This week saw thousands of Irish students sit their final school exams. The ‘Leaving Certificate’, more commonly referred to as ‘The Leaving’.
I still have nightmares about my Leaving and I’m sure I’m not the only one!
This weeks coverage of the start of exam season in the Irish press brought it all flooding back to me in vivid detail: sweaty palm, thumping heartbeat and all.
After a ferocious amount of studying, worrying, being roared at my anxious teachers and moaned at by anxious students, after nights of no sleep and visions of never, ever getting a job, I wasn’t really in the best frame of mind to sit a series of incredibly difficult exams.
I sat exams for ten subjects (yes, ten – we don’t narrow down like the UK ‘A Levels’ – it’s closer to a European baccalaureate) in pretty quick succession and then had to wait an eternity for my results. To understand if I’d get into University or not.
The points system used in Ireland means that exam grades come with points, higher or lower depending on whether you’ve studied to the subject at an advanced or basic level. The Universities, for their part, tell you how many points you’ll need to get into specific fields of study.
All of this translates into a points race where a focus on the exam results combinations is all that occupies many final year students’ minds for months and months.
In my day (and this was some time ago, admittedly), the high points outliers were things like Medicine, Veterinary Science and few courses where places were extremely low and the course content specialised. There was an unofficial ranking among students as to where you could/should go to University (isn’t there always?), but my first choice was for Psychology at Trinity College Dublin. That required 510 points that year. Pretty high, considering medicine was about 550.
My second choice was a liberal arts degree at UCD and I’ve no idea what I put below that on the form. I know it didn’t include any Universities outside of Dublin, reflecting perhaps my view of the world as an 18 year old!
Come results day, I was devastated. My slip of paper from the Department of Education (with their soul destroy insistence of printing everything in Irish then English – not great when you’re stressed out of your mind and can barely ready in one language) sowed that I’d secured 490 points.
Just twenty points short of my target.
I remember exactly how I felt. How all the studying was for nothing, how I might as well have cruised through and aimed for something much lower and how I wished I’d not bothered to push myself for such a tough goal.
It was tough going home that evening, but my mum was so supportive and, together we began to figure out what I could study at UCD and what I might be able to do in the future with an Arts degree. Remember, this was pre-internet at home, so it was mostly supportive talk and generalities – but it was what I wanted to hear.
Fast forward a few months and I’m on the UCD campus at Belfield, signing up for a BA in Psychology, Sociology and Linguistics. There was a kind of ‘Hunger Games’ arrangement after first year, where only a very select few would get into a second year of Psychology and specialise in that stream. Despite this inevitable pressure and another disappointment, I’m enjoying my first week there, seeing lots of people I already know and meeting new friends. I’m resigned to three years of study at UCD and almost forgetting completely about Trinity and my former dreams.
I come home one evening to find a letter from the Dept. of Education. AKA the bastards. The day I’d received my results, the principal of my school was very supportive (as ever) and encouraged me to appeal the scoring of my Geography result. I was a whizz at Geography (no, really) and got a C2, which we both thought was low. Especially as I’d breezed through the exam. I agreed, expecting nothing.
Months later, the letter updates me with an upgraded geography score. From a C2 to an A2 (the second highest mark available) due to ‘clerical error’ and the required points to go to Trinity. Within 24 hours, I’d discovered that Trinity had to take me even if there were no more places, that I could start my Psychology course the following week and that the Dept. of Education is as fallible as any human who has to read an 18 year old’s exam scribbles.
The joy was incredible. I’ll never forget the feeling.
Just a few days later, I proudly marched through Front Gate at Trinity, instantly changing my view of studying, effort and goals, after which I got horribly lost looking for the Psychology Department. Leaving Cert points rarely translate into common sense, as I was to find out with alarming regularity during my University years. That was the start of four amazing years, which set me on my career path and a job I love.
I often wonder what would have happened if I’d given up, rejected the offer to have my paper re-marked and just stayed at UCD. Especially at this time of year, when Irish students’ fear seems to waft across the sea like pollen and set me off.
I hope they’re all doing as well as they can, ignoring the advice from pundits on TV and radio and just keeping their eyes on the prize.
Whatever their prize is.