I began the Thursday column with some thoughts on the previous decade. The millennium was a big occasion but there was a bigger one just a year down the line for me. The millennium had been hype over nothing but this other event would change my life. It was the day I got my A Level exams.
I feel for the students that woke today wondering what direction their lives would turn. In nine years the gut wrenching fear that accompanied me on the morning of my results day hasn’t faded at all. I can rationalise with hindsight that my personal drive combined with my intelligence and work ethic was always going to see me do alright but on that morning everything rested on three little letters.

I had an offer to do Social and Political Sciences at Durham. It was a slightly artsy course at an old school institution and the fantasy finishing school for my overachieving upper middle class eighteen year old self. I wanted to go to Durham more than anything. This required three B’s.

My parents and I arrived at school and I went in alone. The first person I met was my English teacher who was looking around excitedly. “How do you feel?” she chirruped excitedly when she saw me. “Scared” I replied, wondering whether the woman was completely unhinged. “Oh no you shouldn’t be” she trilled, literally jumping in her skin. I realised I was the person she was looking out for and I it sank in that there was an obvious reason why she was so happy. Knowing I had an A in the bag made opening the envelope far less scary. I got a further B in religious studies which was a little disappointing but what jumped out was the C in History. I had the points for Durham but not the grades. Would my A balance out the C?

I could barely breathe. I ran to my parents who initially feared the worst given my pale and unhappy face. I called the university there and then and was put through to the Sociology department. They said that it was fine by them but that I’d need approval from the Politics department and I should wait for them to call me.


I cried. I rationalised that the Politics department had been eager to offer me a place and it was Sociology that hadn’t been so sure. I paced about. I hugged my mum. I cried. I hugged my dad. We made small talk about the restaurant he’d booked for dinner. I think it was about eight minutes until the call came through. I was in. My legs gave way and I sobbed.

What stands out the most is the way my dad gave me his mobile and said “call them now” the second I told him my grades. I did it because he made me do it but he taught me an important lesson, to face problems head on and not to procrastinate. The clearings game meant that speed was important. If lots of students had got better than expected grades and called before me, Durham might have taken them over me. Nothing was to be gained by waiting and while I felt at my least able to make that call at that moment, it wasn’t a feeling that would improve with time. Back in 2001 you had to collect your results in person and I was on the phone within ten minutes of results being officially announced.

My exam results did change my life but I think what really left an impression on me was that sometimes you have to act fast and not be afraid to say what you want. Your A Level results day is a huge day in your life because it is a day when you experience extreme stakes and often for the first time in your life are faced with significant choices. Yes, attending Durham University shaped my life but how I got there was as important. I got in twice, once on the basis of my application and once because of that phone call.


Results day is one of the early events that start to shape how you see the world. Do you immediately move to negotiate or do you give up? The reality is whether you do better or worse than expected there is always room to negotiate; if you did better than expected then your place is secure but you might want to see if a better university now wants you, if you did worse it is still worth exploring your opinions.

One girl I went to university with didn’t get the course she wanted but the course she took (that she didn’t particularly want to do) only required 3 compulsory modules. Sociology also required 3 compulsory modules and she took all three to make up her six. She did well and after a year successfully applied to do single honours Sociology. It’s not even as though I stayed with my choice, a year in I switched to single honours Politics.

It can take a little creativity and it certainly takes a lot of adaptability to find your path through life and results day is one step on that journey. So your exam results do affect your life but not because they define your choices but because how you choose to manage them defines you.
8/21/2010 06:59:04 pm

Some day I should really blog about my over-complicated academic history. I've definitely changed my mind a lot over the years (and wouldn't guarantee that I'm done with indecisiveness, yet...)

And I agree about getting on with things - particularly in circumstances like that.

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Elizabeth Locke
8/25/2010 06:11:32 am

My A levels were chosen based on what I could get the best grades in doing the study in one year rather than two, and my degree chosen for a dream I had of a future I would grow into. I often wish now that I'd chosen something then that challenged me, because maybe it would have made me into the kind of person that faced up to challenges - but I also suspect that it would have made me the kind of person who has no A levels.

I have a poor grade degree in a micky mouse subject, and lack very much the kind of academia I once dreamed I'd live with - but people somehow think I'm wise.

Wisdom can come through academia, but alongside that (note: alongside, not instead of!) it comes from learning who you are, what your faults are and how to live around them.

Your academia is who you are to others, it's who you are on paper, but it's not the girl who tries really hard to give her friends cuddles without flinching, and it's not the girl I love - it is, though, something I get really proud of on your behalf. You made yourself.

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Kathryn
8/25/2010 06:51:37 am

I very much agree with you Elizabeth. I once saw academic success as the way to prove myself but am working in an industry where it counts for little.

What counted was working out who I was and what I had to offer. Yes being an uber nerd is part of that but I'd have found my way to something that worked for me eventually.

That's the message that I hope underlies this column, that the numbers and letters and bits of paper are just symbols and it's how you react and manage the symbols that matters, not the things in themselves.

You're considered wise because you realised that so young.

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