This blog post is dedicated to those who didn’t quite get the grades they want.
Students across England recently received their A-level results, the gateway to university studies. I remember those nerves well.
Despite thinking of myself as a geek, I got a respectable but below my own expectation of a C at AS Level Chemistry. I was too scared to call my parents for hours (even though they were supportive of me) and with my older sister having aced all her exams, I felt deflated.
It got worse when in my second year at university, despite putting the effort in, after misreading an exam question, I received 5% for one of my exams, the lowest in the year that counted towards my final grades. Even if I retook it, which I eventually did, it capped the module to just 40%, leaving my grades in bad shape for my final year.
Frankly, that summer I felt pretty depressed. I was angry at the exam system but also at myself. I broke up with my then girlfriend, had to study the retakes while working part-time and the worst was speaking at a pre-arranged careers day at my old school and having to pretend I was happy when I was crushed. It felt like the world caved in.
I reflected on why I felt that way and why I got those grades.
I felt that way because society has chosen, rightly or wrongly, to measure us and define us by numbers. If you get good grades, it’s natural for young people to deduce that you are worth more, given all our studies focused on that. If you get bad grades, you are cast as a loser and if you don’t improve, some will be inclined to give up and settle for something less in life.
I totally understand the importance to differentiate, employers are time poor and I have myself filtered thousands of CV’s, lazily scanning the grades to find the right candidates. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. While it’s good to be competitive and having winners pushes people, what about those who don’t win this time around? What support do we give them?
In terms of why I did get those grades, I was energetic but also distracted. I was constantly battling being straight-jacketed by traditional career routes and I wished I was braver and did more creative subjects. I bet some students out there right now are studying subjects they hate because of pragmatic career advice, rather than out of real passion. It eventually drains all your energy. I certainly found it frustrating to learn about using the Harvard citation system rather than understanding more practical skills.
Studying for a subject with real-life application, even if it’s quite competitive, feels good, especially if they give you tools to either get a job or even better – to create your own job. This lends itself particularly well in creative subjects, whether in design, computing, fashion, architecture etc. Being an entrepreneur particular excites me, with the possibilities more acute with the growth of technology. Technology breaks down the buying power of huge institutions, in all sectors, and platforms can help you with everything from supply chains, global customers, and new partners.
Abstract academic subjects can sometimes be difficult to apply in the real world and feel more like a romantic and expensive luxury, with only the platitudes of ‘transferable skills’ to comfort your investment. Indeed I believe the future is for university institutions (and also the long-neglected FE sector) to provide practical and creative training that help you join the industry as employees or even better, as entrepreneurs. Many do that already, with the proliferation of enterprise societies, but more can be done. The way we grade subjects and measure successes should be reformed and we need to make studies, in general, more engaging and exciting. Why not learn maths through running a business, rather than just via a textbook?
I suppose what I am really trying to say, is that you don’t need to follow the same path that others have done. I am having a pretty unconventional career and somehow I’ve ended up as the youngest Independent Governor at a UK university. It’s pretty cool – but if I had let those grades inhibit me – I would have been pigeonholed in something else.
So if you got good grades, congratulations, enjoy the moment but don’t get too excited, make it a motivator to work even harder on bigger dreams. For those disappointed – don’t let a grade defined you. Don’t let anyone label you or narrow your options or ambitions. Work hard but find what you want to work hard on first and then go wild.
You got this.