This letter appeared on its entirely on Timeslive on the 27th of October 2010. I liked it so much that I had to re-post it here. It does not in anyway reflect my views and opinion, but rather that of Professor Jonathan Jansen.
Dear Matriculant class of 2010
I am sure by now you are tired of all the advice about your senior certificate examinations and how the grade 12 results will determine your future. Your teachers and parents must be on you all the time about putting in every effort for “this is it!”
Actually, most of what you heard in the run-up to the examinations is very bad advice.
First of all, the grade 12 examinations do not determine your future. In fact, most universities no longer look at the grade 12 results alone, but also at a range of other assessments, including the National Benchmark Tests, to determine whether to admit you to higher learning or not. Some university programmes might even interview you to get beyond the paperwork and see whether you have what it takes to succeed in university and in the world of work.
You see, what they do not tell you, is that many universities do not trust the senior certificate results even though the standard of the examinations is much more credible that it was about 10 years ago.
Second, as you know, it is possible in South Africa to pass some subjects with 30% or 40%. If this is your aim, my advice to you is spare yourself the pressure of the final examinations. Go to a beach somewhere and sell seaweed to fishermen, for your prospects in university or in society are completely non-existent if you take the standards of the Department of Basic Education as your passing goal.
Go into that examination with the aim of passing well. Our school system is based on mediocrity not excellence; it bestows favour on those who scrape through rather than those who outstrip their potential. A pass of 30% means (gulp) that you are clueless about 70% of the work. Show some self-respect, and aim for the top of your class.
Third, there is nothing you can do in the last month before an examination. Adults have lied to you if they pushed you into cram schools or spring camps under the illusion that you can take three years of senior learning and press this into your head within a few weeks. All that nonsense you hear about students who stayed up all night to write the examination the next morning is extremely dangerous.
The month before and the night before is a time to rest, to do simple revision and not to stress yourself. The brain, unlike other muscles, is a sophisticated organ – not one that can be subjected to sudden press-ups just before a race.
Fourth, and this is going to hurt, if you did not study steadily, all year round, you are not going to pass. If you did not use the time productively while your teachers went on that prolonged and destructive strike, expect the worst. I know this is terrible to say, but it is much better for you to hear the truth now and prepare yourself for the outcome, than to raise your hopes and have them dashed later.
I know of a lazy but earnest evangelical student who sat for his matric physics exam many years ago and prayed as he lifted the pen to write: “Speak Lord, your servant heareth.” Needless to say, his physical science results were rotten.
Fifth, and this is going to hurt even more, at least two of your subjects have nothing to do with your further education. The one is life orientation and the other is mathematical literacy. Do not get me wrong, any meaningful learning in these two areas will probably make you a better citizen or a more informed consumer; stuff like that.
But do not for one moment think that mathematical literacy will boost your chances of higher education; even weaker universities now realise that a good mark in math lit is a poor predictor of success.
Sixth, most of you should not go to university to begin with. Society has given you the wrong message about post-school learning opportunities. I hope more and more of you will pursue high-quality vocational training through further education and training colleges or their equivalent. Much is being done to ensure that these colleges improve the three critical things needed for quality vocational training: highly skilled personnel, top-quality equipment, and a positive teaching and learning climate.
Seventh, you are smarter than any examination can foretell. If you do well, congratulations. If not, one page of poor results is not the end of the world. I will be holding thumbs for all of you. Write well.
Jonathan Jansen, is a regular academic commentator on Sunday Times, and he is Vice-Chancellor and a principal at the University Of Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa.