I knew that I'd missed my offer by about 7am. The one conditional offer I'd managed to secure was set at ABB. But after refreshing the UCAS page incessantly for about an hour, I discovered that been dumped in "Clearing" faster than you could spell my mediocre grades out loud.
But I still didn't know how bad I'd cocked up. My sixth form college had the most excruciating way of letting you know. They discouraged pupils, who came from far and wide, from travelling into college to get their results envelope. Instead, they called you up at home. As I apprehensively waited for that fateful phone-call, I scoured my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Friends and classmates ecstatically posted screenshots of their acceptance emails to rapturous responses from their endearing relatives.
I got the call at around 10am, and I still remember the pall that the news of my grades cast over our home that day. My parents felt shocked and upset. I just felt numb, the medium to long-term consequences took a few days to sink in. But sooner or later, I needed to take some responsibility and admit I'd pursued the wrong subjects. My parents thought I should aim for a career in medicine or physiotherapy, given my enthusiasm for science at the time combined with fairly advanced communication skills I had. But I soon learned the hard way that getting two As and a B in your triple science GCSEs does not mean that you're going to be able to hack all that the A-Levels, BTECs, or IB modules have to offer. The science faculty had been drilling it into my head that I "wasn't a natural scientist" for the past year, even as it was way too late to switch to other subjects I may have had more of a chance with. The whole process was riddled with trouble, and that chapter of my life was signed off in the worst possible way - with a C in the subject I loved but had little time to devote to (History), and two low Ds in the ones I was hopeless at, and which took up most of my time (Biology and Chemistry.)
It took me another year and a half to get a place at university. While the majority of my friends embarked on their rites of passage, and ate their way into their student overdrafts, I enrolled back at college. I decided to take accelerated nine-month A-Levels in Sociology, English Literature, Theater Studies & Film Studies, starting in September and doing the exams in June. It was intense but I had the time of my life studying what I always wanted to in the first place. We need to shatter the stigma attached to students who retake courses, or enrol again to try another path. Sure, some were lazy and just didn't put the effort in first time round. But even then, once you get past the shock of all of your mates leaving (which they'll do regardless of you going to uni anyway) and you staying behind for another while, you'll see the opportunity to gain a lot more maturity for it. Around halfway into my fast-track courses that I realised how underdeveloped I was intellectually, and how this aleatory and monumental screw-up had been a blessing in disguise.
After GCSEs, I had NO IDEA what I wanted to do. I never wanted to be a doctor, or a physiotherapist - I just went along with the ideas my parents had thrown my way. I was open to absolutely anything, so I needed to narrow down my true ambition. My A-Level results delivered resounding no to a career in natural science. I soon worked out from there that I wanted to work with the written word. Whether that would be teaching, journalism or public relations, I didn't know. I decided to take a gap year to decide what the right route would be. I thought I'd get a part-time job in no time. But wait, uh-oh. I'd never taken a Saturday job, or even volunteered throughout the course of secondary school or sixth-form, always citing course commitments as excuses not to. So I had no real world experience, and I realized what seemed like years of nagging from my Grandma to get a Saturday job was in fact sage advice. Months and months went by, and I was still on the dole. The Jobcentre Plus is needlessly patronizing, demoralizing and punitive. Believe me, I spent the best part of a year signing on, and I could have made it a lot less likely that I'd have to endure the misery of it for so long had I started gaining some transferable skills earlier.
In September 2014, two years after most of my mates started, I finally enrolled at the University of Kent. I then proceeded to have the best three years of my life, and I enjoyed those three years at the most optimum period of my life. I was that tad more well-versed in current affairs, that tad more comfortable in my own skin, and that tad more capable of handling my drink. I worked hard, played ever so slightly harder and finished with a high 2:1. Most importantly, I found my niche in journalism, and I'm going back to study my MA in Multimedia Journalism on September 25th. By any metric, I've turned out alright after a fairly rocky start!
So, if you cock up your A-Levels this year, like I once did, please take it in your stride. Do what you need to do to offload initially - cry if you need, surround yourself with supportive family and friends and take a couple of days to absorb the shock. But it's really character building, honestly. Use it as a opportunity to reprogram the co-ordinates of your trajectory in life. Always turn negativity into positivity where you can. It's not only how we survive, but evolve as people.
Ask yourself whether you actually want to go to university? Quite frankly, unless you have a burning passion to study a subject in three years of depth, you plan to do a vocational course or you need the expertise the degree offers you, it's a rip off. You can still party, you can still network and you can still enrich yourself intellectually without it.
There are pros to going, particularly if you're studying a natural or social sciences degree, as universities remain the gatekeepers to a plethora of academic journals and other literature. The rigid structure of a university degree helps you consider all points of view rather than imbibing solely what your confirmation bias encourages you to. Furthermore, if you want to study natural sciences and you need that academic accreditation to enter the field, fiddling with a chemistry set in your garden shed with a tin-foil hat on your head and watching Bill Nye the Science Guy's YouTube clips isn't going to get you where you need to be. Equally, if you're planning on embarking on a humanities degree and want a job that requires accreditation in one of those fields, it's still undoubtedly useful. Plus, if you're a voracious reader, the unlimited access to literary resources that comes with being enrolled means that you'll get a bang for your 9000 bucks a year.
But equally, at LEAST half of what I soaked up at university came from free sources, either from literature available at public libraries or for free/minimal fees online. University isn't where you rote-learn material from a ton of CGP revision guides - so much of it is self-taught. As the Deputy Vice-Chancellor declared at my graduation, the value of "education is what you have remembered after you have forgotten everything else" - and the physical and/or online libraries open to the public can serve you incredibly well in delivering you a quality education that will resonate with you as much as it would sitting in a 9am lecture as your lecturer delves into another less-than-enthralling "PowerPoint karaoke" session.
If the answer is no, then count yourself lucky. You're not going to have a monolithic millstone of debt hanging around your neck. You can use the next three years of your life to get really good at what you want to do, and earn cash for working your way towards it. If you're money motivated and your bank balance is what matters the most to you, three years of work in a field that offers steady chances of promotion could leave you light-years ahead of the graduates who spend months begging the most competitive of graduate schemes to sign them up and often earning a pittance compared to you.
So recognize how inordinately stressful the education system makes the application process for students. Take it easy on yourself, try and be your own best friend while navigating yourself throughout it, and realize that you're going to bitterly regret all of the precious time you spend torturing yourself about what you're going to get, or what you've gotten, when you're on your deathbed. Keep moving forward whatever the obstacles, they really can be blessings in disguise. Even if you don't see that yet, or you only have yourself to blame for a row of bad results, recognize that there are so many different paths to "make it" - whatever the hell that even means.