12 Aug '13

News 'While I was inside, I decided to sort myself out'

AJ went to prison for looting in the London riots. Now he is one of many students with a lot riding on his A-levels. Lucy Tobin talks to some of them, and offers useful tips to help you prepare for results day on Thursday

'I want to be an A&R executive'

AJ Nnamdi, 19, left Haringey College in 2010 after struggling with AS-levels, and was on an electrical course when he became involved in the August riots two years ago. AJ was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing designer clothes from a shopping centre in north London, but was released after nine months for good behaviour. He returned to Haringey College to study A-levels in law, English language and literature and media studies. He is also a rapper and has an offer to study music management at Buckinghamshire New University.

I didn't do well in my first year of A-levels, and then after the university fees went up so much, I felt like continuing with the courses was a waste of time – I didn't want to put myself in that much debt.

I thought I'd get a trade job and enrolled on an electrical course, but it was only two days a week, and you know what they say about idle hands. I was in Wood Green during the riots, at first with friends, but then we split up, and the heat of the moment got to me. Later I was arrested, and sentenced to 18 months in prison. I served half of that. While I was there I decided to sort myself out and get A-levels.

I didn't do any studying inside – unless you were there for a really long time you could only do level 1 qualifications, and I'm smarter than that.

But my college took me back, and I decided to study law. I thought it would help me to understand the other side of the prison system and why I had to go there.

Going to prison made me realise things can be taken away from you so easily. You've got to make the most of every day. So where in my first year I was just going out with friends all the time and enjoying life, this time round I took everything more seriously. I live with my mum and little sister and every day I came home to revise, or stayed back at college, in the study centre. My form tutor, Rosie Shire, was amazing – she was like a second mother to me.

Balancing A-levels and all the coursework with music wasn't easy, but I wanted to make sure that I made the most of my life. I released an EP on the anniversary of my release from prison. Now I want to be a rapper or an A&R executive. But first, I want to go to uni. When I learned more about the fees, and that you don't have to pay them back until you're earning £21,000, I became more relaxed about them. I've seen my mum live on much less than that and so if I'm earning that amount of money, I think paying back the loan will be OK.

I've got a conditional place to study music management at Buckinghamshire New University. I need 250 Ucas points (the equivalent of CDD), and I hope I get them. But I know I've done the best that I could, and I've put the work in. Even if I miss my offer, I won't fall apart: being sent to prison was the worst point of my life. So even if I failed every exam it wouldn't be the end of the world – I've already been through that.

'My hope is the Paralympics'

Sophie Carrigill, 19, was on holiday in the US in 2010 when the car she was travelling in crashed. The Wakefield Girls' high school student, from Leeds, broke her back and was left paralysed below the waist. A year later, she took up wheelchair basketball and now plays for Team GB. She is waiting for the results of her A-levels in psychology, English language and PE and wants to study sports psychology at the University of Worcester.

Revision went OK. I don't think anyone particularly enjoys it, but I coped. I mainly did my studying at home, although my school was made accessible for me after my accident. I was always offered support if I needed it.

I had lots of basketball camps and tournaments during my revision and exam period, so it was a challenge to plan my revision timetable. But I enjoyed the subjects that I took, and was predicted higher than the 280 Ucas points I need. On the whole I thought my exams went well. I was just glad when they had finished.

Neither of my parents went to university, but it was always part of my life plans. I'm worried about results because I'll be upset if I don't get into Worcester. My insurance place – also sports psychology, but at Coventry – doesn't offer me the basketball training that Worcester does, and one of my hopes is to be a Paralympian. I'm hopeful that with the training I will be getting at Worcester I will be in contention to play in Rio in 2016. I've got a basketball tournament straight after results day – the under-25 European championships.

Then it'll be time to start thinking about uni. I expect it will be difficult, with all the work you have to do. I am slightly worried about my disability making it tougher, too, but I'm very independent now so that should help. I do think it will be the best time of my life. Meeting new people and having to live by yourself – I'm really looking forward to being so independent.

'I'm going into politics'

Omar Sharif (he says his famous name "helped me to become a more memorable person during my time in the Youth Parliament") is 18 and took politics, history and business studies A-levels at Bournemouth and Poole sixth form college. He hopes to hit his AAA offer to study politics and economics at Bath University in September.

I'm the first in my family to apply to university, which made the process quite daunting. But after I was elected to the Youth Parliament in 2008, and then joined the Dorset Youth Council, I decided I wanted to pursue a career in politics, where the sad reality is that university is practically essential to succeed.

So I chose Bath as my firm offer because it provides the opportunity to either study abroad in the third year or to gain a work placement at the UK Parliament and European Parliament. I really hope to make the most of these opportunities to ensure I'm not one of the graduates who end up overqualified for their profession.

But I have to get there first. I studied a lot in the sixth-form study room and library during the weekdays, and had strict schedules at weekends to revise in my room or my local library. I think my self-discipline over revision enabled me to thrive in the sixth form, even though I didn't during my GCSEs.

On results day I'm going to go into college early – just in case my results are not what I am hoping for, but also to say goodbye to some of my college friends and lecturers. I am slightly apprehensive about it, but I've so far been quite good at putting it to the back of my mind and getting on with other activities.

Determined to be a doctor

Rebecca Benham, 18, took biology, chemistry and maths A-levels at Petroc College in Tiverton, Devon. She is waiting to hear if she has hit the AAB results she needs to study medicine at Exeter University.

I've been part of "Star" since year 11 – it's a scheme for Devon and Cornwall by Exeter University that selects a group of students from low-income families with high aspirations. As part of it, I've been on residentials to prepare for uni, and had extra tutoring sessions to help me with my application. I was told that if I completed the programme, passed the extra UK Clinical Aptitude Test for would-be medical students, and met the subject-specific entry requirements for the University of Exeter medical course, I'd have a guaranteed interview at Exeter – which was half the battle.

Neither of my parents went to university and I'm the first of my generation in my family to go, but I've wanted to be a doctor since I was 13. Now after doing well at interview, because of Star, my offer is a grade less than the standard offer. That takes off loads of pressure. But even though I was initially confident after my exams, as time goes on I'm getting more and more nervous about my results. I've been having dreams both where I'm accepted and rejected – it's driving me up the wall.

Alongside revising this year, since medicine is so competitive I had to have relevant work experience to prove that I was hungry for a career as a doctor. I had several placements at North Devon district hospital and a local GP surgery, but what I think really helped was my job as a care assistant in a nursing home. I basically help or do anything you can think of for a person if they can't do it themselves, from feeding to dressing to washing. It's not always a pleasant job, but it's really rewarding.

I had three universities interview me out of four, and got my offer from Exeter, my first choice. On results day, the plan is that my mum will check my Ucas – if I've been accepted by Exeter we are celebrating with champagne, and then I'll go into college to find out what my grades are.

My life for the next year really does depend on results day. If I don't get in to university this time, I plan to retake what's needed and go through the long medical school application process again to hopefully achieve a place next year. It would be annoying to put my life on hold until then, but I'm determined I will make it.

The high cost of fees has never put me off, as what I want to study has a high chance of a successful job at the end of it and I believe it's worth the money. I can't wait to start university. I'm ready to live on my own and be my own person.

• Next week: find out if our students made the grade.

• A Guide to Uni Life, by Lucy Tobin (Trotman, £9.99) is available now

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