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CLARE JOHNSTON: The exam results are in and my advice is simple – don’t do as I did

Clare got a degree in the end but was it the right path for her? Probably not.
Clare got a degree in the end but was it the right path for her? Probably not.

There was a sleepless night ahead of that all-important text message delivering the exam results that would decide the future.

Not for my eldest son, who was waiting to hear whether he had met the conditions for his chosen university.

He was on a lads’ holiday in Spain and slept soundly until midday UK time, at which point he stirred himself to glance at his phone.

The sleepless night was mine.

And it was a very long morning that followed as I waited for his call.

When the phone eventually rang he couldn’t resist a wind-up. He is his mother’s son, after all.

On came the downhearted voice. “I’m so sorry, Mum,” he began. “It’s not gone well.”

I then had to deliver the hedging-my-bets response, because I always expect a wind-up and therefore never know what to believe

“Don’t worry. Whatever’s happened it will work out,” was my stock response.

“Ha ha. Just kidding.”

Oh the relief.

My road was rocky from the start

The good news means my son will now follow in my footsteps by going to the same university as I did.

But that’s where I hope the learning similarities end.

Clare Johnston, far left, shortly before leaving school for university.

I went to Glasgow University at 17 and on the ‘sense-ometer’ scale of 1 to 10, I was a 2 at best.

That’s only because I could feed myself (spaghetti with ketchup) and work out how to use the machines in the laundrette.

The chaos started from the very first trip through to the big city with my friend to see the university campus before the first term began.

Having only recently passed my driving test and never been on a motorway before, we set off down a slip road leading to the M8 the wrong way.

I’ll never forget the stunned faces of my fellow motorists as they ground to a halt and watched me do a six-point turn.

The Glasgow University cloisters – a dream destination for some students but better exam results advice might have helped Clare. Shutterstock.

I smiled and waved to try to ease the situation and a stunned couple waved weakly back at me.

Looking back, it was a signal of what was to come.

Learning took a back seat to social life

Once there I regarded lectures as probably unnecessary and set about following my own curriculum of nightclubbing and gadding around the city.

When second-year exam time came and I announced to my flatmate that I’d finished my studying in under an hour, she asked how that was possible.

Then I showed her my three pages of notes from the handful of lectures I’d attended that year and all became apparent.

New students queuing outside DUSA during freshers week in September 2021. Kim Cessford / DCT Media.

Somehow I scraped through to come out with a degree by getting my act together in third year. But I still regret not putting more into my learning.

I was very young and underprepared – and, frankly, not interested.

I found the lectures boring – because they were.

Further education is not for everyone

University and college learning has come a long way since then. And, just as with schools, the standard of teaching and the structure and content of courses has greatly improved.

But further education is not a necessity and it’s also not for everyone.

It’s something to remember in this week of exam results. And as parents, we should be more relaxed about that.

That’s why when I was tossing and turning at 3am in the morning before my son’s results came out I wondered how I’d managed to get myself so wound up?

Some of the most successful people I know left school either with no or very few qualifications. And they certainly didn’t go on to university.

It’s something to remember amid all the current chatter about how important it is not only for kids to go on to further education, but to emerge with firsts or 2:1s.

A good degree is all well and good if you’re tripping over yourself to land a job with a big accountancy or law firm.

But it misses the bigger picture and the questions every student should ask themselves.

Are you passionate about what you’ve chosen to study? And will you love the learning?

Exam results advice would have helped me

I didn’t. And I would have been better off finding myself an apprenticeship on a local newspaper and going straight into journalism.

Clare is now a journalist and author.

I need to be doing something practical. And I need to see the fruits of my labour.

I also need deadlines and for what I do to matter to someone.

If I didn’t show up to a lecture, no one noticed or cared.

My attendance was not recorded. And that was the worst possible situation to put 17-year-old me into.

So my advice to my sons and others now considering their exam results is: don’t do as I did.

Follow your heart. Do something you love. And know that when you find a course, apprenticeship or job you really enjoy then that’s the very definition of success.

The rest is just icing on the cake.