Motivation: How important is the Leaving Cert?

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where …” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. —Lewis Carroll

Motivation has a lot to do with control. You won't be motivated if you feel like you are carrying out someone else's orders. The trick is to recognise what it is that you need to do to achieve your own goals rather than constantly reacting to the environment. Pretty much every famous commencement speech (they give those in the US at University graduations) amounts to the following: you have more power than you think you do. So it is time to look out for the choices that you can make that you don't even realise you have right now.

Having gone through a pile of research papers and books, the best definition for this rare and elusive concept is below, as is a very approximate formula to show what it is made up of. 

Motivation is an internal state that arouses, directs and maintains behavior[1].

Motivation = 

the value of the success to you
your assessment of how likely you are to succeed

It doesn't take a lot of reflection to realise that both of the components of the above formula are entirely decided by the person in question. In and of themselves, they aren't necessarily dependent on external factors. However, we all know that in practice, a string of repeated failures or negative feedback can leave a real dent in one's motivation.

How to work around it? The New Yorker has recently summarised in a few simple statements:
  • "Bad events aren't my fault". You can't hold yourself responsible for things you have no control over. This is also called changing your explanatory style form internal to external,
  • "This one narrow thing is wrong; this does not mean a global catastrophe", i.e. go from global to specific
  • "This is not a completely fixed situation, I can do something to change it", i.e. go from permanent to impermanent. 
The Leaving Cert is important in some ways. But there is a life outside of it: you don't need to do so well in it to succeed. As a group of people with straight A1s we have no incentive to convince anyone that the Leaving Cert doesn't matter, it is a memory test, etc.

Naturally, the more options are open to you the better. The more points you get in your Leaving Cert, the more options you have. But what option are you potentially closing off while chasing Leaving Cert points?

A huge number of our friends who did phenomenally well in school, got into their desired college course... then dropped out. Because it is not an end in itself. Numerous people dropped out of medicine, not at all because they weren't good enough for it, but because it wasn't for them and did very well in their careers.

We know a few architecture students who realised it wasn't for them and moved on to other carreers; a computer science dropout as well as guys who never even went to college who subsequently developed one of the most successful startups in the world.

Even at graduate level, some of these highly accomplished people end up doing things they never thought they would, like a pair of travel-loving doctors setting up a successful jewellery business selling high quality pearl necklaces from the tropics.

The possibilities are endless and they most certainly aren't determined by the Leaving Cert, unless you decide that they should be. The Leaving Cert is there to help you achieve your goals, not take over your life. If you would like, read more on how to do well in the Leaving Cert.

From 2016, we started offering a personalised coaching service for Leaving Cert students that focuses on issues such as motivation, planning study, setting goals, managing stress and achievement. For more details, contact

[1] 33. Woolfolk, A., Hughes, M. and Walkup V. (2013) Psychology in Education, Second edition. Essex: Pearson
[2] Based on Cavazos, A.G. and Cavazos, J. (2010) Understanding the experiences of Latina/o students: A qualitative study for change. American Secondary Education, 38, 95-109.
Eccles, J.S. (1993) School and family effects on the ontogeny of children’s interests, self-perceptions, and activity choice. In J.Jacobs (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation 1992; Developmental perspectives on motivation. Lincoln. NB: University of Nebraska Press.
Eccles, J.S. (2007) Families, schools, and developing achievement-related motivations and engagement, In J.E. Grusec and P.D. Hastings (Eds.), Handbook of socialisation. New York: Guilford.
Wigfield, A., Tonks, S. and Klauda, S.L. (2009) Expectancy-value theory. In K.R. Wentzel and A. Wigfield (Eds.) Handbook of motivation at school. New York: Routledge 

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