July used to simultaneously be my least and most cherished month of the year. A bookend to all the soul-crushing studying and revision that I had been doing, at least I knew the summer holidays were upon us, regardless of how confident I felt about the exams.
No matter how I performed in exam conditions, I was unable to turn back time, so all I could do was (attempt) to stay blissfully ignorant and enjoy my time away from it all. Yet despite my best efforts, ‘enjoying my time away from it all’ was far easier said than done.
Thibaut once wisely said, “you can’t force raging water to be calm,” and anyone who is awaiting their exam results will probably understand this feeling of futility. After both GCSEs and A-Levels alike, the summer holidays were when I felt both terrified and carefree.
All of the possible outcomes were playing on repeat in my head, but I couldn’t change my answers now. I was in the oxymoronic state of forcing myself to relax, to be distracted, and convince myself that, “everything would be okay.”
In reality, my mind would have been much more at ease if I had actually known just how many options are available to students post-exam results, which is something I would explain at the end of this article.
A lot of times people will hear inspirational stories that feel very much like the ‘best-case scenario.’ As my teachers will attest, I am absolutely not a best-case guy.
A point of reference for ‘not best-case’
Before I proceed, I want to reiterate to any readers that at the end of the day, I am only human. So, with that said and done, what did my further education look like?
My mental health plummeted during sixth form after my grandfather passed away, I bottled up all my emotions to follow the societal expectations that, ‘men don’t cry,’ and my social life was in tatters as I lacked a distinct identity amongst the various school cliques.
What can someone do to help themselves in a situation like this? Well, in my infinite wisdom, I decided to become the class clown and to deflect away from my insecurities through self-deprecating humour. After all, what reasonable human wouldn’t want to have others laugh at their expense so they don’t get left out of the joke? In case it wasn’t obvious, I wasn’t particularly sensible for my age.
In the end, my focus at school suffered and I couldn’t easily revise a subject that I barely understood in the first place, so I knew that my exam results would be far from meeting the expectations that my family and friends had of me.
All those years ago, I experienced trepidation as I awaited my results, just the same as you.
Upon opening the envelope and reading the certificates enclosed, my heart sank. All that time spent in sixth form, all for nothing, just as I had feared. My only victory, upon seeing the D and E grades, was that I could dryly tell my parents, “I told you so.”
A Subsequent Pathway
So, with all of that out of the way, you can understand just how transparent I am being, and that I have no reason to lie about having a viable future after getting your exam results. My intention here is to reiterate that school is not the deciding factor for the rest of your life.
With us all on the same page about how much of a ‘model student’ I was, I can explain the direction that my life went in after receiving those A-Level results. My hopes of getting into university were scuppered, so I decided to look into an alternate route:
With tens of thousands of apprenticeships all over the country, in various fields (such as banking, fashion, hairdressing and bricklaying), surely there would be something that was right for me?
About fifteen applications and ten rejections later, I had five job offers in front of me. In the end, I settled upon accepting an offer for an apprenticeship in the aeronautical engineering industry at a company in Wales.
During my time at this company, I learned about various regulations, mechanical tooling, installing and aligning subassembly systems, routing cable looms and much more… Additionally, I took every opportunity available to me, gaining qualifications from ILM in business methodologies, learning about digitalisation and prototyping, practising with CAD software, programming 3D printing hardware, and acting as the head apprentice representative for various resource groups.
Many of those words may as well be total gobbledygook to you, which is actually exactly why I used them. Just as you may be sat down feeling perplexed about what a ‘CAD’ even is, I had likewise never heard of anything like that before I started my apprenticeship. Suffice it to say, the apprenticeship route is something that I cannot endorse strongly enough!
The amount I learned technically and the degree to which I grew emotionally cannot be understated, not just without student debt, but while I was saving money towards buying a house.
After working for this company for almost exactly four years, I jumped ship and left. To avoid turning this into War & Peace, there were numerous factors for my departure, but I was grateful to be leaving in a financially stable position. My newest dilemma was what industry to work in next. Should I stay focused on engineering, offer my services as a care assistant, move into management, or train in an entirely new field?
While pondering the many variables of this decision, I relocated from Wales back to the Midlands, moved in with my parents, and began working part-time at a cafe in between job interviews, to provide some income and to practice my customer service skills.
To much surprise from my friends and family, I settled on a role in cybersecurity. Working at a local business, I would be using a skillset that I hadn’t practised since taking computer science in sixth form and working in an industry that I last saw during work experience, four years prior.
The reason that this company took a gamble on hiring me, as the recruiter told me, was as follows: “Anyone can learn a new skill, but nobody can be taught enthusiasm and empathy.” Honestly, I felt like I was on the phone with some Greek philosopher when I heard that quote.
Many Forks in the Road
Despite our divergent career choices, I still keep in relatively frequent contact with a lot of people from school, and a sizable number of them have since taken routes that they never previously dreamed of. Just like me, a lot of them ended up doing careers completely different to the ones that they had planned, and different to what you would expect from people with their qualifications/degrees.
I bumped into a friend of mine who I met when we were both Air Cadets, and he told me that he had graduated with a history degree, was currently undertaking a Masters in International Security & Terrorism, but also works in procurement for a British defence technology company.
Many of my colleagues in the aerospace industry redeveloped their skills in home electrics or automotive engineering, to work on aircraft sub-assemblies.
Recently, someone told me that they studied dance at college and although they can still perfectly perform all of the choreography for S-Club 7 (which they proved at Malvern Pride circa 2022), they now work for the charity Papyrus raising awareness about suicide and delivering training in applied suicide intervention.
Sometimes you just cannot know what you want to do in life, and even though I was lucky to have an idea of what career/industry I was enthusiastic about, I was able to change away from this with no concern.
To anyone ever concerned that, ‘it’s too late for me to try something new,’ I promise that this isn’t true - unless you are quite literally on your deathbed.
After many paragraphs of me rambling, here’s the important bit: What are your options after results day?
For those whose ultimate goal is getting a degree, then it is always worth trying to phone your chosen universities as they may let you in even if you didn’t attain your predicted grades.
Around one in ten students who started university in 2015 got their place this way.
Alternatively, you could apply again in the subsequent year: According to UCAS, roughly half of the 18-year-olds who didn't get into university apply again the next year, and around 90% of those get accepted the second time around.
There's no shame in retaking exams, just be sure that you meet the deadline with your school or college to be able to re-sit.
It may sound daunting to just ‘get a job,’ but what career you choose is entirely up to you, so you have every opportunity to find something that you are enthusiastic about and that provides a satisfying new challenge, all while earning some cash.
You could join a company, or you could even consider starting your own small business using a loan.
The main regret that I and most of my friends have, is having not taken any time off to see the world. Granted, cash flow may be an issue that you have to consider, but you have the chance to immerse yourself in other cultures, see distinct places, meet new people, and take part in adventures.
(These options were previously outlined in “Bad grades aren't the end of the world - BBC”).
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