Do exam results matter?

So it’s A level result’s day and you’ve stuffed up. But do exam results actually matter?

IF you wish to pursue success through what Robert Merton would have called the ‘legitimate opportunity structure’ then they probably do matter, but if you have access to to ‘alternative opportunity structures’ or if you ‘reject the ordinary success goals of society’, then they probably matter a whole lot less.

In this post, I’ll go through some of the conditions which might make exam results matter to an individual, and some of the conditions which mean they might matter less…

A-Levels, Degrees, ‘Success’ and the Legitimate Opportunity Structure 

Writing in the 1940s, Robert Merton broadly defined the legitimate success goals of American society  as those of material wealth, and the legitimate means to achieving these goals as being through education and a career which paid an income. In the USA and UK Today, most people still aspire to the goals of achieving material success, and most people still try to do so through the legitimate opportunity structure – basically through hard work and legal means, rather than crime.

As a general rule, if you wish to achieve the ‘legitimate success goals of society’ through ‘legitimate opportunity structures’ then getting a good set of A-levels and a degree is still the surest way of achieving these goals for most people.

In 2015 (UK stats) graduates, on average, earned 45% more than non-graduates, that’s about £10 000 pounds a year more than non-graduates.

This trend is even more marked if we were to make the comparison between non-graduate jobs and the very highest paying ‘professional careers such as Medicine, Law or Engineering, and all of these professions require a degree, which typically require A-levels to get onto an appropriate degree-level course.

So, if you want a ‘conformist’ lifestyle – a decent paying job, then getting A levels and then a degree is the most obvious way to get one, in which case your A-level exam results matter.

However, fortunately, this is pretty much where the ‘A-levels are important to your success’ line ends, mainly thanks to a certain expansion in the legitimate opportunity structure.

The Legitimate Opportunity Structure has Expanded

Simply put, there are are loads of alternative routes to achieving the ‘ordinary success goals of society’.

For starters, there are access courses, through which you qualify for the ‘access to higher education diploma – over 40 000 people enroll on them every year, and you can do them in a lot of subjects.

access higher education.png

Secondly, apprenticeships are by far the largest growth area within the ‘legitimate opportunity structure’ in recent years. There were over 500 000 apprenticeship starts in 2015-16, and 190 000 of them were level 3 apprenticeships, so if you’ve really stuffed up your A-levels, there’s plenty of opportunity to start again here.

Thirdly, you could try your hand at becoming an ‘entrepreneur’. While I don’t believe there is unlimited opportunity for everyone to make millions through inventing things or just having ideas, you certainly don’t need a degree to try. NB – if you have a great idea, but lack capital, then crowdfunding is an increasingly popular way of funding a new business venture, that you can basically start from your bedroom.

And don’t forget, that these days you can always become an ‘entrepreneur of yourself’ – by blogging or vlogging your way to success – as many make-up artists, personal trainers, or vanilla-spreaders have done. Although just as with entrepreneurship more generally, there isn’t unlimited opportunity for everyone who wants to to make big (or even sufficient) money doing this. This strategy is maybe one for the pretty, pretty vacant, and extreme types among us….

Fourthly, you might be able to exploit your cultural and/ or social capital and network your way into a decent job, or internship… although this probably only applies if your parents are screamingly middle-class, still, for the top 5% or so it’s an option.

Rejecting the Legitimate Opportunity Structure 

A final set of reasons why A level results may not matter is if you simply don’t want to pursue an ‘ordinary life’. There are plenty of alternative lifestyles which don’t require A-levels or degrees, and offer a very alternative ‘educational experience’ in themselves. NB I covered many of these in this post last year: ‘alternative lifestyles – or how to avoid ‘working’ for a living‘, below is just  a briefer summary of that post:

Firstly – you could try ‘living off the land’ – admittedly you’d need to buy the land first, which is quite an investment, and if you’re doing it in the UK you’d need to negotiate the archaic planning laws, but once you’ve got the land, it’s possible to grow or rear most of your food, and to live very rich life, very money-cheaply indeed. I recently visited Lammas eco-village in West Wales, and the guys there all live of a few thousand pounds a year only. You might also like to check out my other suggestions for experiments in alternative living –

Secondly, you could become a perpetual traveler – you don’t need much money to get you started, and if you do this you could just earn as you go. You might even be able to combine it with earning some money from a travel blog, although as with vlogging more generally, I suggest you only try this if your pretty sexy.

Finally, and most hardcore of all, you could learn to live without money. Hardcore I know, but there are people doing it! As a softer alternative, you could just try to access as much stuff as possible without money, by skip diving for food or just living off hand-me down clothes, for example. If you want some further inspiration on how you might transition to fully money-less, you might like to check out my earlier blog post on Freeganism.

In Conclusion 

A-level results matter a lot less if you’re prepared to ‘think outside the box’ about what you want out of life.

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