Monday, June 3, 2013

10 Things They DON'T Teach You About the Leaving Cert

These people all became drug addicts in later life.

And so, this Wednesday, the Leaving Cert begins. Do you know how I know this? I booked the week off work in a calculated gamble that we'll get the traditional, fantastic exam weather that usually accompanies the sweat and tears of our suffering teenagers each year.

Feeling a bit guilty, I figured it's about time that I did my bit. It's been around eight years since I did my own Leaving Cert, but I still remember. You don't forget something that traumatising. That shit stays with you for life.

The smart kids stress themselves because now they feel they must live up to expectations after a near-flawless school tenure. All those A's they got throughout the years don't mean shit if this falls apart, because the Irish government are too lazy to introduce continuous assessment.

Don't pay attention to the dumb kids if they act all aloof and tell you they don't care how it goes, or how they're not even studying. They just feel woefully inadequate at how they've spent 5-6 years playing the 'It's cool to be dumb' card and now know all-too-well that it's just a lie. Back in 2005, we had to endure them saying, "Ah, you wanna get a trade anyway. That's where the money is. You're stupid if you study." Now they pretty much all live in Australia, on a permanent piss-up and still carrying on like they did when they were 17 (think Chip out of Friends, "Oh yeah, but I can stay out as late as I want.") So these things balance out over time, don't let it get to you in the short-term.

...we'll just give the dumb kids a moment to find the back key after that last paragraph hit a bit close to home.


And we're good.

Anyway, here's some advice that I picked up from the state exams. The stuff they don't tell you, even though it's the stuff that's actually most relevant to you. Because you're probably sick, like me, of reading generic, patronising newspaper articles wishing you luck and telling you how hard it is, when you already fucking know how hard it is! You're the one doing it! Oh, I remember.*

*For full disclosure, I scored 375 points in the Leaving Cert (I think) with A1's in Higher English and Ordinary Maths. Not bad, but not genius level either. So don't read this if you're looking for a magical formula to get 600 points...because I can't give it. There are plenty of articles out there from students who have. Sure, they probably won't be as fun, but they'll actually help. What I'm saying is, don't come back and moan at me in a few weeks if this doesn't help at all. I'm just here to distract you from your studies for a while.

The secret to the English exam? Waffle.

I'm Morgan Freeman, and I failed Foundation Level Maths.

Like I said, I scored an A1 in Higher English. And yes, I still brag about that and may/may not bring it up early into conversation when trying to chat-up women. It doesn't work, but man it still feels good to say it.

The reason I got it was because, by the time I did my Leaving Cert, I was already getting published writing for numerous websites for a few years. By that stage, I was actually editing others' work. That doesn't help you at all, though, just days away from the exam. So let's look at what might actually help.

The poetry and Shakespeare stuff is tough, there are no two ways about it. But going into the exam, I was never worried about the essay. Why? Because I'm so talented and whatnot? Pfft, no. It was because, by that stage, I was used to working to deadlines and having to pad my work out with a healthy dose of pleasant-sounding waffle, so even if none of the topics that came up for the essay inspired me, I was confident that I could waffle my way through it. In the end, I selected something random like a kid crying on the street, and turned it into a nonsensical rant about Hitler, the Iraq War, and how it affects us all. Or something like that.

It worked, and I knew it would. Simply because I understood that, even if the examiner couldn't understand the point of my waffling, if you seem convinced enough by your own bullshit people will buy into it. A good technique is to go into a load of tangents, then tie it all together at the end with a powerful, one sentence, final paragraph that seems to tie it all together. Like this:

"That's when I realised that life was for the living."

For added effect, imagine Morgan Freeman reading out your final paragraph. As the phrase, that I just made up, goes: "If the Morgan Freeman fits...use it in your English Paper 1 exam."

Remember, whoever is correcting your exam has to read your essay, along with a shitload of other essays. So, if you blind them with bullshit but appear to make sense of it, while most people may stop reading if it was a newspaper article or blog, they'll have to just assume it was good. The alternative is to sit there for hours trying to figure out if what you're saying actually makes sense. Ain't nobody got time for that.

Of course, the preferable option is to just write something good. But this is a solid Plan B if need be.

Laughing about Oral Exams is never not funny.

Teenage boys would study religiously if French Oral meant this.

I'm nearly 26 now. If the subject of the Leaving Cert ever comes up in regular conversation, and someone asks me how my French Oral went, I immediately think of a French woman giving me oral sex and giggle to myself. This will never not be the case. You just have to pretend you're more mature when you're older. So don't feel bad about laughing about stupid stuff like this to relieve some stress over the next few weeks.

If you don't get honours in Higher Level Maths, you'll never need it again.

Although you will never be allowed to be friends with Sheldon.

Like Shakespeare, there's no way to get around the fact that Higher Level Maths is fucking hard. There is no amount of alternative advice I can give you here that will make you any more likely to pass. I was always good at Maths growing up (I dunno how I'd do on Countdown, but I can kick my friends' arses in the numbers round), but even I weighed up the situation in 5th year and bailed.

The reality, as I saw it then, was that passing it would cost too much energy that I couldn't focus on other subjects, and Maths offered the same amount of points as the rest of them. So, not seeing myself as particularly interested in being an Engineer or anything in that general career direction later in life, I realised I didn't need it that much.

If you have decided to tough it out, though, my greatest sympathies and respect. But know that, when you leave that exam hall, your mathematical fate is now in the hands of the maths gods (who, unsurprisingly, aren't the coolest of gods). If you don't get honours, don't beat yourself up. Just take the lesson that life is determined to teach you on the chin and be relieved that, aside from understanding an occasional joke in The Big Bang Theory, you will absolutely never need that information in your day-to-day life again and can dump it from your brain almost immediately.

On a similar note...

Pride comes before the F

...yeah, well DUH Einstein.

In the two years that I'd been studying Physics before the Leaving Cert, I'd never passed an exam. I wanted to understand it, but Physics and I just never clicked like I thought we would in filling out the form to pick subjects for the Leaving Cert in 3rd year.

That was, at least, until the week before the exam. Then I it. It all started to make sense as to what this all actually meant. How these random formulae affected life around us. I can't explain it better than that. A button just pushed in my brain and, all of a sudden, I understood Physics.

So it may surprise you, with that in mind, that on the morning of the Leaving Cert exam I dropped to Ordinary Level. And I passed a Physics exam for the first time in my life, with it just so happening to be the only Physics exam that really mattered in my life. I think I got something like a B1. Either way, I was proud.

The reason for the switch was that I realised, despite the subject clicking, that I still didn't have enough time to learn off the many, more advanced formulae etc and was risking getting 0 points from the entire thing. So I weighed it up and it ended up being a decent, last minute decision.

The point is that there's no shame in dropping down a level, if need be. But make it a calculated decision, weigh up your options. Don't just do it because you want an easier exam. At the end of the day, this is like a Premier League football campaign, the goal is to get as many points as possible. And sometimes you have to win ugly to do so. So if you feel that you can get more points from Ordinary Level than Higher, do it (of course, that's as long as the Ordinary Exams are essentially scaled down versions of the Higher ones and not completely different courses - so it might work for Physics, but not for Maths).

Picking a 7th Subject Isn't Necessarily A Bad Idea

This is another calculated decision that, I believe, worked for me. Approach with caution if you're going to do it, though.

Your teachers tell you not to pick a 7th subject because human nature dictates that, even if you only need six, there's still a risk that you'll fail one of those six where you could have made up the difference with that other exam. It gives you a free pass to ignore one subject but there are no guarantees that you'll use the exact amount of time you would've on your 7th subject on the weakest of the top 6, if that makes sense.

The closer I got to my exams, though, the more I realised that French was a lost cause for me. The aural and oral (snort) hadn't gone well and the written one wasn't happening. Truth be told, we had a horrible teacher who was too passive-agressive to control our class and spent most of the time either trying to get in slagging matches with the messers of the class (I may or may not have been one of these...), then crying when she lost said slagging matches, because teens have more time on their hands to think up good slags for teachers that they hate.

Despite me being decent at Junior Cert level, I was doomed for the Leaving. I knew it. So I just wrote it off. When you get to the exam situation, there is only so much cramming you can do. And if you don't know enough when you step into that hall, aside from risking cheating, there's fuck all else you can do.

So I went through my French written paper at a healthy pace, answered everything that I knew, gave it a second look over to see if there was anything left in my brain that could help me with the rest. Then, when I realised there wasn't, I handed it in within an hour and went home to study for accountancy. Shit happens. And the C3 I got in the results validated that French was, in fact, my seventh subject so I hadn't wasted time there.

You know a lot more Irish than you think you do. 

You know Irish when she says it, see?

Seriously. So much so, that I'm going to write this point in the broken Irish that's still stuck in my brain eight years after I last studied it.

Tá tú abalta caint as Gaeilge ceart go leor nuair a chuir tú do...brain...agat (?). Chuaigh mé go dtí an Gaeltacht cúpla ám, ach ní foghlaim mé a lán Gaeilge ansin (d'fhoghlaim mé to shift...cailiní ar an céilí). Tá a lán Gaeilge anseo anois...still. Agus tá a lán Gaeilge isteach do...brain...fresin.

Okay, I'm not gonna replace Daithí Ó Sé anytime soon, but that's still fairly fucking impressive considering I haven't done shit apart from impersonate that booze ad in the meantime. You've been studying this shit for years. You know more than you think you know. Forget about the modh conaíllodh and all that complicated stuff. You probably understood the gist of what I was saying in the above paragraph and you'll probably understand enough to get you through the exam, too.

Learn a few key, impressive details in History, then just get the gist of everything else.

I can't remember my exact result for History in the Leaving Cert, but I do remember getting a hearty handshake from my history teacher at the graduation. So I'm going to take that as a win.

What I do remember is how I studied for it. And how I absolutely freaked out when, upon writing my first notes, I realised how many fucking dates there are to remember! That alone was more brain real estate than I'd previously planned to dish out to history, never mind remembering what these dates actually meant!

So, again, I weighed up my options and got back to basics. What is the point of learning history? Why is it interesting? And it's not the dates. If anything, the dates are just context to what the actual story is.

History is about learning the major events that shaped both Ireland and the world, who was behind them, what decisions they made and what consequences those decisions had. That's it.

So learn that first and foremost and, if you understand it from that perspective, you'll be able to talk about it in great detail because - and here's the biggest twist when it comes to history - it's actually interesting. 

People make movies about this shit and we eat it up. Maybe the course doesn't reflect how interesting it actually is, but once you learn to read through the bullshit, you're flying.

From there, it's just a case of learning of a few key details to pad out your essays. You don't need to know all the dates, just some of the dates you plan on using. For instance, if you know the date of some obscure battle from World War II, the examiner will automatically assume you know the date of the D-Day Landings. Why wouldn't you, if you know the date the Allies sent a random memo discussing the plot for the D-Day Landings?

This actually follows for English and any other subject that requires you to write essays and is detail-heavy: if you control the essay, you control the terms of the essay. So adding one impressive little detail here could save you having to learn off 10 basic details down the line and just get the gist.

You shouldn't cheat. Not because it's wrong. Because it's stupid.

Cheating is NOT cool...unless you're this guy.

I'm a former pro-wrestler, so I'm a big fan of creative cheating. People once paid me money to come up with fun and creative ways to break the rules and get an unfair advantage. If you can get away with it, it's worth doing in my book.

That said, the risk isn't worth the reward when it comes to State Exams.

I was that guy in school: the guy who'd always get caught. When a teacher had left the room, I could be sitting at my desk working my arse off, while anarchy reigned in the classroom and a small fire broke out in the corner. Seeing this, I could run over in an attempt to put out the fire and save lives. And you'd bet good money that, at that exact moment, the teacher would walk in and see me standing over the small fire, panicking.

The point is: seeing other people get away with it doesn't ensure that you're going to get away with it.

If you've worked your arse off to pass the Leaving Cert, getting caught cheating is the one way to undo every bit of good work you've put in over the years. If you haven't, then see my final point on this. Either way, you're letting temporary pressure force you into a massively risky situation that could seriously fuck your life up. It's not worth it.

Talking about studying does not equal studying.

Oh please, run me through your fucking study plan again. I hear they're making a movie out of it.

This is something that I was VERY guilty of.

When it's Leaving Cert time, it's all hands on deck. You live in your room or the library enduring this hell, trying to process two years worth of information into your brain in two weeks. You go through every emotional state to get out of having to do so. It's the closest most of us will ever come to being tortured in our lives.

And so you bargain. You go for a walk downstairs to get a glass of water. You see your Mam sitting at the table, doing whatever it is that Mams spend their days doing. And, all of a sudden, this woman (who you've spent the previous 5 years grunting unappreciatively at because she just doesn't get it) becomes your fucking saviour. You're full of chat, all of a sudden. Telling her about how hard it is, but how you think you're finally on top of things and, just to be sure, you run her through your plan for nailing this Leaving Cert once and for all.

Except it's the third time today you've told her that. You've also told your Dad, your sister, chatted with your friends on Facebook about it and even ran it by your dog, just to get it clear in your head.

We'll do anything to get out of studying. Talking about studying is a great way to seem like you're still on top of things, when you're really just still looking for a way to kill time. The bad news is that, no, it doesn't count. There is no way out other than just getting through it and knowing that, in a few weeks, it'll all be over.

Don't worry, though, once Wednesday comes that process speeds up a hundred times. The problem then is that, because you need to cram, that's the one time you need time to actually slow down.

It doesn't matter THAT much...

There. I said it.

You know how people make you go to school for like 12 years? And towards the end they give you endless speeches about how you need to go to college and get a career and do this and that?

That's their job. That's all they're paid to do in their life. So, with that in mind, they might be a little bit biased in telling you that this is what you need to do with your life.

"Oh you want to be a rap star? Hang on, I've some career guidance right over here for you. Did you know that I discovered Dr Dre?"

Other people have other jobs. A lot of people have jobs that they absolutely love. Some of those people did amazing in their Leaving Cert. Some of them didn't. Some of them didn't even do a Leaving Cert.

It's not the be-all, end-all it's made out to be. It's just a pain in the hole you have to get through before you get the keys to live your own life, and decide what you want to do.

A lot of jobs require you to have college degrees to do. So, yeah, if you want one of those jobs, then you'll need the Leaving Cert points required to get them. But guess what? If you don't get them, you can repeat. If you choose not to repeat, you didn't really want the job that much to begin with. So move on and find something you do want. You have options.

Your parents and teachers tell you otherwise because they have to. They think that if they don't encourage this tried and true path to success, you'll get lazy and flop.  The reality is, though, that if you're that type of person, you're just as likely to do it in college or in your career too. And if you're going to succeed, you'll do so with or without great Leaving Cert points.

Good luck.

Rick Nash is a former pro-wrestler who currently DJs for hire, makes piss-poor sports bets and has a community radio show. Altogether, he's a real bum, and you should be ashamed of yourself if you thought this piece was in any way insightful or entertaining. But still, follow him on Twitter and stuff.

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