The college admissions process in Ireland, vastly different from here, still amounts to the same amount of huge stress, writes Rachael Shearer.

As last week’s Central Applications Office (CAO) college/university offers came out, I reminisced on my own Leaving Cert experience, the equivalent of high school graduation, experience seven years ago.

Although, “reminisce” implies a certain level of fondness that I think can only come with a solid seven years of distance from the event. So, just to be clear, CAO day was not a fun experience, but now that I am (supposed to be) a grown-up I can reflect upon it without breaking out in sweat and hives.

Throughout school I was considered a “swot.” I know this because I was regularly called that, among other things.

My first year of secondary school I rocked up with my kilt at ankle length (everyone else had them cut above the knee). I didn’t wear make-up, I didn’t want to, and I hadn’t kissed a boy who wasn’t entirely fictional like “Stephen who I met on holidays in France.” Everyone had a Stephen that they had kissed on holidays in France.

It didn’t bother me that I was laughed at for the hand-made posters I stuck up around the school to create “awareness” about an incinerator that was due to be built beside my house. It didn’t bother me to rat on girls who hit each other or vandalized school property.

I was in school to learn, and after school my evenings were packed with dance, piano, singing, horse-riding, and a million other activities. I was going places. I was smart.

The Junior Cert takes place at age 15 and is designed to prepare you for the big’un in two or three years’ time. I remember strolling into each exam cool as a freakin’ cucumber knowing I was going to nail it.

And I did. All A’s for this little nerd and my skirt was still ankle length. Then “Transition Year” happened and it all fell apart.

This was also the year where we merge with the boys’ school for an annual musical. It was also when we started to discover make-up and hair straighteners and the fact that we could possibly pass for 18 if we had a good fake ID.

This was the beginning of the end. Why had I been wasting all that time studying when I could have been having a boyfriend or going shopping? This was arguably the best year of school.

By the time fifth year rolled around and we were meant to be gearing up for the Leaving Cert, my skirt had been cut well above the knee and I had a boyfriend that I texted 500 times a day during classes rather than paying attention.

I knew I could get the points I needed by doing the bare minimum as my swottish smarts hadn’t entirely disintegrated, so when sixth year started I decided I wouldn’t pay any heed to the general sense of panic and hysteria as we were told relentlessly that if we screwed this up, we were screwed for life. No college, no job, no hope.

I was lucky in that I didn’t struggle with schoolwork or the pressure of exams, but for those who do struggle, this year is unbearably stressful. It’s palpable. It’s deeply saddening and it’s ridiculous.

Girls stopped washing entirely, would refuse to wear anything other than tracksuits, would barely eat and rarely sleep. From what I hear, it hasn’t changed.

On results day, the nation holds its breath. They have been watching all along. Every newspaper, radio station and TV station explodes with news of national results.

Last week, as colleges made their offers, it’s the same story all over again. This is the first year I don’t personally know anyone who sat the exams, but I’m still hearing about it all the time. Believe the hype.

My results day was hellish. Towards the exams, I was so certain that I had it in the bag that I began relaxing to a whole new level.

Rather than study, my boyfriend and I would drive to the beach and chill there for the day. It was sunny and we were 18, and why waste these glorious days in a stuffy library studying the function of the human eye or reading stuffy old poems?

I found the exams fine and it all passed in a bit of a blur, generally aware of this momentous occasion that we were a part of, but also so desperate to get out of Waterford and start my new life that I was aggressively wishing the time away. When results day came, I was calm, cool and collected on my way to get my ticket out of there.

And then there was a big, ugly, unexpected shock.

I sat with a calculator adding and re-adding my points with shaking fingers, genuinely unable to believe what was in front of me. Now, I can look back and laugh at my silliness and the drama of literally fainting in the principal’s office, but at the time it was worthy of such a display.

I had gotten a C in English – what? My best subject had failed me. I had been too confident and if I’m being brutally honest, I was completely disgusted with myself.

I was 10 points short. My dreams of college were over. I climbed into a hole of depression and waited for CAO day.

This is supposed to be the most exciting time for kids straight out of school, and I had come out with 510 points which is great by any standards, and it was still somehow possibly not enough. I cursed myself for losing focus, for having fun and enjoying my teenage prime. Because that’s not what school is for.

CAO day comes and it’s 6 a.m. in Dublin Airport. We’re going on a family holiday because it’s 2008 and everyone still has money.

I am not excited. I want to vomit because I have just received a text from a friend saying “English at Trinity just went down by 10 points.” WHAT? WHAT DOES THIS MEAN??? Panic, etc.

Finally, I see the result. “Rachael Shearer: TR023” – I’ll never forget it – the serial number for English Studies at Trinity.

Perhaps due to lack of demand (who wouldn’t want to read books for four years?!) the course went down to 510. I got in by the skin of my teeth. I cried for about 10 hours. This is not healthy. It is not ok for teenagers to have to go through this level of trauma.

When I saw the headlines last week for CAO results, my stomach knotted. This is the day that you have been building up to since you first stepped into a classroom at age four. You’ve been conditioned to believe that it will define the rest of your life.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Once you come out of those four years, and the following three and the following however many more, you start to see that while the Leaving Cert is important, it does not define the rest of your life. You do.

I’ll spend the next year working on a Leaving Cert disclaimer along those lines for the next batch of poor, unfortunate souls.