This will be one of the many posts of the A-Level season. And while it is true that students are more than their grades (though universities, scholarship boards and companies, notwithstanding recent changes, have assessment or recruitment criteria which say otherwise), that results or grades do not determine a student’s future (though in the same future, at the workplace or in a university classroom, results – of a different form – will continue to matter), and that those who had poor results as a student have gone on to achieve great things (though, on average, it is a reasonable hypothesis that students with higher education or good grades tend to do better), I write as a to-be university graduate who has had my fair share of failures and disappointments, but who hates failures. Learning how to move on from these disappointments remains a work-in-progress too.
Frustration over poor examination performance stems from the lack of information. Because beyond those arbitrary letter grades on the results slip – unlike in the school, where papers can be checked – nobody knows why a test-taker did badly. Was it that essay question? Poor handwriting? A test marker in a foul mood, on a bad day? But this lack of information, to me, seems like an appropriate segue to the next phase of life, which will be no less competitive. A rejection letter for undergraduate or graduate studies? No further explanation. An email from a company which says it has better candidates, even though you thought your interview went well? No further explanation? A client decides to award a contract to another company? No further explanation.
At some point with these results, and beyond the context of the A-Level, the words of encouragement and the time to wallow in self-pity do no more good – as I can attest to – and it becomes more constructive to take that few steps forward. The following five steps I have used, and have been using, and in this vein I hope they would be useful to more (and if you are a student figuring out what you might want to do in the future, and would like to just talk to someone, just drop me a note!):
1. What do you want to do “next”? Not necessarily the “future”.
We often speak of ambitions and aspirations for the future, yet few have a long-term roadmap leading to that “future”, assuming that we know what this “future” means for us, in the first place. Thinking about what to do next within a shorter time horizon – in the next few months and in the next year of two – has been more realistic for me. And in this process of crafting a to-do list, according to my work experience, academic performance, and community service, my strengths and interests are the starting points. The scope is therefore narrowed, for me to match these characteristics with the opportunities which may be out there.
In this first step of knowing yourself, gathering information, and mapping pathways, it may be useful to speak to others: career counsellors, teachers, or mentors. The bottomline is to give yourself immediate goals and directions, that you can work towards.
2. Seek advice. But only in bundles.
Many of us – including the career counsellors, teachers, and mentors I just referred to – can dispense useful advice, yet sometimes we forget that our perspectives can potentially create blind spots, especially if we speak exclusively from our own experiences, or from the experiences of those we know. For students thinking about their next steps, seek advice in bundles. Once you think a university specialisation or a professional is up your alley, seek out as many people as possible. As a start, I go back to my teachers and professors, who have been happy to link me up with other people they know. Open houses, forums, and networking sessions allow for initial interactions and for conversations to be started. And with the openness of the Internet, be adventurous!
Through websites, emails, and even LinkedIn, seek people out respectfully, then learn from their expertise.
3. Options are not actually options, unless they are confirmed.
We may want to do a lot of things – to study in this university, to work in that office, to be the boss of our own company – but unless these aspirations are acted upon and confirmed, they are not actually options. What makes more sense than the mere listing of what you want to do or where you want to be, is to identify the school or the company or the industry you think is right for you, before narrowing the field. You want to get a degree in this specialisation? List the schools which offer the degree, submit applications to a reasonable number of schools in the field, then choose between the offers. Only when you get the admissions offer (and the exact same process applies to job hunts as well, in which job applicants can only choose between openings if they actually have the offer), do you have the liberty to choose from different “options”.
Whatever the phase of life, action remains the common denominator. Rest on your laurels or be complacent, and you are out.
4. Get your hands dirty.
The first three steps should get your somewhere – be it a university placement or an internship or job – and even with the best attempts to seek as much advice as possible, nothing beats the first-hand experience in the trenches. In the business school a career in global banking seemed like an obvious decision, but I realised I was a poor fit in a bank. My summers since 2012 have been reserved for internships, and besides a bank I was with a tuition company, a tech startup, and a non-profit organisation. Each stint developed me professionally, and helped me ascertain whether I was suitable for a company or an industry. And I suspect this will continue to be the norm in the future, given changing work environments with ever-changing expectations.
5. Reflect, then revise your plans. Constantly.
As such, do not be afraid to revise your plans as you go along. What is important right now – right after you have received your results – is to give yourself a starting point and a blueprint that you can work from, yet as you go along give yourself mental checkpoints to reflect on your own progress. Have I achieved what I set out to do, some time ago? Am I prepared to plan for a longer time horizon? And should I seek out more advice, or try something new soon? Going through steps one to four is not a one-off process; instead, the process should be an iterative one. The A-Level tribulation is just one of many obstacles that we strive to overcome, and in fact it should serve as a timely springboard to take more constructive steps for the future.