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A level results – the teenage lottery

Yesterday was the day when teenagers across the land got up before noon for the first time since June.

As I queued up at school with the A level student in my life who was waiting to be handed a shiny white envelope, I thought about what a moment of chance the whole thing is. To be fair, the atmosphere was calmer than I expected as most of the students had already logged onto the UCAS website and seen confirmation of their first or insurance choice university. But even so it’s a lottery in which one word scribbled on an exam paper can change a grade and subsequently determine the next three or four years of a young person’s life.  

However hard the student has worked, there is a great deal of luck involved. For some, every question is a dream and they get to demonstrate how much they’ve learnt. But there only needs to be one killer question about the tiny bit of the course they found difficult and the grade can plummet. Or they misread the finish time on the invigilators’ board, or misunderstand a question, or turn over two pages and miss out a whole section. Exams are a risky business.

And just how important are they? I’ve met hundreds of people in my adult life. Their A level results have little bearing on how good they are at their jobs; the success of their relationships; their health and happiness.  

Passing exams is in itself a rather strange and obscure skill. Never in my working life have I had a job that required me to sit in silence and spew onto a piece of paper everything I know about a subject. Writing the first draft of a chapter as an author is the nearest I’ve come to exam conditions, but I don’t scribble my exam number on the top of the paper after two hours and hand it to my agent. The final product isn’t ready for weeks or months and will involve research on the internet, in books and talking to people.

My daughter’s envelope contained good news and she will proceed with her original plan, but for those who haven’t got what they wanted and find themselves having to make a new plan, please don’t worry. Your life is not over. Several successful adults had to rethink when they were eighteen. For example, a man who lost a place at a prestigious university to study English, took a low-paid job working with animals. He now runs his own successful business in that industry. He’s in a career he loves and, because he works outside in a largely physical job, he looks ten years’ younger than his university-educated peers. Another man took the brave decision to stay on at sixth form for another two years to re-take the exams he needed for a career he was passionate about. He’s now a leading figure in education. Another had to accept a place at a supposedly low-ranking college because his grades weren’t enough for a “good” university. His course turned out to be brilliant and he is now a senior TV advertising executive.

My advice to young people would be: work hard at your studies – A levels can be a great stepping stone to the next stage – but take opportunities to gain work experience, pursue hobbies and see friends and family. Life is a great adventure with or without an A*. Enjoy it!

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