A student asked me this question and I have to admit that I am stumped.

When I was a student, I wasn’t a fan of exams. I hated the studying for the sake of merely passing the exam. However, I have to admit that if it wasn’t for the exams, I wouldn’t have bothered with some subjects at all. And till this day, I do remember some (very little actually) of the arcane stuff I learnt in Chemistry and Biology that I’m pretty sure I won’t ever have to use in my professional life (except beer brewing maybe).

As an educator (albeit being new and having much more to learn) and adult, I have to say that I cannot think of any more efficient (note: efficient, not effective nor engaging) way of distinguishing the more hardworking and/or brilliant students from the rest.

After all, when these students graduate, they either go on to further their studies and/or enter the workforce. This means that the people who, to a large extent, will determine their immediate future are the admission boards of institutes of higher learning and the hiring managers of their prospective employees. Now, if you were someone who had to make a hiring decision or the decision to admit someone as a student into your faculty, what would you do?

Given that so many companies (especially the larger ones) have their own training programs to familiarise their staff with their own systems and operations, what then is a company’s view of the purpose of school? I would imagine that hirers expect at least two things: 1) that students to pick up a portfolio of basic skills (relevant to the industry or transferable) from school and, 2) ability to thrive in a cushioned environment.

The first point is evident, given that some form of further training (either formal or on-the-job) takes place in any company. The second, however, is what I think too many students focus either too little or too much on. Now, school is a very safe place to explore, make mistakes and learn from them. Usually, the mistakes made in school do not bear the kind of consequence that one would expect in the working world. Therefore, if a person cannot even thrive in such an environment, is there much chance of thriving in a harsher one?

Which brings me back to exams. Exams are a pain, especially so when you have little or no interest in the subject but the grades count. But once, you take the viewpoint of someone who decides your future, exams suddenly take on a new light. They become signposts as to how resilient (can this person grit their teeth and trudge through a subject that was taught in the most boring way?) and adaptable (can this person survive in a constantly changing environment that requires new skills to be picked up?) and that is what I think, on a practical level, that exams serve to show. They are like the obstacles that one cannot avoid in life.

The question is: Can you overcome them?

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