Advice from an A level failure


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 Β£600, so your degree could take three years and costs less than Β£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.

10 Comments on “Advice from an A level failure

  1. R.R.Jones says:

    The concept of how A levels and university define your life is completely alien to me.
    I left school at 16 with five O levels and a couple of CSE’s and went straight to the army.
    It was a major mistake and one that has followed me through my life but it doesn’t pay to look back and sigh at what might have been.
    I always wanted to be either a soldier, (like my Dad) or a reporter. Unfortunately the wave of patriotism that Thatcher managed to harvest after the Falklands made my mind up for me. All my teachers told me it was a mistake, (as did my Mam) but I knew better. That decision at 16 has defined my life and stunted my potential for years to come.
    That said, the plus side is that I met a beautiful German girl who gave me two wonderful children and has supported me through every one of my crackpot ideas, so it wasn’t such a bad idea after all πŸ™‚

  2. Alun says:

    I’d like to write a lengthier comment, but I’m rushing, so must be brief.

    A Level results are a good test of Rudyard Kipling’s (sexist) advice in “If” about triumph and disaster – they are, and are not, impostors, and they should be treated similarly, although the challenges they present are not quite “just the same”.

    I think that disappointment in any area that matters – such as education, work, relationships – can be terribly difficult, in ways that we are not always prepared for. Undoubtedly there are practical and emotional impacts, but there’s also an existential dimension; we are seduced into defining ourselves in terms of achievements (including “internal” validation, thanks to spiritual practitioners such as priests and the psychotherapy industry, in my opinion).

    Part of the problem is the myth of the happy ending – if you attain good exam results, a great job, wonderful romantic life, etc., then you’re “sorted”.

    That all sounds a bit abstract and high-fallutin’, but it’s based on a lot of life experience, as you know.

  3. Anne M Leone says:

    This is brilliant, Keren. Thanks for being willing to share your own story about A-levels. Teenagers are told day in and day out that everything they do will define the rest of their lives. I think it’s simply not true. Courage, confidence, optimism, a willingness to try, to have fun… all of these things are so much more important in the long run.

  4. Anne Fay says:

    This is such a thoughtful (as in full of thought, rather than kind!) page. We instil the importance of school exams and university into our children, but they lack the maturity and experience of life to see past the first stumbling block that is put in their path. Unlike you, my A levels were good, but in the last 29 years they have been almost completely unimportant, and have made very little difference. My life would be pretty much the same now even if I had no O or A levels, and had not gone to university. The path I took to get here would merely have been a little different.
    (And a note for readers, A level pass rates have risen every year since 1982, so we took ours very near the low point!)

  5. Rachel Selby says:

    I got very low A level results because I was planning to be an executive wife so what did I need exam results for? 29 years later I’m a single mother and sole provider.

    Luckily they were very short of teachers in the early 1980s so it was easy to get in to do a B.Ed. and everyone passed. However, at the age of 34 I went back to do an M.A. I didn’t particulary need it but I wanted to prove that I could. And what a difference. Suddenly I was a scholar. It had very little to do with brain power and a lot to do with attitude and maturity.

    Funny how you think at 18, that if your life’s not sorted byt he age of 25, you’ve wasted it and there’s no time left to rectify your mistakes. Who knew we’d still feel young enough in our 40s?

  6. Valerie says:

    Keren- thanks for a very courageous and thought-provoking piece. I admire you for ‘outing’ yourself, and think it’s very helpful for teenagers to see what a success you have made of your life, despite not having everything go the way you wanted or expected.

    I agree with so many points in your piece. The only one I would differ on is the assumption that one learns less at uni. I learned a hell of a lot, mostly outside the lecture room. But I have also learned lessons from times in my life when I’ve experienced what looked like tremendous failure, so I think I understand what you’re saying.

    And yes, I’m planning to come to your OU graduation, even if we are 60 by then! πŸ™‚

  7. Robert says:

    Val explained to me that you are posting this on the eve of A-level results in the UK. Good for you! I hope angst-riddled teens across the Isles are linking in right now.

    On three occasions, my brain, under enormous stress, froze up in an exam-type situation, and I lost the ability to think. Though each occasion of utter failure is seared into my memory, none of them have held me back in the least from living. In fact, I count some of them as blessings, since the “success” case from that situation might have actually led me in an unhappy direction.

    Alun’s comments on the absurdity of our goal-obsessed society reminds me of this little clip of Alan Watts:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERbvKrH-GC4

  8. Keren David says:

    I love how this post has got such thoughtful and interesting responses on the nature of success and failure.
    @Reg. I met so many people like you when I went on an Open University summer school. People who felt their lives had been blighted by crap careers advice and decision making when they were 16 or 18. It was really inspiring to hear them talk about their new enthusiasm for, say, Latin or Philosophy.
    @Val..Not sure why it’s a courageous post, I don’t really see my A level failure as anything to be ashamed of, as it says nothing at all about my ability or intelligence – which I knew at the time. When I say that contemporaries going off to uni won’t learn as much about themselves, I’m not saying they won’t learn anything about themselves. But there’s a world of difference between learning from failure and learning from a platform of success. I know people who’ve somehow breezed through life to their forties with everything falling into place, and they can be (not neccessarily) incredibly emotionally unimaginative and shallow.

  9. Jenna Jaafri says:

    I absolutely love you. As an A level student, this really helps. Letters on a piece of paper do not define me and what I’m capable of. I have an idea of what I want to do with my life career wise and it definitely doesn’t include knowing the structural arrangement of an ethene molecule.(Don’t even know why I picked chemsitry…..)
    You’re right though, we’ve been told that if we don’t achieve good A level results then we wouldn’t get the best jobs and the best pay etc. (not necessarily worded in that way.)

    All my friends seem to be doing fine- they’re achieving good results, getting unconditionals from a uni/college and then there’s me, not knowing if I should go to uni or college or get a job and I’m planning to take a gap year because I’ve had enough of exams and school.

    The whole of my childhood has been school. Sooner or later I’m going to become older and will have to get a job because of this harsh economy. The problem I have is that I want time to actually find myself. Cliched, I know. But how can I find myself if I’m stuck in a job that I’d have to keep to afford to live and to buy food and water and gas and electricity and bills, bills, bills? I wouldn’t be able to find the time. I really don’t know how everyone else does it.

    I like to think of myself as a secret adventurer at heart. I want to go places and see things, and I don’t just mean staying in a hotel, going on a holiday makers coach filled with other holiday makers in hats and sunglasses and flip flops. I mean going all out- getting a map, marking places that seem interesting, getting a car, road tripping everywhere, seeing all there is to see in this bloody spectacular world we live in, crossing off things on my bucket list, experiencing different cultures and meeting people, living their lives, seeing what they see. This may seem all talk, no do but it’s hard to do when all these responsibilities get in the way.

    I could say that life is unfair, but really it’s not life, it’s the people in this life. It’s all about the money. Money is the problem and no one can solve it.. leaves us all thinking with doubt.

    Wow this has gone on for too long. If anyone has read this up to here, thank you so much for reading through my babble. Just the babbles of a teenager failing A levels :’)

    But yes.. I love this post so much. It gives me hope for the future. I may not be wise and may not know much about life but I know what I’m capable of.

    Thank you once again πŸ™‚

  10. Keren David says:

    Sending love right back to you, Jenna. Knowing what you are capable of is much more important than any exam you will ever take – see A levels as a hurdle that needs to be jumped before you embrace the rest of your life. Good luck! (and do keep a diary. I think you express yourself brilliantly)

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