Five things I wish I knew when I collected my A-Level results

One of the few (possibly only) perks of having a Dad who was a postman was that occasionally, just occasionally, you got letters before they were due to be delivered. That is the same day but maybe a couple of hours before the postman would normally deliver them because rather than wait until our own postman made his way to our house my Dad would pop home around about breakfast time with them. Strangely though I can’t remember whether this happened with my A-Level results, either it was so traumatic I’ve wiped it from memory, or the little details fade into insignificance as time goes by. I have a niggle in my mind that maybe Dad was at Cadet Camp when they arrived, which would have meant normal service, or maybe I had to go into college to pick them up, I don’t remember. I guess that is my first learning point really:

1. However significant your feelings are today, they’ll fade with time. The good and the bad ones.

I left school at 16, a very good grammar school with a fantastic academic record to study for my A-Levels at the local ‘technical’ college (the ‘technical’ bit was spat out by my head teacher when I asked her for a reference – that she refused to give, deferring to her Deputy Head hoping she’d talk sense into me). This was a decision that few people in my life understood, and my parents took some convincing, but I’d had enough of the regimented and ruled life. I’d had enough of the snobbery and expectation. I’d had enough of feeling like I didn’t really fit in and I craved to no longer wear the pedantic uniform (yes a uniform can be pedantic!). I was desperate for freedom and I also wanted to study Psychology, not on offer at school at the time, so to college I went. Lots of people warned me I’d fail my A-Levels. Some threatened that I’d ‘drop out’ of education and/or end up getting pregnant. I don’t think there was a single person who believed this was a good decision.

2. Believe in yourself. No-one knows what is right for you better than you yourself. Listen to other people, seek their advice but follow your gut (and prove all the doubters wrong).

The truth of it is they may have been right. Tech was an amazingly different experience. Suddenly no-one cared if you turned up in the morning, there was certainly no-one with a ruler measuring the length of your skirt in relation to your kneecap – in fact in the two years I was there I don’t think I ever wore a skirt, after about the second week tutors didn’t even bother taking registration – never mind push you to study. There was freedom, in bucket loads. I revelled in it, I had fun, I met new friends and loved having boys to hang out with (single sex education was not an inspiring environment for me), I played rugby, I socialised, I studied a bit – nowhere near as much as I probably should, I got involved with the Student Union, and I worked (at Sainsbury’s) a lot.

It was a great couple of years and definitely amongst the most formative of my life. One of the most useful things I learnt was to motivate myself. You really had no choice because there weren’t any other people interested in doing it. I had a tutor who I saw a handful of times, we discussed university and I decided to apply. No-one in my family had ever been to university and Sainsbury’s were tempting me into their trainee management programme, but luckily my friend Geoff who also worked in the bakery was studying at Cardiff and he convinced me life had more to offer than supermarkets alone. I owe him, a lot.

3. Earning money is fantastic, especially when you’re young, but there are some experiences that money can’t buy and finding the time to get to know yourself (cheesy as that sounds) is one of them. If I was facing £9k tuition fees I very much doubt I’d have felt able to goto university, but I do feel it would be worth that if you can afford it.

The downside of all that freedom was that I studied, but I also lived. I had an offer to study Psychology at Cardiff the following year (I was going to take a year out with my mate and travel). My offer required me to get 3Bs, something that should have been well within my grasp. However, when my results came in it was not to be. I hadn’t got the grades. I had 2Bs (Psychology and English) and a D (in RE – which I enjoyed far too much, and studied far too little. That said I did meet my first drug dealer on a bus in Leeds on the way to visit a mosque – for a girl who’d grown up in the sheltered Westcountry that was worth way more than studying books would have been). I digress.

The results weren’t good enough. Worse still my mate had failed her A-Levels altogether and was going to have to stay and retake them, there would be no travel and hijinks. My Mum always says that it was thanks to Geoff that I went through clearing, I didn’t really know what to do and the Sainsbury’s option was looking more attractive, it came with a pay packet to start with. Anyhow I called Cardiff and spoke to the admissions tutor for their Education degree. It allowed me to study psychology and still get BPS recognition. It allowed me to start that September. It allowed me to leave Torquay and yet more freedom beckoned. So Cardiff it was.

4. Just because you don’t get your first choice doesn’t mean that you can’t find something that fits. Although you won’t know unless you ask…

To cut a very long story short I did my degree in Education, I followed a similar pattern to my A-Levels really, I studied and socialised in equal measure. I ended up with a 2:1, I actually fell in the points band between a 1st and a 2:1 but when asked by my tutor (strangely enough the same woman who’d offered me my place through clearing) to appeal my degree classification to get the 1st I refused! My exact response to her was that I’d worked hard and earned my degree, and was exceedingly proud of it, but I wouldn’t beg anyone for a better grade!

A couple weeks after my degree results my Dad came home with a letter I’d be desperately waiting for. It was the letter from ESRC to say whether they’d fund my PhD. I was petrified they’d say no (because I only had a 2:1 not a 1st – because of my own stupidity/stubbornness/values) and then I had no idea what I’d do – but luck was on my side and they said yes, they’d fund me to study full-time for three more years. So I embarked on my PhD, under the ever watchful eye of my undergrad tutor (who’d given me my place through clearing year earlier). I studied for three years, got my first proper job as a lecturer in Dublin and finished writing up my PhD. Seven years after I’d picked my A-levels up I sat my viva and six months later I graduated for the second time.

The first person in my family to goto university became Dr Julian!

5. Nothing is as bad as it first seems – nothing.

I remember getting my A-Level results and feeling like my world was crashing down around my ears. I felt like I’d let my parents down, and I’d let myself down. I knew that my grades were ok, but I knew I could have done so much better. I couldn’t study Psychology, I wouldn’t get to university, suddenly I felt trapped in my old life when I’d started imagining a new life months before. There would be no adventure, no travel, no leaving home, no university, no nothing. Slightly dramatic, but I felt completely overwhelmed and completely disappointed. I carried that sense of disappointment for a long while, I put on a brave face and went through the motions, but I found it hard to shake the feeling I could have done better. Looking back I am so grateful that Geoff encouraged me to look up and widen my line of sight past the immediate, I’m glad I made the call and took a punt on my degree course. It was the best decision.

Next week I’m going to the wedding of one of my two best mates at uni. We met on the first day, in the canteen at our halls of residence. She was studying education too and I was relived to meet someone else to find our way to our first lecture with. We spent the best part of three years studying, socialising and hanging out together. When I started my PhD she studied a PGCE, then went on to become a teacher, studied some more and now she’s an Educational Psychologist. She didn’t get great A-Level grades either, few people on our course did, but we’ve done really well considering, even if I say so myself!

If you put your mind to it anything is possible. If you don’t get what you want today, don’t despair. Take some time, talk to people, think about things and make a plan of action. Then whatever that plan is give it a go. What’s the worse that could happen? 

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