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'A-level results don't matter. It's how you handle them that counts (if only I'd known that at 18)'

Category: Blogger's Corner, Career Experts, equality, A Levels

A-Level result don't matter. How you handle them that counts

Today, British teens get their A-level results - with a dip in grades predicted. Here, author Elizabeth Kesses - whose C in Latin haunted her for years - explains how, as people, we're evaluated on so much more than the outcome of a written test.

I remember getting my A-level results as if it was yesterday. I had been an overachiever throughout school, pushing myself harder and harder to do well. It earned me the labels, ‘geek’ and ‘swot’ - but I consoled myself with straight As at GCSE and the promise of a coveted place at Oxford University to read Modern Languages. The final cherry on the cake would be 3 As at A-Level and job done.

A-Level results day dawned. But when I opened the envelope and saw the C, for Latin, I was crushed. I had always defined myself by my academic achievement. In my mind, I wasn't pretty, or sporty, or popular, or rich - or even funny. But I could rely on being clever at least. My parents could see my obvious distress and arranged to have my Latin paper remarked, but to no avail – the C was there to stay. Despite my other two A Grades, all I could focus on was that unexpected C. In my mind, that mark showed I was not as clever as I or my teachers had predicted.

Of course, as will be the case for every student awaiting their A-level results tomorrow, I lacked perspective. I couldn’t see that exam success is not all defining. Resilience and how you handle life’s knockbacks is far more important. That C was a warning sign. It should have stood for confidence - a subject I was yet to master in myself.

When I was at school, self-esteem was a concept espoused in self-help books for new age parents. If you were bullied, you just got on with it. If you felt low, a game of hockey, or a slice of toast and jam, would sort you out.

Thankfully, today there is more awareness. I found reports in recent weeks of a girl’s school having launched a ‘Death of Little Miss Perfect’ initiative to combat unrealistic perfectionism in their pupils, very encouraging. The scheme encourages pupils to celebrate achievements outside, as well as within, the academic realm. The school encourages pupils to be kind to themselves and have a realistic approach when dealing with life’s challenges. This is a fantastic counterpoint to all the pressure heaped on at exam time - and today’s highly pressurised students need it more than ever.

I certainly did not deal with my own exam disappointment as I should have. I may have been a brilliant student (I still went to Oxford, based on my entrance exam and interview) - but I didn't believe in myself any more. After I left education, I went on to make life choices that reinforced my need to be 'smart' - a power job in advertising, a power marriage with my business associate. I became the archetypal workaholic, who slept with my Blackberry by my pillow. I put myself under intense pressure and derived little pleasure from day-to-day life. In effect, I continued putting myself under that same exam-type pressure to perform. I wanted to have an A grade life.

But then, five years ago, that life imploded. I got divorced, was fired and my father became terminally ill. I was always creative and, as a little girl, expressed myself through writing stories. But a lack of self-belief led me down a more pragmatic career route. It was only when my world was falling apart that the need to create erupted and I began writing for the first time in years. I finally conquered my fear of failure and followed a path I had never dared to before - but only because the worst had already happened. Perfect was already gone.

What I now understand is that failure and disappointment are a natural part of life. Successful people fail as often as anyone. I was free to achieve so much more when I stopped fearing failure and put disappointment in its place. I wish I had been able to focus on the achievement of two A-grades, rather than on the disappointment of one C on results day. I wish I could tell my younger self that exam results do not define us. They simply reflect our performance on one single day - not the full extent of effort put in, or knowledge acquired along the way. It is these qualities that will enable us to get on in life. It is also important to remember that in the real world, we are evaluated in the round and not just in areas that can be marked on a written test.

For my part, I have finally found a vocation where I feel fulfilled and, not surprisingly, my first novels were all about low self-esteem. The Ugly Little Girl tells the story of a girl who is her own worst critic, she is picked on by her classmates and only at night does she begin a journey of self-discovery at a magical night school called Oddbods – a school for self-esteem. In the fictional world, I felt the need to create the 'perfect' school - one that nurtures true talents and fosters personal happiness. When exam time rolls around, I start to feel that Oddbods might not be too far off the mark. Our schools do need to look at the scope of the curriculum; reducing the emphasis on exam results as the be all and end all, and encompassing a broader life view, which considers the fully rounded individual.

I think this is especially relevant for young women. The elephant in the room when we talk about another stellar year for girls outperforming boys in A-Levels and GCSEs, is that all that female potential is not translated to the workplace. The latest ONS figures show full-time female workers earn 15.7 per cent less than men overall - and that gap is actually growing. And we all know how under-represented women are on FTSE 100 boards and in senior roles in Government.

Greater focus on building confidence and resilience as part of everyone’s core education is key to improving the prospects of the next generation of women and men. Whether your ambition is to be a dancer, writer, teacher, freedom-fighter, lawyer, lifecoach or entrepreneur, healthy self-esteem is a massive enabler. I spent 15 years of my life in the wrong job and it was a revelation to discover a career path that made me happy and invigorated.

Today, I have the confidence to follow my calling, not to be defined by other’s perception of status, power and wealth. And I have learnt not to be defined by the grade on a piece of paper.


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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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