Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

A-level results day: Results won't define you - 30,000 set to receive their results

As thousands of anxious students get their results today a number of Northern Ireland personalities tell Karen Ireland how their disappointing grades led to them reconsidering their career paths

Olivia Rana
Olivia Rana
Doug Beattie
Paula McIntyre
Emma Louise Johnston
Rita Fitzgerald
Cate Conway

Today is decision-day for thousands of young people receiving their A-level results. Some will achieve or exceed the grades they require to enter the university courses of their choice, but for others there will be the choice of entering clearing, choosing another course and perhaps even repeating the examinations.

Send us your pictures from today - email, tweet us @BelTel or message us on Facebook

While many students feel they are under great pressure to succeed academically, it is not necessarily the best route into a career for some. We spoke to several Northern Ireland personalities to find out how they coped with their grades - and how they found career satisfaction in a completely different direction from their first ambitions.

The author

Olivia Rana (42), author, lives in Belfast and is mum to Lucia (10) and Marcus (8). She is married to business man Rajesh Rana. She says:

I studied for my A-levels at Mount Lourdes Grammar School in Enniskillen. I got two Bs and a C and it wasn't enough to get on to my first choice course as I needed three Bs to do occupational therapy at the University of Ulster.

I didn't want to go to England where I might have got into another course, so I decided to repeat my A-level in geography. Taking that year out turned out to be the best thing for me as I got my grade up and I also worked part-time and saw a bit of the world.

During the year I changed my mind and decided to do my degree in linguistics at the University of Ulster.

At the end of the day I feel that at that age I had no real idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Some people had plans and knew exactly what they wanted to do but I didn't.

Three-quarters of the way through my degree I decided that speech therapy wasn't the career for me, so I applied for a job in IT which was really growing at the time. In the end I did a Masters in IT and made a very successful career out of it.

But at the back of my head I always wanted to write, but it didn't seem like something I could make a career out of. That opportunity came to me much later in life. As well as writing I am now teaching novel writing at Queen's. I love what I am doing now, but it took me a while to get to my chosen career path.

I can't imagine doing the same job for 20 or 30 years. I think you need to try different things to find your niche.

Sometimes you need to take a step back and maybe try working for a while to discover what you are good at - whether it is leading people or being part of a team. There are lots of different things to try and sometimes it just takes a little time to find your path.

Not getting the results I needed worked out fine for me in the end.

The broadcaster

Emma Louise Johnston (40), presenter and broadcaster, lives in Maghera with husband Jonathan Crawford and their three children - Emily (7), JJ (5) and Lucy (2). She says:

I went to Belfast Royal Academy where I studied English, history and politics for A-level. I got a B and two Cs and to be honest I was embarrassed by my grades.

I remember opening the envelope and feeling like I had let myself down. I was predicted to get better results and even I thought I would have done better.

I still feel a flush of embarrassment when I think about it now, so it obviously stayed with me even though things worked out alright for me in the end.

I wanted to do law or politics at Queen's and when I didn't get the grades to do law I was accepted to do politics.

In the end I really enjoyed my degree. I fell just short of getting a first ending up with a 2:1 degree. I then went on to do my Masters in European Law at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown.

It was thanks to my former colleague Barbara McCann that I got the opportunity to work for the Reuters news agency. I was making a lot of tea and photocopying, but it was an amazing opportunity and it got my foot in the door of broadcasting. I eventually started to cover some stories and then got offered a job at ITN before I became GMTV's Ireland correspondent.

My experience was that things may not work out according to plan, but you adapt, and you refocus, and you make things work for you.

Things didn't go according to plan for me, but I still got there in the end.

The chef

Paula McIntyre (51), celebrity chef, lives in Portstewart. She says:

I studied English, ancient history and Latin at Dalriada in Ballymoney. My results were terrible. I am not even going to repeat what I got. Let's just say I failed them in style.

At the time it really didn't matter to me as I had my heart set on going to college in Belfast to do a business course which included cooking. It was an amazing opportunity and I got paid to attend as well as getting help with travelling costs, a uniform and knives.

It was an excellent course for me as it covered everything from accounting to food and beverage management.

I also got to do my placements at the Ramore restaurant in Portrush where I learnt so much. Later I got a scholarship to the United States and after coming home for a few months I then moved to Manchester where I opened my own restaurant.

For me not getting good A-level results wasn't the end of the world and I would say there are always other options available.

All successful people have failed at some point. Sometimes it gives you the kick-start you need to work at things and develop a new plan.

Life doesn't always go according to plan and it is important to remember that there are millions of options out there.

I am now teaching catering one day a week at the Northern Regional College in Ballymena and I tell my students they will always have option and that things work out for a reason.

The MLA and former Army captain

Doug Beattie MLA (52) lives in Portadown. He is married to Margaret and they have a grown-up son and daughter. He says:

I think everyone should strive to do well at school and achieve the best they can, but we shouldn't get caught up in the cycle that if we don't do well academically life is wasted.

I disengaged from Craigavon Senior High School when I was there. My mum died when I was just 15 and I lost all interest in school.

When I was 16 and allowed to leave I did and I didn't sit any O-levels or A-levels. I left school without a single qualification. I wouldn't advocate that at all as I think education is vitally important, but life turned out okay for me.

After I left school I joined the military and I had an amazing career and I worked my way up through the ranks to become a captain.

I had a career I loved without any qualifications, just hard work and determination.

I then went on to write three books - two fiction and one non-fiction. Though I would say I am terrible at English I never let this hold me back. I just used all the aids which were available to me such as spell-check.

I have always strived for more and I believe that is what people should do in life and not let anything hold them back.

Three years ago, I went into politics and became a councillor before being elected as an MLA.

Yes, it I may be easier to succeed in life with a strong CV which includes A-levels and a degree but you can excel in other areas too such a sport and the arts if academia is not your thing.

You should find out what your strengths and weaknesses are and focus on those.

I have always strived to fulfil myself and reach my full potential in everything I have set out to do.

The TV presenter

Rita Fitzgerald (48), UTV presenter, lives in Belfast with her husband John and daughter Ellie (7). She says:

I studied at St Paul's High School in Bessbrook. I did just okay in my O-levels, so my teachers suggested I should do two A-levels. I chose English and politics. I then decided I wanted to do sociology, so I took it on at night class.

Getting my A-levels wasn't my proudest moment as I didn't get as good grades as I thought I was going to.

I got a C, D and an E so I didn't get into my first choice university which was the University of Ulster at Jordanstown. I had also applied to Liverpool and Newcastle.

Looking back at the time I should probably have been more realistic about my grades and applied to different courses. In the end I had to go through clearing, so you basically take what is offered to you. I ended up going to Sunderland and doing social science.

At the time I thought I wanted to be a social worker, but I didn't have the finances to fund a post graduate course. So after my degree I decided to travel.

I did teaching English as a foreign language and it was the best thing I ever did. I was able to travel widely and I worked in Australia, France and the United States.

I worked my way up through teaching and travelled until I was 33. Then I had made enough money to go back to university, so I did my post graduate in bi-media journalism at Leeds.

It was amazing, and I loved it, but it took until that stage in my life for me to know what I really wanted to do.

I booked a place in a house and I am sure my housemates thought a wee old woman was coming to live with them when I turned up.

My advice to anyone would be don't rush things and don't panic.

You have your whole life ahead of you to figure things out and to be what you want to be. It is not the end of the world if things don't work out the way you planned. There is always a way around things and a different approach.

I didn't get into broadcasting until later in life, but it's what I love and the best thing that could have happened to me.

The radio presenter

Cate Conway (42), Q Radio breakfast presenter, lives in Dunmurry. She says:

I went to Downpatrick Tech which is now the South Eastern Regional College to do my A-levels.

I did chemistry, physics and biology. At the time I wanted to study pharmacy which requires high grades. In the end I got two Bs and a C and it wasn't high enough to get into the course I wanted.

I decided to go to Queen's University and study information management which is like a business IT course. I absolutely loved it and decided I was really suited to it and I learnt so much.

I ended up getting a scholarship for a year to the United States and then came back and finished my degree.

After graduating I went to work in Belfast Met college as a marketing officer and went out to schools and communities talking to them about the range of courses we offered.

Nine years ago, I decided I wanted a career change, so I took a break. I moved to London where I got the opportunity to work for QVC, the television home shopping channel.

It was difficult changing career paths in my 30s, but I really wanted to work in the media, so I tried to get as much experience as possible.

I now have my dream job at Q Radio and am doing something I really love. It has just taken a lot of twists and turns to get here.

The PR consultant

Rachael Harriott (42), PR consultant, is married to Craig Bishop. They have two children, Jake (15) and Evvie (11), and live in Whiteabbey. She says:

I studied for my A-levels at St Louise's in Belfast. I studied theatre studies, history and media studies.

When I was in lower sixth one of my teachers said he thought I would be good working in public relations. At the time I didn't really know what that as, so I investigated courses.

I decided it was something I was really interested in and wanted to do so I started to apply myself and work hard.

In the end I got two As and a D and was accepted into my first-choice university which was Trinity and All Saints in Leeds.

I studied communication and cultural studies with public media and I loved the course and my time at Leeds.

I think my success at A-level was down to being really determined and to having a good support network of teachers who taught us really good revision techniques.

My walls were full of study maps and key words and they gave me great advice. I was really driven and knew what I had to do to succeed. I had great tutors at university and they encouraged me with my studies.

I feel very blessed and grateful everyday to do a job I love and something which makes all the hard work worthwhile. I get to work with some amazing clients on brilliant projects and I still use my A-level knowledge to this day as I do a lot of work in the arts and obviously I ended up working in the media.

I think my A-levels were the foundation of where I am today. I think the secret is to do subjects that you enjoy.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph