An exam system shouldn’t rule your life, but sadly for many of us in this country it does.

When I took my GCSEs in 2017, I received 9 A*s and 3 As. Two years later, for my A-Levels, I achieved 2 As and a B. I had been predicted an A* and 2 As. So what changed?


The simple answer is: I did. When I was 16 and studying for my GCSEs, anxiety dictated my entire life. The result of growing up in a competitive private school, trying to maintain a scholarship and being influenced to follow a path that led straight to Oxbridge taught me a fear of failure that was almost impossible to shake. I had expectations for myself that were so high that I was unable to relax. I ruined my Christmas and Easter holidays, the only real time I had to spend with my family, through my fear of receiving anything less than an A* in that envelope on results day.

So, was it worth it? The results I received for my GCSEs would suggest yes, but of course there was a catch. I wasn’t even pleased with my results. Those three grades that weren’t A*s felt like missed opportunities to me. They felt like proof of my inadequacy. How ridiculous is that? At age 16, I had achieved 9 A*s and I was dissatisfied. So many others would have done anything for grades half as good as those.

The answer therefore is no, it wasn’t worth it. I was unhappy and anxious the whole time I studied for my exams. I had a number of anxiety attacks before and even during exams, and my mental health was in a bad way. And no, that wasn’t only due to the pressures of exams, but that constant, unyielding pressure certainly didn’t help. And those grades I achieved at the end of that miserable process didn’t make it all better. In reality, it just made it worse.

Fast-forward two years, and I was taking my A-Levels. My mental health and my awareness of it are in a much better place now. I didn’t let a strict and unrealistic revision timetable rule my life. I set aside time to spend with my family and friends, and I didn’t berate myself for my small failures or setbacks. I was much happier and more comfortable with myself. My grades at the end of it weren’t the best they possibly could have been, but I chose to sacrifice those A*s for the sake of my mental health (the inverse of what I did when I was 16) perhaps without even realising it.

Is my story unique? Sadly, I’m not sure it is. I know other people who achieved exemplary grades in their exams, but I can’t say for sure that they were happy. Our society has become so driven by success and achievement that often we forget to register how well we feel, in comparison to how well we do.

It is my opinion that the UK’s exam system is inadequate for the teenagers who it is supposed to serve. It is based on an antiquated and inefficient system that teaches young people that all they are worth are letters or numbers on a piece of paper. In 2018, the year after I took my GCSEs, a new, harder GCSE system was introduced, designed to make it more difficult for students to achieve the top grades. What is the point in that? Why are we making it more difficult for our young people to succeed? We have become unable to celebrate the differences that exist from person to person, instead focussing on how well students can regurgitate knowledge in a certain amount of time. Something, somewhere, has gone very, very wrong.

Teenagers are not the mini adults that society has come to believe they are. Research by Dr Iroise Dumontheil in 2010 showed that the neurobiology of a teenager’s brain means that they aren’t wired to concentrate for long periods of time, and yet we still insist upon a system that requires concentration for hours of revision on end. We hold all young people to the same standard, barely taking into consideration the differences that exist in personality, preference, interest or ability. The irony is that the inadequacy of the exam system actually leaves the students themselves feeling inadequate, as I did two years ago.

Unfortunately, I struggle to envision a future in which the mental wellbeing of young people is prioritised in our society, but I don’t stop hoping. The simple truth of the matter is: your grades do not define you. Yes, you should do as well as you can, but no, you absolutely should not sacrifice your mental wellbeing in order to achieve that.

Nothing is more important than your mental health, especially not some numbers or letters that you won’t be able to remember in fifteen years’ time anyway.