Exams: Not The Answer to Everything

(Originally published in Devon Life magazine.)

A word to all those youngsters receiving their GCSE and A-level results this month, no matter how good or how bad, they are largely irrelevant in the workplace. Don't tell your parents I said so. Of course they are often vitally important for getting into college or university or gaining an apprenticeship but once you've crossed that hurdle I doubt whether you will ever need them again – more of that later.

 I received my A-level results while doing a holiday job as a waitress in a Newton Ferrers hotel. I believe it has closed down now - but I disclaim any responsibility for that, despite my ineptitude as a waitress/chambermaid/kitchen helper/dogsbody. At the risk of sounding like a boring old you-know-what, this was back in the day when you generally took just three A-levels and only the highest of high flyers (of which I was definitely not one) took four. I never knew anyone who took five, not even the stratospheric high flyers who went on to Oxbridge.

I had to phone home to find out my results. As it happened I did rather well and passed all three with reasonable grades. However, my parents were disappointed on my behalf. This was not because they were under the mistaken impression that their beloved youngest daughter was a genius - they knew me too well for that - but because they thought that as I had passed nine O-levels I should have the equivalent number of A-levels under my belt. I soon put them right but I'm not sure they were ever totally convinced, even though I went on to university after a brief flirtation working in a couple of jobs.

 So well done to all of you who did well in your exams, but don’t despair if you haven’t done as well as you hoped. At the risk of sounding like your mother, there is so much more to life and you as a person than passing exams. Don’t take that as an excuse for not trying – studying and striving is good for the brain and it trains you to think logically, build a good memory and speed up your processing abilities. This will slow down the speed at which your brain ages, which might not seem important when you are 16 but, trust me, it will when you are 60. 

I spent many years interviewing young hopefuls for jobs but gave only a cursory glance to their exam results. Much more revealing were their interests, their ambitions, the holiday jobs they had undertaken and why they wanted that particular post. And in more than 40 years in the workplace not once did any employer ask to see proof of my qualifications. Don't take that as an excuse to claim you have a first class honours in nuclear physics when you scraped a third in home economics. Giving false information in a job application is considered fraud. Lying on your CV could cost you the job in the long run.

 I always quite good at exams, partly because I have the type of brain that can retain loads of facts in the short term (but, sadly, forget them as soon as they are regurgitated) and partly because I was never nervous and never really worried. I had worked hard at revising and my parents weren't pushy, merely telling me to "do my best" so I had no fear of parental retribution should my efforts fall short.

 But if your parents grumble or are disappointed, tell them this. Albert Einstein left school at 15 with no diploma and poor grades in history, geography, and languages. At 16, when he first applied to the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, he failed the entrance exam.

 Isaac Newton graduated from Trinity College at Cambridge University without honours or distinction. Thomas Edison claimed he was always at the bottom of the class and genius codebreaker Alan Turing was so bad at school he was almost prevented from even taking any exams.

And young Charles Darwin was such a bad scholar that his father took him out, saying: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat catching. You will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

At least my parents didn't tell me: "You care for nothing but watching Z-Cars on TV, reading trashy novels and playing hockey. We will disown you unless you get nine A-levels," even though that might have been in the back of their minds.

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