Why Everyone Thinks They Fail After Taking Their Certification Exam

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Why Everyone Thinks They Fail After Taking Their Certification ExamYou’ve studied, taken your practice tests and done all the prep you could possibly do as you head into your teacher certification tests. But no matter how much you prep for it, you need to be prepared for self-doubt to creep in, especially immediately AFTER you finish your test and in those weeks while you wait for your official results. It is VERY common to think you bombed your exam, even if you didn’t.

“Everyone else finished so quickly.”

“I should have changed my answer on number 32.”

“There were way too many questions I had to guess on.”

Believe it or not, these are all very common thoughts and concerns to have after an exam. And thinking you failed the exam is at the top of the list.

Why You Think You Failed Your Certification Exam But Probably Didn’t

It’s normal to second guess yourself after an exam and worry that you might have failed. However, many test-takers are pleasantly surprised when they receive their results — not only did they pass, but they did much better than they thought. The following are common concerns shared by test-takers, along with some much-needed reassurance that you probably did just fine on your exam!

  • “I finished my exam too fast.”

We’ve all heard how important it is to take your time on an exam, but some people simply read and process information faster than others. As long as you don’t feel like you rushed through the exam, you’re probably fine! Remember, someone has to finish first, and that doesn’t automatically mean that you failed.

  • “I was the last to finish.”

Just as with the previous concern, remember that everyone reads and works at a different pace. Taking the full amount of time on an exam does not mean that you didn’t understand the material.

  • “Nothing I studied was on my test.”
  • “The questions on the real exam were different from the practice test.”
  • “Some of the questions seemed much more difficult than the practice test.”

It’s very common for certification exams to include field questions that are being considered for future exams. These questions will not factor into your score. While there’s no way to know for sure which ones are field questions, if 10 to 15 questions seemed unusually difficult or were formatted differently than others, these may have been included as a way to test them for future exams. If you felt confident about the rest of the exam, don’t stress over these questions.

  • “I kept count of how many questions I may have missed, and it was more than 30%.”

It can be discouraging if your running total of difficult questions seems too long. If this sounds like you, remember that teacher certification exams are not graded with traditional percentage scores, but with scaled scores. Some questions may have been weighted differently than others, so keeping track of your “percent of correct answers” won’t give you an accurate prediction of your results. Additionally, even if you were unsure of several questions, you may have guessed correctly on some of them. Your mental list of questions you were unsure of will give you a “worst case” scenario, when you more than likely did better than you think.

  • “I ran out of time and didn’t finish the exam.”

If you only left a few questions blank and feel fairly confident about the questions you did answer, you are probably still okay. Remember, you only need to pass, and many certification exams can be passed even if you answer less than 70% of the questions correctly.

  • “Everyone is talking about how hard the exam was.”

We’ve all encountered this scenario. You leave an exam feeling good about it, only to talk with your peers or get on social media and discover that everyone else thought the exam was incredibly difficult. Suddenly you find yourself doubting your own performance — “Was it harder than I thought it was? Do a lot of people fail this test?”

  • “I just don’t think I did very well.”

Many people (especially teachers) are natural overachievers and therefore very hard on themselves. If you usually study a lot for exams and are typically an “A” student, it’s likely that you’ll underestimate your own performance on your certification exam. Remember, you just need to pass your exam, not ace it. Even if you feel like you did worse than you usually do on tests, chances are you still scored high enough to pass, and that’s all you need!

  • I finished too fast or took the entire time – This makes us anxious either way but it is usually not a make or break factor.  Everyone reads and processes at different speeds, so just know yourself.
  • None of the stuff I studied was on my test – If you studied content FOR learning and not just memorizing information, then you probably know more than you think you do.  No resource out there (honest ones at least 🙂 will have the same questions, so the key is knowing you learned the content!
  • The questions looked so different than my practice test – This is common (see the note above).  Practice questions are designed to give you practice with formatting, pacing, and determining knowledge gaps.  If you prepared well, you can reason through most questions.
  • There were more questions on the real test than my practice test OR the last 10-15 felt different or harder – Remember there might be field questions
  • You kept a count of how many you thought you missed and it is more than 30% of the total number (thus you think you scored below 70%) – Remember these tests are scored differently – Weighted questions and scaled scores.  There are also tests where “passing” equates to less than 70% correct.
  • I ran out of time – This one is tricky – It depends on how many questions you left blank or had to just guess – As long as this list isn’t too long, then you are probably okay.  
  • You are a natural over-achiever or are typically very hard on yourself – If you are the type that studies/prepare a lot and are typically an “A” student, you often underestimate your own performance. Remember you just need to pass it, not ace it. 
  • Reading Social Media about how hard your test is has freaked you out – Trust your preparation!
  • It’s human nature to think or prepare for the worst – Try to think positive while you wait for your scores – Remember “Worry is like a rocking chair:  It keeps you busy but it gets you nowhere” 🙂 


What To Do If You Did Fail Your Exam

So what happens if you do fail your certification exam? First of all, don’t panic – this is not the end of your career. Teacher certification exams can be retaken!

Next, remind yourself that this does not determine your value or future success as a teacher. You may have all of the qualities of an excellent educator but just need to familiarize yourself with the question style and format of your exam. The fact that you’re reading this and planning your next step means that you already have the perseverance and dedication needed to become a great teacher. So let’s look at what you can do to pass your exam the second time around.

Analyze Your Score Report

This is the most important and effective step you can take when preparing for an exam retake. Carefully examine the data from your score report, and determine your specific areas of weakness. Next, cross-reference your areas of weakness with the way your exam is broken down and weighted. Our YouTube video on effective cramming explains in detail how to do this.

Most teacher certification exams cover both content and pedagogy. Use your score report to determine if you missed mainly content or mainly pedagogy questions.

If most of the questions you missed were content-related, you can improve your content knowledge with reliable study guides and an effective study plan. You may need to spend more time studying than you did the first time around or use different study strategies.

On the other hand, pedagogy questions can be harder to prepare for using traditional study methods. While most study guides (including ours) cover pedagogy, you may need to take additional steps to prepare for these questions. One way to do this is by finding a mentor teacher who teaches the same content or grade level covered on your exam. Sit down with this teacher and work through several pedagogy-related questions from practice tests or quizzes. Have them explain their reasoning and thought process behind the correct answer.

Additionally, remember that pedagogy questions should be answered in terms of an ideal teaching setting. Don’t fall into the trap of choosing an answer simply based on what you’ve experienced in your student teaching or what might happen in the “real world” of education. Your answer should reflect the best-case scenario that would occur in a perfect teaching world.

Schedule Study Time

Improve Your Test Taking Strategies

Additional Tips

  • Utilize Social Media

Social media can be a great place for finding resources or tips for your specific exam. Join groups related to your exam and ask for tips or resources that have worked for other test takers. Be sure to do your own vetting of the resources shared by others; any resource you use should be up-to-date, test-aligned, and reliable.

  • Avoid Memorization (Usually)
  • Don’t Blame Your Test Prep Materials
  • Give Yourself Time Before Your Next Exam Attempt

Most exams have at least a 31 day waiting period before you can retake them, but you may want to wait even longer than that. Consider how many questions you missed and how much time you can dedicate to studying.

If you were only a few questions away from passing and you have plenty of time to set aside for studying, you may be okay retaking your exam after just the minimum wait time.

If you scored much lower than you expected, consider scheduling your retake a few months out instead. We know you want to become certified as quickly as possible, but retaking your exam without enough time to prepare can lead to another failed attempt and additional frustration.


  • **MOST IMPORTANT – Analyze your score report – Break it down – See our cramming video on YT as that system works well in preparing for the next exam
  • It is critical that you use the data to plan the content and time spent on each set of content
  • For many teacher cert tests – Look at what you missed and determine if it is more content or pedagogy – Lots of materials out there for content but pedagogy is harder – Find a teacher who teaches what you are testing for and have them talk you through pedagogy type questions – Hearing their reasoning is very helpful
  • **2nd most important – SCHEDULE study/prep time – Be diligent and stick to it.  Lay it out on a calendar.  Take advantage of small pockets of downtime (30 mins in the morning; 30 mins at lunch, etc.).  Small chunks of study time are often more productive than long stretches as you are able to maintain sharp focus.
  • If you are setting aside long study days (3 or more hours at a time) – BREAK this up!!!  Do 1-hour chunks and then take a short break (15 mins up to 1 hour).  Do something different or active!
  • Have an accountability person – Give them your study schedule/calendar and have them check in on you and verify if you are sticking to it.  If you are then set rewards for yourself (like a nice coffee or a night of Netflix to relax).  This will keep you motivated and give you little things to work for.  
  • Don’t panic or beat yourself up – This just isn’t productive or helpful – Just shake it off and vow to be better prepared for the next attempt
  • Don’t blame your test prep materials – Most materials out there are solid and based on tested competencies but they cannot include EVERYTHING you MIGHT see on your test – Look at your weak areas and tackle those.  Vary your materials if you feel like you need more
  • Beef up your test-taking strategies – Big ones are PACING and finding keywords in questions – See our test-taking strategies video on YT
  • Give yourself enough time to prepare again before the next attempt – Many exams have a mandatory waiting period to help with this
  • Write down any words/terms/laws/acronyms you remember from the test that you didn’t know – Look up these definitions and how they apply in education – Make flashcards and learn these!
  • If you can’t remember, go through the tested competencies/standards and identify any words you do not know.  Then follow this same process.
  • As you continue to study, do this process for any new word you encounter that you don’t know.
  • Don’t try to memorize content – Your brain can usually only hold so much information – Be familiar when the content has a wide breadth (like world history).  Being at least familiar will help you narrow down answer choices at the minimum
  • Use social media groups to access/find resources or tips for your particular exam or weak topics.  
  • For pedagogy only tests – Remember to think of every scenario as being in the IDEAL world – Don’t let your own experiences influence the best answer in the perfect world.