O-level results are around the corner.

What better way to kick off 2021 with D-Day in the middle of a pandemic?

Even in times like these, some O-level traditions still stand. The Bell Curve God is still around to bless us. We take solace in following exam meme accounts. We calculate how many marks we’ve lost based on answer sheets from tuition centres, and receive cheery poly and private school open house flyers in the mail.

Our decade-long school journey is coming to an end, and every decision you were “supposed” to make is rushing at you all at once.

We’re all trying to reassure each other, but both you and I know that being kind to yourself when you don’t get the grades you’re hoping for is easier said than done. We all have expectations, be it from ourselves, our teachers or parents.

Man writing on table
Image source: Pexels / Jeswin Thomas

In fact, the suspense is more nail-biting than the actual results. The grades themselves are unpredictable. Some students leave blanks and skip questions, yet do well. Others slogged away for a paper but did not perform up to expectations.

I’m sure you’ve heard something along the lines of “your grades don’t define you, don’t be too hard on yourself”, and brushed it off as well-meaning but unempathetic advice.

Well, I’m someone whose teachers called a student with “wasted” potential. I was “smart, but in the wrong areas”, they said.

Fair point – who else would painstakingly draw elaborate physics puns at the back of the exam paper instead of checking through for potential mistakes? (I passed, much to my teacher’s surprise.) Similarly, I enjoyed my time exercising my vocabulary in debate club, but my English grades never reflected it.

I never passed analysing ads in graphic stimulus; nor caught all the points in summary writing; I could never draw a straight grid in art. But today, I’m in marketing, I’m a writer and I’m an artist.

Our competitive education system may lead us to believe that if we don’t make the cut for a subject at school, we would keep failing at it for the rest of our lives. And should you fall, it would be hard to get a second chance – there are several hurdles for those who wish to retake subjects. It’s like Russian roulette; one stroke of bad luck and you’re done.

Single sad teen
Image source: Shutterstock / Antonio Guillem

Our academic culture also normalises critiquing our performance, no matter how good it is. You did good? You could have done better. You did really well? Maybe you don’t deserve full credit for it.

To teens, these are the first major stressors they encounter, and it can manifest in extreme ways.

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Focus on outcomes, not on grades

I’m not saying we shouldn’t take responsibility for the results we get just because it is stressful. After all, life is about dealing with such pressures and some healthy competition is good.

It is the over-emphasis on grades, specifically top scores, that can lead to toxic behaviour.

The fact is, your grades do define you. Not acknowledging that is to ignore the reasons for assessment and examination.

What most people are really trying to do when they say that “grades don’t define you”, is to reassure you not to feel bad if you miss the mark.

But missing the mark isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Success and failure both help you gauge your strengths and weaknesses – the key is perspective.

If you failed math, you could either question your intelligence or decide that numbers aren’t exactly your thing. If you flopped humanities or failed a language, you could either decide that you’re incompetent or that memorising keywords and fancy phrases just isn’t your strong suit.

Child completing math homework
Image source: Unsplash / Annie Spratt

You are responsible for deciding how your grades reflect you. You have the power to decide what you can learn about yourself from this exam.

We often forget a syllabus is really just a list of curated information of what we “should” comprehend at any particular educational level.

And since we’ll probably never have to directly apply most of whatever we have learnt to the real world, why not focus on what the process of studying those subjects has taught us instead?

For example, drawing a graph to find out the price of a pen teaches us to spot patterns in chaos. Answering an essay question on the Cuban Missile Crisis teaches us how to organise our thoughts and argue a case.

You can also love a subject without having to get a good grade. History is more than World War II. Chemistry is more than dipping metals in acid and Physics isn’t just swinging a pendulum. How tailored can a global syllabus be to your individual interests and abilities? Develop your personal calling instead.

child reading
Image source: Unsplash / Aaron Burden

Remember to be kind to yourself by being truthful to yourself. Reflect on your strengths and weaknesses based on what skills you’ve developed from studying the subject, instead of fixating on scores and results.

Look forward, but take off those rose-tinted glasses

After the O levels, there are so many paths to choose and options to weigh. This transition period will kick up a whirlwind of emotions.

If you get your desired tertiary education course or are given more options to choose from, congratulations! But beware tunnel vision.

There are always going to be surprises around the corner; you might not end up where you want to be, or you make it, only to realise that it’s not your cup of tea.

It’s important to manage your expectations and acknowledge emotionally difficult situations – beyond just getting the results. A friend of mine really wanted to study animation as she had been lauded for her talent in art. But when the semester started, what she thought would be a cakewalk turned out tougher than expected. She wasn’t mentally prepared, and had to take a break.

For people like my friend, or those who end up somewhere you don’t really want to be, it’s not the end of the world. Approach everything with an open mind – after all, going to school is just one of the many ways to obtain knowledge.

Three Friends_results
Image source: Pexels / Kobe Michael

It’s okay if you choose to switch routes halfway, even if others may frown at you for not sticking to your decision. Personally, I think it’s braver to give up painstaking progress to start afresh at what you really want to do.

Also remember that unpredictability doesn’t end after the O levels. I know people who dropped out of junior college for polytechnic studies. Some leave integrated studies to pursue their passions. I know friends who’ve left STEM courses to study art and design, or those with a knack in IT finding a bigger love for the humanities.

Whether you can get into your dream tertiary education course or not, remember that there are always tough choices to make, just as there will be doors opened for you.

So as you prepare yourself for an uncertain future, don’t forget to prepare yourself emotionally, too.

Take time to reflect where you are in life and have honest conversations with trusted ones. Find a deeper, positive side to your results, but also manage your expectations.

Most importantly, remember that life goes beyond the paper chase. Wait until the dust settles and your emotions – high or low –recover before making a major decision.

And take heart: Regardless of your results – good or bad – you’ll live and you’ll learn!

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