Aug 17, 2011

Looking Back

Today teenagers all over Ireland get their Leaving Certificate results. For those who don't know, the Leaving Certificate is the final exam students take before leaving school and going on to full-time employment, college, or another form of further education.

It's a damn hard exam. Arguably the hardest you'll ever sit in Ireland. There's a lot of pressure on students to do well and it's not easy to score high. Anyone who scores in the upper percentiles has reason to be proud of themselves.

But it's not the be-all and end-all of your professional or academic career.

It's been 13 years since I first sat the Leaving Certificate. I did badly enough that I had to do an extra year in school and sit the exam a second time, finally getting the marks I needed to get into college. That was the first lesson I learned. Doing badly in the Leaving Certificate is not the end of the world.

Over a decade on, very few people I know are in careers that related to how well they did in the Leaving Cert, or what they studied in college. In fact, looking at the people in my life, I can honestly say I see no correlation between Leaving Cert grades and how well they are currently doing in life. Certainly, those grades opened certain doors and allowed certain paths to be chosen, but many of the same goals can still be attained regardless of performance in the exam. The only thing that changes are the ways to reach those goals.

I don't regret having to re-sit the Leaving Certificate. Nor do I regret my academic choices following it. I think I've done quite well for myself. I'm happily married. I have a house, a stable job that pays well. I have one book coming out next year and another two already in the works to follow it. I have friends who love me. All in all, I have a very good life.

And I did so badly in the Leaving Cert the first time around that the only college course I qualified for was a course that amounted to learning how to use a word processor and send e-mails.

If anyone reading this is facing exam results, or knows someone who is, please remember that the little slip of paper you get does not dictate how your life will go. Only you can decide that. There are always options available, always other ways to chase your dreams. And if you find out that what you've chosen to do with those results isn't right, that the course you chose isn't for you, don't feel pressured into carrying on just because it's what is expected. Those results are just numbers on paper. They don't rule you.

Just get back up and keep chasing.


  1. Very well put Paul. I definitely am not doing a job related to my Leaving cert subjects, or even to the degree I spent 4 years of my life getting, and I think I'm doing just fine!

    The A-Level results in the UK are given to the students tomorrow, so today for is being spent collating and analysing the results. We always have girls who just think it's absolutely the end of the world that they don't get the points they need to get the Uni place they so desperately want. I can sympathise with them - I was them devastated with my results that I immediately asked if I could repeat the year. I then decided to go to college instead and I think that was the right decision, even if I wasn't doing what I had had my heart set on.

    You couldn't pay me to go back and sit the Leaving again, I would fail everything, without a doubt!

  2. Very true words. My results were quite disapointing - everyone had expected me to do so well. I just didn't believe them - I asked to have two subjects remarked..

    I'm still a little bitter about it but I hope some day I'll let it go. If I'd got the results I'd been predicted I never would have come to Ireland, maybe never gone into publishing and not met the people I know and love today.

    When things seem bad my mother always says 'don't worry, it all turns out alright.' And you know what ... it usually does.

  3. Wise, wise words, Paul. How sad that we allow ourselves (and our children) to be measured according to numbers issued by others so early on in life. Sounds as if the Irish school system needs an overhaul as much as the Canadian one does.

  4. I did exactly as I expected to in the Leaving Cert - for person reasons I stopped studying about six weeks beforehand and sort of coasted. . . I was miles off my first choice and comfortably got my second, but that was largely down to the fact I chose to drop to ordinary level Maths rather than fail higher level, which freed up some time for other things.

    Then I did English, English and more English, the least useful subject ever once you leave education, but I've usually managed to find work relatively easily and I don't regret my choices. If I had studied anything else, including either of my two secondary passions in life, I would still just have been jealous of the people studying books all day :)

    It worked out fine. Life is bigger than the education system!

  5. I found great satisfaction from going from what I thought I wanted to do (Mental Health Nurse) to something I never thought I wanted to do (Caretaker at a College). I just fell into it, as my first proper job as a cover cleaner, then a cleaner, then a cover supervisor, then a supervisor, now I just need to work on getting the hours up and learning more. I have options there in the future for fire, first aid, health and safety and more training, at a place I love to work that has great history for me.

    I messed up with my education. I admit that. But like many things, having life take bad or wrong turns leads to... I don't know, finding something wonderous.

    When it's 7am, the birds are singing, and you're cycling up to a 400 year old building that has contained so many past lives, it makes me realise that perhaps when I considered wanting to find other work, it wasn't anxiety about change that kept me from leaving. It was that attachment to a place that has taught my brothers, and taught me twice.

    Through all this, I've found my first, and hopefully my last job. I'll leave when I can't work, the college is gone, or I'm fired. Whichever comes first.

  6. It amazes me how different education is across the world. I'm not exceptionally familiar with Irish education systems, but I have the equivalent of 3 years of further education and, in your terms, has costed over 15,000 EUR. We don't have any sort of leaving certificate, to finish school is judged by your performance and finishing required classes, but to enter further education (college), there are aptitude tests that aid in deciding which universities you can get into.

  7. I never did well on tests, so I totally empathize with you. And I so agree that how you do on exams doesn't reflect at all on how well you will do or not do in life. This is so important for kids to understand. We all an just do the best we can with what's in front of us and know that if we work hard, things will turn out all right.

  8. I wish the US would have something like this. Kids can slide through high school and graduate with little effort.

  9. Rachel: Me too. I'm pretty sure I remember nothing from it.

    Zoe: Yup. Things do usually turn out for the best, in totally unexpected ways.

    Linda: The Irish system is in desperate need of overhaul. It gets better at third level, but the pressure put on students, compared to how much the results actually matter in the end, is completely disproportionate.

    Ellen Brickley: "Life is bigger than the education system!" Yes, this is it right here.

    Ellen DT: That's so awesome. It's a great gift to find a place that makes you so happy.

    B.T. Hoskins: I honestly think something like that might work better here. Each stupid being assessed based on their own aptitudes.

    Karen Walker: I've always done better in an ongoing assessment rather than exams.

    KarenG: It's not as good as it may seem. It fosters an attitude of cramming rather than an ongoing work ethic. The Leaving Cert itself is often criticised for being outdated. Really, the main thing the Leaving Certificate course teaches you to do is answer Leaving Certificate questions.