If you didn’t get the exam results you hoped for, it’s not the end of the world

keep calm cropAFTER weeks of anxious waiting, the exam results are in. If you’re one of those who received them on Tuesday, I expect the last thing you’re after is advice from someone who left school last century and still doesn’t really understand what a National 5 is. But here it is anyway…

The main thing: don’t lose sight of the fact that you have much more to offer than a single page of grades. It might sound cheesy, but it’s true.

This probably feels like it’s the defining moment of your life to date, the culmination of everything you’ve worked for since you first picked up a pencil, but there will come a time – and it might not be too far in the future – when these results won’t even merit a mention on your CV. That’s a hard concept to compute when everyone from parents and grandparents to teachers and politicians has drummed into you the paramount importance of doing well in these exams. Of course it was intended to be motivational when your mum told you not to “throw your future away” by watching panda videos on YouTube ’til one in the morning, or when your maths teacher convinced you that failure at trigonometry equalled failure at life. They just wanted you to do your best. But actually, if you didn’t make the grade it isn’t the end of the world.

The results may, of course, dictate your immediate next step, but don’t be too quick to assume a college or university place has slipped through your fingers forever

The results may, of course, dictate your immediate next step, but don’t be too quick to assume a college or university place has slipped through your fingers forever. This wasn’t your one and only chance – you’ve likely got at least five decades more of life in which to prove yourself and, more importantly, find out what it is you really want to do. Channel 4 anchorman Jon Snow didn’t let the trifling matter of a C, D and E at A level (over two sittings) hold him back from studying law. “Toil in hope and you will get there” is his advice for those in a similar boat.

You might have had your heart set on a particular university or a particular course, but in reality you’ll never know if this truly was your dream campus or your academic calling. It sounds trite to say that what’s for you won’t go by you, but adult life provides constant reminders that no amount of planning can guarantee that you’ll land a particular job, or be able to buy a particular home, or secure a pair of tickets for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. At any given time you might be up against someone who’s already providing first-rate cover for that role, or is willing to bid way over the odds for that matchbox studio flat, or has done an internship at the Ministry of Magic.

At eighteen, I had no clear idea what I wanted to do with my life. A place at university seemed like the be all and end all and the only logical option

Bear in mind that eight per cent of Scottish students drop out before the end of the first term, and that shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a negative thing. At eighteen, I had no clear idea what I wanted to do with my life. A place at university seemed like the be all and end all and the only logical option – until I actually got there and realised it wasn’t for me. I didn’t return to higher education for more than a decade, and if my experience of admissions officers taught me anything it’s that you should never take no for an answer, or at least not until you’ve called half a dozen different people and exhausted all possible entry routes. Other friends have started out part-time, switched universities or subjects (or both), taken access courses, or gained qualifications on the job – a job they knew they wanted to do because they’d had a chance to gain experience in the field, rather than just taking a gamble upon leaving school.

Yes, you’ll find a high proportion of job specifications ask for a degree “or equivalent”, even if the duties sound like stuff you could do while standing on your head, texting a friend and juggling office supplies with your feet. Many employers are lazy, and looking for ways to avoid having to wade through a mountain of applications. But once you’ve got a foot in the door there’s a good chance your credentials won’t matter. Your colleagues will instead notice your enthusiasm, your ability to pick up new skills (and teach them effectively to others), and frankly whether you’re the kind of workmate they enjoy shooting the breeze with. Yes, you may end up hitting a glass ceiling – qualifications are of course essential for many roles – but when you do there will be lifelong learning opportunities open to you.

The headlines about economic gloom, Brexit consequences and zero-hours tyranny are enough to leave anyone anxious about their future employability, but there is no single route to success. What felt like a disaster on Tuesday could be downgraded to a minor setback by Friday, and in 10 years’ time it might even look like a blessing in disguise.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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