10 Things you didn’t know about the Leaving Cert

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English teacher Andrew Deacon explores the myths and secrets of the world’s scariest examination. . .

1.  It’s not the end of anything. Hundreds of students have told me: ‘That’s the last exam I’m ever doing!’ as they head home to make a bonfire of their textbooks and uniform. Five years later, they’re putting in late applications for college, or studying at night for accountancy exams, or preparing for some kind of exam, even if it’s just the driver theory test.

2.  Everyone does it. Well, nearly: in the sixties fewer than 50% of school leavers had a Leaving Cert, now it’s over 90%. Bear this in mind when Grandad tells you not to worry, he left school at 12 and he did ok.

3.  The Leaving is not the be all and end all, but it is important. There’s no point in spending years regretting that you didn’t do yourself justice. Yes, every year the newspapers find celebrities to interview who messed up the LC but still succeeded in life, but the point is that they’re the exceptions. Make a list of your ambitions and ask yourself how many of them can be achieved without a LC. A necessary evil? Maybe, but necessary all right.

4.  Results are improving every year. Does this mean the exams have been ‘dumbed down’ or that students are working harder and taking them more seriously? Well, some of the questions from 20 years ago would cause a bit of head-scratching today, but there’s no doubt that students are better prepared and everybody is more exam-focused now.

5.  The right to examine your marked papers has changed things greatly. Exam markers now want very clear guidelines, because their work is open to scrutiny. Therefore, questions have become very formulaic and answers easier to prepare. Read those interviews with candidates and teachers after the exams: – the highest praise they can give is ‘predictable’. Also, with your anonymity assured and the whole country doing the same papers, it’s probably the fairest school-leaving exam in the world.

6.   Nobody can tell you the details of what’s on the paper. There’s a cottage industry in predicting what’s going to ‘come up’. Students ask me ‘Can I leave out x, y or z? Everybody says it’s not going to come up’. ‘Everybody’ usually turns out to be a teacher in another school, especially if it’s a grind school. The truth is that only a couple of people know what is on the paper and they’re not telling anyone – but of course it’s more fun speculating than actually revising.

7.  Study and revision plans are important – but they’re not a substitute for actual studying or revising. You can spend endless time tidying your desk, colour-coding your notebooks, pinning poetry quotes on your notice board – but preparing to work is not the same as working. It’s what’s called a displacement activity: feels like work, stops you feeling guilty – but achieves nothing.

8.  Your friends will lie to you about how much studying they are doing. The ones who boast about how much they’ve done are in denial; the ones who boast about how little they’ve done are working in secret. Trust nobody: after all, you’re lying to them, too. And perhaps to yourself.

9.  The Leaving Cert celebrations industry has burgeoned in the last ten years. Once it was ‘Thank goodness that’s over – now where can I get a summer job?’ Now it’s graduation ceremony, debs, ‘pre-debs’ to practise for the debs, two-week sun holidays in July, results parties. . . Not to mention the fact that most peoples’ eighteenth birthdays are now during the Leaving Cert year. Maybe it’s worth remembering that celebrations are so much better when they mark an actual achievement. Parents, or whoever’s financing all the parties, will be more impressed if there is something to celebrate.

10.  Everyone wants you to do well. Family, friends, teachers all have an interest in this process and are all on your side. You can use this in so many ways, whether it’s asking a teacher to go over something tricky after school or convincing your mum to deliver your dinner  to your ‘study room’. But don’t push it too far. Yes, the Leaving Cert causes stress and the student deserves support, but it’s not a disease or an excuse for prima donna behaviour. Take it seriously and enjoy it – like all the important things in life.


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