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If I fail in my exams, what do I do?

Whether your exams have gone disastrously or you have that glass-half-empty feeling ahead of exam day, it's not the end of the world.

Whatever the outcome of your exams, there are always options so don't panic. These are your options if your exam results don't go to plan...

Resit an exam

A couple of silly mistakes may have dragged your mark down. Provided you learn from these and are confident you can do better, consider re-sitting your exam.

However since A-levels have changed, you can’t retake specific modules you'll have to re-take the whole exam for the year.

You'll need to wait a year to re-sit any exams as A-levels and AS-levels are now only assessed by exam in the spring (previously, there were exams held in January). This means, if you want to resit any AS-level exams, you must wait a year to do so at the end of your A2 year; unfortunately, when that time comes, you’ll also be taking your all-important exams that will decide your A-level grades.

If you're re-taking an exam you originally took at the end of your A2 year, you can do so a year later as a private candidate. You don't attend classes; you just take the exam at a local, approved school or college. However, as well as the fees to pay, you'll have to keep yourself motivated to study for these.
Need help revising? Check out our special advice section, packed full of exam prep tips.


Watch now: How to calm exam nerves
 

Repeat a year

You can retake a whole year including actually going to classes, doing the classwork etc – if you stumbled in several areas but you're still determined to stick to the same path.

This requires some thought as it can feel a little odd repeating a year (without friends around etc):
How confident are you that you will actually do significantly better by re-sitting?

Are you sure you're happy to devote a further year to academic study or in effect to tread water for a year, when you could be moving on to the next level academically or spending a gap year doing something you really want to do? 

Have you thought of other courses or careers, or other universities, that might actually suit you really well or even better?  Alan Bullock (Careers Adviser),

Think carefully about how it will feel to stick around for another year, while your friends head off in different directions. You can retake at another local college or sixth form, although this brings its own hurdles.

On the other hand, if you struggled to focus first time round due to mitigating circumstances (such as a personal or family illness), this fresh start might be welcome. You can pick up other subjects which interest you along the way to fill in your timetable, as well as work part-time and get experience in an area you want to pursue. 

As with re-sitting an exam, make sure you're not repeating any mistakes.

How do universities view retakes?

In most cases, retakes will be acceptable:

We take a very open view to students having to resit or retake their A-levels. We recognise that, for a whole host of reasons, students may not achieve the grades they wanted first time round. Often students can benefit from retaking a year, it can really strengthen their resolve and ambition. We encourage students to really look at their options and if that means they decide to resit some exams and apply to us again, then we view that positively. Rob Evans, Head Of Admissions At University Of Sussex
Broadly speaking we would be happy to consider applicants who have retaken an exam or a whole year and this should not put applicants off from applying. I would advise such individuals to check the specific guidance for their chosen course(s) or contact the University directly. Where there are mitigating circumstances relating to the retakes we strongly advise applicants to highlight these in their personal statement so they can be taken into account when their application is reviewed. Nick Hull, Head Of Admissions At University Of Southampton

If something significant affected your original performance, be upfront about this; especially if you're applying to a very competitive course like medicine and law, or top universities like Oxbridge, where retakes may not be typically considered.

You can check the entry requirements for any university course on Which? University. Search for for a course here.



 

Enter Clearing

If you don’t get the grades you need for your university course, you can find an alternative with lower entry requirements through Clearing.

While Clearing kicks off properly in August when you get your results, universities begin publicising courses with empty spots in July. 

If you walk out of a horrendous exam, start work on your back-up plan and begin looking at alternatives straight away. Start with courses that were in your top five Ucas choices or ones you shortlisted previously.

This way if you do have to enter Clearing, you'll be prepared.
 

Take a gap year

Perhaps a gap year could be just the break you need to figure out a few things about your future. You can then apply again to university the following year or take another path. 

Just make sure you use this year out wisely. When you reapply, universities won't be interested in your beach selfies; they'll want to know how you used this time to develop yourself. While a gap year can involve some globe-trotting, you can also spend time working, participating in placements or volunteering.

All of this can contribute towards a stronger Ucas application next year.

How can you make the most of your gap year, work experience etc? Use our tool to draft your personal statement, including subject-specific hints.
 

Consider something different

There are an increasing number of schemes for school-leavers who want to move into a particular area or sector, but don't necessarily want to sit in lectures for three years. Most involve practical learning within a real organisation, earning while you learn.

A higher or degree apprenticeship, for example, combines this with some academic study, but you'll find that companies are more likely to be looking at you and the skills you could bring and develop than solely your exam results. Well-known brands and organisations like Ford, John Lewis, Santander and Rolls-Royce have all run apprenticeship schemes in recent years.

 

Feeling a little better?

Hopefully we’ve helped put things in perspective, and that exam which was giving you sleepless nights doesn’t seem so terrifying. Even if your results weren't what you were hoping for, it's not the end of the world.

Don't forget to check out our full revision advice area, including tips if your mocks went terribly and how to make a revision timetable.

Good luck!

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