Tsz Fok has spent the past year working at a Midlands engineering firm on a salary of pound;9,500 since his university disappointment.
The experience has been a positive one for the 19-year-old from Birmingham and has helped him to focus his career ambitions. He said his year out, arranged through the Year in Industry scheme, had left him better prepared to take an alternative university offer to study engineering at Oxford this October.
"The year out has opened my eyes to a lot of things - how businesses are run, how to work in a company, and communication skills," he said.
Tsz, who was born in Hong Kong, was seen as one of the brightest pupils at his pound;6,000-a-year private school in Solihull, West Midlands. But despite his teachers' prediction that he would achieve six A-grades, after an interview he was rejected by Cambridge to read maths.
"I never blamed them," he said. "They have hundreds of people applying for something like 10 places." He believes universities could make fairer judgments about candidates if places were offered after the publication of A-level results in August.
During his placement with Turner Powertrain Systems, a Wolverhampton engineering subsidiary of construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, Tsz's workplace evaluation project won first prize in the West Midlands heat of the Year in Industry award last month.
He spent the first six months of the placement with the firm's management team and moved on to the engineering design division for the second part.
He said the work helped him to choose his university course.
"I chose maths last year because I thought it was sufficiently broad to offer lots of options," he said. "But this year has confirmed my real interest in engineering."
Learning to drive an industrial digger at a day-long training session was another bonus.
"It was 10 metres high and very powerful," he said. "It went straight through a hill of soil."