A-level exam results

The A-level exam results came out last Thursday; this is me finally bothering to write about it.

For those living outside of the UK (or I suppose in Scotland), A-levels are the big, important exams on which universities base their admissions.

Students apply to six universities and receive offers back from them, prior to getting their A-level results. On rare occasion, a university will make an unconditional offer of a place (i.e. “you're in”), but most of the time, offers are conditional on receiving the grades the universities want.

Most universities make offers based on three A-level grades. For example to get into Durham I would require an A and a B in Maths and Physics (in either order), plus a B in a third subject; or an A in both Maths and Physics, and a C in a third subject. General Studies is usually excluded from grade offers, because it's a load of bollocks. Some universities require a minimum point total from three A-levels, where each grade is worth a certain amount; this really amounts to the same thing.

Students then respond to these offers by selecting one first choice university, their “firm offer”, and optionally a second choice, their “insurance offer”. I only chose a firm offer - Durham. The other five universities' offers were all at the same level or higher, because Durham lowered their offer from AAB to ABB/AAC for me, something I didn't know would happen until I'd applied to all six universities. Also, by accepting an offer as insurance, I'd be creating a contract to go to that university should they accept me.

Besides Maths and Physics, my third subject was Religious Studies, although it's really about philosophy, religion and ethics. The RS exams took the form of written essays - quickly written essays, which caused one's hand to develop a grudge against the rest of one's body, particularly the brain for getting it into the exam.

I was quite confident about Maths and Physics - I'd found the exams relatively easy. I wasn't quite as confident about RS, but I thought I'd done enough. The second-year exams are added to the first-year exams, in which I'd got a B for RS; so I only needed a D in the second-year exams to give the C I needed overall.

Evidently not. The first thing I saw of the results sheet was D(d). It took a bit of effort to get through to Durham - the UCAS website, which would confirm that Durham hadn't offered a place anyway, was jammed for a while. On Durham's admissions phone line there was “no-one available to take my call”, according to a particularly dull recorded woman.

Durham's main phone line - the telephonic equivalent of the reception desk - was available, and they were able to put me through to the admissions office... who told me I needed to contact the Physics department. They weren't able to put me through, as the Physics department was too busy, so I was given the phone number to call. Repeatedly. To no avail. So I phoned the reception desk again, who could put me through to the Physics department.

They told me that they were full and couldn't accept near-misses, despite my having more than enough spare UMS marks from Maths and Physics to make up for the 14 I was lacking in RS (one grade spans 60 UMS marks, except the highest and lowest), but York had some spare places going, and they'd probably take me. I phoned York and got through to the admissions office, who said my grades were plenty, but I should contact the Physics department. I got through to them quite happily, but the senior Physics admissions tutor was in a meeting, and I would have to phone back in twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes later, the senior admissions tutor's meeting had overran, so I'd have to phone back again in ten minutes' time. Out of her meeting, she was finally able to offer me a place at York. At this point I went to the pub - eight hours later than planned.

The moral of the story is: if you do fourteen points better in your exams, you get to spend an extra eight hours in the pub.