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A-level results: the agony and the ecstasy

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 19 August 2010

First you cram your head with information of questionable value, then you sit in a room and write, then you spend sleepless nights waiting for the result. A-levels are no picnic, writes student Fred Mikardo-Greaves.

Agony and ecstasy on the day A-level results are published (Getty)

The days before you get your A-level results, like the days before you take the exams themselves, are agony. You want to get it all over and done with as quickly as possible, like ripping off a plaster, but at the same time you never, ever want to know what you got and would much rather continue getting up at 1pm and watching back episodes of Jeremy Kyle until 6 thanks.

Having a grade requirement for a university place only adds to the pressure, because you know that if you should fall short, then the next few years of your life will take a completely different course. Indeed, you may not end up taking a course at all, with competition for places tighter than ever this year, so it really is an all-or-nothing situation.

The pressure of taking the exams looms over pretty much anything that you do in the months leading up to them. Especially in the weeks of study leave, but even well before that, you feel as if you are in some way sinning by not spending every waking second poring over some third-rate dissertation on the relationship of cabbage and racism in 16th century Verona for your Othello paper because you fear there might just be a question on the relationship of cabbage and racism in 16th Century Verona for your Othello paper.

It's horrible, and by the date of the exam comes round your brain is so crammed with useless information and wired with caffeine and glucose tablets that you can't string together a coherent sentence and your paper on the Russian Revolution ends up looking like a Jackson Pollock.

Tips for those facing clearing
If you are one of the unlucky 170,000 who fails to secure a university place, you can enter into the clearing process with UCAS (for more information on clearing click here). Professor Ebdon gives Channel 4 News his top tips:

1. Can you be flexible on your chosen subject? There may well be more vacancies in the 'stem' subjects of science, technology, maths and engineering.

2. Can you be flexible with location? There may be more places on offer for your chosen subject at another university.

3. Consider becoming a part-time student. Part-time students make up between 42-48 per cent of all students in the UK and are not subject to the government's 'cap'. You can combine a part-time Open University degree course with a part-time job.

4. Take a Gap Year, but make sure you do something useful to enhance your university application for next year. "Don't just wander around the world. Do something that develops your leadership, iniative and new skills - particularly the 'soft skills': interpersonal, communication skills, that school leavers often lack," Prof Ebdon said.

More tips and advice on clearing from the experts

The worst, of course, is the night before. Like many applicants, I got little sleep, and hadn't for a fair few days. By the time dawn broke, I just wanted to log onto the UCAS website and get my grades with as little hassle as possible.

Now, if I were one of the brains behind UCAS, I'd have perhaps thought of purchasing some extra web space for this weekend, especially this morning, because 600,000+ people all trying to access your site at once may put a little strain on it. However, the £19 that we each spent to cover the administrative costs of the application progress was clearly put to better use - you know, hamster-powered marking computers and the like.

As a result, it took myself and the three people who were with me and wanted to check THREE HOURS to finally access our profiles, with numerous crashes and absolutely no indication as to when the pressure on the site might ease, and by the end we were understandably pretty vexed. I think I speak for every single applicant when I ask UCAS to sort this out. Think of the children (actually, "young adults" is preferable).

Generally we all got the grades we needed. I achieved 2 As and a B, enough to match my offer, and some people managed to sneak in even if they dropped a mark here or there - people have been speaking of Cambridge's draconian policy of demanding at least one A* from those offered a place, but a friend of mine managed to get in with a B neatly tucked away.

However, there were of course some who missed out on a place, or just didn't get the grades they wanted. I fear for my best friend, who dashed off as soon as he got the envelope and hasn't been contactable since, while another very close friend missed out on a place despite getting A*AB for a 3 A offer (I mean, come on...).

It's a very tricky situation when you're overjoyed to have got the grades, but also feel sad or angry that a friend has missed out on theirs, and there was a lot of tension among the students at college both before and after the letters had been issued.

Fred Mikardo-Greaves also writes for the RockFeedback website. You can read more by clicking here.

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