The Fault in Our Stars: Unpacking final exam stress

The Fault in Our Stars: Unpacking final exam stress

“Finals” is a daunting word. It gives us the impression that this is our last chance to do whatever it is that we are about to do.

  • It’s your final chance at success
  • It’s your final chance to prove yourself
  • It’s your final chance to prove yourself to other people
  • It’s your final chance to get (x, y, or z) grade

Only one of these statements is true, and it’s the last one.

The final exam does give us our last opportunity to get whatever grade we are going for. But that’s all it does. There are a lot of things a final exam does not determine:

  • Success
  • Intelligence
  • Ability to go to college
  • Your entire life

I was in the classrooms this week talking to students about stress during final exams. This is an actual statement from an actual student:

If I don’t do well on the final exam, it will be on my permanent record. Colleges will see that I didn’t do well in the class, and I won’t get into college. If I don’t get into college, I will not be successful at life.

Here’s another exchange

Student: But if I get a bad grade, it will effect the rest of my life.

Me: What’s a bad grade?

Student: B


The Message Matters

These exchanges are not out of the ordinary for students. Anxiety and stress have been the top culprits of student’s mental well-being for many years.

Common narratives revolve around all or nothing thinking, which is a cognitive distortion that tells us we are either good or we are bad, smart or stupid, we are all or we are nothing. This distortion leaves no room for error. No room for average.

All or nothing thinking is largely to blame for the stress that we see in our students.

We can change this thinking by changing the messages we as adults send.

Saying that it is okay to fail does not create failure

Obviously we do not want our children to fail. At anything. This has become such a huge priority that it has fostered a lack of resilience and confidence, but that’s a topic for another blog.

Telling someone that it is okay to fail is not the same as telling them to fail.

On the other hand, telling them that they must get an A is the same as telling them that a B is a failure. To that end, telling students that they MUST succeed does more to accommodate the feeling of failure than telling them that it is okay if their best is a C.

Picking up what I’m laying down?

Parenting is Hard

It is hard being a parent. I am one too. It is hard being a parent to a student in a very high achieving school. It is made harder by social media picturing birth-like announcements about what school their student got into.

As parents, we fall into the trap just like our students do.

  • We want bragging rights at holiday dinners.
  • We want to post all the great things our child has accomplished.
  • We want our child to be the top student, athlete, etc.

But what if our student is (insert sigh)….average?


I know, I know. The nerve of me to even suggest that average is a good thing.

So let me be clear. I am NOT suggesting that anyone should STRIVE to be average.

Let me repeat that so no one misinterprets my intent:

I am NOT suggesting that anyone strive to be average

What I am suggesting is that we STOP striving to be perfect.

The Fault in our Stars

You know that phrase if you reach for the moon and miss,  you’ll get the stars?  I love that quote. It tells us that we should step outside of our comfort zones and reach higher than we thought possible.

Somewhere along the way, the message got misinterpreted.  We are now telling ourselves that we should reach for the moon, and if we miss we tumble down to earth where we will land harshly on a block of cement.

What Happened to the Stars?

What happens to the stars when we fall from the moon is that they become insignificant because all we see is the concrete. All we think about is landing, and it is going to hurt.

We miss the beauty of the in-between.

  • The clarity that we get when we don’t get what we want.
  • The self-discovery that we are awesome because at least we tried for the moon.
  • The confidence that we can take risks, not get what we want, and still survive.
  • The feeling of disappointment that leads us to a plan B, that might end up being better than the plan A.

We forget that the stars bring beauty just like the moon. Even the hard concrete can teach us lessons about ourselves that we didn’t even know we needed to learn.

Landing on Average

Sometimes we may strive for perfection and land on average. Why is that bad? That’s rhetorical, I will tell you why that is bad.

It is only bad because we have told ourselves that it is bad.

High School is the only time in life that we are judged on our ability to be great in 5 different subject areas. I don’t know about you, but I am not judged on my ability to do well in math, science or social studies in my role as a Wellness Counselor. If my effectiveness as a Counselor were tied to these standards, I would be in bad shape because I barely know what 4+4 is most of the time.

I know that we tell ourselves the story that we won’t get into college with less than a 3.8 GPA. Or we tell ourselves that community college or trade school is for people who can’t cut it at a four-year University.

Both of these things are false.

Community college is an untapped resource because of its negative stigma. But in reality, the education you get with basic studies is just as good as the education you will get in the first two years of a University.

And trade school? Don’t knock a person who gets their hands dirty. Some trades require a high level of math skills to get in. And there are a lot of apprenticeships that get you working straight out of high school with zero debt.

What’s Your Point, Fugedi?

I do have a point. You may or may not agree with it and that is fine. But at least hear me out.

Our students are putting SO MUCH PRESSURE on themselves to get really high grades. Thinking that a B is a failure is extremely concerning to me for a lot of reasons. The message needs to be changed from “get good grades” to “try your best.” If your best gives you a C, or (gasp) even a D than that’s okay. If you got a C or a D because you didn’t put the effort in, that is not okay.

See the difference?

So here we are. Finals season. The time of year that most students’ stress level is at an all time high.

In my classroom tour this week, when I asked students what they think of when they think of final exams, here’s what I got:

  • Failure
  • I can’t
  • Overwhelmed
  • Lack of sleep
  • What if I didn’t study the right thing?
  • What if I freeze?
  • What if I fail?
  • What will this look like on my transcript?

I could go on. My point is that there was not one positive message in there. Not one.

When we tell ourselves negative things, we tend to believe them.

What Gets Attention Gets Reinforced

Let’s help our students stop focusing on the negative outcomes. Instead, help them to focus on the positive.

  • You studied and know the material
  • All you can do is the best you can do
  • You have done well so far, there is no evidence this will be different
  • Your success in life is not determined by your success in this class
  • I believe in you.
  • You are intelligent, no matter what grade you get

I wish we could change the title of final exams so it doesn’t sound so, well, final. Titles matter, and that word is daunting. Why can’t we call them something like “fun facts that you already know” or something a little more positive to change the mindset a little?

This Soap Box is Slippery

As I try not to slip getting down from my soap box, let me leave you with one last thing.

You are a great parent and the biggest cheerleader in your child’s life. They look to you for support and approval. If mom says I am okay, I must be okay.

So, get your child off to bed early, feed them a high protein breakfast, and remind them that you are already proud of them and the only expectation is that they do the best that they can do.

And breathe.

Article by:
Monica Fugedi, LPC, NCC, CCATP
Wellness Counselor





One Reply to “The Fault in Our Stars: Unpacking final exam stress”

  1. We spent 2 hours recently with our Sophomore Daughter’s therapist on this very topic. The messages students give and get can be damaging over time. Thank you for addressing this important topic!

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