The mere mention of the word A-Levels is often enough to make teenagers sweat. It conjures up images of late nights and weekends spent cramming for exams. The threat of failure looms over virtually every student attempting them. Of course, once the exams are finished, life can return to normal—but what about those who have failed these seemingly all-important exams despite their best efforts?
According to Pippa Vaux of Edexcel, one of the two companies that administer the test in Malaysia, only six to seven percent of test-takers fail the exams—meaning that they have received a grade below E. Universities employ their own grading scale to benchmark the minimum grade that they accept as the entrance requirement. Therefore, even if a student passes the exam but does not meet the minimum grade required by the university, they will still be denied entrance. Students are pressured not only to pass the exam, but to score high enough to meet the standards of the schools that they wish to attend.
The A-Levels is short for Advanced Level of the General Certificate of Education, a worldwide benchmark for students applying to universities in the Commonwealth. It is one notch above the O-Levels or Ordinary Level certification, and correspondingly more difficult.
In Malaysia, the local equivalent of the A-levels is the STPM (also known as the Malaysian Higher School Certificate), which is a two-year curriculum after the sixth form. Although the STPM is accepted worldwide, its prestige factor is still below that of the A-Levels.
There are about a hundred schools nationwide including the British Council that administer the exam, and the number of students attempting the A-Levels is increasing—70,000 students were reported to have sat for the exams with the Cambridge International Examinations last year (one of the two centres which offer the test in Malaysia), signaling a 30 percent increase over the previous year.
How Important Are The A-Levels?
The fact is that these exams are important for students whose aspiration is to complete higher education at top private universities in the country or the Commonwealth. Exams must be completed for four or five subjects which can include accounting, mathematics, physics, information and communication technology and general studies. Unlike other programs such as foundation, certificate and STPM, the A-Levels is a basic requirement for entry into the more prestigious universities here and abroad.
There is an entire cottage industry of universities and colleges in Malaysia offering courses for nervous test-takers. Parents often shell out thousands of Ringgit over the course of a year and a half or more in order to secure their child quality education that will help them pass these rigorous exams. The stakes can seem high.
Crisis… or Opportunity?
So after 18 to 24 months of rigorous study, your child fails the A-Levels. The initial reaction is usually shock and horror. Recriminations often abound, and every extracurricular pursuit including video games, movies and even friends might be blamed.
Failing these examinations might not be as disastrous as it seems. Although many families would react with equal shock and horror to this idea, think about it. Is higher education, at least at an elite level, really this student’s cup of tea?
The A-Levels test a certain type of character—the ability to memorise, to be good at taking tests, and book knowledge. It does not test many of the aptitudes which determine success in life: emotional intelligence, business sense or ability to get along with and motivate others in a team.
There is increasing criticism—especially within the United Kingdom—that the current A-Levels do not accurately predict future success. Even former Prime Minister Tony Blair has weighed in, saying he supports the idea of every British county offering an International Baccalaureate certification. In other words, there could be other options for future generations of students that might be an improvement over the current system.
Given the arguably restrictive nature of the knowledge tested in the A-Levels, failure in the exam does not automatically equal failure in life. For many a teen unsure of who they want to be when they grow up, ‘failing’ the A-Levels could actually be the best thing that ever happened to them.
There are many options still open to students who fail this exam. They include: attending a local, more affordable university; going overseas to a good but smaller university that accepts the grade that your child has achieved, or re-sitting the exam—and face potentially the same result. Not everyone is a good test-taker, and simply re-sitting the exam may not be the only option now available to a student.
A failure such as the A-Levels can actually be an opening for a family to discuss what is really going on with the student. Was the failure deliberate, their way of rebelling against the path that had seemingly been set out for them (but not by them)? Was it a reflection of lack of interest or lack of ability? If the student were to design their future outside of university, what would it look like?
For parents who put all their aspirational eggs in the A-Levels basket, it can also serve as a time of reflection. Have they pushed their child too far, too fast? Did they listen to what the child really wants to do? And are they pushing their own thwarted ambitions and desires onto their child, for him or her to succeed where they may have failed?
These are tough conversations, but a family could potentially emerge stronger, more aligned and less financially burdened as a result of it. Sending a child to an elite university is a major investment of time and money—and if the child isn’t suited for it, it can be a waste for all concerned.
Re-sitting The Exam
Re-sitting the A-Levels is a valid option, albeit a risky one. It might be the ticket for students who have strong test anxiety: taking the test a second time around might be a whole lot less stressful than doing it for the first time, and universities are used to receiving revised scores.
For students who received a preliminary acceptance based on passing their A-Levels, the disappointment of failing is likely to be crushing. Additionally, there is no guarantee the university of choice will hold a place for them the following year upon successfully completing the exams. In other words, it is like starting from scratch. No guarantee of acceptance, no guarantee of success even with good scores.
Students should also be aware that it is possible for the universities to raise their grade requirements. This has happened before, and there is no guarantee that your top choices won’t raise the bar in the intervening year.
Many students choose to extend the pool of universities that they are applying to by including some lower-tier schools—so if a student applied to two universities initially with the expectation that they would pass and get into both, they might consider extending their selection to five universities. This might include the two ‘stretch’ schools, one middle-tier school and two safe bets. As our parents might have told us, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
The disadvantage to re-sitting the exam is that a student will have to buckle down and revise for the exam all over again, taking away valuable time they could have been using to prepare for university itself or to have fun. Not every student has the discipline or the will to do so.
The other reality is that if a student re-sits the exams, it means that most or all of his or her friends will be off having the time of their lives at university, and there they will be, sitting at college or at home, day in and day out, feeling a bit left out. This can be psychologically difficult for many. The bright side is that there are fewer distractions, with friends off doing their own thing.
This is a fairly high-risk strategy, but if the scores aren’t significantly better the second time around, they and their parents can rest assured that they did everything possible to make good scores a possibility.
The Long Term
Over the course of a lifetime, these test results will fade in significance next to other career, academic and family accomplishments. It is important to look at the long-term aspirations of the student, and not focus on a particular milestone.
The bottom line is, a student should have or should consider applying to a variety of universities if that is what they are determined to do. Instead of focusing on just a single target or one specific university, it would benefit both the student and their family to do some serious rethinking about what would make the most sense in the future and keep the options open. The year after a ‘failed’ A-Levels can be one of the most productive ones of a student’s life, or it can be an exercise that will end up in frustration. The choice is up to the student and those closest to him or her.
Whether a student decides to take a year off entirely, to re-sit for the exam, or to do something else entirely, a failure doesn’t have to mean the end of the world. Life does go on one way or another.
If life is a journey, then the A-Levels are just a marker along the way—and one that doesn’t have to determine one’s future success.