Senior Oxford Tutor, Matthew Uffindell, shares his personal views on why there is no disgrace in retaking exams
As Senior Tutor at Greene’s, and previously as a Director at d’Overbroeck’s in Oxford, I have many impressions of tutoring, and most are very favourable. Of course, not all are success stories, but for many I can proudly say I have changed lives (at least, that is what I am told). However, one group of students, especially at A level, consistently stands out as being the most exciting and rewarding – the group retaking their examinations. Perhaps it shouldn’t be like this. The label ‘retake’ has too many negative connotations – but actually students retaking are often more greedy for success, more motivated and grateful to have been given another chance to succeed, than any I have known.
Should I retake?
Even if you are in a position where you can retake, it doesn’t mean that you should retake. It may not be for you; but there is no disgrace if you need to try again. Whether or not to retake should be central to your strategy for further education – and not simply a question of pride or bloody-mindedness. Of course you will need to retake if you have definitely decided on a university or career that requires a certain set of results. However, if you really have not performed well – for example, in Mathematics or Physics – ask yourself if you are studying the right subjects.
If you do think about retaking or even changing your subject, taking nine months to do so is far from catastrophic; there is great value in a gap year. If you decide to go back to school to retake, you will obviously be subject to the usual restrictions of timetable. However, perhaps the time has come to leave school: you are now free to make a choice as to where and how you study. And perhaps now is the time to rethink your gap year. Let the retake be part of your plans (although my advice is usually to retake as soon as possible in the year).
Whatever you do, ask for advice. There is plenty of good advice available: impartial, practical – and free. You don’t have to pay for good advice, but you should make sure you choose a reputable person or organisation – and remember that while your reasons for failing the first time may be painful, you are not the first person to be caught out. You have been given an opportunity to create another future for yourself!
Before you make a final decision, here are some thoughts, questions (and answers), which may help you:
Is there still a place available at your preferred university?
Answer: contact the admissions’ department – you may be lucky.
Do you think you can improve your grades?
Answer: you need to be honest about how hard you worked.
Is it worth asking for a remark?
Answer: be careful: your grade can go down as well as up. Obtain a copy of your examination scripts though. What you actually wrote, rather than what you thought you wrote, might be a revelation!
Do you still want to pursue your previously chosen course?
Answer: your preferences may well have changed since you applied to university. Now is a good opportunity to change direction.
Is there an alternative course or university which you can access through clearing?
Answer: the obvious danger here is choosing second best. Taking a gap year, improving your grades, earning some money, and planning some travel may be more beneficial for you.
Few of us are able to travel in a straight line in our lives, to follow the path that leads directly to success. The American writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, wisely declared that one should never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat, and I would avow that one should not even speak about ‘defeat’ or ‘failure’. It must be time to ‘re-frame’ the concept of retaking. We need to see retaking as a new path to success.
And perhaps, it is also time to finish with an admission: I failed my A levels miserably. Yet eventually I found my way through to a successful university and tutoring career. So, I would urge anyone reading this, not to be down-hearted by what might seem a setback. I promise you, it’s only temporary, and you may learn a lot more in your retake year than any amount of first-time ‘success’ might have given you – a new path that is yours. It certainly worked for me.
For more information about retaking, see the Greene’s College website.