Let’s talk about exams

I guess I should talk about results day. To be honest, it’s one of my least favourite points of conversation because it is such a minefield to navigate and yet it dominates most conversations every August. On the one hand, if you do very well it is virtually impossible to talk about your results without feeling like you are showing off and, on the other, if you get bad results then usually there is nothing you want more than to not talk about them. So it seems like the ideal situation then is not to talk about your results at all but they seem so important to us that we do it anyway. So here I go.

I won’t talk about my exact grades because honestly I have realised the grades themselves do not matter. Grades are incredibly relative depending on the person. For one person a B would be absolutely amazing and to another it would be a catastrophe. Therefore, I feel like it is redundant to list off a set of three grades because everyone will have a different perception of what those grades actually mean. Instead I will talk about what my grades mean to me.

Last year, I worked hard for my AS grades. Coming off a good set of GCSE grades and going into Sixth Form gave me new mentality; a mentality that has culminated in me coming to Finland. I realised how fortunate I was to be at a school like John Lyon and how many opportunities there were for me and so I started to really knuckle down on my school life in terms of both academic and extra-curricular work. Coming to the end of the year I was confident that I had knocked the exams out of the park before I had even sat half of them. I knew that I wanted to study English and my sights were set on an application to Cambridge. Come results day I didn’t feel the same nerves that I had for GCSE because I already had finished the third draft of my personal statement and my mind was already set on my A2 grades. Then I opened the envelope. I had done well in Art, I had done well in RSP, I had done fairly well in Physics, and then there was my English grade. It was not great.

I spent pretty much the whole morning in tears in typical results day fashion. I rang my parents, I rang my sisters, I talked to the teachers, and I applied for a remark. Two weeks later the remark came back and it had gone up a grade but was still far below what I had hoped for. When the email came through I remember immediately grabbing my keys and walking out of the front door. I must have walked through every street in Harrow before finally came to rest at the top of the hill in that little clearing with a bench in the graveyard. There I paced up and down for a good half hour and decided that I was going to fix this. I had worked hard at AS but I could work harder at A2. I came to the realisation that there is always more that you can give. One bad grade isn’t actually a bad grade, it can be a good thing. It’s your challenge to get a good one next time. It’s the moment in the movie where the character reaches their lowest point. It’s the end of Empire Strikes Back when Luke has lost his hand, Han Solo is frozen in carbonite and the Empire is winning (spoilers). The Rebels could give up at that point and you wouldn’t blame them but where’s the fun in that? If they gave up there would be no more Star Wars and quite frankly I couldn’t think of anything worse.

So my second year of A levels roll around and I hit the ground running with them. I remember sitting down with Mr Peel at parents evening and having him tell me the exact percentage I needed to turn my grade into an A. At the time I laughed it off but in my head that became my new target. As per his advice I decided not to do retakes but instead focus my effort on absolutely nailing my English A2. It helped that we were studying some incredible texts that I was able to absolutely tear apart. Both King Lear and Paradise Lost (The White Devil maybe not so much) blew me away with their incredible depth. My goal by the end of the year was to be able to open the books to a random page and be able to talk about whatever quote my finger landed on. I can’t say that I got to that level but that’s an illustration of how hard I wanted to work.

The other thing that Mr Peel did for me was make me look at other universities which is something that I am now so grateful for. Probably the biggest problem (and probably the only problem) I found with the way that John Lyon approached university applications was the way that anyone who got above a certain amount of good grades was put in the Oxbridge applicant group. This isn’t automatically a bad thing because it is an incredible confidence boost to have someone tell you that you could be good enough to apply for such prestigious universities. The problem came, however, with the fact that I had set that as my goal.

I like to set myself very difficult challenges because that is how I motivate myself to work hard; again, it’s why I am in Finland. The problem is that some challenges are not the right thing for you. I wanted to apply for Cambridge, not because of the quality of education, or the city, or the student life, or even the reputation. I wanted to apply for Cambridge because it was hard to get into. I visited a couple of times and tried to convince myself that I liked the city while knowing deep down that I actually didn’t. In this way, getting a bad English grade last year became a blessing because it stopped me from applying to go there; they would have taken one look at my grades and not even bother to read my personal statement.

Meanwhile, My Peel was regularly reminding me of English courses that I might actually enjoy doing. I have to admit, I was very bad at actually listening to his advice. He must have told me about UEA maybe five times before I even looked at their website. Something about a course titled “English Literature with Creative Writing” made my Oxbridge-wired brain recoil in horror. I remember having a conversation with him where I effectively said “I think the UEA course would be fun but I’d get a better job if I went somewhere like Durham or St Andrews” to which he effectively said “Why don’t you want to spend three years doing something you find fun?”

Anyway, I think I told mum about the course at some point and she, being the woman she is, read every article under the sun talking about why the course is so great and promptly booked us in for the next open day. At this point I think I still wasn’t sold but I had found out that some authors I like had done the course so I figured it was at least worth a look. After being on the campus for about 10 minutes I was sold. I had visited Oxford, Cambridge, almost every London based university, and a handful of others but it was only once I went to UEA that I got that feeling that the teachers always tell you about when you know that somewhere is the place for you.

I realise that this post is ridiculously long already so I’ll fast forward through most of my A2s. I worked probably the hardest I have ever worked in Art this year, involving multiple weekends of 24 hour stints of virtually non-stop drawing. This culminated in my biggest and best sketchbook yet: 46 A2 sized pages, each one completely full, along with about 10 different animations and a series of pieces too big to fit even in that sketchbook. It was a similar story with English. I went through most of the books in the school library’s collection that relate to the texts we were studying and spent most lunch breaks that I wasn’t doing art reading articles, journals, biographies, and essays online. Come study leave I only left the house once in the two weeks leading up the exams. My room was plastered with post-its with the names of critics, key words, quotes, and important dates just like that room in A Beautiful Mind. I would walk around all day talking to myself about different theories relating to Cordelia’s use of the word “bond” in the opening scene of King Lear.

The other thing that I should mention with my preparation for English that I cannot emphasise enough I how much my sister Tove helped me. I called her on a Sunday afternoon two weeks before the exam and we spent 2 or 3 hours talking about exam technique. That was what had lost me the marks at AS and it was still a massive challenge for me. I had so many ideas, quotes and critics that it was difficult to form one cohesive line of argument. Honestly, without this phone call and her becoming a part time practice paper marker for me all of the hard work I had put into English would have been for nothing.

So this pretty much gets you up to speed. I had a lot of weight hanging on this results day. UEA offered me a place but in order to get the grades I had to nail every exam. I am pleased to say that I managed to do so. I could not be happier with my art grade and my English grade exceeded all expectations that I had of myself. RS maybe wasn’t what I had hoped for but it is such an insignificant problem in comparison to how happy I am with my other grades. I am pleased to say that as of September 2017 I will be starting my English Literature with Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia.

There are a lot of people, however, who have not got the grades they want. It happens every year and a lot of the time it is because of things outside of their control. The exam system is not perfect. It places so much emphasis on someone’s performance in just a couple of hours on one day of their life. A lot of papers are either a test of someone’s memory or their ability to follow correct exam technique. Half of the exams are about jumping through arbitrary hoops the exam boards have set rather than demonstrating actual intelligence. The grades are allocated without a set threshold so if one generation of kids is smarter than another they will not be rewarded with more A grades but rather the band will be shifted to compensate for it.

Meanwhile, you have to go through all of the hardships of being a teenager. Depression, divorce, relationships, suicides, eating disorders, death of family members, homosexuality, gender dysmorphia, racism, illnesses, bullying, and bipolar are not problems that only adults face and they are all added on top of the pressures of making seemingly very big life choices, trying to grow up, trying to become independent, trying to do well in school, trying to have friends, and a million and one other things. All the while adverts are telling you that you are not good enough, news outlets are telling you that exams are getting easier, and TV and movies are romanticising your teenage years as this wonderful and carefree time in your life. Now tell me that you’re disappointed that your son or daughter got a C in their Chemistry AS exam.

I guess what I am trying to say in a very long and rambling way is that it sucks to get a bad grade. It sucks even more to get a set of bad grades. You know what the good thing is though? You are still just a teenager. Chances are you haven’t even started your career yet and won’t do for years. So before then you may as well do something you enjoy. Take a gap year, travel around the world, spend time with your family and friends, try new things and meet new people. You can do this stuff now because you don’t have kids or a job or a house or taxes to pay. You have literally got decades to do these things so how about not rushing into them enjoy still being a teenager for a bit? Will a small letter on a sheet of paper really affect your life that much?

4 thoughts on “Let’s talk about exams

  1. I got a C and 2 Ds.
    And realise that I haven’t talked about A level results in maybe 15 years, so while it is important at one moment of your life as time goes by it becomes less and less so.
    I’m massively impressed with your attitude and work ethic. I’d also like to know how army stuff is going?
    So please spill some pavut about that.


    1. Thank you so much! Honestly, so much of my grade is a result of great teaching and inspiration from you. I wouldn’t have believed that I could have done well in English at A2 if it was not for your constant encouragement and brilliant teaching


      1. Oh shush! But thank you… I have sent the link to the Guardian education section in case they are interested. Hope you don’t mind.


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