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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Lindsay Dodgson

A-level results: Fifteen famous people who prove you don’t need good grades to be successful


When you’re in the middle of exams, it can feel like they’re taking over your whole life.

From the ages of 15 to 18, your summers seem packed full of revision and the existential dread that you won’t get into the university you want to.

However, plenty of people who we now consider to be incredibly successful didn’t actually do too well at school.

Everyone knows the stories about how Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of university to become two of the richest people in the world.

Many other successful people didn’t even get that far, however.

Scroll down to see how academia wasn’t suited for 15 highly successful people – and how it didn’t matter anyway.

Sir Richard Branson left school at 16

Sir Richard Branson (Reuters)

Mr Branson never had much interest in school, dropping out at 16 to start his first business – a magazine called Student.

His headmaster, Robert Drayson, told him he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire, according to The Daily Telegraph.

He achieved the latter and now the Virgin Group owns over 200 companies in 30 countries around the world.

Simon Cowell passed barely any exams

In the music industry, very few opinions matter more than those of Simon Cowell. He wasn’t always the top dog, though. Mr Cowell left school with just one O level – the equivalent of GCSEs – and dropped out at just 16.

He began his career working in the mailroom at his father's company EMI Music Publishing, according to There, he was eventually promoted to a talent scout, then left during the early 80s to form E&S Music with his boss Ellis Rich.

After a few short-lived successes with several companies, Cowell made his name at BMG Records where he sold more than 150 million records and 70 top-of-the-chart singles in the UK and US.

Drew Barrymore quit school after rehab

Drew Barrymore (Getty)

Drew Barrymore is now an incredibly successful actor, producer and businesswoman. However, she had a turbulent childhood after being sucked into the acting industry at just three years old.

She was in rehab by her 13th birthday, according to The Guardian, and decided not to carry on with education when she came out.

Despite all this, she turned things around and founded production company Fower Films in 1995, which was responsible for Charlie’s Angels and Donnie Darko.

She is also now an Ambassador Against Hunger for the UN World Food Programme.

Clare Balding had to take two years out

Clare Balding is one of the UK’s best known broadcasters, hosting the likes of Wimbledon and Crufts. However, in her youth she was once arrested for shoplifting, according to The Independent.

She wanted to get into Oxbridge, but her mixed A-level results delayed her from doing so. She took two years out, retook exams and practised her interview technique over this time, which gained her entrance to Cambridge to study English.

Jon Snow got one A-level

Jon Snow (Getty)

Jon Snow is one of the most successful TV journalists in the UK, but he didn’t do so well at school. He got a C in English but failed his other subjects at A level, according to the BBC.

In an interview, he told students to play to their strengths and to “want to do what you want to do very badly,” adding: “There is life after A-levels.”

After school, Mr Snow went to college to gain more qualifications, which got him into the University of Liverpool. However, he was rusticated for taking part in an anti-apartheid socialist student protest in 1970.

Lord Alan Sugar has one GCSE

Star of The Apprentice and Amstrad founder Lord Sugar is worth about £1.4 billion. However, he didn’t get there by working hard at school.

According to biography website, Lord Sugar started earning money when he was just 12 years old. He dropped out of school with just one GCSE but it didn’t stop him setting up his own business Amstrad at 21 years old.

Carey Mulligan was rejected from drama school

Carey Mulligan (Steffan Hill)

Carey Mulligan is now an Oscar-nominated actress, but when she was a teenager she was turned down by Rada, Central and Drama Centre London, according to The Guardian.

“But fair enough – I wasn’t very good,” she said. “I went in and performed a monologue from 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane, who subsequently killed herself. I was 17 years old, this incredibly well-adjusted, happy person. Nothing bad had happened to me. And I was trying to conjure all this pain and drama. So they were like, ‘Who’s this pretentious public-school kid trying to trick us?’”

In 2005, she met a screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, who put her in touch with a casting agent. Ms Mulligan then landed her role in Pride & Prejudice, which kick-started her career to become one of the UK's most promising young film stars.

Cheryl was a terrible student

Cheryl – formerly Cheryl Tweedy and Cheryl Cole – was vaulted into stardom almost overnight when she appeared on Popstars: The Rivals. The programme created one of the most successful girl bands of all time, Girls Aloud.

Before fame, Cheryl was a feisty teenager whose temper got her into trouble with teachers, according to The Evening Standard.

“I was awful. They used to throw me out of class,” she said.

Benedict Cumberbatch got lazy after his GCSEs

Benedict Cumberbatch has achieved great success as an actor. He went to Harrow and admits he had a pretty good start in life. However, his interest in academia decreased after his GCSEs.

“I did sort of blow my GCSEs out of the water. I couldn’t believe it and neither could my teachers,” he told The Metro. “And then there was a lot of pressure on me to achieve an Oxbridge level of brilliance at A-levels.

“But then adolescence came late and I discovered girls, pot and all sorts of other things, so I got a bit lazy. That stagnated my growth a bit as far as being academic.”

Since getting into acting, Mr Cumberbatch has earned Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.

Russell Brand was a trouble-maker at school

Russell Brand

According to, Russell Brand was kicked out of a boarding school for having girls in his room. He was also branded a “waste of space” by one teacher.

At age 16, Mr Brand went to London to study at the Italia Conti stage school. His teachers noticed he was talented, but he started experimenting with drugs and was kicked out “for smashing things up, crying and cutting myself, breaking down in tears all the time.”

He battled with addiction for much of his career, but managed to be successful regardless. He is now one of the most famous comedians from the UK and has also had success as a radio and TV presenter, as well as some acting roles.

He’s caused his share of problems along the way, most memorably when he and Jonathan Ross made a series of prank calls to the Faulty Towers actor Andrew Sachs in 2008.

Sarah Millican failed her A-levels

“To everyone getting A-level results today, good luck but it isn’t the end of the world if you don’t get what you want,” Sarah Millican said in a tweet. “I got a D and and E.”

Ms Millican is a highly successful comedian in the UK, and has appeared on many panel shows including QI. She told her social media followers not to despair if they don’t get what they want in their exams. Her results have never held her back.

Deborah Meaden left school before her A-levels

Deborah Meaden is best known for her role on Dragons’ Den, but she’s also had a long career in business. She ran a multi-million family holiday business before leading a management buyout in 1999.

She told The Daily Telegraph that she started selling flowers at age seven and early on in her career worked as a salesroom model in a fashion house.

However, she left school without completing her A-levels and instead went on to study business at college.

According to The Metro, she is now worth over £40 million and has three honorary degrees.

Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school

Steven Spielberg (Getty)

Steven Spielberg is arguably the most famous director in the world, being the brains behind E.T., Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and Gremlins.

According to, Spielberg was an amateur filmmaker as a child. However, when he was older, he was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times. It didn’t prevent him from achieving world-wide acclaim, though.

Spielberg returned to school in 2002 to earn his BA, 35 years later, as a thank you to his parents.

“And as a personal note for my own family – and young people everywhere – about the importance of achieving their college education goals,” he said in a statement.

Jeremy Clarkson got two Us

Most years on results day, Jeremy Clarkson reminds everyone on Twitter that he wasn’t particularly academic.

It goes along the lines of: “If your A-level results aren’t joyous, take comfort from the fact I got a C and two Us. And I have a Mercedes Benz.”

Despite this, he managed to become one of the most popular TV show hosts in the UK on Top Gear and The Grand Tour.

Cameron Diaz dropped out at 16 to pursue a modelling career.

Cameron Diaz, one of Hollywood’s most sought after actresses, dropped out of school at age 16 to follow a modelling career, according to The International Business Times.

From some success with modelling, she landed her first acting role and is now one of the highest-paid actresses in the world.

Read the original article on Business Insider UK.

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