"Don’t know what to do next? Neither did we!"

Three Independent writers remember their choices after leaving college, and how little they had actually planned

Rhodri Marsden – Columnist

The months leading up to my A-levels provided me with the toughest mental workout I've ever had. This is either a testament to the exceptional rigour of the exams I sat in 1989, or a sad reflection of how little I've used my brain since then.

But I hope this reassures anyone who feels as if they've recently been battered about the head with wads of revision notes, and are wondering if it gets any worse. It doesn't. Well, it might. But it might not. I can't say for sure. (I'm terrible at counselling.)

I remember that my exam period coincided with the Tianenmen Square massacre. My mother called upstairs to me one afternoon to tell me that history was happening right now on the television, but I was conflicted, because I needed to focus on the rules of diminishing marginal returns in my economics textbook.

I'd applied to City University to study music and was desperate to move to London; the prospect of living in the capital was motivation enough and I stuck to my task.

I figured that I could watch the footage from the Chinese protests in 20 years' time on YouTube in any case.

During the post-exam weeks a bird shat on my head in Dunstable town centre. That's apparently supposed to be good luck, but to be honest I prefer my omens to come in a different format.

Anyway, when my results finally came through, I was at the Edinburgh Festival so I had to call the school from a phone box while perspiring heavily, partly through nerves, partly because of the intense Scottish heat.

There was no suspense-laden announcement; with a lamentable lack of dramatic flair my teacher just said "Yeah, you've done fine."

That was it.

Six weeks later I had moved to London, and I'm still here. I've never been a particularly adventurous person.

Rebecca Armstrong - Features editor

When I think about the summer of 1998, when I finished A-levels and bade school goodbye, what I can't believe is how little I'd planned – and how little that bothered me. I didn't know how I was going to do in my exams, I didn't know what I was going to do come September and I didn't know where I'd end up living. I knew I was glad I'd turned down an apprenticeship at the local tattooists in favour of applying to uni and obviously thought that things would turn out all right in the end. I worked in a couple of different shops and had just passed my driving test so I was mobile and (relatively) monied.

I'd written down some different options on the back of a fag packet a few months earlier (Art course? Uni? Move to Cambridge to hang out with my then-boyfriend? Learn to type?) but it was nothing like the painstaking plans some of the teenagers I now know have (get three As at A-level. If not, retake. Go to No 1 choice of university. If not, life is over). But I was lucky – the spectre of tuition fees didn't haunt me as I lived with my mother and we didn't have enough money to have to pay. Fourteen years ago was the last year of student grants. It seems like a lifetime ago.

I drifted until results day, the final time I went to my old school. My grades were good (not three As but not too shabby), and it turned out that Manchester University had spontaneously decided to offer me a place on its English degree course. A few days later I caught a train north, went to the pub, decided I could live in Manchester (without, I must admit, bothering to visit the university or halls) and within the month I was an undergraduate. That summer was undoubtedly the last time I was ever so carefree about the future, and I'm grateful I had the chance to be so unconcerned.

Richard Garner - Education editor

I can well remember the days when I left school and started to seek work way back in the "summer of love" in 1967. There was some careers advice at school but – unless you wanted to be an accountant or a lawyer – it was of little value.

The headmaster gave us a pep talk before leaving but the only bit I remember was when he said: "Nay, do not consort with women of loose virtue". I think the exhortation had as little impact on us as the careers master's exhortations.

I wanted to write, man, but before that a holiday in Cornwall doing very little seemed essential. I had failed to get the grades to take up my only university offer from Essex, which was probably just as well as – had I gone – my time there would have coincided with that of members of the Angry Brigade, who bombed cabinet ministers' homes, and fomented an air of revolution among the student body.

I could have applied again the following year, but there was no history of university education in my family and no support for doing so rather than going out and earning a living.

On my return from Cornwall, my parents packed me off to the independent schools careers service – having paid for me to go to a public school they felt they should get their money's-worth from its services. I told them I wanted to write and quite fancied a job at the BBC. They said: "No chance."

Two months later, though, I got one – although it was only in a low-grade clerical post doing research and filing for news programmes. Working fairly closely to news filled me with a love of journalism and I soon learnt the best way to pursue that was through a National Council for the Training of Journalists' course at Harlow College.

That may have looked less than impressive in the magazine for old boys at the school to have my career destination listed as Harlow Technical College alongside some of my compatriots who could put down Oxford or Cambridge. I am confident I made the right decision, though.

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