Life & Culture

A-level day: tears, fears and cheers

Success or failure, A-level results day can be a day of high emotion. Our writers tell their exam stories.


Disappointed student Hilary Freeman

Even before I opened that small, brown envelope, I knew the news wouldn't be good. Despite being a "straight A" student, I'd cracked up at the last hurdle, had a panic attack in the middle of one of my English A-level papers and completely flunked both my French oral and aural - so badly that my teacher sent me for a hearing test! I still managed an A in History, but my C in English and D in French lost me my place at Birmingham University.

I probably cried, although I can't recall it. What I do remember is feeling indignant that my unsympathetic boss insisted I go to work (I had a summer job as a doctor's receptionist), although I pleaded to be allowed to stay home so I could start the clearing process.

That day, I thought my life was over but it all worked out in the end. I went to Essex University, which I loved, to study Philosophy. And, ironically, I now live with a Frenchman. But the psychological effects remain with me to this day. Every time I'm anxious, I find myself back in that exam hall, hunched over a small wooden desk, staring at a blank piece of paper. The relief, upon waking, that I am not in the middle of my A- levels again, and that I don't have to take an exam ever again, is overwhelming.

The friend
Noa Lessof Gendler

The night before our results came out, my friend and I sat in my living room eating pizza and watching TV. I was nervous and unsettled and, although she didn't show it, I reckon she was, too. We both had offers for Cambridge, and all of a sudden meeting those offers felt like a very big ask. Before she went home that night, she said to me, "No matter what happens tomorrow, we'll always be friends, right?"

The next morning at school, I opened my envelope in a quiet corner and read and reread my results. I'd met my offer, and the relief and excitement were enormous. I was about to run outside to tell my parents when I saw my friend in floods of tears. She threw her arms around me and sobbed. We weren't going to university together after all.

It smothered a lot of my joy that day: worrying about her, feeling awkward that I'd managed it and she hadn't, and a strange sense of guilt, like it wasn't right that we weren't going together. I was still over the moon, but it would have been a much better day if we'd been celebrating together.

The mum

My daughter cried and so did I. So much hard work, scuppered by all sorts of things. A panic attack in a crucial exam. Time wasted by bad advice, so she took the wrong subjects. Dubious marking. It all felt so unfair, but then who ever said A-levels were fair?

Over the next few days, as she got on the phone to universities she didn't want to go to, to ask about courses she didn't want to do, I felt guilty (could I have done more?), angry - with politicians, examiners, teachers - and terribly sad.

I was flooded with awful memories of my own results - one good grade, two bad. All those feelings that I thought I'd dealt with were back, magnified.

But actually, A-levels mean nothing. They are almost entirely irrelevant once one has moved beyond them. I've had a successful career, and never felt held back. And my daughter did a year at the university she didn't want to go to, and used her excellent grades to transfer to the one she wanted. She's shown resilience and self-belief and I could not be prouder.

The unexpected success
Angela Epstein

Having been a distinctly average pupil among my classmates at Manchester High School for Girls, the angst-laden walk down endless corridors to collect my A-level results felt interminable.

But, as I trudged along, I collided with Mrs Moleas, the school careers teacher. "Oh Angela," she remarked, perhaps barely concealing some surprise. "You've done rather well."

I raced to the school office and discovered I'd netted an A in English, A in Ancient History and B in French. An especially prized result since my English teacher had warned how difficult it was to get top grades in her subject.

Two days later, still glowing from my results, I was having a Shabbat afternoon stroll with a friend when we bumped into a handsome Oxford undergraduate she knew from Bnei Akiva.

Slightly dazzled, I could only manage a shy hello. Chat inevitably drifted to A-levels and, as he turned to me with a lazy smile, he asked how I'd fared. Frankly, I was desperate to impress. Unfortunately, my friend's results were poor and, as I didn't want to show her up, I simply mumbled I'd done OK. Clearly intrigued, he asked me out. [I did tell him on the date].

After 25 years of marriage and four kids, we still refer to the anniversary of our first meeting as A-level Shabbat.

Mrs Moleas, that's what you call a result.

The teacher

Results Day is always strange for a teacher. There are so many rituals around leaving school, prize days and proms and then you have this day which is the culmination of everything and it's all a bit haphazard. They turn up, pick up the results and they're gone. Some of them keep in touch, but most don't.

If a student is upset, then you have to be practical; it's not our job to comfort them. I refer them to our careers department for advice on clearing or retakes. You might feel desperately upset about someone's results - and dubious about the quality of some of the marking - but you can't show that. It's not helpful to anyone.

Parents tend to get involved only when something goes wrong. There's a huge sense of entitlement: "Why didn't she get 'her' A-star?" As though the A-star was something that she owned that had been stolen from her. And of course it's the teacher's fault. We often get blamed, but we very rarely get thanked.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive