Top of the class: How one student managed to achieve it all Grainne Faller


In between writing a bestselling novel, captaining the school hockey team, organising a ball and securing a place at Cambridge University, Ruth Gilligan managed to score eight A1s in her Leaving Cert. Gráinne Faller finds out how she did it.

By now, many people will have heard of Ruth Gilligan, the teenager who achieved eight A1s in her Leaving Cert before topping the Irish bestsellers chart with her debut novel Forget. But that's not all she did. Lesser known aspects of her Leaving Cert year include captaincy of her school's hockey team, involvement in the Model United Nations project and organising her year's pre-debs ball. Now, the 18-year-old is looking forward to leaving home and going to Cambridge University, where she plans to read English at the end of the month.

There is a perception that high achievers study to the exclusion of all else but that clearly wasn't the case. So how did she manage to do it all? Having achieved good results in her fifth year summer exams, the main focus for the first part of sixth year, according to Ruth, was just to keep on top of things. "There were people in my year who had detailed study plans from the very start, but I was like 'Ah here, come on!'," she says. "Even my parents were telling me I'd burn out if I started that early . . . I mean, we were still learning new stuff at that stage so I decided instead to stay really, really on top of that."

The first month of school was taken up with the application process for Cambridge. The deadline for applications to Oxford and Cambridge is the beginning of October which is earlier than the rest of UK universities but Ruth's school (St Andrew's College in Booterstown, south Dublin) encouraged students to have all UK applications submitted by then. Ruth says: "The application process is quite a bit of work . . . There was a lot of stuff involved like getting my personal statement together and getting references and grade predictions from my teachers."

As well as the usual English, Irish and maths, Ruth studied French, physics, applied maths, classical studies and business studies. Doing eight subjects wasn't a calculated decision as such. "My school lets you take eight subjects," says Ruth. "I was going to drop one after fifth year or Christmas or whenever, but I was never weak enough at any one of them so I decided to keep going."

October brought a trip to London for a Model UN conference and another to Turkey for classical studies. "That was such a laugh," says Ruth. "Sixth year is your last year in school and you have so many opportunities . . . You have to ask yourself what you're going to take away from the year. So many people gave up everything just to study and some didn't get the results they wanted so in a way it was all for nothing."

At this stage, publishers had expressed an interest in Ruth's novel. Nothing had been signed and she was still tweaking the ending but most of the writing had been done.

In school, Christmas exams proved to be a good indicator of how the year was going. Ruth, although she admits to giving out about them at the time, feels they gave her the incentive to keep working. "They were a good idea. They went pretty well so I was happy enough," she says.

The interviews for the UK colleges had taken place before Christmas and the offers were due in January. When the letter from Cambridge finally arrived, the offer of a place came with the condition that she achieve a total of five As in the final exam. "Of all my subjects, I was hoping to get A1s in English and in maths and I thought that I could make up a good score of points with a couple of B1s in other subjects if I needed to," she says. "That was a bit like, 'Right, I need five As', which I suppose was a bit of a shock."

In the meantime, another Model UN conference in The Hague was coming up but the timing was less than ideal. Ruth explains: "It meant being away for a week three weeks before the mocks, and I had said there was no way I was going. But then after [ the first trip to] London I really wanted to . . . I had a big chat with my parents and decided to go. I tried to do a bit of work over Christmas. There was a lot to do because hockey season was starting and I was on the pre-debs committee, well no, at that stage I actually was the pre-debs committee . . . but I went to The Hague and it was the best trip ever."

With three weeks to go until the mocks, Ruth really hit the books on her return. "I studied morning, noon and night," she says. "We had a week of mid-term which helped a lot." The work paid off as Ruth came out of the mocks with all As under her belt. "I was so happy about that," she says.

Although Ruth didn't get any grinds she did attend a two-day course in oral French in the Foxrock Institute coming up to the oral exam. Having spent a month living in France during the previous summer, her French was in good shape anyway. "My parents didn't really think I needed it but they were, like, 'Fine, okay. Do it if you want to'," she says.

The orals went well. The examiner would not listen to any recitation of learned-off scripts and had thus gained a reputation over the days as a tough customer. Ruth was happy with hers, though. She says: "We were chatting away, I dropped in a mention of the book and that was it! I had my Irish oral a week later . . . We ended up having exactly the same conversation because I mentioned the book again!" She admits she found the Irish oral harder than she expected. "I kept thinking in French," she says.

Over the Easter holidays, Ruth chaired the Irish conference of the Model UN which proved to be a lot of work. But how did she study through all of this?

"I found that my subjects were split between maths-based ones and English-based ones," she says. "I'd do an hour of maths and after that all I'd want to do was write an essay . . . I mixed it around a bit." She admits that some subjects got more care and attention than others. "I found I didn't put as much work into the languages after the oral," she says. "Classical studies is just the best subject ever, but it's so demanding . . . I spent a lot of time on that.

"I did a lot of writing rather than highlighting," she explains. "I find that I remember things if I write them so I'd write essays and notes." She always studied at home although St Andrew's did provide the option of studying in school. "Lots of people did that . . . I sometimes wished I could as well but I think when you study with other people you're very easily distracted. I think there's a bit of a social element to it as well," says Ruth.

She considers herself lucky that she didn't get much homework. "I think that maybe the teachers just trusted us to get on with it," she says. "I suppose I was doing two or three hours of study in the evenings and more at the weekends."

It's good to know the exam papers, according to Ruth. The Irish paper is like a maze, you really need to know it, and there's a lot of time pressure in classical studies, so the same goes for that," she says. Some people in her own year got caught out by that. Ruth says: "There were people in the exams who did the wrong parts of the English paper. They did two (a) parts when you had to do an (a) or a (b) part or something. That's 50 marks just gone . . . You do need to be aware of that stuff."

Students should be wary of rote learning, however. Ruth says: "This year, the people who set the exams openly admitted that they weren't just trying to test knowledge, but that they were testing the application of knowledge. They didn't actually use the words 'catch out' because that would sound too mean but anyone just learning stuff off would have been caught out."

Ruth believes that trying to predict the questions that will come up is also unwise. "Don't take any chances," she advises. "Some get away with doing that, but others get caught out. If you're going to do 80 per cent of the course, why not do 100 per cent?"

She also recommends that this year's students give the mocks the attention they deserve. "By the time the Leaving Cert comes around you're just so tired . . . it's good to really give the mocks some welly and stay on top of things," she says.

As someone who had scored exceptional results in her mocks and kept well up with her workload all year round, one might expect Ruth to have been reasonably calm going into the exams. She gasps in horror at this notion. "I was so stressed, are you joking?" she says. "I was in until the last day of the entire Leaving because of the applied maths as well, which was horrible!"

Looking back, the main piece of advice she has for students this year is this. "I guess I'd say to have balance. Don't just study. When you look back you'll want to remember more than just the Leaving Cert . . . At the end of it all, sixth year is just another year."