Sunday 18 March 2018

The secret of my success - overcoming mediocre Leaving Cert results

If your Leaving Cert results aren't quite as good as you hoped, don't despair. There are countless examples of people who've been in your shoes - and thrived anyway. Our reporter talks to them

A road less travelled: Aoife Dooley got a first class honours degree despite mediocre results in the Leaving Cert. Photo: Ruth Medjber
A road less travelled: Aoife Dooley got a first class honours degree despite mediocre results in the Leaving Cert. Photo: Ruth Medjber
Comfort your child after poor results
Don't automatically repeat

Tanya Sweeney

This week, 56,000 people will endure a careworn rite of passage: ripping the envelope open on their Leaving Cert results, hands trembling, finally learning their fate.

You're likely to see many heart-warming press images in the coming days of youngsters leaping jubilantly in the air, holding aloft what seems to be their passport to an exciting and glittering career. But for every star pupil, there are many others for whom this week will be a disappointment.

The heightened drama of the day that's in it makes an unexpected result even more galling. Far from gliding into their dream job, they now face the trickier task of assessing their next move and looking at Plan B.

"A lot of people go into exams thinking there's something they want to do and they get caught up in the points system," says Aine Devlin, co-founder of "They have this dream and passion and something to look forward to, and when the results come, it's all over. What they need to know is that it's not the end of the world and there are many ways to get where you want to go."

Enda O'Doherty, who runs Study Skills Ireland, beseeches students to think of the Leaving Cert as less of a finish line and more of a starting pistol. "There are other steps and this is not the definitive step," he says. "Right now, it seems like the biggest deal in the world, but it's just one door, and there are loads of other choices."

In fact, there are plenty of people out there who opened their exam results envelope and found disappointment, and instead took a more circuitous career path to academic success and their dream career. Read on and be inspired ...

Aoife Dooley (26)

Illustrator/author from Coolock

"I did okay, but not amazing. I was just really happy I passed maths. I took more lower level subjects, so the points were crap when I added them up. I'd applied to Colaiste Dulaigh and was also applying for jobs in McDonald's and KFC and getting rejected on a weekly basis. Not doing so well at college meant it took me a little longer to get to where I am now. Eventually, I got a degree from DIT in Visual Communication. I got a first class honours in that course.

"I've published a book (How To Be Massive) and have another one coming out later this year. When you're still young, you have all the time in the world to decide what to do, so why rush into something if you're not too sure?"

Brian Garvey (35)

Mechanical designer/ engineer from Mayo

"I got D or lower in Pass Irish, English and German - just scraped Maths too. I remember ripping up my CAO form as I knew college was not for me.

"I approached the exams with the intention of getting them behind me and getting out into the world to make my own path. I remember a lot of tears among fellow students when they didn't get the results they had hoped for - looking back, this peer pressure on students was crazy. I was a maker from an early age, so I branched into making casting patterns from wood for motorsport companies worldwide.

"I started buying small cast parts from Formula One engines and describing how they were made - these write-ups gained huge traction online globally. They've led me to companies such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and on to all the major consumer electronics companies in San Francisco and China. Obviously the self-taught route is not easy, but its important you believe in yourself and trust your instinct."

Hazel Larkin (early 40s)

PhD student/mum from Kildare

"I did seven subjects and failed them all except my four languages. I don't know how many points I got and I never knew. I'd already been accepted to Inchicore College to study theatre, so the exams meant nothing to me. I left Ireland at 19, met my first husband and moved to Singapore. I moved back to Ireland at 32 with two kids and convinced myself to go back to school.

"Armed with an honours degree in psychology/sociology, I still couldn't find work. So I did an MA, then another in human rights law at Queen's University in Belfast. I am now doing a PhD at DCU. I think there's a lot to be said for returning to education when you're no longer a teenager. When your education is something you actively pursue, and not handed to you, you appreciate it more."

Dale McDermott (24)

Management consultant from Templeogue, Dublin

"I got 305 points. The excitement of attending university never really hit me. I was also struggling with my sexuality at the time and I feel this is a big factor for many LGBT people who don't do well in their exams, as their mind is focused in a bad place.

"I entered proper study with about one month to go, but the material was too much to learn in a short space of time. I was pretty devastated when I got the results, but I was glad I didn't fail anything. I remember crying when the CAO offers came out and thought I'd made the worst mistake of my life. But after the initial shock and sadness, I consulted with those in the know and put a plan of action together. I worked full-time to raise the money needed to return to college to complete another course that was a stepping-stone for me to graduate from DIT with my bachelor of science (Honours) in accounting and finance degree, where I also achieved the Gold Medal award for outstanding academic achievement.

"At the time, I was just not ready mentally to give university my all. I think if you can get there the shorter way, then do it. But my circuitous route taught me the value of education and that you have to work hard to get what you want in life."

Brian Gough (42)

Design consultant from Dublin

"The marks I got (255 points) weren't especially disastrous, but weren't a model of academic excellence either. I felt I'd worked hard - I'd spent three hours a night studying - but no matter how much effort I put in, I couldn't move the dial. I also failed Irish: no love lost there.

"I signed up to do an Art Foundation course at Stillorgan VEC. After that, I was playing music full time and eventually got a job as a bike courier.

"Pedalling around, I bumped into the girlfriend of a friend and she told me they were looking for a graphic designer in her company. I got the job and looked into courses in the UK and saw that I could do a Masters based on professional experience.

"When the results came back I was shocked to discover I'd been given first class honours.

"When I started out, I envied the steady Eddies but I've learned to value the experience I've had. Remember: the one subject they never teach in school is serendipity."

What to do if your child's exam results are worse than expected

Comfort your child after poor results

1. Remind them of a job well done. "Tell your child to stand back and remind themselves that they've completed what most people consider the most difficult year of their life," says Aine Devlin.

2. Don't belittle their disappointment with platitudes. "I think there's a damaging side of telling children that it's not the end of the world," asserts Owen Connolly of the Connolly Counselling Centre ( "The most important thing you can say is, 'I know how hard you worked for this. Let me give you a hug'. Start with comfort and work on the proposals afterwards."

Don't automatically repeat

3. Think seriously before taking the repeat route. "If a student can stand back and say they didn't try hard enough, repeats are definitely an option, but for those who gave it their all, repeating the exams can be counterproductive," notes Aine.

4. Look into other routes for your child's chosen career. "Remind them if they want something enough, they can make it happen," says Aine. "There's the option of going to study in the UK, and the entry process for some courses can also take into consideration a personal statement, as well as the recommendations of teachers."

Irish Independent

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