Commentary: What the uncertainty after receiving A-Level results can teach you about adulting
The point isn’t which university to attend or which course to pick, but the lessons you learn in the process of making that decision, says Grace Yeoh.
SINGAPORE: Uncertainty is the bedrock of adulthood, although most of us don’t realise we lack the skills to navigate it, until we have to confront a major fork in the road.
If you’re receiving your GCE A-Level results today, you might experience conflicting feelings about which university to go to, which course to take, or perhaps, whether you should even go to university right now.
The answers to these questions will feel monumental, as though this seemingly pivotal decision will determine the rest of your life. In some ways, it will.
For example, picking the right course that combines your interests and abilities will mean there’s a higher chance of doing well, and hence, embarking on a career you can flourish in. It also ensures that you have a fulfilling time in university, which enriches your mental and emotional well-being, allowing you to realise your fullest potential.
Alternatively, gaining relevant work experience before deciding on a course could prove crucial for the industry you wish to enter. Then you need to ask yourself how long you’d like to defer your university plans.
While figuring out how to deal with these choices is extensively covered by career and course counselling guides, you can take some comfort in the fact that the hyper-vigilant focus on these immediate, tangible decisions ironically reflect the safe environment of our education system.
For most of our school lives, many of us cruise along without making particularly risky or divergent education choices. One of the biggest decisions is, in fact, picking the science or arts track in junior college.
These secure parameters are precisely why making a decision after receiving your A-Level results can feel exceptionally scary, like falling through a broken stair without warning.
However, the real mistake many of us will make lies not in our education choice but in believing the uncertainty ends once we make a choice.
YOU ARE NOT DEFINED BY YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES BUT BY HOW YOU RESPOND
For everyone receiving your results today, this won’t be the last time that adulting slaps you with a cold reality check, so it’s best to familiarise yourself with the discomfort of uncertainty.
But it can be the last time that you feel overwhelmed by the weight of having to make such a critical decision, if you learn how to handle such choices.
For starters, we need to reframe our perspective of success and failure, because our present definition results in tunnel vision. We believe that choosing a “wrong” course or taking a gap year, instead of pursuing a university education, means we are not as successful as our peers who go on to read prestigious degrees.
Likewise, if you’ve received less than favourable results today, it’s tempting to wallow in self-pity or spiral into shame.
But please remember that neither good results nor bad results have the power to define us. How we respond to each situation we’re placed in has far greater bearing on who we become and the life we lead.
A strict conformity to rigid definitions of what success looks like might shape our choices in perverse ways, when what we believe we should want or aim for guides decision-making.
In this case, getting straight As doesn’t give you a headstart if you choose a course simply because it’s the trendy decision, only to regret it later on, while getting Cs and Ds isn’t the end of the world if it encourages you to bolster your resume with work experience before university to make up for your grades.
YOUR CHOICES MATTER - NOT JUST IN THE WAY YOU THINK
But first, a reality check. While we create unnecessary anxiety for ourselves when we place excessive importance on a single decision in our lives, as though believing one wrong move at this juncture would negate every other action, you shouldn’t be cavelier with your choice.
Deciding what to do or where to go after receiving the A-Level results can mark a turning point in your life. For instance, doing a general degree might close off specialist fields, such as medicine or engineering.
Your degree might not matter for the rest of your life, but it helps you start off the journey on the best possible foot.
A good start will also reduce uncertainty in the future, significantly alleviating the pressure of building a “successful” professional life. This is especially important if you seek a stable career trajectory that affords you time and money to start a family or pursue other non-professional dreams.
Understandably, at 18 or 19, not everyone knows what they want to do for the rest of their lives. So if you make a poor choice now, take comfort in the fact that life is a series of choices. One single decision doesn’t – and won’t – define you, if you make subsequently more enlightened choices.
Take this common example. If you eventually realise that you’d have preferred studying sociology over business, the latter doesn’t automatically become the wrong choice. You can either make a switch to your desired course, or find something that interests you in your current course and pick up skills that would be relevant to any career.
While not everyone has the privilege to embark on an entirely new university degree, everyone has the capacity to find the silver lining in an unfavourable situation. Either way, you gain self-awareness – a sorely underrated skill in handling adulthood.
And there’s nothing stopping you from reading, exploring and learning outside the boundaries of your formal educational curriculum. That sense of curiosity is a trait found in the best corporate leaders, according to Harvard Business Review, so start exercising that muscle.
FORGET PASSION - FIGURE OUT YOUR PURPOSE
There are multiple pathways to your eventual goal. The trouble is we often assume the goal is a job or career. But this is as myopic as assuming the decision we make after getting our A-Level results will dictate the rest of our lives.
In reality, the goal should be in realising our purpose in our life, not a job.
I took a gap year before university, working at the corporate communications department of my polytechnic in trying to figure out what university course to take to further my interest in telling meaningful stories.
That experience allowed me to talk extensively with students and staff to feature them in internal publications and get media coverage for their stories.
The year revealed to me something new: The novel and multifaceted means to tell stories and how learning can come from doing, rather than the confines of a degree.
In the end, I chose an arts degree at the National University of Singapore, so I could finish my degree in 2.5 years (after exemptions from my diploma) and start working as soon as possible.
I have learnt to hustle for the professional future I wanted even before university, because I was guided by my overarching purpose, not a job.
Ultimately, I’m less fazed by uncertainty now not because I believe I’ve "made it" professionally, but because the skills I’ve learnt from owning my education choices and their consequences have prepared me to deal with the grey areas in every other aspect of life.
And that is what adulting is about – figuring out how to make decisions when the road ahead seems unclear.
Grace Yeoh is a journalist. She's also mentored secondary school students as part of The Astronauts Collective, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to help youths explore and better understand their career interests and passion.