A BRIGHT red drop spilled on to the peach paper, quickly followed by another, and then more. I was sitting one of my Highers and my nose was not just bleeding, but bleeding over the exam paper I was already halfway through.

I was given another and had to find time to finish the rest of the questions, before copying out everything I’d written so far. No amount of study could have prepared me for that curve ball. A tissue and a good night’s sleep, perhaps, but not the books and notes I’d been memorising for weeks. A panicked 16-year-old with a bloody Modern Studies paper, trying to catch the attention of an invigilator: that’s what exam stress looks like.

I’d never felt more under pressure. Every now and then the scenario presents itself as a fully-fledged anxiety dream, complete with the invigilator’s throat-clearing.

These things stick with you. Exam time is the first time we tell children that what they do now will have a direct impact on their future. It’s a big message to process. The shape of a whole life is quite a responsibility. An unfair responsibility to saddle anyone with. In the 15 years since, I’ve done my best to put that month out of my head. My gran was hospitalised with a stroke just before my exams started, and she’d died after the second one, with three more to go.

I had a conditional offer to study law at university, my ticket to leaving school and home a year early if I got As. The last few years of life at home had been uncomfortable and even hostile. The exams weren’t just the key to my future – acing them was the only choice. Those results were a tether to something different, something much better.

Or so I thought. I passed the exams, I went to university and I hated it. My subject didn’t make me happy, as I imagined it would. No-one really prepares you for that. But what I’ve learned in the years since is that when things don’t work out, a different path opens up before you, even if you can’t see it.

Yesterday, I ran into some old friends. Their son is turning 17 and in the middle of his exams. He has no idea what he wants to do yet. It seems like he, like thousands of other young people across the country, is feeling the pressure.

As someone who took a while to find her way, via design and eventually to writing, it’s OK not to have a clue what to do with your life yet. You haven’t had any time to get to know yourself outside of the education system.

When you consider that, it’s pretty crazy that young people are expected to know what they’ll be passionate about or what will motivate them in decades to come. At 16, you’ve had little experience to base a decision on. Living your life is the emergent research that you need to understand what drives you. You might have an idea of that from an early age, but many of us don’t, and that’s fine.

When your sense of self-worth is tied to your academic performance, the weight of failure can seem suffocating. That can be amplified and compounded by the expectations of family members, especially if you’re the eldest child and have no-one to offer the benefit of recent experience and insight.

The popular narrative is that exam success is the be-all and end-all, which turns those exams into a gamble on your life’s chances. The stakes seem impossibly high.

If I could go back in time and tell my 16-year-old self one thing, it would be that there are no guarantees. There are no guarantees that you’ll pass, and there are no guarantees that what’s waiting for you on the other side is the right thing, even if you do.

Even if things go badly and you don’t get the results you might have expected, it doesn’t matter. There are so many opportunities in life to be successful and after you finish school, you realise how narrowly the future is defined when seen through the prism of exam grades.

In today’s economy, vocations and jobs for life are taking a backseat to emerging specialisms. It’s not uncommon for people now to train, retrain or do something entirely different later in life.

There’s no reason you have to do one thing forever, regardless of the path you believe you’re destined to take when you’re at school. It takes a while to figure out your essential criteria: what you enjoy, where your strengths lie, your values, beliefs, abilities and more. Getting to know yourself takes time.

My eldest is about to start high school and in a few years she’ll be sitting in a hall doing her first exams. When the time comes, I’ll be doing what I can to help her prepare, but I’ll be spending just as much time helping her to put things into perspective.

My one bit of advice would be to remember you are not your results. Exams are important, but they aren’t everything.