5 things about exams that matter more than results

Today is exam results day in Scotland. Lots of young people will be getting examination results that will make a significant difference to further study.

Such public exam results carry with them a lot of stress.

I’ve sat lots of exams in my life and I think it would be fair to say that I’ve had mixed results. Some have been hugely disappointing and others have been exactly what I hoped for.

My most difficult exam results were my A levels which I got when I was 17.  Oh yes, I got a bunch of science A levels but they were not the grades I was hoping for and they meant that I couldn’t get into the university course that my heart was set on. I had to go somewhere else to get a Maths and Computing degree. At the time it seemed like the end of the world. Now, I’ve lost track of the number of people who have said to me, “wow, you got a degree in maths!”

As it happens, I resat part of the middle year of that degree as I comprehensively failed some exams and had to take a year resitting. It also happens that I had rather an enjoyable time in the year I was failing exams and an even better time in the year that I eventually passed. And yes, thank you very much, I did get a maths degree. And though I don’t remember all that much of what I learned, I didn’t forget everything either.

Anyway, thinking about the exam results this morning got me thinking about a few things that are more important than exam results.

1 – I’m still in touch with friends that I sat all my exams with

I’m glad I live in the first years of the social media revolution. It makes life completely different. It means that I’m in touch with people that I sat all my exams with. Indeed, when I think back to particular periods of my studying life I tend to think of those periods as much through the lens of the friendships that I made than the things that I was actually supposed to be learning.

Friendships matter more than exam results. Some people find it difficult to make friends. Like passing exams, it is a knack that can be learned. However, I’d say that studying together with other people is one of the best ways of making friendships that last a long time. Many friendships made during study last longer than romantic entanglements. Go figure.

2 – I’ve forgotten most of what I studied for

I think it probably is the case that I’ve forgotten most of the things that I studied in order to pass examinations. I don’t think that this means that those exams were worthless – not at all. I think that eventually I learned that passing exams is about learning how to learn. I rather wish some of my teachers had been better at communicating this to me but there you go, I figured it out in the end. I struggle to conjugate French verbs and I can barely read the Hebrew characters that I once learned in order to read the book of Genesis in the original. I know I wouldn’t get very far with a calculus paper and I get frustrated that I can’t remember what I once thought I’d learned about databases. However, that’s not the point. I’ve learned how to learn and I know that I can acquire new skills when I need to. Indeed, one of the things I decided to do today was spend some time at home learning how to use a particular computer graphics package that’s going to set me free to do all kinds of tricks at work. I’ve learned how to learn and that’s more important than any number of the certificates that I have. Indeed, I go on learning with rapacious intent.

3 – I can remember more of what I studied for than I expect

When push comes to shove, as it does in life sooner or later, I find that I can actually remember all kinds of things that I thought I had forgotten. I may not be able to remember my Hebrew but if someone asks me why we pause in the middle of the psalm verses in morning prayer I’m straight off to dig out my Hebrew bible to show them. I can’t remember my French verbs but when life puts you on a sinking yacht in a canal in France and you have to call out les pompiers in french on a dodgy mobile phone, suddenly you find you can remember far more than you expect. (And you learn even more vocabulary on the way – I’ll never to my dying day forget that la grue means the crane). I don’t think I’d enjoy taking a driving test again but I get myself around without bumping into things rather efficiently. I’ll probably never sit any more music exams but they gave me enough to enjoy sitting at the piano and to my astonishment I find that I’ve become an opera critic whom some folk seem to listen to. I regret not taking more courses in English literature but I had an English teacher who gave me a love of the stage which has never done away and which has given me more delight than anyone else ever has. (And bless him, he’ll probably never know that was the gift he gave me).

4 – You can almost always resit and you can always revise your plans

So, I got disappointing A levels, I failed a year at college, I failed a driving test and when I tried the first time, the church comprehensively said I had no vocation to be a priest. In the end, none of these things defined my life. I’ve learned that you can almost always resit exams and you can always revise your plans. Things can still work out even if you get a disappointing result. Indeed, the truth is, you are going to have disappointments in life. Exams can teach you how to deal with them. Sometimes you don’t get what you want but so what? Being able to adapt and change your plans is a greater life skill than passing exams in the first place. Exam results sometimes feel like the end of the world. They never are. The trick is not to be defined by the things you have not succeeded at. An exam result is only a snapshot of how you were doing at one particular part of life. It isn’t life itself.

5 – I’m glad I sat the exams I did, even the ones I failed

It takes time to learn to be thankful for disappointment. Indeed, there’s no real point talking about it with someone who is in the first phase of coming to terms with it. However, the truth is, there are silver linings in many a cloud. The trouble is, it takes time and wisdom to be able to see them. Don’t ask what you learned in order to pass an exam – ask what you learned by getting the result you got. Don’t ask why you can’t do what you hoped to do, ask what you hope to do now.

One of the things that I’ve been getting people at St Mary’s to work towards in the next few months is a new course for people to think about their own gifts and skills. I have a hunch that people are far too much defined by the exam results and certificates that they have got when in fact they have surprisingly diverse gifts which are incapable of being examined in traditional ways which add up to all kinds of inner calls.

My congratulations go to all those rejoicing today. My commiserations to those who didn’t get what they wanted. It’s miserable. I know it is miserable but I also know it isn’t the thing that needs to define who you are.