Fire: A Message For Those Receiving Their GCSE Results Today

When I was at university, all those referendums ago, it was rumoured that in the event of the main library being consumed by fire during the final exam period, all 3rd-year students would automatically receive a 2.1 degree. I was somewhat sceptical at the time, and I now know this to be completely false, thanks to the internet.

My research took me all of 20 seconds and proves beyond doubt that Wikipedia is better than any book. (Aside: I know someone who had to re-sit his GCSEs because his school actually did burn down shortly before exam time, and his grades weren’t as good as he had hoped.)

Anyway – there have been no major school fires recently, to my knowledge, so GCSE results came out as expected today in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, following on from A levels last week. It’s a nervous time for students, teachers and parents, and if you’re a young person who didn’t get the grades you were hoping for, the stress isn’t over yet.

But take heart! I’ve worked in the recruitment industry for a long time, so I know what employers look for in a CV – and it’s usually not your academic history.

The exams

GCSEs and A levels are useful in themselves, of course. After all, you have to be able to read and write in order to get on in life. You don’t necessarily need Latin, Physics, or PE, unless you’re going in that vocational direction, but a school education is generally perceived as being good for you.

University degrees and vocational courses are also worthwhile, and often more relevant to your chosen career, although not necessarily. I studied French at degree level and then became an accountant, so my 3 years at university could hardly have been less relevant.


Back to GCSEs. If you’ve done well, then congratulations are in order. You’ve demonstrated that you can apply yourself in the classroom, store facts in your short-term memory, and understand and apply concepts in an exam situation.

But beware of getting too big-headed! There are certain things that exam success does NOT demonstrate, for example:

  • Common sense
  • Self-awareness
  • The ability to get on with other people
  • Creativity (sometimes)
  • Independent thought (sometimes)
  • ‘Intelligence’ (by some definitions)

I’ve been there myself. I learned the hard way that I was deficient in many of these areas at school, and I had some catching up to do later in life. Some might say that I still have a long way to go.


Maybe you haven’t done so well in school exams, and you’re wondering what to do next. But don’t confuse failure in exams with failure in life. It’s OK if the academic path isn’t for you.

I know plenty of folk who flunked their exams for one reason or another but who have achieved career success by another route. I also know people who had A grades coming out of their ears at the age of 18, but who have achieved very little since then.


I work in recruitment so I will define success, for the purposes of this article, as ‘having a career with regular and steady promotion or progression into more interesting / senior / well-paid roles’.

So how do you achieve such a career? Passing exams will help, but it’s really only a supporting factor. This, in my view, is the formula for career success:

  • Setting goals
  • Having the right attitude
  • Getting on with people
  • Delivering more than is expected
  • Keeping your eyes on the prize
  • Getting real-life experience in your chosen field.

I’ve worked with many hundreds of hiring managers in my time, and I can confirm that while they view the CV as an important filtering mechanism, the final decision comes down to personality and potential, and your GCSE Biology grade is totally irrelevant.

To sum up

If you’ve done well in your exams, congratulations! You should be proud and celebrate your success. A good set of exam results will help you along in life, and you’ll have an advantage in the job market. BUT you need to combine these results with the right work ethic and the desire to carry on learning.

And if you haven’t done so well, don’t worry – there is more than one way to peel a banana.

Attitude trumps academic success, every time.