My wake-up flick through Facebook today was a little different than usual. The standard flow of cat memes and friends’ holiday snaps was diluted by posts regarding the event of the moment: Results Day, of course! Before seeing a number of younger friends tagged in embarrassing proud parent posts and sharing their own news I had completely forgotten today was the big day.
It’s amazing, really, how only a year has gone by and how little I care by comparison. For the past three years, this day was marked as judgement day, the pinnacle of my academic year by which to measure my failures and triumphs. The build up induced a strange combination of dread and desperation, hopelessly counting down the nightmare-filled sleeps as we awaited our fate: relief and security, or disappointment, to put it lightly.
As may have been clear in my Oxford rejection article, I invested too much in academic achievement (I was obsessed). In year 11, my first few A*s in modular exams were a shock to everyone, including myself. It made sense when I actually tracked back how much work I’d put in, over-estimating the amount actually required to achieve the sprinkling of As and Bs I was aiming for. As wonderful as this was, of course – hard work paying off, being recognised for being good at something – it was a bit too good to be true, and I somehow got sort of drunk on it (which must be the nerdiest addiction in history but what can you do).
Once I’d achieved 3 A*s I wanted more. And once I’d achieved 10 nothing less would do. I was on a perfect streak and my standards were ever increasing: my original target of As and Bs was not good enough, a few A*s and a few As was not good enough, and straight A*s overall with a couple of As in the modular exams was a mark of imperfection nagging at the back of my mind. I used my GCSEs to move to a grammar school for sixth form (endless regrets, more on that another time), where my insane perfectionism intensified. Not only did I meet many other people with ten A*s, but with twelve, thirteen, even fifteen, plus an A-grade AS level taken a year early, and it hit me quite quickly that I was way out of my depth (which often wasn’t helped by relentless comments on my subject-choices being dosses).
After achieving the UMS I had aimed for at AS level, in year thirteen I became consumed by the overwhelming fear that I had reached a limit I couldn’t beat, and what made it all so unbearable was that that limit wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t 100%, it wasn’t four A*s, and I couldn’t accept that. As exams approached I produced an EPQ the length of Ulysses and called in sick for weeks to work religiously on my English and Art coursework, to secure whatever fraction of a perfect grade I could to fall back on later.
I awaited results day with an ever-growing sense of doom. I had reached a point where three A*s wouldn’t make me ecstatic, they would simply be enough. I would be able to breathe, I would be freed from months of self-loathing and punishment for not working hard enough, or just not working properly, or doing anything other than working.
When I achieved A*s in English, Art, and my EPQ, and As in Philosophy and Biology I didn’t tell anyone how disappointed I was. I know everyone hates that kid, and what makes everyone hate them more is if they complain that they didn’t do well enough, when they did better than so many other people.
What didn’t help, of course, was that at my sixth form a large number of my friends did do better than me, including my boyfriend who was off to Cambridge to read English, and another close few friends in the same situation. Those who did the best in our year achieved five A*s and many of my friends achieved three, and in ‘proper subjects’, too.
It was this, of course, which led to my now deeply-ingrained mental image associated with ‘results day’. Crying with my head in the toilet, two best friends from my previous school by my side: one holding my hair back and the other telling me: ‘stop comparing yourself to other people’ (in-between chit-chat that this situation was quite funny).
I do realise that my situation is far from normal. First things first students like me do need to stop comparing themselves to other people, the Oxford and Cambridge goers of this world, who under some circumstances can simply not be kept up with. Obviously, my standards were so unrealistically high and I was so surrounded by high-achievers that I completely forgot where I sat in the national average, and did lose sensitivity towards those who were struggling in a much more real sense: those who could not simply numb the pain of an Oxbridge rejection with a Durham acceptance, those who didn’t get into their desired courses or university at all – and for much more serious reasons and inequalities. This is, of course, a scale, and I am aware that my problems fall quite near to the ‘pretty small’ end.
Further still, though, I have realised how damaging this examination system is to students of all abilities. Whether you are aiming for a C and cannot reach it or for 100% UMS and are falling short, for students plagued by perfectionism this game can be a rather disappointing, and, if encouraged, soul-destroying one.
What I came to realise in the weeks counting down to A level results day was that no grade would ever be enough, because I put more in than I could ever possibly get out. Sleepless nights and hibernating in the library, stressing until 4am and denying myself any kind of break ever: reading in bed had to be a textbook, dinner had to be eaten over a Shakespeare play on YouTube, and any rare sleep I managed to get was ridden with nightmares of sheets of paper covered in letters further down the alphabet than grades even go. If you put that much work in, you’re never going to be happy with the results, nothing could make that worth it.
As I say, looking back a year from then it all seems so different. I’ve barely thought about my grades since sending off my UCAS application last October, and I’ve finally realised how much I over-estimated their importance. In hindsight, I think I could’ve got similar results but with far lower levels of stress if I had just calmed down and taken breaks. This kind of work really isn’t a simple positive correlation for hours input and grades output, it’s a bell-curve and you’re so much more efficient if you rest.
I know it’s easy for me to tell people that A level results don’t matter, and not to lose all faith if you’re disappointed today, considering I met the entry requirements of most universities in the UK. I’m sure I would feel differently had I entirely missed an offer and had to go through clearing, that’s a very different, and much more difficult, position. What I have come to realise, though, is that grades definitely are not worth killing yourself over, and that whatever you got, and whatever plan that’s interfered with for you, there is always another way, whether it’s re-sits, foundation courses, or entering the world of work on another scheme. If you find yourself aiming for something that any extent of sacrifice still isn’t giving you, maybe it’s just not meant to be. Don’t compromise your health over forcing it, and don’t beat yourself up over it.
Whatever happened for everyone today, I hope you’re all as happy as you can be with your results, feel proud whatever the outcome was, and that the agony of A-levels paid off! If it didn’t, though, and something didn’t go your way, don’t lose all hope. Once you’ve done as best as you can – whilst keeping good health – and gotten to wherever you can get to, A-level results will be a distant memory, and you’ll be stressing over your job/degree instead 😉