Tag: A-Levels

So I’m Writing A Post About Results Day, After All

(after being unsure yesterday and all)

Results Day has happened: while the day is still continuing as days tend to do, the ‘results’ part is over and I, thanks for asking, got an A* in English Literature and two As in History and Geography, and will now be heading off to UCL in late September to study English. I’m also aware that Results Day sucked for some people, with perplexingly lower numbers of passes this year (despite more A*s overall?), so this isn’t going to be a ‘You Suck, I’m Awesome!’ sort of post; my cynicism is far to valuable to be wasted on anything as important as actual academic achievement.

Yesterday, I called the day before Results Day ‘The last day of innocence’ (although it was probably only the last morning of innocence as everybody else I know found out their grades through UCAS that afternoon, reducing the actual collecting of results to little more than a photographed formality), which I still reckon is true; regardless of how the results went, we’ve now all gone through the process of getting them in a meaningful way – your year five spelling bee award is rather incomparable.

There is an idea that mistakes allow learning and improvement to take place, but I’d say this idea is limited; my results were a success, but I can still learn from them, not just as an ambitious prick who wants three A*s instead of one, but in terms of learning how a successful outcome is achieved. Since the relative success of my GCSEs (eight A*s and three As), I’ve used similar methods of revision, both throughout the year and before exams, and have ended up with four As at A-level, those awesome A2 grades, and a place at UCL; my mistakes prior to these examples taught me what not to do, while these successes taught me what to do. And we can all learn from these results, regardless of whether or not our parents now owe us alcohol/cars/love and acceptance as a result of our exam outcomes.

Results Day is always weird for me, then, as it is a single day that represents the culmination of several months (or even years) or work, and it’s easy to treat one’s exam results as such, while it is more likely that you failed because of a systematic problem with your revision or study methods, not because you happened to have the sniffles on the day of your first exam. It’s the same reason that exams and grades annoy me themselves, that my essay-writing, poetry-reading, literacy-appreciating and novel-comprehending abilities, as well as my overall interest in English, is summarised in a single letter (obvious logistical and administrative needs aside).

This is why it’s important to consider your successes or failures in context – I got an A* in English, but I’m no Chaucer, and you might have got a C, but you’re hardly a lost cause. Exams test how well you can do those exams, not how well you know the academic study they claim to represent, so don’t get too carried away whatever your results. I like to consider exams as a process, whereby study goes in at the beginning and grades come out at the end, rather than an evaluation of how good I’d be at a university course, and so respond to it accordingly: a C means my methods of revising failed, not me as a person, and an A means they worked.

But I’m not here to tell you how to react to the events in your life – leave that for borderline fictional omnipotent entities on clouds with fetishes for divine instructions more cryptic than a particularly difficult Times crossword – that’s your job. An idea that we can all agree with, regardless of our success or failure in these exams, however, is that we’ve done them, and whether the tears or celebratory booze are flowing, we can all learn from this – after all, school is meant to prepare you how to be an adult, and not just in terms of working out your income tax.

The Last Day Of Innocence

(sadly I’m not referring to sexual innocence)

Tomorrow, A-level results are released here in England, the slips of paper and single letters devoid of meaning that are apparently more influential over our university options than our identities, interests, or characters. The day itself will be a mixture of fear, despair, and elation, all conveyed through the means of poorly-organised alphabetised queues dispensing bits of paper and envelopes to eighteen-year-olds faster than STDs at a Christian rave, where the alcohol is plentiful but contraceptives still totally banned.

I could stay up until midnight, frantically refreshing the UCAS homepage to see if my first-choice university has, indeed, given me an offer, but I’ll just wait until nine o’clock, when I will go to my school and be given my results in the archaic form of paper; essentially, the outcome of these exams has been settled for over a month now, so waiting an extra nine hours for my results is no problem, considering I get much more sleep that way.

This Summer has been by far the weirdest as a result; I’ve found devoting myself to work – in case I get in – has been difficult to motivate myself for, and devoting myself to enjoying my summer – in case I don’t get in and this is my only big holiday of the year – can’t be done without a niggling feeling that I should really be reading some poetry or something. I’ve basically had to settle for a halfway house of watching Naruto while talking about university stuff with a friend, a compromise I never through I’d reach.

I called this post ‘The Last Day Of Innocence’ because I feel that I will have lost some of my innocence as a student at the end of this process; this is the first set of exams to have a direct and meaningful impact on my later life – secondary school admission wasn’t based on the big, end-of-year-six SATs – and so whether I pass or fail, I’ll have undergone a process with a big impact on my future for the first time in my life.

If I ‘pass’, and I get the grades, I’ll have both lost my innocence as a school student, and my identity as one altogether as I’ll be able to move on with my life and get to university; if I ‘fail’, and don’t get the grades, I’ll have tried, sucked, and will have to repeat year thirteen with my tail between my legs, both wiser and angrier for the failures of what will be last summer.

But either way, I’ll be glad to have done something for myself – I wanted to complete these exams, and I have – and something difficult, as I don’t think the exams were a catastrophe or flawless victory so this should have been a challenge that I’m pretty close to matching.

I’ll let you know how it goes tomorrow, but I might not upload a whole post about it – life’s too short for focusing on just one thing. And I’d like to say ‘best wishes’ to all of you getting results tomorrow, but honestly, I don’t know you and can’t be happy for your success, so I’m actually going to ask you to piss off and fail spectacularly, to keep the grade boundaries low for the rest of us.

Well, Hello There.

(shakes off dust)

I’m blogging again. Huzzah! And a crap-load of things happened while I was away that I feel compelled to tell you about at great length for some reason. Woo-hoo!

I’d stopped writing on this blog on May 16th, 39 days ago, to focus on my A-level exams instead of spending time and energy producing important responses to toilet paper for the benefit of about six people on the Internet. However, these plans were scuppered by my body’s rather inconveniently-timed decision to have a seizure two weeks before my first exam; I woke up, sat at my desk, had a dangerously low blood sugar, and passed out, hitting my jaw on the desk, then falling backwards to hit my back on the floorboards.

I was then promptly carted off to A&E in scenes I only vaguely remember – most of these memories consist of the phrase ‘gas and air’ and me apologising for some reason – had an x-ray to see if anything was broken (it wasn’t) and then sent back home to recover in the sterile, peaceful environment of a home in which two kids have exams to study for, and weird cats show up at random intervals in the kitchen for no apparent reason.

Considering the seizure was caused by my diabetes, and my mismanagement of it, the doctors gave me a new method of treating the condition: running my blood sugars higher than they should be, so that a seizure can never happen again in a million years. Sadly, high blood sugars undermine my ability to concentrate, so on some days I could only work for two hours, and on others I couldn’t work at all; I was either too low, and in need of masses of sugar, or healthily too high, which meant I couldn’t revise for those exams I’ve been working towards for the last twelve frakking years.

But those exams weren’t too bad in the end; my method of revision (i.e. asking myself ‘Are you working now?’, and then writing essays if the answer is anything less than ‘I’m literally sitting the exam as we speak’) had been in force since October, so I had done all the practice essays most human beings are capable of doing, and I had completed all of my notes by Easter. The problem was that I had not steadily built up my workload over several months as I had done in the past, but the fact that I had kinda done all the work anyway meant I knew what to write about in the exams, even if my writing technique was a little rusty.

And my school helped; my awesome Head of Year let me bring food, both sugars and long-term carbs, and insulin into my exams, so I could both raise and lower my blood sugars as need be, and the invigilators were happy to let me eat in the exams, provided they could check my sandwiches weren’t full of notes (scratch that one off the list of Overly Elaborate Medical-Based Cheating Methods). I was slightly annoyed when I was given two minutes of extra time in the English exam because of this – irritating because I didn’t need any extra help, considering my exam management of the diabetes amounted to eating a mini-roll halfway through, and they only told me about it with a minute to go anyway, at which point my essays were done and I couldn’t use that extra time meaningfully – but that’s a minor complaint.

Since then, I’ve been lowering my blood sugars a little, using the same ‘keep it high’ methods as the doctors suggested, but taking slightly more insulin, so my blood sugars are usually in the ‘I feel great!’ range, not the ‘I’m so high I wanna lie down’ band. I’m seeing my nurse today to discuss a more long-term solution involving an insulin pump, which releases insulin into my bloodstream throughout the day like a normal pancreas does, as opposed to the three or four shots of insulin provided by injections. This will mean learning a third management strategy from scratch, but I’ve got literally no plans for summer beyond this, and considering I want to be living at University this October, independence with my diabetes will probably be a good thing.

In other news, I’ve started a new Football Manager save, and am currently securing a mid-table finish for my newly-promoted-to-the-Second-Division Ribeirão side, despite the fact that our wage budget is no more than what we can con off the local homeless shelter, and our transfer policy resembles a village car boot sale for old, crocked, or painfully unambitious Portuguese attacking midfielders and inside forwards. I’ve also formally left school, returning my books, receiving handshakes, and eating an impressively bland buffet lunch that wouldn’t look out of place in that homeless shelter.

I’m sorry this post has been a bit of an update sort of thing, and kinda resembles a month’s worth of posts glued together in one unusually long piece making it look like I never ‘stopped’ writing, I only delayed uploading my posts for a month before vomiting then all up at once like a Pelipper using an particularly effective Stockpile-Spit Up combo, but life has been rather exciting recently. And I’m sure your’s has been too; one thing that annoyed me about this blog before the break was that it was focused on me (the dam thing’s got my name for God’s sake), and any input from you, while appreciated, was not actively encouraged. So please, tell me what I’ve missed in your lives – I’ve not even been on WordPress for these 39 days – and I’ll see you tomorrow for a post of an as-of-yet unknown nature.

P.S. Today is my birthday, and I’ve already got a t-shirt emblazoned with ‘FRAK EARTH’, which is both nerdy, sweary and dismissive, which are three of my favourite things ever; I’m in quite a good mood now.

The Unknown Of Exams

(and I mean beyond the fact that nobody actually knows what the frak the 1957 Rapacki Plan was)

This isn’t really a concern for you I-do-maths-and-science-and-the-rest-of-my-life-will-consist-largely-of-rote-learning-facts-regardless-of-what-I-do-with-them people, whose A-levels will probably include appropriate amounts of mind-crushing fact-leaning, but for us essay-writing people, the subjectivity of written essays is occasionally terrifying: what if the As I get from my teacher are more because of their optimistic marking, and the same essay would be awarded a C by an examiner?

I’ve experienced this in the past, with a fun, but increasingly distant, History teacher awarding an ‘excellent’ essay of mine, with no criticisms on it, a 28/40 (and giving a friend of mine an unrelatedly unhelpful ‘do better by improving’ comment). When our class got a new teacher, our marks mysteriously increased to a minimum of 36/40 within about seven seconds of walking into the new classroom.

And this isn’t a go at individual teachers; mark schemes the world over consist of constructively specific grade boundaries: the difference between an A*- and an A-grade essay is that the former displays ‘perceptive’ analysis, while the latter is merely ‘excellent’; it seems that the only difference between grades is the sophistication, rather than the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ meaning, of adjectives we use to describe them.

This also makes it bloody difficult to mark my own work: I’ll give myself a 26/30 in English, only to be bitch-slapped with an 18 from a teacher for the same piece, and my ensuing harsh self-marking of a 17-deserving essay will crush my morale, only for that same teacher to confuse me by giving it a 28. Sigh.

I think the quality of my school is also harmful here: a frequent criticism of my old essays was that I was doing the A* stuff, but not the C stuff, which reflects the fact that my teachers probably assume I know the basic plot of King Lear, and so focus only on the analytical points. This can be dangerous, as any factual errors – like my erroneous idea that it was Kent, not Edgar, that married Cordelia in Naham Tate’s rewrite of the play – are not picked up on until four seconds before the exam, and any time you learn something about a play as you’re writing about it is probably indicative of an impending crap essay.

Furthermore, the external exams will be marked by external examiners, who won’t assume I know what I’m talking about just because I got 80% on my last end-of-topic test; I’d argue they’re more likely to pick up on holes in knowledge or inconsistencies in arguments than teachers who are accustomed to 90% of their students constructing perfectly evidenced and explained arguments every time.

Annoyingly, there aren’t solutions to this, beyond ensuring that every marker of a humanities paper is an expert in that field, a painfully difficult prospect given the disparity in numbers of people who know anything about Shakespeare, and pretentious teenagers who think that disagreeing with a critic shows them to be masters of literature, rather than robots that can only hit mark schemes with free-will depriving regularity.

And another solution, to give specific content guidance in mark schemes so that any moron with a GCSE in General Studies can mark an A-level essay, is problematic in that it limits creativity, suggesting there are objectively right and wrong ways to respond to a text, which kinda opposes the very idea of literature as both a means of expressing one’s ideas, and a means of responding to the ideas of others.

I’m going to fear these exams, not because I won’t revise, or because I can’t remember the moralising of Edgar in his guise as Poor Tom, but because essays, as an art form, always have the potential to be comprehensively and fundamentally flawed, far easier than a maths question could be, a risk I guess fits the boom-or-bust nature of actually writing for a living.

So here’s to fear, of the stupidly important and potentially-life defining exams I’m going to take before I’m even old enough to buy booze. Cheers!

Do I Like Wednesdays?

(you know ‘Wednesday’ is ‘Mittwoch’ in German, which means ‘mid-week’, despite it being the third of seven days? Silly Germans)

I used to hate Wednesdays. Our school runs a bizarre lunch hour system, in which Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays have lunch breaks running from 12:40 to 2:00, while Wednesday and Friday ended early at 1:40, so thirteen-year-old James got 20 minutes less football time, which made him grumpy; at least on Friday there was the hope of the week ending.

This was reinforced by the lessons we had after those lunchtimes; the long lunches were followed by 25 minutes of PSHE or form time, in which we would sit around doing bugger all for a bit until our form tutor told us to sod off to our actual lessons. Wednesdays and Fridays, however, had a five-minute registration, followed immediately by an extra half-hour real lesson, which was invariably too short to get anything done, but too long to risk not doing the homework for, and always seemed to be maths or physics in some way.

But two years ago, this changed; we started having Games (PE, if you like) on a Wednesday afternoon, and the early lunch made it a full hour and a half, unlike the short hour-long sessions of the previous years of Games being on a Monday, Tuesday or Thursday, which I enjoyed much more. Then last year, we got to go home early on a Wednesday because no lessons were scheduled and being Sixth Formers, I suppose the school trusted us to not go out and be killed by a train or rob a bank with our free afternoons.

Sometimes, we even arranged to go to Powerleague on Wednesdays, meaning that the old days of Wednesday afternoon football were preserved, but without any of the embarrassing collective trouser-removing that constitutes a changing room, and the 90-minute time limit (we’ve played at Powerleague for about three hours at a time on occasion).

But then it all changed. This year, with the increasing importance of my summer exams, Wednesday is no longer the day of ‘half school, half Football Manager’, but is now the day of ‘half school, half doing extra Geography papers at home while my Dad watches the Champions League/England matches/MasterChef without me’, which is less fun, despite its productivity. The need to revise has also meant fewer people are available for Powerleague, so I have to monotonously run around my local park to get exercise on Wednesday afternoons; I like running, but far less than playing football.

This is especially irritating given the recently awesome weather; I think the British weather is the one valid piece of evidence for there being a God, because no non-sentient weather systems could ever be as malevolent as those over the UK, whose policy of air temperature and hours of free time being eternally inversely proportional has been a real kick in the nuts if the last 30,000 years or so.

Perhaps the worst thing about Wednesdays these days is that everything is based on choice: it may be helpful to do that extra paper, but I’m increasingly aware that I’m inflicting this stress on myself, making the entire event seem more like an exercise in literary masochism than literary discussion. Hell, the fact that I got three marks off an A* for two subjects in this week’s mocks should relax me; I have two months to get three marks for God’s sake, and I have an AAA offer, and my scores from last year mean I literally have to get CCC this year to get into my first-choice University!

But then I think about future James, an individual I like screwing over by setting painfully early alarm clocks, and the fact that he probably wouldn’t be too happy with seven years of effort in school to scrape through my final exams. I think my school life has become like a long-running TV drama; it’s been excellent throughout, and a crappy finale probably wouldn’t tarnish its reputation too much, but there’s the possibility of a mind-blowingly good end to it all, so you might as well go for it.

So I suppose I like Wednesdays; I can probably get some pretty awesome results this summer, and these afternoons are times I’m going to do the work to get them. It’s stressful, sure, but I guess that’s the point: I don’t enjoy Wednesdays, but I like them a lot.

One Down

(the US joined the G7 in 1974 in response to the 1973 OPEC Crisis)

I’m now halfway through my exam-based Day of Doom™, having finished an English exam this morning (it went pretty well, picked a question no-one else did because talking about women is way too mainstream), and waiting for a History one in literally an hour (oh God, an hour is not a long period of time), and I’m feeling expectedly unintelligent right now; unlike Jacobean dramas, real exam-induced madness does not give great insight into the human condition of our society, it just makes us tired and grouchy.

And I have evidence for this: after the English exam, we had an English lesson, in which the amount of work done was approximately equal in size, and appropriately in quality, to four millilitres of ink flicked at a page in a particularly unconstructive manner.

Of course, I’m not making this any easier on myself; with 56 minutes to go, I’m not letting my brain recover, revising the end of the Cold War (the US joined the G7 in 1974 in response to the 1973 OPEC Crisis), or even just having lunch to ensure that I’m not going into the exam having not eaten in seven hours. Nope, I’m writing a blog post about how I shouldn’t be writing a blog post, so if I get a C in this afternoon’s exam, blame this blog. And also you, for reading it; an unread post is like the ignored ravings of a madman, but viewers add legitimacy to a post, showing that I have prioritised entertaining individuals in Kenya over a mock exam that is a key indicator of my ultimate exam success or failure. So thanks for that.

I’m also fluctuating between ill-begotten overconfidence and suicide-inducing feelings of unpreparedness; every time I stop writing this, my mind flicks to a historical statistic (the US joined the G7 in 1974 in response to the 1973 OPEC Crisis) that gives me a bit of confidence, only for the singularity and repetition of that fact (the US joined the G7 in 1974 in response to the 1973 OPEC Crisis) to screw me over again: I know about the OPEC Crisis, why can’t I come up with other figures?

I think my fear is because the outcome of lot of essay-exams are based on your performance in the exam itself; GCSE Geography was a ‘rote-learn-a-thousand-facts-to-get-an-A*-fest’ (the fastest-flowing part of a river’s cross-section is a thalweg) but A2 History is about using and manipulating those figures: my knowledge of OPEC will be worthless if I can’t fit it into a coherent argument. And coherency is not my strong point right now, as the repetition of italicised brackets, indicative of my erratic subconscious, indicates; Hell, I can’t even be original at this point, which is worrying when it comes to constructing an interesting and creative argument – the italicised brackets are stolen from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series for God’s sake.

And I just spent half an hour getting distracted by The Guardian and talking about that English exam with people who didn’t do the same exam as me, so we should theoretically have nothing to talk about. I’m done for now – I’ll go have lunch and revise for a bit. Coherency might resume tomorrow, I’m not making any promises.

(the US joined the G7 in 1974 in response to the 1973 OPEC Crisis)

Hardcore Self-Loathing Revision Techniques!

(this is how I’d pitch the importance of revision to teenage boys)

Rather than seeing revision as the sort of menial task forced upon you by the epitome of discipline and unrelatability that is a teacher, you could make it so much less daunting by casting it as a testosterone-fuelled endurance test, to see which of you and your friends can use the most soul-crushing tactics imaginable to obtain those all-important capital letters on a bit of paper; for the record, I think this is how students at Eton prove their ‘manliness’.

1) Tattoo important definitions to the insides of your eyelids, you every time you want to rest and take a break, you’ll be reminded of the difference between tentative disadvantages, and partial disadvantages.

2) Wear a t-shirt emblazoned with your essay’s topic sentences to a book shop; if the intellectual badasses in there can’t understand your argument from your shirt alone, your essay is now humiliatingly bad.

3) To help you revise characters for an English essay, write out revision notes for each character, and drink a large vessel of alcohol for each individual, so that whenever you think of takin a drink, you’re reminded that Lear’s downfall really is, fundamentally, his own fault. Extra points are awarded if you drink yourself to unconsciousness, at which point you’ll start revising the definitions tattooed to your closed-over eyelids.

4) When you’re doing bicep curls, count them not in numbers, but in the scenes of a play or chapters of a book you’re studying, and with each curl, outline the plot and key themes of that section of the text. If you can do this for Middlemarch, you’re a bigger man than I am.

5) Play the Maths Drinking Game: every time you read a question and say ‘What in the Hell does this mean?’, take a drink. Then, don’t leave until you complete that paper; if you can scrape through a paper drunk, you can ace it sober.

6) Make notes on a wall using an assault rifle to make bullet-holes in the shapes of letters; they way, you’ll see the notes every time you go past the wall, and will be reminded of the subject.

7) A day or so after finishing a timed essay at home, and before giving it into your teacher to mark, type it up; this will force you to re-read the essay in its entirety, and you’ll feel so embarrassed that you thought that was a credible idea that you’ll work even harder next time.

8) Complete a practice paper using a pen you know will run out soon, forcing you to either give up the paper halfway, or power through by cutting your finger open and writing in blood, in scenes that may resemble the private school version of the Saw movies.

9) For every mark you are below your target grade, remove one digit, starting with the little toe on your weaker foot, and leading up the the thumb on your stronger hand; you’ll be more encouraged to not suck as this process continues, as you’ll be increasingly out of digits to take the final exam with.

10) Put a Pope’s hat on a bear and challenge it to a fistfight; your resulting anger at and fear of anything Pope-shaped will help you understand the extent of Monticelso’s rage and hypocrisy in act three of The White Devil.

11) Write a key concept or idea on each item of your clothing, then stand by a cold river and scatter them to the winds; as a result, you will have to swim through ice water to find your clothes, and so you will associate hope and security with revision topics, rather than fear of the unknown.

12) Learn to play the solo from Through The Fire and Flames on guitar, and for every mark you miss your target grade by, cut off a string, and try to play the solo with the remaining strings. This will get difficult to the extent of impossibility should you screw up too many times.

13) Find another bear, and anger it by poking it with a stick. Then try to calm it down by rhyming at it in Middle English; its inevitable ripping of you from limb to limb will reinforce the idea of the ultimate weakness, seen in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath, in the difference between her linguistic desire for maistrie, and the reality of her evenly-matched fight with Janekyn.

14) Go skydiving strapped to an instructor who insists that their parachute has broken, and you’ll die. Then, get the instructor to shout formulae at you, until you’re two feet from the ground, and they pull the chute, which was really working fine the whole time, saving you. Your mind will be forever etched with the idea that the area of a triangle is half base x height.

15) Guilt yourself into revising more by writing another blog post about school, as opposed to working for school.