How to cope with GSCE results and exam stress

Dean Burnett (neuroscientist, author, blogger and occasional comedian) offers some tips on how to cope with those dreaded GSCE results. 

Dean Burnett

So, you’ve just had your GCSE results. Right now, you are probably being bombarded by advice, suggestions, and comments, most of which you didn’t ask for, and much of which contradicts the other stuff you’re being told. It happens all the time. Here are some tips on how to cope with your exam results, whatever they are, which are more in-keeping with what we know about the human brain and mind. Particularly those of teens, like you.


1. The only ‘correct’ reaction to your results is your own

One thing that people (meaning, adults) do when they hear about your GCSE results is tell you how you should or shouldn’t be feeling: ‘You should be pleased with that!’ or ‘You should be proud that you did your best’ or ‘You shouldn’t get carried away, the real hard work is up ahead’, or even, ‘You shouldn’t worry, all I got was a D in Religious Studies and now I own a yacht!’ Boring stuff like that.

Whatever is said, and although it’s usually (but not always) given with the best intentions, the most valid and important reaction is yours. Whatever you felt when you got your results – that is the correct reaction. Whether you did better, worse, or bang on target with your GCSEs, only you know exactly how hard you worked, how much pressure you felt, what your hopes and expectations were.

So, if you’re overjoyed that you did well, gutted that you didn’t, or just relieved that it’s all over, for now, that’s the correct reaction. Other people may have plenty of helpful insights to offer, but don’t ever feel bad about your own reactions. You’re the only one who has to live your life. 

2. You can revisit GCSEs later

Much of the focus on GCSEs and results day suggests this is make-or-break, a one-time thing, and if you don’t get the results you want or need, then your long-term plans are in serious jeopardy. It’s certainly true that this is the one time in your school education where you’ll get to spend years working on them, and only them. But this doesn’t mean if you don’t get the results you want that you’ve missed the boat.

In the modern world, there are many opportunities to revisit and improve your GCSE grades. Night classes, online courses, studying them alongside A-levels, and more. True, it usually means working on your GCSEs in combination with other work and duties, but if you’re truly dedicated to improving your grades at a later point in your life, it’s certainly possible. And given that it’ll be your second attempt so will be more familiar, you’ll be older and wiser, and it’ll be your choice to do them, redoing your GCSEs later is often a popular option. 


3. Take some time to relax, for your own sake

The human brain, especially the teenage brain, is a very busy organ. As impressive as it can be, all the baffling things it does means it also needs down-time, to rest and recuperate. This is particularly true when you’ve been pushing yourself intellectually, like you do when studying for GCSEs.

Sure, there were those few weeks of summer while you waited for the results, but if there’s one thing that stresses the human brain out, it’s uncertainty. Not knowing what your results are, after months, years of effort in working towards them? That’s going to be a constant drain on your brain’s resources as it fights of the underlying anxiety this causes.

So, while it’s tempting (and many adults will encourage you) to move right on to the next thing after getting your results, like choosing A-levels or other career opportunities, this isn’t always the best approach. Getting your results can feel like a huge burden has been lifted, no matter what they are. This is because that has actually happened, as far as your brain is concerned. If you can, give yourself a few days to appreciate this, and figure out how you feel about it all, rather than rush into the next thing. Your decision-making abilities and overall mental health will thank you. 

4. It’s totally fine to change your plans

Perhaps your GCSE results haven’t been quite what you expected. They may have fallen short of your goals. They may have exceeded them. Maybe you did well at a subject you expected to hate and struggled with a subject you thought you’d be great at. Regardless of the specifics, you’ve found yourself in a situation where your GCSE results don’t quite line up with what you need for the plans you’ve settled on, be they the A-levels you were hoping to study, the college you were hoping to get into, or whatever.

If this is you, there’s no need to panic. Despite how it may seem, pretty much everyone changes their plans and ambitions, all the time. No matter what age they are. And it’s fine if you do the same. Maybe you had your heart set on doing medicine, but your GCSE results suggest you’d be better as a historian or mathematician? Or maybe you find you prefer the idea of those things now.

It may feel like a big deal to change your planned career trajectory, especially if you’ve told everyone about it already, but it honestly isn’t. In fairness, it’s actually a bit ridiculous that teenagers like you are made to decide these things. Society has declared that you’re too young to be trusted to vote or drive or buy alcohol, but it’s fine for you to make decisions that determine your whole career at this age? Seems inconsistent.

Point is, the world around us changes all the time, and you should feel fine about changing right along with it. If your GCSE results don’t match your plans, then changing your plans is perfectly logical. I learned this myself early on. When I did my GCSEs in the mid-nineties, I was planning on being a vet. Now, I’m a neuroscientist-author-lecturer-blogger-comedian. Believe it or not, my careers advisor never mentioned this option.

5. Your stress and anxiety are real, and anyone dismissing them is wrong

GCSE results day provides a complex range of feelings, as does the build-up beforehand. But it’s very common to encounter feelings of stress, or anxiety. Whatever results you get, you’re going to be making some big decisions soon, or starting whole new chapters in your life. It would be weird if you weren’t nervous about all this.

Thanks to the workings of the teenage brain and the confusing way it matures, teens like yourself are typically more prone to anxiety and apprehension than adults, which has knock-on effects for your mental health in the long term, if things go too far.

Therefore, it’s important to be aware of this, and accept it as perfectly natural. Logical, even. Annoyingly, you’ll still get plenty of adults telling you ‘not to worry’ or ‘You don’t know the meaning of stress!’ which can be really unhelpful. It may be true that their lives and situations are more stressful than yours, but that doesn’t really make any difference to you and the workings of your brain. If you break your leg and someone else has their leg torn off by a bear, that person has a worse injury than you. But it doesn’t make your break hurt any less.

You’re still young. Maybe there will be more stressful things than GCSE results up ahead in your life? Who’s to say. But that doesn’t make your current stress and anxiety any less valid. And if you suppress or deny it due to the dismissal of certain adults, that’s bad for the brain and mental health, which makes it far more likely that your life will be more stressful later on. 


Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up The Wall and What To Do About It by Dean Burnett is out August 22 2019.


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