Sunday 25 September 2016

Expert advice: There is more than one road to career success

Patricia Casey

Published 26/05/2015 | 02:30

The Leaving Cert is not the most important examination you will ever take
The Leaving Cert is not the most important examination you will ever take

I have had the privilege of meeting students around the country at prize giving days and most that I spoke to were poised, confident and realistic about what they were facing. Professionally, I have also seen those who were in a state of terror, despite their very high intelligence and inordinate preparation for the examination.

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One of the errors of thinking that besets some students, probably as a result of their parents' experience, is that the Leaving Certificate is the most important examination you will ever take. It is not. This view comes from a time when career choices were made before the Leaving Certificate, for which the Junior Cert (then the Intermediate Cert) was a practice run. The linking of career decisions and examination outcomes were inextricably linked. It is not surprising that this fatalistic view of life's course, and the centrality of examinations, instilled terror into young minds. But we now know that this predictable "one size fits all" timeline may not be applicable or suitable for all students.

At the most concrete level of understanding, students can repeat their Leaving Certificate if there is a possibility of achieving higher points. If the student does not wish to repeat a stressful examination, there are other entry systems through the mature student or the FETAC systems. Through the mature entry systems I have seen corporals in the army becoming barristers and electricians becoming electrical engineers. Other degree courses such as medicine, have graduate entry systems.

For students in acute distress just now however, these long-term perspectives are not helpful, although they may ease the worries of parents. The most important thing is to realise that anxiety is perfectly normal and, in this instance, healthy. Stress increases adrenaline secretion and this will contribute to the "psyched up" effect that everybody needs to perform optimally.

For the very few who are overwhelmed, some basic relaxation or distraction strategies may help, such as a walk or some other exercise. Sometimes a once-off dose of medication will aid in dampening the feelings of panic and a visit to the general practitioner might be necessary.

In the rare situation that the level of anxiety is so intrusive, even with all of these strategies in place, that the student still feels unable to deal with the examination, then a deferral may be the best option. I have dealt with many such crisis situations, which, to the student seemed catastrophic at the time, but resulted in a very positive outcome with a more realistic appraisal of the alternatives during a repeat year.

If a student is struggling, panicking or simply unfortunate on the day, there are other opportunities if 2015 doesn't work out. And the disinterested or unconventional student often benefits from a few years out of study while they mature. My personal and professional experience is that taking a gap year shouldn't be seen as an American fad but as an opportunity for personal development. There is a niche for everybody in life and while there may be disappointments en route, virtually all students will find fulfilment even if the path from school to career is winding.

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