Life after the Leaving Cert...students compare school and university exams

We ask five college students to compare exams then and now

Michael McGrath (19), attended Presentation Brothers College, Cork; now studying European Studies at Trinity College Dublin "I didn't put myself under enormous pressure but obviously I needed to get my points, so I was fairly serious about things. The pressure came mostly from the school – my parents did not put too much pressure on me – and also from myself.

“A few days before the exams I took it easy. I didn’t cram, cram, cram. I went out for walk, and that really helped. I think that is the best thing to do. Study for up to the week before and then take a break.”

One year on, his university exams this month are "completely different. All I really want to do is pass, none of the results goes towards my degree. There is much less pressure." He also knows if something doesn't go well, he has the option of repeating an exam at the end of the summer. However, he has one big incentive not to fail anything. Doing a repeat would mean missing Electric Picnic.

"That's not even a joke," he adds with a laugh. Jack Dolan (19), attended St Patrick's Cathedral Grammar School and the Institute of Education in Dublin; now studying politics and geography at Trinity College Dublin "I think anybody who tells you they weren't stressed out last year is probably lying. There is always another route in through PLCs and stuff but there is immense pressure on the Leaving Cert. It is probably the most important exam you will ever take because repeating it is such a burden."


He found it hard not being able to focus on things he liked. “That is why it is so stressful. You are not really given the choice to do something that you’re truly passionate about.”

He feels there is pressure from the whole of society over the Leaving. “Schools are putting pressure on you and parents obviously want you to achieve well. They try to be calm and relaxing about it but it’s never really what happens and, as a result, you are a little more stressed out.

“There is that fear of ‘we’re not angry, we’re just disappointed’ – that’s like the worst response. There is also a pressure that you give yourself.”

He is less worried about his university exams. “I have a genuine interest in what I’m doing and that can take a lot of the burden off. They really don’t tell you college is going to be hard; it is one of those well-kept secrets in sixth year,” he adds. “But I feel better about it because I enjoy the stuff I am studying.”

Heidi Anderson (19), attended St Andrew's College, Co Dublin; now studying psychology at NUI Galway "I didn't really realise how stressed I made myself for the Leaving because it was just normal. Everybody was so stressed at the time. No one else was pressurising me, I just felt like I really wanted to make other people proud – my teachers, my family.

“It was like a litmus test to how I was doing as a person. There aren’t that many concrete markers of how you are doing in life. You are seeking validation and it distorts your priorities.”

She did the Leaving in 2014 and took a year out in Berlin before starting college. Now it is what she describes as the “hidden curriculum” of that final exam year at school which stays with her.

“I don’t remember the pernickety diagrams of the ear and the foot. I do remember my work ethic and my relationships with friends and people who were there for you when things were really stressful.”

She is not too bothered about her first-year university exams because she feels she only has to pass.

Luke Gibbons (19), attended St Colman's College, Claremorris, Co Mayo; now studying law at Trinity College Dublin "The mocks didn't go too bad so I was feeling okay going into the Leaving Cert. I found the actual Leaving Cert less stressful than exams you have during the year in school. It was like, I have the work done and basically you just go for it."

He is more nervous about his college exams, finding them harder to prepare for because there is less guidance.

“Looking back now, the Leaving Cert exams were very predictable. But at the time it was the be-all, end-all that was going to decide my future. Now when I think about it, so many people in my [law] class came in through different access routes; it is not the only way to get into college.”

He admits that in the final weeks before the Leaving he was “pumped up on Berocca Boost and cans of coke”. However, he adds that he “really, really enjoyed the Leaving Cert. I don’t think many people say that.”

Cailean Coffey (19), attended Kilkenny College; now studying English, psychology, philosophy and politics at University College Cork "I didn't really feel under pressure last May. I worked all last year, practically every Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 6pm.

“I more or less gave up everything for studying. It made me feel more relaxed when the exams did come up.”

He got his third choice on the CAO form and he is very happy how it has turned out, despite having hoped to go to Dublin. “UCC is lovely; it was a lot better than I was expecting.”

He is more stressed about his upcoming university exams than he was about the Leaving.

“I don’t feel I have put in as much work as I did before. My ability to work for long stretches of time has definitely decreased.

“Everyone goes into Leaving Cert expecting to be stressed, then when you get to college you kind of expect no study, but you have to study, you have to work a lot more than you expect.”

In conversation with Sheila Wayman