Reacting to results

Seán Holland discusses the varied responses to exam results

The period around exam results can be a stressful time. The comparisons with other people, whether acknowledged consciously or not, are inevitable. Some people deal with it better than others, and a lot of people usually go out and have a laugh and a few drinks to celebrate regardless of the actual result. For Sophisters in particular, results take on an added importance where they feel tied to one’s future. Overall degrees, internships and post-grad opportunities are often dictated by results. It is easy to feel trapped by a number, to lose the perspective that it is only a number. Results can be one of those numbers like the number of zeros in your bank account, where it is much easier to say it is not important when it is nice and high. 

A typical friend group will generally contain people who subscribe to the different range of responses to exam results. There is the humblebragger who, insufferably, will tell you how terrible they did because they received one single piece of criticism (despite getting over 75%). This person is not to be confused with the person who does well but cannot accept any praise because other people might have performed slightly better. This particular type is most often found in the uber-competitive courses such as Law. They can be quite hysterical and attempting to explain that they did well in their own right can prove to be a fruitless exercise. Equally irritating is the intense worrier who tells you repeatedly how they have undoubtedly failed, meaning that their internship will be retracted and their parents will cut them off and their life is over, and yet they still proceed to come out with a first. There is then the one who is talented, but lacks consistency. Their results fluctuate from very impressive to so-so, and they take each result as it comes and in their stride. Finally, there is the clinical one, who seems to endlessly churn out firsts like a well-oiled machine. Wars will be fought and won, pandemics will come and go and this person will still receive top honours.

Simply writing someone off as hysterical is not helpful and potentially harmful.”

Of course, these are all caricatures of people. The humblebragger could feel like they don’t get any praise or due credit for the work they put in or the results they receive. There is a disconnect and maybe people are jealous or spiteful towards them, causing the humble bragger to become performative. I do not personally know what it is like to be in a very competitive course where everyone is constantly talking about their internships and their rankings and who got what. I don’t know the stress that this might bring. Simply writing someone off as hysterical is not helpful and potentially harmful. Stress can bring up feelings that were buried below the surface only to come up when someone is vulnerable, as during an exam period. Stress itself can come with increased health risks. Instead of labelling someone as hysterical, it would perhaps be more productive and more helpful to ask them why they are so upset and to allow them to answer in their own time. To use seemingly irrational behaviour as a warning sign rather than a personality trait would be a more compassionate approach. 

In the case of the worrier, most people who don’t worry to the same extent will see the worrier’s high result as vindication that they were being over the top. From the other perspective, the worrier will tell you the high result is at best a pleasant surprise, and irrelevant to the genuine stress and anxiety they felt in advance. In some ways, the high result works against the worrier, who fears telling their friends how anxious they are about results next time around. They may be afraid that their genuine worries will be dismissed and the previous high result will be cited as condemnatory evidence, brought out to be used against them rather than celebrated. Meanwhile, the friend who clinically annihilates exams is portrayed as a robotic machine when in reality there is a lot of pressure to perform and long hours of study put in to reach their high standards. They too could be intensely anxious, but afraid to show it because they see how someone else is openly ribbed for worrying. 

“Am I sabotaging myself because failing while only half-trying is so much better than putting in the required effort and still coming up short?”

Personally, my results suffer because of disjointed and unclear work, a disdain for reading over my own essays and a general lack of effort — very cool, I know. I find solace in the fact that these issues can be fixed, but at the back of my mind I wonder is this the best I have to offer, or am I just too lazy to get the results I would like to get? Or even worse, am I sabotaging myself because failing while only half-trying is so much better than putting in the required effort and still coming up short? I mask my disappointment with apathy, the results soon to be forgotten about. Yet, it only takes something small to break that kind of cycle of thinking. A lecturer’s comment noting a positive paragraph, hearing that someone who usually gets top marks only scraped by, or most effectively an open conversation with someone you trust who has your best interests at heart. 

The sick feeling at the keel of your stomach does not go away because your friend told you it doesn’t matter. Generalisation does not help. However, a candid conversation where you get your worries off your chest in a conversation where you feel heard can bring closure and a release. This type of communication has the ability to allow you to move on, work on the issues that need to be worked on or simply just see the bigger picture.