Over this week and next, year 12 students around Australia will receive their exam results. This is a time of great expectations and intense pressure for many young people.
For some, their individual subject marks and university admission rank (ATAR) will be a cause for celebration. But others will be dealing with disappointment and perhaps concern, if they didn’t receive what they were hoping for.
Here, a higher education expert and a clinical psychologist share their advice on how to handle your results.
‘Don’t lose sight of what you want to do’
Associate Professor Tim Pitman, higher education policy expert and senior research fellow, Curtin University
First, take a breath. It’s not the end of the world and you’re definitely not the first student to have received a grade that was less than they were hoping for. Countless students have been in this position before you and have gone on to study, and succeed, in higher education.
The second thing to remember is, don’t lose sight of what you want to do. If you’re passionate about a certain degree or profession, it’s better to take some extra time and effort to get there, than do something else that your heart might not really be in.
If they haven’t told you already, ask your university what options are available to having your offer reconsidered. These might include:
applying for some form of special consideration. Most universities have processes to take into account significant factors that affected your academic performance, for example illness, study load and work commitments
sitting some form of alternative admissions test, such as the Special Tertiary Admissions Test
submitting a portfolio of academic achievements and qualifications, other than your ATAR, to demonstrate your readiness for university. Some universities also consider informal and non-formal learning (such as work-based experience)
enrolling in a summer program run by the university before the start of semester. There may even be a longer bridging program, preparing you to start in second semester or the following year.
If none of these options are available to you, they might be available at another university, which offers the same course. You might be able to start at that university then switch to your preferred university after passing a certain number of subjects – and get credit for those subjects. And who knows, you might end up preferring your new university!
You could also consider enrolling in a vocational educational course, such as TAFE, that could count towards your preferred course. Again, check with your university what courses are eligible, and if you will receive any credit for your studies.
And again, remember you are not the first person in this position and there are still plenty of options available to you.
‘A single number does not and will not define who you are’
Dr Madeleine Ferrari, clinical psychologist and lecturer, Australian Catholic University
After the build-up and expectations from family, friends, school, and especially ourselves, receiving a grade you don’t want is tough. There’s no downplaying this, it is hard. This situation is likely to trigger a range of self-critical thoughts, uncomfortable feelings and avoidant behaviours. An avoidant behaviour, which is triggered by shame or embarrassment, may include wanting to withdraw and not see or speak to others.
This is completely normal and to be expected. It is helpful to normalise and validate these reactions. Make space for them and experiment with healthy ways to express them.
It might be watching a sad movie and letting yourself have a good cry, or putting pen to paper and writing anything that comes to mind. You could call a friend you trust, go for a run, or use art, music or boxing to move these feelings from inside our bodies to the external world. The more we express them, the less we carry them and the less they control us.
However, there is one reaction to keep an eye out for – self-criticism. If left unchecked, it can make you susceptible to mental ill-health and psychological distress. Psychologist’s view self-criticism as toxic. There’s a difference between thinking, “I’m disappointed with this grade, next time I’d approach study differently” compared to, “I’m disappointed with this grade, it’s all my fault, I’m useless, I’ll never amount to anything”.
Give your self-critical voice a name (mine’s called Voldemort), and label it when it pops up. This will help you notice and get some space from it. When you do catch Voldermort flaring up, rather than believing them, gently ask yourself, would you say these things to a good friend who you cared about? What would you say instead? You deserve the same kindness and support.
This is called self-compassion. And when times are tough – such as receiving a disappointing grade – self-compassion can help keep things in perspective.
Self-compassion is treating ourselves with non-judgemental understanding, acceptance, encouragement, warmth, and wanting the best for ourselves. It creates a protective buffer in times of stress, and becoming more self-compassionate is linked with fewer anxiety, stress and depression symptoms.
A single number does not and will not define who you are. It may not feel like it right now, but you will survive this, and as time passes, the sting of the number will fade. It will simply be another experience in the library of memories about yourself and you will start to have more confidence you can survive tough situations.
Difficult moments can be a powerful opportunity from a clinical psychologist’s perspective. Surviving such moments forms the building blocks for resilience you will carry across your life.
Tim Pitman receives funding from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education
Madeleine Ferrari does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.