How we think exam results determine our future

For our #SharetheLove campaign this exam results day, 19-year-old, Alex from Glasgow, talks about the pressure of those capital letters.

It’s funny to think that it has been two whole years since I received my last lot of SQA exam results.

Two years since the month of August began in anticipation of the quickly approaching results date; two years since I spent an evening (that turned into the early hours of the morning) overwhelmed with nausea and anxiety; two years since I sat awaiting the text, email and of course, official SQA letter through the post that would put the last full year of school work and effort down to a capitalised letter of the alphabet.

A letter, which to me, was not just a marker of intelligence, work ethic or even talent in a subject; but how I saw my future, my likelihood of success. It was a marker of my self-worth; of how I viewed myself as a person – which, let me tell you, isn’t how it should be.

I have to admit that I come to write this from a place of privilege, in regards to the Scottish school system. I was one of the lucky ones that the system worked well for – I was able to mould and adapt in order to learn as much as I could, and get the grades I so badly wanted.

But the truth is, I don’t really believe my grades in school are really a marker of my brain-power or how ‘smart’ I am. I’m just lucky that I was suited to the system. I was conscientious, driven and motivated, a bit of a sack to be honest. I wanted to achieve, and wouldn’t settle for anything below what I expected of myself; what I knew I could achieve if I put the work in. I learnt how to write or explain or justify in order to meet the marking criteria, stored facts and figures to regurgitate for the exam – I learnt how to tick boxes. The school systems are the same across most of the world – we are taught for an exam, not for life.

‘Be all and end all’

But saying that – I don’t want anyone reading this to think that me trying to express how exams aren’t the ‘be all and end all’ gives them an excuse to not work hard in school, to not take exams seriously, to not try.

We are so, so incredibly lucky to have access to education that yes, might not prepare us as well for worldly experience as we would like, but in the world of education it DOES prepare us – if not simply acting as a stepping stone to university or to a job in the workplace.

Think about it kind of like this: picture two people travelling in Europe, one with an EU passport (cue the Brexit tears) compared to someone travelling with another. The person without the EU passport in Europe will have to queue in a different (and quite often longer) queue in passport control, they might have a few extra things to go through to be let into a country. Excuse my terrible (and slightly heartbreaking) metaphor, but you get the idea. It’s not impossible to get by without an education, but having one makes life a whole lot easier. I will forever be grateful for the Scottish education system (especially the free uni!) and the way my exam results have opened doors and opportunities in life. But over the years I have learnt some important lessons about the true meaning of those capital letters, and most notably, what they mean to me.

There was a time when I would tell myself ‘I’ll be happy with whatever I get, because I know I’ve tried by absolute hardest and couldn’t have done any more’, when, in reality, engrained deep in my mind was the thought that the letters on the piece of paper were going to map out my entire future. Deep down, I truly believed it was going to 100% determine whether I was going to be successful in life – it was the difference between being able to have an exciting job and a house and being able to support myself and a future family, or having to clean toilets as my life-long career. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s your calling – but picture me as a gal dreaming of being a doctor/actress/having a PhD/famous author/artist/saving the world.)

I had such a black-and-white mentality to school, to exams, to life; that caused me, to most of the time, live in a constant state of anxiety about what I needed to achieve to get there, the constant feeling of not being ‘good enough.’

And I was one of the lucky ones, who with the naked eye appeared to sail through school, effortlessly swiping up the A’s as I went – when the reality was far, far from that. So what happens if the school system isn’t suited to you; if you don’t perform well under pressure, if you excel in the practical form but less in the traditional written exam? What happens if the way you’re expected to learn is simply a way you find impossible? What if you struggle to engage in any topics in school, if your interests lie elsewhere?

Exams can be a great way for people to showcase their performance in school, whether it be for uni or job prospects or for them to frame and hang on their wall (fun fact: I met a boy at uni who had his hanging up in his bedroom in halls.) For me, my grades are undoubtedly a marker of my hard-working nature, of the hours and hours and hours I spent studying; doing every past paper since 1998, the countless flashcards, quizzes and posters I made. But it reminds me too of how I lacked balance, how I never felt quite satisfied with my results, how I never truly felt proud of myself.

There is this idea in society – one that the younger me didn’t just imagine – that if you don’t do well in your exams, you won’t succeed in life.

I understand where this idea comes from, and why it continues to be created and supported: exam grades DO undeniably act as a useful tool to get into further education/the workplace which does tend to equate to further job opportunities and career success. It makes sense that all schools want their pupils to be ‘successful’ in the eyes of society – whether it be genuine or to reach school figures and targets.

But what some don’t realise is how damaging this idea can be; the idea that success can only be generated by letters on a piece of paper. It has led many people, including me, to abandon passions and dreams in pursuit of ‘success’ – when in reality, success can be defined in so many different ways.

So, if you’re waiting on exam results tomorrow and what you receive is maybe not what you wanted, or in line with what you feel family/school/others/society expect of you, or is ‘lower’ than your friends get, please remember these two messages.

Your grades do not define your future
Contrary to the misleading title of this post, your grades don’t define your future. Yes, they are an amazing tool that can help pave the way to further education or job opportunities – but there is ALWAYS an alternative path. It might take a little longer, it might be slightly more complicated – but if you really want to get somewhere, there is always a way. Whether that be a college course, re-sitting Highers, a university access course, doing a different undergrad first, doing an internship or finding job opportunities to lead to that field of work, there will be something. All you need to do is keep an open mind, be proactive and take advantage of resources/the internet/teachers/family/friends that can help. But most importantly…

Your grades do not define you
Failing a subject doesn’t mean you’re not intelligent, and frankly – acing it doesn’t necessarily prove that you’re the next Einstein, either. Getting ‘average’ results doesn’t mean you yourself are ‘average’, and you shouldn’t ever put yourself down – especially in regard to a letter or percentage. I know how hard it can be to compare yourself to others, especially if you have peers achieving in that way – but be mindful of who YOU are, and where your talents lie – in academia or out-with the education system. Remind yourself that all that matters is that you tried your hardest. Results don’t always mirror the work or effort you’ve put in.

And on the bright side, if you achieve what you were hoping for – be proud of yourself!! Celebrate, treat yourself, call up your friends and family and let them know. If you feel the calling, even hang that piece of paper on your bedroom wall!! Be proud that all the hard work and talent you have has manifested into something that can be used – if you want to – to continue to learn, continue to grow and support yourself with whatever you desire to pursue in the future. Don’t get caught up on the few marks you knocked, on the missed percentages – from my own experience, it’s not worth it.

Perfection doesn’t exist – and don’t let your mind define perfection by the thought of attaining 100% – although that is an AMAZING achievement, it should not be an interpretation of what an unrealistic ideal means.

Remember that only YOU can define what your success is – and whether exam results come into play at all. Maybe your success this year was still managing to keep up with school when you had other circumstances going on, or completing all of the coursework, doing well in a class project or simply being entered into the exam. I’ve learnt so much since sitting my SQA exams, and I now define success in two different ways. Short-term, to me means achieving the goals I set for myself, no matter how big or small they are. But in the long-term, I believe that success can only be defined by one thing, and one feeling: that the action you take results in the feeling of happiness.

Alex is also known as The Hippy Chickpea on social media, where she blogs about her interests in a plant-based health, nutrition and mental health. Check out her channels at @hippychickpea and thehippychickpea.com.