GCSEs and A-Levels: What to do if your grades were not what you expected

Written by Dr Oliver Jenkin PGCE RCDP, Senior Career Development Consultant 

Getting your GCSE and A-Level results can be nerve-wracking at the best of times. Many of you reading this will be hoping to achieve the grades you need to enter 6th form, college, or university, or to join an apprenticeship. Despite our best efforts however, things don’t always go according to plan, so this article aims to give you some tips if your grades were not what you needed for your original post-16 or post-18 plan.

Understanding your post-16 options

If you got your GCSE results this week and did not manage to achieve the grades needed for your intended course or apprenticeship, this is naturally going to be disappointing, but whatever grades you achieved you still have options to continue learning. If your plan was to continue full-time education at college or in a 6th form, the good news is that there are courses available for all levels of academic ability. A good starting point would be to speak to your intended college or 6th form and find out what they can offer you. If they do not seem to have a suitable course, do not be afraid to look at the courses offered by other 6th forms or colleges – different learning providers offer different options, and it is often possible to make a late application even after you have achieved your GCSEs.

If you missed out on the grade needed for your apprenticeship, speak to the employer and training provider to see if an exception can be made. Remember that new apprenticeship vacancies are advertised all the time on the Find an Apprenticeship website, and it might be possible to find an opportunity with more flexible grade requirements. Another option worth considering is a traineeship, which is best thought of as a ‘stepping-stone’ opportunity for those who need more time to improve their grades and gain more work experience to help prepare themselves for an apprenticeship. You can find traineeship opportunities advertised on the Find a Traineeship website, or you can speak to local colleges to find out more about this option. Finally, remember that even if your original plan was to do an apprenticeship, you might be able to make a last-minute college application to give yourself time to gain qualifications and skills relevant to your chosen type of work.

Post-18 options: University isn’t everything

If you have recently received A-Level or Level 3 BTEC grades and have found that you have not been successful in gaining your firm or insurance choice of university, don’t despair just yet. Firstly, speak to your 6th form or college to find out if it is possible to appeal any of your grades. You can read about the appeal process for 2021 exams here; keep in mind that it is just as possible that your grade will remain the same or even be marked down, so think carefully and take advice before taking this step.  If you still want to go to university with the grades you achieved, your first point of call will be the courses available through Clearing on UCAS. If you want to filter Clearing places based on your achieved grades, The Uni Guide allows this facility and may save you some time. Remember however that universities will sometimes make students an offer even if their achieved grades are below their stated entry requirements, so there is nothing to be lost in speaking to the university to find out what they can offer you. You could also take a gap year and reapply through UCAS to start the following academic year if you would prefer. It might also be possible to resit your exams and submit a new application based on your new predicted grades. Many universities will accept this, but some courses (particularly very competitive courses like Medicine) may specify in their entry requirements that your qualifications have to be achieved in one sitting, so research courses carefully to make sure that resits will be worth the time and (if you are studying privately) the expense involved.

Don’t forget however, that the traditional university route is not the only option available to you after A-Levels or a Level 3 BTEC. As mentioned above in the context of post-16 options, it is still perfectly possible to do an apprenticeship or a traineeship after A-Levels. In fact, you will have a wider range of apprenticeship options available to you, including Higher Apprenticeships and Degree Apprenticeships. Keep in mind that if you gain a degree or degree-level qualification through the apprenticeship route, in addition to being paid a salary you will not have to repay any tuition fees at all, as the costs of this will be met by the Government and your employer. There are also many other tailored jobs for school leavers that do not require a university degree, but which carry good career progression and the chance to gain professional qualifications, so research employers’ recruitment options carefully. Finally, don’t forget that it is always possible to take a gap year if you need more time to weigh up your options, but do think about how you can use the time productively to gain skills and experiences that could be valuable in employment or future education.

Getting support with your options

Working out what to do when your grades are not what you hoped for can be stressful and confusing, so don’t be afraid to seek the right help to make sense of your options. Your school or college careers adviser should be your first port of call – they will be very knowledgeable about all the options available to you and trained to support you in to make the right decision for yourself. If you live in Devon, Cornwall, Plymouth or Torbay, CSW Group is offering an exams results service every day during August 2021. Alternatively, if you live elsewhere in England, the National Careers Service offer a helpline and web chat service where you can get support to explore your options.  Students in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland can access similar services via their respective careers services.