How I aced my exams, but failed the real test

Image: How I aced my exams, but failed the real test

A warning to busy students from someone who wished they'd done things differently.

Where I live (in Australia), High School ends with a series of final exams called the Higher School Certificate (known as the HSC). After 13 years of education, 6 or 7 tests spread over a course of 3 weeks is all that separates you from your freedom.

The exams are bit like the SATs in the US, and may determine whether a student can get into their preferred university course.

Right now across NSW, year 12 students are enjoying a small reprieve between the half-yearly exams at the end of last term and the trial exams coming ever closer, with the “big one” looming large just beyond that in just a few short months. And while I took my own final exams more years ago than I’m happy to count, I’ve been thinking about how I’d do it all differently if I had my time again.

It’s not that I didn’t get good marks. I actually did quite well. I topped my grade, in fact. But as I’ve had some time to reflect and as I’m a very different person from the person who sat in that exam room all those years ago, there are some glaring mistakes I made back then that I’d hate for anyone else to repeat.

So I write this as a warning to anyone sitting their final exams, or anyone who knows someone in that boat, to help them avoid making the mistakes I made as a follower of Jesus.

As I reflect back on my memories of my final school year, I can see I failed the test of being a good family-member, a good friend and a faithful follower of Christ. More than that, I traded worship of my Lord and Saviour for worship of myself and my final marks.

What do I mean by that? What did all of that actually look like?

How I failed my family

I failed my family by neglecting to love them while I was in the midst of deadlines, assessments and exam stress. I wonder if you can relate to this?

  • I wouldn’t tidy my room because I didn’t have time between study sessions (although I did have plenty of time to message my friends and play around on the computer!).
  • I wasn’t home for family meals because I was too busy at the library or staying late at school (which were really just covers for hanging out with my friends).
  • And worst of all, I used the excuse of stress to lose my temper at my parents at anything and everything.

How about you? How’s your relationship with your parents, your brothers and your sisters going? How are you treating the people closest to you in the world? Are you using the your stress about deadlines, assignments and study as an excuse for laziness, or worse, fits of anger and frustration?

 Out of the same mouth come praising and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. —James 3:10

How I failed my friends

How did I fail my friends? Well, I didn’t love them either. I remember how I would whinge and complain if I didn’t get the marks I had hoped for. But in doing this, I wasn’t taking a moment to consider how my complaining would affect my friends.

At one point, I was so self-involved with my grades and my marks that two friends took it upon themselves to rebuke me, pointing out how my behaviour was making them feel. It was really gutsy of them to do that, and while I was really upset at them at the time, I’m so thankful for them now – and we’re actually still pretty close! I was valuing marks and scholastic success much more than friendships which, can I say, are still strong some 18 years later!

What about you? How are your friendships going? Are you supporting one another through, or are you treating one another like enemies on the battlefield in the fight for top marks?

 One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. —Proverbs 18:24 

How I failed in my faith

How did I fail in my faith in Jesus? Did I stop going to church and youth group during the my exams? Not at all! In fact, I remember my Senior Minister telling me at the time how impressed he was that I was still playing piano at church right though my final exams (but seriously, who's studying on a Sunday morning anyway?).

On the outside, I seemed like a “good Christian”, and I think I even thought I was.

But I was just like the Pharisees.

Jesus talks about how the Pharisees in his day are “whitewashed tombs”. On the outside they look perfect, but the inside is full of death and decay.

My mistreatment of my friends and family is part of this. I wasn’t loving God, and because of that I wasn’t loving people as I love myself.

But more than that, while I was really good at turning up to events, I was terrible at my personal relationship with God.

  • I wasn’t learning anywhere near as much from the Bible as I was learning about the causes of World War II.
  • I wasn’t memorizing passages like I was memorizing lines from Shakespeare or Poems by John Donne.
  • And while it wasn't wrong for me to study for my exams, it reveals what my priorities where that I could find 2-3 hours a day for English, History or Maths study, but not 15, 10, or even 5 minutes  for time studying God’s Word.

And while I did pray throughout my exams – I very clearly remember sending up a quick prayer before opening my exam booklet  – I wasn’t casting all my anxieties on God. I was channelling my anxieties in some pretty unhealthy and unwise ways – like drinking alcohol at parties as each of my friends started turning 18 (even though I wasn’t 18 until the following February), or trying to feel control over my situation by developing some pretty unhealthy controls on which foods I ate.

What about you? How’s your personal relationship with God going? Are you spending time in prayer? Are you reading his word? Are you casting your anxieties on him?

Do not be anxious about anything but in everything in prayer and petition with thanksgiving present your requests to God and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. —Philippians 4:16-17

My greatest failure of all

What was my greatest failure? I was worshipping the wrong thing.

For me, all I wanted was to come first in my grade. More than anything, I wanted my name on the school’s high-achievers board. I wanted glory for myself.

I did exactly what Paul describes in Romans Chapter 1:

For although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened …They exchanged the Truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served something created instead of the Creator who is praised forever –Romans 1: 21, 25

How to make sure you don't fail like I did

If you are a follower of Jesus, by all means study, by all means try to do well, but also try to do well in the test that matters – the trials and difficulties of this season of life. As God’s word says, these trials have been sent by God to produce in you endurance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3-5).

If you are not a follower of Jesus, know that this is more important than any exam outcome. It’s more important than what uni degree you’re going to get into. It’s more important than your job, your career or anything else in your future. Those things will fade away but the Glory of the Lord is forever.

I challenge you to take some time during your final school year and ask your Christian friends the reason for the hope they have in Jesus. The answer may surprise you.

Why have I told you all of this?

I know exams are hard and stressful. The final year of school definitely is a difficult time for your relationships with your family and friends and even your faith. But it doesn’t have to be. Draw near to God at this time, and, as his word promises, he will draw near to you.

And I suppose for me, now I have children of my own, I’d much rather see them faithfully following their Lord and saviour than topping the class. Hopefully, when their time comes, they can, by God’s strength, pass all the tests that I failed.



About the author: Dr. Jennifer A. Phillips is a woman of words, having received a PhD in English Literatures in 2011. Jenn has taught subjects in English Literature, History and Cultural Studies at universities in Australia and China and has published numerous papers in academic journals as well as chapters in edited books. You can find more of her reflections on God’s Word at http://www.womanoftheword.blog

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