John Walker's Electronic House

A Level Results Day

by on Aug.15, 2013, under Rants

Every year I realise I’ve not written this down so I can point to it, and then forget after. So today, since I’m already too busy, I’ll do it. My A Level results. This is the story of how the results do not need to define the rest of your life.

My A Level results were:

N,N,E

There tend to be two categories of people. Those who got an N, and those who didn’t know you could get an N. While I believe it no longer exists, it once fell between E and U, seemingly serving to reward those who took a stab at spelling their name correctly on the front page, or at least drew some nice doodles for the examiner to enjoy. At the time I assumed it simply stood for “No.” “Not you, matey.”

I took biology, chemistry and maths, which of course makes perfect sense for a writer… I was convinced I wanted to be a scientist, and despite my dad’s confusion as to why I wasn’t pursuing subjects in which I more obviously showed talent, I defiantly went on to attempt to get a place studying microbiology at Edinburgh university. That was the goal. Why microbiology? It’s horrible to realise now I can’t even remember having a particular passion for it – I guess I liked learning about it at school, and I had already realised I wasn’t good enough at sciences to be a vet.

I wasn’t exactly expecting good grades. When you spend the two hours of a chemistry exam plotting a graph on your graphics calculator that makes it draw a train with smoke coming out of the tunnel, you can be pretty well assured that you didn’t ace it. Convincing my parents of this was tougher, trying to explain that, “You always think you did worse than you did!” doesn’t tend to apply when you hadn’t written anything in the little boxes.

It was a combination of things. The wrong subjects, not really doing any work for two years, and being absolutely atrocious at exams. I had managed to get through GCSEs on blagging along, and then discovered that didn’t work for the next stage up. But I also wasn’t stupid – I picked up an awful lot of it, and can still recite the anatomy of kidney or make my way around a Krebs Cycle, seventeen years later. I just had no ability in exam conditions, rather worsened by having done far too little revision after far too little effort for two years. So yes, not the best approach.

Results day sucked. Obviously. I was helping out at a holiday club that week, so couldn’t get down to collect my results first thing with my chums. But when I went down later in the morning, some friends turned up to meet me there. I wished they hadn’t. My friends at school were smart (they’re still smart, as it happens). At a time before AS/A2, when you took three A levels as standard, friends of mine took five or six, and got As in all of them (this was before A*s, too). Most my friends got straight As. A couple dipped into Bs. I got grades that none of us even knew were available. It didn’t feel good sharing that moment.

For reasons I still cannot explain, beyond sheer miserable panic, I decided to retake the same subjects. There was no time for thinking about it – to get a place at the local six form college, I’d have to apply on results day itself, and I just went for the same ones. I still had those ambitions of studying biology at such a good university. And so it was that I had the most miserable year of my life, as all my friends went off to university or gap years, and I stayed in the same town, studying the same subjects, in a grotty hole of a college with few friends. My routine became a depressed trudge. I distinctly remember that the highlights of my weeks were: Chris Evans’ (genuinely great) Radio 1 breakfast show, especially the handovers to Simon Mayo; Monday, Wednesday and Friday night on BBC 2 when they’d show Seinfeld followed by Larry Sanders; and Sunday and Wednesday nights when the just-launched Channel 5 would show baseball from midnight. I used those as the stepping stones between the rubbishness of the days, studying subjects I knew I was no good at, in a place I didn’t want to be, while hearing of my friends’ amazing times. Woo! This time I got:

E,E,D.

Improvement! Sigh.

But here’s the thing: turns out, life has been brilliant. I screwed up my A Levels twice, and tried to do a completely ridiculous degree in a made up subject at a tin-pot university, which was a colossal waste of time. But after that, and after a brief, peculiar stint working at a national radio station under the control of the utterly repugnant Kelvin MacKenzie, I found my passions. I’ve been very fortunate, but I’ve also worked incredibly hard. I discovered youth work, and I re-discovered that I can write. I went on to do a degree in youth work and applied theology, and came out of it with a first class degree, while at the same time writing my arms off for PC Gamer, Eurogamer and others. Six years ago I co-started RPS, and now is now, and I’ve a wonderful job, amazing wife, and my NNE means absolutely nothing whatsoever.

I recognise that I’m extremely fortunate. I understand that not everyone gets away with such a screw-up. But I feel it’s important to say on results day that the grades you get do not define you, and do not need to define the rest of your life. You are bigger than them.

It sucks to do badly. I had a really crappy year because of failing. It’s not something you breeze past. But it’s something you certainly do get past. Life is enormous, and if you work your butt off, and acknowledge your passions, opportunities can come up.

And if you did well: fistbump!

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12 Comments for this entry

  • Richard

    Failing sucks and is much harder given the constant pressure at School and College, being constantly told these are the most important things you’ll ever do, most important choices you’ll ever make. They aren’t.
    In addition to that, education isn’t the be all and end all, and isn’t for everyone. I did awful at uni and didn’t proceed to first year, but after proving myself in a work environment have a job in what I wanted to do after all.

  • Yaya

    Well written story mate, yoou made me laugh still bless you and somehow this was some sort of inspiration for me :)

  • Jack

    I had pretty much the same experience but a few year’s later. I breezed through A-levels (also maths, physics, chemistry, biology) without breaking a sweat, getting AACD I think, then went to study Aerospace Engineering. Because I wanted to be a pilot, and after 9/11 there was no affordable/sane training for pilots, so I thought it would be fun to design aeroplanes instead.

    Huge mistake! I’m completely not cut out to be a designer of mechanical things. I flopped around at uni repeating years and missing lectures and racking up huge debts. Then, after four fruitless years, I dropped out and became a bus driver. (And John was my occasional passenger, when I had the misfortune to be rostered for the route through the limestone termite-mound that constitutes the part of Bath he lived in!)

    I don’t think I’ve quite reached the “co-started RPS” phase yet though. I’m visiting the University of Melbourne this weekend, to see about becoming a professional computer-whisperer and spreadsheet-wrangler-supreme, and quite looking forward to whatever’s happening next…

  • Jim Huxter (Jimangi)

    I got my A Level results today; they were… okay. I’d like to think I’m better than my grades suggest. It was certain exams that spoilt it for me. It just goes to show how flawed a system of analysis exams are, forcing students to condense everything into a period of just a few hours. Education’s still pretty old-fashioned. We don’t even get the option to type essay-style exams yet, everyone must write them. Madness.

  • Alex

    I guess the system in Quebec isn’t that different- CEGEPs offer two-year pre-university programs for students coming off their Secondary 5, but it still seems wild that the education system wants kids to lock themselves into a course of action so early.

  • Sharikul Islam

    I got my AS level results today, and I must say, it’s put a right damper to this Thursday. My grades DEE are not enough for my college to re-enroll me to the second year, therefore they “dropped” me out. Now, due to the persistence of my parents, I’m having to apply to colleges in the arse end of nowhere. Seriously to God, I should’ve just applied for an apprenticeship after my GCSES rather than spending one ridiculous year trying to remember everything for an exam in June.

  • Xercies

    I had this same feeling at uni, though I haven’t come out of any positives yet but seeing this has inspired me to keep hoping. I do think its kind of bad that we only really get one chance of this at education, I went into uni thinking I really wanted to do 3D Animation cause my college focused on 3D animation. Then I found I wasn’t good at it and got some friends that were doing filmaking and I realized way to late that I really wanted to do instead. I’m trying to get into filmmaking but its hard but plugging away at it.

    But saying that the friends I gained, and the girlfriend I gained kind of makes me feel well that was worth it if nothing else was.

  • Aerothorn

    Hey John -

    As an American with only a tenuous understanding of the English examination system, I have a question. In the USA, there is a rapidly expanding movement in colleges to go “test-optional” (e.g. you are not required to submit scores from the ACT/SAT for consideration, and lack of such a submission will not be held against you). This emerges from a combination of concerns about the fairness of the tests (you can pay for better results via “test prep” classes) and the fact that they largely test your ability to take tests.

    Is there a similar movement happening in England, or does every uni require you to submit your A-levels?

  • Clare Truman

    This is why every teenager needs a John Walker as a youth leader!

  • sinister agent

    These things need to be said, because every year without fail, the press gives the people getting results a load of bullshit to cheapen then achievements (which will of course be regurgitated by a lot of clueless parents), and before that, they’ll be fed years of fearmongering bullshit by most teachers, who will surely only be known as such until the day when a government finally decides to change calling them “classroom managers” instead.

    For my GCSEs I got an X. An X! Nobody knew what it was. Then I looked at the next sheet, and I got a Q. I’m not making this up. Turned out the Q was a “query”, and was later revised to a B (christ knows how that happened – my coursework was half a sheet of A4 done in a lunchbreak). The X was the paper I refused to sit in protest of the absolutely abysmal teaching we’d had for two years.

    And the rest of them I have to strain to remember. I forget how many I even got, and when it comes to A Levels I have to dig up an old CV to remind myself what I took. There are so very many things people that age can do now, and the lies that people spew about those results defining your life in any way are mendacious and utterly immoral. Our schools are so full of it that it’s a wonder young people believe anything they’re told ever again.

    I worked at a major university once, and was drafted in to help the admission people (even though I knew absolutely nothing about admissions, and it was the busiest period of the year for my job too, and there was nobody else qualified to do mine… god, no wonder I quit) – students ringing up on results day, asking if they’d got in, often being told either “no”, “I don’t know”, or “I will have to ask somebody else, because this whole fucking system is broken why am I here jesus christ”, and then they start crying.

    And then we had to try to push them to apply for some bullshit IT course that had nothing to do with anything. Anyone. Not people who asked, not people whose results indicate they might be interested. Everyone.

    It’s all a pile of shit and what is true and right for each individual person is barely even a consideration for 99% of teachers and other people involved.

    Do what you want to do, to the best of your ability. If you fuck up, try again or do something else. If you don’t know what you want… THAT IS NORMAL. I know people in their 50s who haven’t quite figured out what they want yet.

  • sinister agent

    Oh, and you don’t have to go to university to get anywhere. I and the woman I live with don’t have a degree between us, and I’ve earned more than any graduate I know, she’s earned even more than me, we’re both free of debt, and I’ve worked jobs that officially required TWO degrees.

    There is always a way to get on and do something you like. The world is about 90% bullshit, but also about 10% people who are sick of the bullshit, so keep an eye out for them and you’ll be fine.

  • Charis

    Hi there John.

    What a great piece of writing, it rings true. Completely by chance through a friend’s Facebook post I found RPS and then here. I haven’t been involved in gaming or computing much since I was about 16, but I was a huge fan of the industry and knew everything at one point. I started reading PC Gamer when it was issue 74, I think GTA2 had just been released, and I bought every single one right up to around 170 I think, or therabouts. I still read it occasionally. Your column was one of my favourites, They’re Back!
    It is great to see you guys doing well and doing what you love all these years later. Jim Rossignol is another blast from the past I am happy to see.

    In reference to your story, I had decent A levels, got a decent degree from a good University in Computer Systems Engineering, and by the end of it I was truly sick of computing and working in that industry. I am now an online fitness coach and I am on track to becoming a professional Olympic weightlifter for my country in the next two years.

    It is a strange one, we set out in one both we “should” take but ultimately if you have passion you do what you want in the end anyway, and wonder, would it have been better if I had started this straight away? The answer is actually probably no.