dr Aman Arora is a GP who is now 100% committed to transforming medical education, helping doctors across the globe to ace their exams and enhance their careers. He is proud to hold FRCGP (Fellow of Royal College of General Practitioners). Previous roles include:

  • GP Training Programme Director
  • NHS GP Appraiser
  • GMC PLAB 2 Examiner
  • GP Recruitment Examiner
  • GP Recruitment Question-writer
  • HEWM IMG Board Member
  • HEWM Advanced MRCGP AKT Trainer

Dr Pooja Arora is a GP with a background in Medical Politics, passionately focusing on improving the opportunities and working conditions for junior doctors. Previous roles include:

  • Vice Chair Birmingham LMC
  • BMA Council Member
  • BMA General Practitioners Committee elected representative 
  • BMA Sessional GP Committee elected representative 
  • BMA National Deputy Policy lead for working at scale
  • HEE GP Ambassador
  • HEE GP Stage 3 Assessor
  • RCGP Midland Faculty AiT representative

* Blogs written by Dr Aman and Dr Pooja Arora are not for professional, financial or medical advice. Please seek appropriate professional, legal or financial advice where appropriate *

 

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