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Student stories

Missing the grades: The worst fear of university hopefuls.

By Holly Toombs – 5th September 2023

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Holly Toombs talks to us at Zero Gravity about the experience of missing your grades - and what on earth to do next.

You’ve done the hard work. You’ve achieved your offer to study at a top university. You’ve made it through personal statements, admissions tests, interviews, pushed yourself to your limits for exams. It’s finally over, and you now have nothing to distract you from the agonising wait for the final confirmation of your place. The months pass by, Results Day arrives, and your nightmare comes true.You didn’t get the grades you needed.

It’s the outcome most dreaded by students, myself included, and unfortunately for me it became my reality. Yet I lived to tell the tale, and I’m here to reassure you that even if the unthinkable happens (though it won’t feel like this at the time) your situation really can work out for the better.

My position with university offers was less than ideal, even before results day. The course I wanted to study was rare, and only offered by 3 UK universities, one of which being much too far away for me to reasonably travel to. I’d been lucky enough to receive an offer from the University of Oxford, my dream university, though my ideal insurance choice had given me an offer with a higher grade requirement than Oxford. This left me with a huge dilemma: what to do if I didn’t meet my offer, as Oxford was now my only feasible option, without going through clearing and giving up on what I really wanted to study.

And on results day, I opened UCAS to confirmation of my place at my insurance choice: a perfectly good university, but one I knew would be difficult to get to, and would never quite feel at home at. So after a month of remarks, appeals and far too many anxious hours spent refreshing the Mail app, I declined my insurance place and resigned myself to an impromptu gap year instead.

My year was tough. But I got through a second round of applications, admissions tests, interviews and offers, and finally - at long last - secured an offer from Oxford for a second time. And from a college I much preferred.

Whilst I never wavered in my confidence in my choices being right for me, this solution may not be the best for all, and there’s always risk involved. I’ve listed my opinions on the pros and cons of my strategy to university, to evaluate the year and provide guidance as to whether this could be a good option for you in this case.

Potential benefits of taking a gap year

Increased freedom and independence

A gap year can be incredibly rewarding, and it’s up to you how you want to fill it. You have the chance to work to save up money, to travel the world, to get a placement or internship and build up experience that may even benefit your reapplication. You have the benefit of a transition between childhood and university, where you may have more support from your parents but still a greater degree of agency and responsibility to learn how to look after yourself from a safer environment. This can make the jump to university much more manageable, as you’ve already had a year to work out the do’s and don'ts of adulting from the safety net of staying with/near your family.

The ability to broaden your options

Perhaps throughout your final year of school, you realised your chosen course really isn’t for you, or a different university caught your eye after your UCAS application was submitted. Maybe you want the option to study abroad, or maybe, like me, you had limited options in the first place and need to consider broadening the options you’d be happy to take. This gives you more time to research more thoroughly and make sure you have a good selection of plan As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Es, so you don’t end up in the same position again a year later. Even with something as simple as choosing an Oxbridge college - I’d done very little research the first year I applied, and ended up not really liking the college I’d been allocated to, and so chose a college I much prefer the second time round, where I knew I’d be much happier.

Time to recover from exams

A-Levels and equivalent exams can be incredibly stressful, especially when you’re under so much pressure to achieve incredibly high grades. While you may have to resit a subject, it’ll be much easier to maintain a work-life balance, and to prioritise finding a healthy mindset towards your studies, your body and your lifestyle, which may have been neglected through the exam period. I didn’t realise until exams were over just how burnt out I was from revising so intensely, and taking the time to look after myself and put my mental health first was so desperately needed - it meant I was in a much better position to thrive at university, with good habits reinforced and a better sleep schedule imposed.

Some things to consider:

Going through applications all over again…

Especially if you’re applying to Oxbridge or for a Medicine/Dentistry/Veterinary course, the application process is lengthy and requires lots of time devoted to it. You may need to edit your personal statement (though you can submit the same one), resit admissions tests (having to take the TSA again almost put me off reapplying altogether), redo interviews, resit exams to get the grades you need, and have the same long agonising wait for offers and results. And after all this, there’s still no guarantee that you’ll get the place you want at the end of the year. I was lucky enough that it worked out for me, but sometimes it won’t work out in the way you want it to - you’ll need to be able to adapt and accept other options too.

You may be a year behind friends

While this won’t matter at all once you get to uni (lots of people take gap years!), watching your friends leave for uni while you’re stuck in your home city can be demoralising, especially as you wanted to be there with them. It can be a lonely experience, while they’re all making new friends and you have less opportunity to do so. Still, you can plan to visit them at university, and find opportunities for socialising during your year too.

How will you organise your year?

There’s lots of things that you’ll need to think about, practically - where will you live? Can you stay at home with family, or will you need to move away? Will you need to find a job to save up before you can start on any of your more exciting plans? What does your year look like? It can be easy to let the year slip by, and you want to feel like you’ve accomplished something with the time, so it’s good to set goals for each month in advance.

To summarise, there are ALWAYS more options than one, and all is never lost just because one door closes. Don’t panic! Even if you take a different path to what you first wanted, you will massively benefit from whatever your alternative experience is. Make the most of every opportunity: you really will end up enjoying yourself - coming from someone who’s been there.

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