An Open Letter To A Level Students

Dear Students,

Hi. Most of you don’t know me. I taught for 9 years before leaving the profession. This September I will start my postgrad at The University of Sheffield. Waking up this morning, I had a small pang of sadness. For the last 6 years, this has been one of the most important days of my life. A Level results day for a lot of my students felt like a referendum on their 7 years of secondary school. Get the right combination of letters and they were a success – winners in the game of life. The wrong letters and their world came crashing down. They felt like failures and disappointments. Many well-meaning adults would say things like “your A Levels don’t matter in the grand scheme of things” and “Everything happens for a reason”. Those bits of advice are misguided. I’ll give you some observations that I hope you find helpful.

It’s ok to be upset if the results weren’t what you wanted

For a lot of students, results day is the end of a chapter of their lives. No longer at school where they have been for up to 7 years, or college for at least 2, these results represent a closure of sorts. It’s why there can be tears from those who are offered a place at their first choice university even when they haven’t got their target grades. When you put 2 years of effort into something and set a target that is then missed, it’s natural to be upset. There is a sense of letting others down (which isn’t true) and being judged by your peers (which is horrible in the rare cases it does happen). But the truth is…

University (or post-school life) is a fresh start

You go from being 1 in a 1000 to 1 in 10000+. Whether you were delighted or distraught at your results, they are in the past. As many inspirational posters say: yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery, but today is a gift. In the UK, average life expectancy is up to 80.1 years old. That means your years studying in Sixth Form make up 1/40th of your total life.

Missing your first choice is not a death sentence

For a number of reasons. Firstly, whilst stressful, you have back-up choices and, failing that, clearing. Secondly, if you have a dream to study at a particular university, not getting the grades doesn’t mean no, but not yet. Work hard at uni, get a good bachelor’s degree and you can apply to your dream university for a postgrad. There’s more than 1 route to your goal. Thirdly, it’s amazing what university can do for perspective. Think of it this way. Try and remember the person you fancied in Year 7. They were the apple of your eye and could do no wrong. Their singing voice was angelic, their mere presence enough to cause you to have flutters in your stomach before you were old enough to recognise what those flutters meant. Think of that same person now. Do you have the same strength of feeling for them? It’s the same with your A Levels: they are an important part of your life, but as time goes on, their importance will diminish.

If all else fails, remember the wisdom of Graeme Souness

I don’t normally turn to football managers turned pundits for my life advice, but credit where it’s due: Souness came up with an absolute gem. I told more than one student this:

If you try your best, and your best isn’t good enough, accept it.

I can count on my fingers the number of times I have given my absolute best. In those situations, winning or losing hasn’t meant as much to me as the sense that there was nothing more I could do. Effort is a skill: I played a high level of sport, not because I was more talented than others (I really wasn’t), but because I was determined and would give everything I had. Steve Nash is one of the 50 greatest basketball players of all time and said “if everyone worked as hard as me, I would never have made it.” But they didn’t. So he did. If you gave your all and the results weren’t you wanted, congratulate yourself on how hard you worked, dust yourself off and prepare to give that level of effort again, and again, and again. You will find yourself succeeding more often than not.

Remember – don’t resit (unless you have to)

There are certain subjects that require a minimum level of achievement (medicine springs to mind). If you aren’t planning on studying that, I would advise against resitting. Turn the page, remember whatever the feeling you have in this moment, and use it to fuel your future successes. If you want to be a doctor and your grades are bad, there are other routes in besides resitting. Consider doing a science based degree and then applying for medicine once you have got an undergrad, or look into access courses. Resits should be a last resort.

Lastly, there is only one battle that is worth fighting

And that won’t change throughout your life. If you can look in a mirror and be at peace with the person you see staring back at you, nothing else matters. It has taken me 9 years to get around to doing the postgrad I always wanted to. It’s not the journey I expected to take, but I’m glad I took it. Good luck in whatever you do next.


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