More Than the Sum of Our Grades: Why academic success only tells part of the story

I thought I should start with an apology, this one is all about me. There is a point to it but you may have to get through a chunk of stuff about me first. If you don’t fancy that there are links to some of my other posts at the bottom that you may fancy more.

Everyone tells you that academic qualifications aren’t everything and they really are not, depending on the path you want to take. In many ways the more qualifications I have the more I question their validity, but I get to do that now from a position of privilege where I no longer really have any skin in that particular game. That said A-level and GCSE results have come out in recent weeks and it got me remembering the day I received mine, more than that it made me think about every time I stood there waiting for a sheet of paper to be put up on a wall or to open an envelope (yes I am that old šŸ˜‰).

If you look at my CV now you’d see a pretty good list of academic achievements but there are things that you don’t see. Past a certain point no one lists their GCSE or A-level grades. You also don’t see the fact that I have never been the smartest person in the room, I’ve never been the top. The reason you don’t see it is because none of that actually matters, it’s about the body of work rather than a single point in time. When you get those results however no one tells you that or even if they did you probably wouldn’t believe them. Those results are your whole future, they feel like your whole world. I wanted to just write something to put out there that shows that no matter what you received it doesn’t have to define either who you are or your future, it’s just one step on the way.

GCSE horror show

Frankly my GCSE years were a bit of a horror show. Not because I didn’t want to study or engage but health wise it was basically a disaster. I caught glandular fever (Epstein Barr virus) and ended up with such bad swollen lymph glands under my arms I couldn’t lower them for days at a time and turned yellow due to the hepatitis. On top of this I slept 23 hours a day and it just didn’t get better. I ended up with post viral fatigue and for my 5th year at school managed an hour a day, on a good day. I was withdrawn from all but the basics (maths, english and double science) and told I should plan for failure.

I sat no mocks and frankly had no idea what day it was let alone feeling on top of anything. School became a terrifying place where I could see everyone else moving on rather than a place where I fit in, as I had loved to study. I never really had a lot of school friends but all but one basically forgot I existed (cheers to Heather who always stood by my side). I missed all the big occasions, no last day of school with signatures for me, no last school disco. I was just left behind and I really started to believe the tale that I was being told that my aspirations were over.

Things got worse when I sat the exams. I managed a weekend of revision pre the written papers, although it really blew me out. I did that awful thing of not really reading the instructions as I was so nervous. My english literature exam was up first and instead of answering 2 of 5 essays, I answered them all. I couldn’t understand why I was furiously writing whilst everyone else looked so calm or had finished with loads of time. It just fed into my panic. With 5 minutes to go I finally finished and went back to the start to see the words 2/5 glaring at me from the front page. I felt like I’d screwed it on day 1.

Come results day I just didn’t even want to go. I was so convinced of my failure and that I had sealed my fate. I had no plans for next steps, I had no college or A-level plans. I picked up my envelope and I suspect other people’s tears were for very different reasons. My 2 A’s (english lit and language) BB (duel science) and C in maths were so far from what I had hoped for at the start but were so unexpected on the day. Everyone stood around me with 11 and 12 passes but my 5 meant that I was still in the running. I still had a chance. I went back home and went to bed for a week, there was no energy for celebrations and dreamt of what next.

A-level winging it

As I said I’d made no plans for A-levels as no one thought they were an option. My mum (who is loyal, devoted, loving and probably a genius) swung into action in a way that I will be forever grateful for and don’t deserve. She got me a last minute place organised to do A-levels at the secondary school less than 5 minutes from my home. My original school were so focused on grades and success that it wasn’t even discussed as an option. So 3 weeks later I’m due to start at mixed sixth form, having only studied in a single sex environment since 11, with no one I knew, having never even visited the school. Nervous was not the word. The school knew about my health issues and to be honest the word university was not being mentioned. So that I could manage health wise I started A-level biology, which happened in normal school hours, and A-level drama that had some evening classes so I could rest during the day. That was it. 2 A-levels. Only 1 of which was considered serious. I set to it.

In what will become a theme for my life I felt so far behind. For my GCSE exams I studied the minimum possible to be able to pass for a weekend, that did not enable me to keep up with my peers during A-level biology classes. I was the idiot who knew nothing, understood nothing. If I had had friends I probably would have understood earlier that most of my class mates felt the same way but I didn’t, the switch from GCSEs to A-levels is hard but I thought it was just me.

Drama on the otherhand was a revelation. For someone who was struggling to find a refreshed version of her identity and new place in the world as the plan she’d had was falling by the wayside, drama was my safe space. You could choose to be loud or quiet. You could often choose to watch or engage. I was in a place where my choices were given life. Not just that but I didn’t feel behind, the texts were new to everyone, it was a very different space. I still didn’t fit, on the first day they thought I was their teacher not a student, but being able to academically engage in a place I didn’t feel like a failure was something that gave me hope, it kept me going. It’s partly why I’m still so passionate about the use of STEAM now. When I had no other way of being me it helped me find myself.

By the end of my 1st year of A-levels I was beginning to feel a bit more like me, a bit more able to think about the future. I still wasn’t physically right but my mind was a bit more back on track and I wanted to be able to plan again. I knew that if I wanted to even apply for uni that I would need 3 A-levels plus general studies and I only had 2. Let’s put to one side that I had no idea what I would apply to study I just knew that 3 A-levels was the first step. As I’ve said the school where I was doing my A-levels did evening classes that were open to everyone. I can’t even remember how it happened but I found an amazing psychology teacher who I spent some time talking to and who said she would help me. We came up with a plan. There was no way I could cover 2 years of psychology in 1 but I didn’t need to. The course was split into core and optional modules. If I took some of the evening classes and some of the day classes across years I could still cover all the core components. I then just had to cover 1 optional and make sure that I knew it super well as I’d have no essay options – I’d have to be able to answer the one that came up. I also registered on general studies knowing I would just have to turn up to the exam and hope as I wouldn’t be able to physically manage any more classes.

I also knew that despite ‘the plan’ I wasn’t going to be well enough to manage full time uni the next year and so I would give it everything I had and then defer my place for a year.

I basically spent that year working and sleeping. I didn’t have much left in the tank for anything else, but I had a plan. I also had an amazing cheer leader in my mum who repeatedly let me know that her love was unconditional and that she had my back, but I could also stop at any point if I wanted to. The choice was my mine. That word choice is so important when you feel like your options are taken from you. I chose to go for it. At the end of that year I got my envelop. The uni’s I’d applied to required ABB or 3 BBB with the A or B in biology. I got 2 As a B and a C. The C was in biology. The A’s were in psychology and drama. I didn’t get in. I can sit here and say that the fact that I managed to get passing grades was amazing, that to come from nothing to a C in biology was such an achievement, but none of that is true. I felt crushed. I felt that the people who told me I couldn’t make it were right and what was I thinking. Then someone stuck me a room and handed me a phone and told me to call clearing. I had no idea what clearing was or what I even want to study, but somehow an hour later I’m going to a city I’ve never even visited (Liverpool) to study a course (general science) which I didn’t even know anything about – apart from the fact that it would enable me to choose my science speciality later on which at that moment felt sooooooooo important.

Everyone moved past me once again as I deferred for a year and focussed on getting well. I also took a part time job, not only to help me earn some money for uni (we weren’t rich and I’d need it) but also so I could see how I managed to see if I was OK to go.

University catch up

I turned up for my first week at uni and if A-levels had been a shock they were nothing on this. EVERYONE and I mean EVERYONE seemed to be more prepared, understood more and frankly knew more than I did. I had been so relieved to just arrive I hadn’t planned for what would happen next. As it turned out 3 main things occurred:

  • One – I learnt the importance of finding my tribe
  • Two – I learnt to hide my fear and insecurities
  • Three – I found ways around things so that I could hide my knowledge gaps

Now, some of these I’ve written about separately on this blog, like finding your tribe, and as a life lesson it has stood me in so much good. I found a small group of people who I could learn with, who didn’t make me feel foolish and behind, even if I didn’t ever really share with them how I felt. One person in particular, Diane, became my study buddy and we would have late night chinese, work out pass margin requirements and all in all keep each other going. She was a bridesmaid at my wedding and I was maid of honour at hers, if it wasn’t for Diane I wouldn’t have made it through. She’s northern, straight forward and stopped me listening to the voices of doubt and fear that troubled me in the middle of the night.

As for the other two things I learnt they have their pros and cons. I’ve reached a point in my life now where I’m pretty open about my fears and insecurities, I write this blog after all. The thing is fear festers because we don’t talk about it and one of my motivations in writing this blog is so that others don’t feel alone in their self doubt and their challenges. I can do that now though as someone who has worked through a lot of them and who has (thankfully) gotten to a place in her life where I’m less bothered by what people think of me than I am in trying to help others find their way. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was a 19 year old who was still struggling to feel like she belonged. This is an after uni story, but I still remember my first week as a trainee Clinical Scientist and having people stare at me as I tried to pipette into an agarose gel, and having people comment on whether I was back pipetting and how interesting my style was. I had no style. No one had ever taught me how to pipette, I had never run a molecular test, I was a Zoologist who ended up in microbiology after all. I therefore had to learn, especially in the competitive environment I was in at uni, where the bottom 50% got booted every year, and as a trainee to cover and not let my lack of skills be seen for fear of what that might mean for me.

I spent my entire time at uni volunteering to do the drawing or take other roles because no one had ever shown me how to focus a microscope and I was terrified that I would be found out. This haunted me enough that when I sat FRCPath I actually had close friends run trials for me on different types because even the memory of it gives me panic attacks to this day. No one ever showed me how to do dissection and so again for my first 2 years at uni I covered and did the best I could. It was assumed that everyone had gone to schools that had access to equipment, that had run these types of classes and then to add onto to that my lack of experience due to illness, it all just meant I felt at sea. In my third year I faced an eight hour dissection exam and I knew it was going to be a disaster. After three years of uni though I had finally found a lecturer I trusted and a couple of friends who I felt would stand by me, and so we approached as a collective and asked to be allowed to have specimens and practice on weekends. Me and my dogfish George got an A in that exam and I cried in a way that is only rivalled by passing FRCPath. It took me three years to have enough trust in other people and myself to ask for help, not because I was afraid to do the work, but because I was afraid of what it would mean if they rejected my request.

So what does all of this mean and why have I written it. Firstly, I’ve written it because I want anyone out there to know that if things didn’t go well for you there are still pathways ahead. We may not take the most straight forward path but we end up in similar places and sometimes the learning that will give us will be invaluable for the rest of our lives.

Secondly, I want those of us who are now acting as educators, leaders and supervisors to bear in mind that not everyone is joining you at the same point. There will be smart people out there who are turning up at day one who will not necessarily have had access to the resources or opportunities you think they have. Making assumptions that everyone is started from the same place sometimes puts people back even further. This is especially pertinent as we have trainees about to start with us. Taking the time to have a non judgement based conversation about prior experience can make all the difference to those who feel lost in our world where we take so much for granted.

Believe it or not there are so many things I’ve learnt about myself that I see the way I got here as a strength and not a weakness. I’ve never been the one at the head of the class, and the route that I’ve taken, although circuitous, now pays real dividends as I understand so much more than if I’d taken the direct route. It’s also taught me valuable lessons about myself, what I value and what I can achieve if I can get over my fears of how people see me. I’m used to hearing no, I’m used to hearing that’s not how it’s done and that it won’t work for someone like me. All of those things felt horrible but now I’m so thankful. Those no’s have taught me to be strong and to break down barriers. Those no’s have in the end enabled me to truly be the person I wanted to become.

Finally, and I can’t say this enough, find the person who sees your value even when you can’t. Find the people like my mum, my husband, like Heather and Diane. Find them and even when you haven’t got the strength to articulate what you are truly afraid of they will still be the people who stand by your side and guide you. Find your tribe and you will never truly be alone again.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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