A-levels: How to make some lemonade when you get handed a lemon

This is the time of year when students either celebrate success or drown their sorrows as the standard debate takes place about are these exams getting easier? And did Northern Ireland come first? Are you getting into the University of your first choice?

It was August 2007 when it my turn to open up that envelope and find out the grades that would determine the next few years of my life. When I was at school, there was an unquestioning consensus that you had to go to university, I mean everybody else what doing it, so why the hell shouldn’t I?

The whole experience was unusual for me as nobody in my family had gone through third level education before. This lack of experience of university applications and my own stupidity led to me mucking up my choices for university as I only ended up filling out three of the six possible choices available on UCAS (Even at the time of writing this I still shudder at this error in judgement).

So, naturally when I got my results and scored a little bit lower than what I was expected to do my options for study dramatically narrowed. Like anyone in that situation I panicked as by this time I was fully signed up member of the university consensus and felt that if I didn’t get in I would be a monumental failure. Thinking back on that moment and the days that followed all I can remember is the real sense of drift that I felt and I before you say it, I know it was only university but when you have the expectation placed on you and the notion drilled into you that this is the ultimate destination the panic that I felt was not entirely misplaced.

While I panicked, I was lucky that members of my family didn’t. Sensing my huge disappointment, my mum just simply sat down beside me and said “well, what are we going to do now?” This doesn’t sound like much of a statement, but at that time the notion of “we” gave me the first sense that I wasn’t alone in this process. To have somebody help me get up off the matt was something that was invaluable in helping me proactively find a resolution. The two of us sat down with a piece of paper and we developed a plan about what I could do. My brother had noticed on their website that the University of Ulster where still accepting applicants for their Politics course through clearing.  I had visited the Jordanstown campus while at school and it never actually occurred to me to ever apply to do my degree there as my interests always lay in the South. But I took a chance, put my name forward and thankfully a very open minded department accepted me. They took a real punt on me and gave me opportunities that still benefit me to this very day. I got the chance to be taught by and eventually work with some brilliant academics. From the moment I walked in on that September day in 2007 to the when I left in December 2013, I experienced events that not only shaped my politics but also allowed me to work in areas which I love.

The moral of this story is that you will hear a lot over the coming days that it is not the end of the world if you don’t get the grades that you want and that is true. I always remember hearing George HW Bush say that it was actually his failures in life that defined him far more than his successes and while I perceived not getting the grades I wanted or not getting my first pick as a failure, it actually turned out to be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things that ever happened to me.

If you open that envelope and don’t get that acceptance email; don’t sweat it too much. There is always another university and another year to apply. I have taught hundreds of politics students and there is no difference between those students who went straight from A-level and those who had to wait a year or two. Use tomorrow’s experience as a chance to learn and think about what you want to do. Just always keep in mind, things have an odd way of working out, just be proactive and positive about what you have and what you can do.


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  • gendjinn

    Great piece David!

    The takeaway for all people bricking it for the next few weeks is that the only thing a university degree shows is that you have the skills to get a university degree.

    Whatever course (educationally & trajectorally) you are on, knuckle down, apply yourself and do your best. If you do that you can do anything after you graduate. And I mean *anything*.

    My degree is in genetics & did research for awhile but disgusted with the politics of academia I’m now in software. In my current role I’ve hired people into dev from a wide array of degrees – both technical & non-technical. If you are passionate about something you *will* get there.

    “Never give up, Never surrender” – Galaxyquest

  • Chris Browne

    Good points, David.

    I’ve always been lucky to perform well academically, but it was only until my Masters that I did something that interested me. I spent my undergraduate doing a law degree that I trumped for because I had no idea what I wanted to do. So even if you do get good grades tomorrow, remember that there is absolutely no reason for you to make your decision now. Take a year, take two. Don’t waste your time and money doing something you don’t want to do.

    Also – can I point out that Northern Ireland NEVER comes first on results day. Never.

  • Michael Henry

    ” I always remember George HW Bush say that it was actually his failures in life that defined him more than his successes “-

    And Bush had a lot of failures to define him including losing his second term to be President-but even Bush postponed his education-( to fight in world war 2 )-and give it another shot a few years later-

  • Mister_Joe

    Good point, gendjinn. Getting any degree demonstrates that you have certain innate characteristics, especially the ability to knuckle down and work hard (usually) and you are certainly not limited to a specific career. That needs to be stressed to the youngsters starting out.

  • gendjinn

    “…. you do that you can do anything after you graduate. ”

    That applies to those that don’t go for a degree too. Didn’t intend to be so narrow.

  • gendjinn

    “That needs to be stressed to the youngsters starting out.”

    Amen to that!

    I was fortunate enough to learn that lesson after the intermediate cert. We got our results, we partied. The next day our biology teacher told us. Right, that inter cert grade, that’s worthless, focus on the leaving. I knew what she meant and I knew that the same would be true of the leaving once I got to uni, and the same for the degree once I got my first job.

    Each is but a stepping stone to the next and there are many pathways to success.

    Find your passion, embrace it & find a way to get paid to do it. The caveat is that you’ve also got to embrace an element of reality – there can only be so many Humphrey Bogarts or Lauren Bacalls.

  • MalikHills

    I earned a bachelor’s degree and subsequently a master’s degree and the
    only use I have ever had for either of them was to satisfy job
    requirements that specifically demanded a university degree. Nothing I
    learned at university has ever been the remotest practical use to me in actual
    day-to-day life.

    By the way six years studying politics, a tad excessive no?

  • barnshee

    A lack of focus causes problems

    Luckily focus on maths physics and chemistry in all three siblings produced a balance

    Maths =Actuary
    Physics= Optician

    Study for a career