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I failed—now what? Seven steps to getting past failure

By: Ming-Chun (Jimmy) Ho, DNP, RN-BC, CNL

You’re a go-getter when it comes to your licensure or certification, spending hours each day preparing for a test vital for your career. You’re determined to place new credentials behind your name, so you schedule a date for the examination and convince yourself that you will pass. On the day of your exam, you sit in the test center, feeling like everything is just how you pictured it. While taking the test, a few questions make you shrug, but you make your best guesses. You go through moments of dry mouth, full bladder, and cold sweating. Finally, you finish, and it’s all over with a sudden pop-up message stating you’ve completed your examination. You feel relief from head to toe, stand up, and hope you nailed the exam.

You wait patiently for the results to arrive, but when you finally receive the letter, it states, “We regret to inform you that you did not pass the examination.” You yell out loud, “No-no-noo.” Then, you double-check the name on the letter to make sure there was no mistake. You begin to reflect on some of your answers, and then you start to blame yourself and feel too ashamed to share the bad news. When family and friends ask about the exam, the words of failure are hard to say. You reluctantly let it out, and all you hear from your family and friends is that it’s okay and you will pass it next time. You’re frustrated because you don’t want to listen to comforting words—you want constructive feedback.

Does this situation sound familiar to you?

It’s a reality for all of us, including me. I experienced shame and anger through the self-debriefing process because I knew I had studied hard and done my best. But I didn’t pass. “I failed my exam.” The sentence is hard to articulate, and it’s even more difficult to share our failure because of our self-shaming. Like me, you may have wondered about a healthy way to navigate the feelings of guilt and anger you have when you’ve failed an important exam. How can you dust yourself off and encourage yourself to face the challenge again? Here are seven tips I have learned through my failure.

1. Express your intrinsic and extrinsic feelings.

Take a healthy mental break by placing yourself in your comfort zone. Embrace and use self-care. Express your feelings of failure to friends, family, and, most importantly, yourself. Doing so prevents self-shaming and the stigma of defeat from attacking your ego. You preserve mental health wellness, which brings better physical health.

2. Admit the failure.

Failure is the most challenging initiative step to the process of improving. As human beings, we want to blame something when there is nothing to blame. The questions weren’t relevant to a real-world situation. Or the temperature in the exam room was too cold. Or the computer setup was not ergonomic. Or any other number of targets you come up with. We use blaming as our escape mode. Remember, there is no room for improvement if we do not admit our failure. We need to learn how to accept it, recognize it, and change it. Eventually, the feelings of consistent failure diminish.

3. Keep the examination preparation momentum going.

After a week or two of a healthy mental break, it’s time to resume your routine of studying and mock test practicing for the examination. This is a critical time to self-evaluate and identify your weaknesses. Use this time to formulate a study plan and emphasize the areas of knowledge deficit. You have to rewind the clock to keep your momentum. The key principle is to study and practice to keep your skill set sharp and fresh.

4. Ask for input from experts.

We often think we can do everything by ourselves and don’t take advantage of the resources surrounding us. We can learn from people who have been through the same struggle. A mentorship program, a medical social group, and people we know can lead us to the right connection. Information from an expert can be overwhelming, but you’ll decide what works the best for you.

5. Set a realistic goal, and include a deadline.

When it comes to retaking an examination, timing is crucial. How soon should you retake the exam? In my opinion, 3 months is ideal. I suggest you set a milestone goal in each month of the 3-month period. By the third month, you can reevaluate your preparation process. Maximize your concentration to achieve your goals during a short 3-month interval by setting up a plan and a deadline. The goals you set up will pave the way for you to reach your destination.

6. Focus on the important.

Now you have a plan for preparing to retake the exam. You don’t want to rebuild the foundation; instead, investigate the areas you didn’t understand or where the concepts were fuzzy. It’s crucial to reinforce the foundational ideas and add new knowledge. Again, studying and practicing for the test is a must because the tactical exercise makes brain cells and muscle memory respond faster. It’s okay to over prepare rather than to be underprepared. However, there is a caveat: Do not overload on information that the exam doesn’t require. Focus on the pertinent and essential information for the specific examination.

7. Think positively.

Don’t underestimate the power of positive thinking. Positive thinking gives people hope. By simply practicing a mental mantra such as “I can do this, and I will pass,” you avoid setting yourself into failure mode. Picture yourself with a victory gesture and see what that will look like. The ability to visualize our achievements is a fundamental skill that everyone needs to learn. Once you get a taste of success, you’ll see all your hard work paying off.

Moving forward

Failure is a process and, honestly, it’s not the end of the road. Each loss teaches what works and what does not. The sooner you recognize your failure, the sooner you can move on to healthy mental practices. This systemic process will lead you to adopt a routine behavior of practicing.

Exercise, music, and socializing make up an all-powerful regimen for regaining mental health and helping you get ready for the next challenge. Those activities stimulate your brain to generate dopamine and dobutamine, powerful natural euphoria stimuli that provide a calm and stable mood, which leads to better self-control. Now you have experienced failure, but through the experience you gain, the next challenge will be sweet and highly enjoyable when you nail it.

Ming-Chun (Jimmy) Ho is a clinical nurse IV in the positive care clinic/infectious disease clinic/travel medicine clinic at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, California. He is also a chair-elect for ambulatory shared leadership coordinating council at Stanford Health Care. Jimmy’s work primary focus on HIV and STDs nursing care in treatment and prevention.


The views and opinions expressed by Perspectives contributors are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the American Nurses Association, the Editorial Advisory Board members, or the Publisher, Editors and staff of American Nurse Journal. These are opinion pieces and are not peer reviewed.

7 Comments. Leave new

  • Laura Steinmann
    December 9, 2020 11:37 am

    A family member experienced failure twice on a state certification exam. On the 3rd try, he was the only tester in the room, and was able to read the questions out loud to himself; he subsequently passed the same test he had failed twice. He mentioned this to his PCP, who evaluated him (at age 39) for dyslexia. He was diagnosed with surface (visual) dyslexia, the inability to read words that are spelled differently from how they are pronounced. Reading words out loud helped him “hear” them, and he was able to understand the questions. Now when taking exams, he requests accommodation to sit in an area where he can read aloud.

  • Thank you for such an inspiring article.

  • Great read…. very insightful. Needed that to get back into my study mode to retake my certification exam. I relaxed after my initial fail. It’s about time to reorganize and start studying to retake. I needed this so thanks Jimmy…

  • Sandra Odenheimer
    November 27, 2020 12:24 am

    Well written article Jimmy! Like the personal experience. Great tips!

  • Great tips Jimmy! Congrats on your article!

  • Keep the POSITIVE ENERGY flowing Jimmy!

  • Helpful insights, Jimmy!


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