I screwed up my A levels quite spectacularly. In fact my results were so unbelievably bad that I couldn’t quite take them in. I remember blankly looking at the paper – 29 years later I still can’t bring myself to tell you just how bad they were – and then trying to get back to sleep, in the vain hope that it was all a horrible dream.
A levels have changed a great deal over the last 29 years, but they are still the main measurement tool used to judge whether British school-leavers will make it to university, which one and which course. Today’s the day that pupils get their results – in a climate in which the odds are stacked against them. ‘Who’d be 18 today?’ asked a newspaper headline earlier this week, and with universities cutting budgets and course places, tutorial and living costs rising and jobs being cut everywhere, it’s hard to disagree. Even good grades are no guarantee of a university place and career success nowadays.
When the news that I’d failed my A levels sank in, when I realised I wasn’t going to take up my place at university, I felt like my life had ended. But, you know what, it hadn’t. I got through it, and it worked out. I got a job as a messenger girl on a newspaper and that turned into a successful career as a journalist. Failing my A levels undoubtedly sharpened my elbows.
But there are a few things I wish someone had told me at the time.
– Exam results do not define you. Your success or failure in life cannot be measured by grades. From now on, you set your own goals, and you gauge your own success.
– You can learn from poor results. Maybe you picked the wrong subjects, were at the wrong school, had poor teachers or had insufficient study skills. Perhaps deeper emotional factors held you back. Take a bit of time to think and talk these things through. Take failure seriously, but view it as an accident that can be avoided in the future, not a life sentence.
– Don’t dismiss other opportunities. It may seem so shattering to fail to get into the university of your choice to study the subject of your dreams, that every other option seems tainted by that bitter feeling. But there may be plenty of excellent options available. Consider vocational training or part time study. Look at what’s available through clearing. Alternative does not mean second-best. One friend of mine accepted a place through clearing, had a blast at college, went on to post-graduate study and a high-flying career as an economist. She ddn’t let dropping grades at A level and not getting her first choice course stand in her way.
– Consider the Open University. The courses are well designed, the tutors are excellent, there are study centres, day schools, residential courses. You can study part time, you can take gap years, you can build a multi-disciplinary degree. More and more young people are studying through the Open University, combining it with working. An OU course costs about £600, so your degree could take three years and costs less than £5,000. And you could gain work experience at the same time.
– Think about volunteering or working overseas. You’re young, you’re free, you can do anything. If Britain’s short on opportunities, try elsewhere.
– You can still succeed at exams. Just because you didn’t do well at these exams, does not mean you have to avoid all exams, or you will automatically fail everything. A few years ago I sat an Open University exam and achieved 93%. This is not because I am some sort of genius, or worked especially hard. It was completely down to a truly outstandingly excellent tutor, who in the course of a day school in Brussels taught us exactly how to revise for that particular exam.
– Many many areas of life have nothing to do with A levels. They don’t measure your success in friendship or love. They don’t measure your creativity, adaptability, ambition or business ability. It may be that slipping off your planned path will help you discover your other strengths.
– Don’t envy your friends who are going off to uni. They will not learn as much about themselves as you will right now (hard to accept, I know, but true).
– No one will remember. The only people who remember that you had to change course or retake or whatever are the ones who never achieve much after their A levels.
– It’s never too late. I picked up my studies with the Open University in my mid thirties. I’ve had to put them on hold for the last few years. I’m definitely going to get my degree though, even though I might be 60 by the time it’s complete.
– Keep a diary. One day you’ll look back on your current despair and wonder what you were worried about.
– Ignore the critics. Older people are very disrespectful towards today’s teenagers, often suggesting that academic standards have dropped. They rarely understand how courses have changed and why. Pay them no attention.
– Stay calm Really the best advice I have ever had. During life’s stresses and catastrophes, fretting and panicking just makes things worse. Yes, feel disappointed, yes, get angry and upset. But try not to worry. Things have a way of working out.