It was fifteen years ago but I still remember those three weeks of my Leaving Cert clearly. The adrenaline and sleepless nights coming up to the big day, feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of what it meant for ‘the rest of my life’, the gorgeous weather that I looked out at from my desk, wondering after day one with English Paper 1 and 2 whether my writing hand would be able to last the pace, that distressed feeling when surprises were thrown into some of the papers, and the utter relief as I checked off each exam on my timetable. I even remember the room I was in in my school, where my desk was and the supervisor reading her paper every day (they are not allowed to do that anymore apparently).
Then, when it was finally all over (I took Agricultural Economics so I was one of the last standing), I didn’t know what to do with myself. Transitioning back into reality outside of the Leaving Cert it turns out was hard. Your mind and body are trained for long hours of study and exams and suddenly they don’t have to do that anymore. The first task I took to was clearing out my room of all Leaving Cert reminders. A couple of big black bags full of notes, timetables, posters, flash cards – all in the bin. A pile of books ready to be handed down to my little sister. This is when I felt the weight come off my shoulders. Now it was over. I took the decision not to think about the exams anymore – there was nothing I could do now. No matter how aggrieved I felt about the ones that didn’t go well, it was over now. There were a couple of weeks of adjustment, but finally I felt I was back to me again.
I remember going out with my classmates after we finished. We were full of the wonder, nervousness and excitement of what was to come for us. Did we do enough? Were we going to get that college place? What were we going to wear to the debs? Who were we going to take to the debs? How are we going to celebrate our results?
Then August came around and the sleepless nights and fear returned. Wait, what if I didn’t do enough, what do I do? Where do I go? If I don’t get what I want how am I going to face any of my friends, my family? The pain of going through the Leaving Cert year was still raw so the thoughts of repeating were repulsive. This time was almost emotionally worse than doing the exams as it was completely outside of my control. The day finally comes where you get the results. In our school we lined up outside the principal’s door and went in one by one. My sister and I did our Leaving Cert together so were there together. She was extremely nervous so I distracted myself keeping her calm. We brought our little brother in with us as a further distraction. That really worked. He was only 1 so he had no idea what was going on (he’s facing 5th year himself this year). My heart was palpitating as the principal read out the individual results. It was like being in a fog though, all I wanted to know was how many points that meant. He took out his calculator and added them up. OK, now I could breath. That should get me into the course I had applied for. He handed me the results and I looked at the individual results and was happy to have done better than expected in some and disappointed to see that I hadn’t done as well as expected in others.
My sister Claire went in after me. She had worked twice as hard as I did throughout the two years. I really hoped that she would do better than I did. If there was any justice she would. And she did. She had applied for teaching though so was not sure if her points would be enough. We went home and shared our news, and then the excruciating wait between the results and the offer letters started. We didn’t know whether to be happy or not. It was a relief to have the results and not to have failed (those thoughts go through your head over the summer – what if?).
Finally, we got our offer letters. I got my first choice, Software Development and Computing Networking in CIT, Claire did not. She got offered Commerce and German in UCC. She was devastated. She thought her life was over. All she had ever wanted to be was a teacher, and now she was going to do a random course that she picked just to fill out the rest of her CAO. The points for her course were exactly what she got, but there was a dreaded star next to it. It seemed so unfair. She had got what she needed to get and it still wasn’t enough. Over the next couple of weeks we got ourselves organised for the debs (make-up, hair, dresses) and college (registration, clothes, books). But there was an air of sadness in our house. Poor Claire. After all that hard work and sacrifice. Round two came around and we held our breaths, maybe she might get lucky…. Unfortunately not. It was looking like a lost cause. Looking back now, I am shocked that she and our family were willing to accept it. She wasn’t going to repeat the Leaving Cert, she wasn’t going to look at alternative options like studying abroad. She was going to do this degree that she randomly chose and accept her fate. She was maybe going to do a Post-Grad in teaching after her degree. That was the only alternative route we considered. Now, when I speak to students about college and career options, we always speak about the many alternative routes to getting there, through apprenticeships, Further Education, studying abroad, etc. There is always another way. Don’t give up on your dream. Not getting the right amount of points does not mean this is not the career for you.
Luckily, this story ends well. Claire got offered teaching in the third round. We thought all hope was lost but I still get goose bumps remembering how happy and relieved we all were for her. Claire is a now a fantastic teacher, she was born to be a teacher. It would have been a travesty if she didn’t end up in this career. As for me, I got the course that I wanted but, as it turns out, it wasn’t the career that I wanted. I finished my degree in IT in 2003 and went on to do Masters programmes that were of much more interest to me. I have worked in varying roles in the education sector ever since.
You will come up against bigger challenges in your life than the Leaving Certificate – harder exams, more stressful work and personal situations. But nothing is like the pressure and emotional rollercoaster that is the Leaving Certificate. And now, you can gladly say that you have done it. But you control your own fate. Your path is not as defined as you might think and there is opportunity everywhere in life. If you don’t get what you want this August, don’t despair. This is not the end.
To find out more about alternative routes to college through further education in Ireland go to www.cao.ie and www.fetac.ie
The Super Generation