Are A-levels hard? My Complete Experience + Tips
I remember when I was in middle school (year 10 and 11). I was doing my GCSE/iGCSEs at that time and was studying about 8 subjects. I used to laugh at the A-level students, I thought to myself “I do 8 subjects and these guys do like 3, how are they even stressed?”
It turns out that I was very wrong. Despite having achieved highly at iGCSE level, (getting 8 A*s) I still found A levels to be quite challenging.
If you’re wondering if A-levels are hard, the quick answer is yes, even for the students who achieve high grades at middle school (be it ‘O levels’ or i/GCSE). A-levels are thought to be difficult because subjects cover lots of content and some ideas and lessons require quite a bit of thinking and understanding.
Which A-levels am I talking about?
Now by A-levels, I am talking about UK exam board A-levels. These are done by major exam boards such as AQA, OCR, Edexcel and Cambridge to name a few. There are A-levels that are quite different in some countries but my experience comes from doing British Patterned A-levels, in a British International School, outside of the UK.
If you are thinking about A-levels in the UK, it’s the same as those.
Also, the A-level style has now changed and I did all my A-level subjects in the new linear fashion. In the olden days (yes a few years ago), you did your first year (year 12) of A-levels, called AS level. You then had to sit external exams at the end of year 12 and then based on your results, you could choose which subjects to carry into year 13.
Then, in your second year (year 13), you did your A-levels in which you would be externally examined to received certifications. However, the new linear A-levels (which I did) only had external exams at the end of year 13. So after 2 years, you would be given a certificate with your results.
Now, the usual case is that students study 3 subjects and sit their exams for 3 subjects. However, there is an option to do 4 A-levels, which I did, meaning you get 4 qualifications instead of 3 at the end of the second year.
The A-levels I did were Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Economics.
Why are A-levels considered difficult?
From my personal experience and those of my A-level colleagues, A-levels prove to be challenging for various reasons.
First off, there is a lot of content to cover when it comes to A-levels. And this was especially the case for me because I did 4 A-levels. When comparing GCSE/iGCSE to A-levels, you could easily combine several GCSE subjects into one A-level subject- in terms of content.
In addition to loads of content, comes the workload. Homework and tests can come at you very quickly without much notice, if you are lacking behind on a topic, you cannot let it escape you otherwise you will be behind for a long time. There isn’t much time to catch-up.
Secondly, the content can be quite difficult to grasp. Me and my friends did feel that there was a significant jump from GCSE to A-levels, in terms of difficulty and understanding. This was especially the case in subjects like Maths or the science subjects.
From doing iGCSE maths to A-level maths seemed quite a jump. Especially the fact that no calculus was taught at the iGCSE level. However, if you do further maths or additional maths at GCSE then you may be better prepared for A-levels but not totally.
My maths teacher has even claimed that A-levels maths has recently become more difficult than ‘GCSE additional maths’. While further maths at A-levels is at a whole new level.
Although A-level maths started off quite reasonably, it accelerated quickly into topics we never covered before (like circle geometry and trigonometric equations and functions).
If you are currently at GCSE or middle school level, you need to understand that content will be trickier to grasp at A-level. You cannot expect to learn a topic at first teaching, you will probably have to go home, review and make notes then try practice questions to ensure you actually ‘get it’.
You also need to be comfortable with asking for help, especially from your teachers because you will struggle. For example, one of the first topics we did at A-level Physics was ‘Quantum Physics’ which included things like photoelectric effect, fundamental particles and photons.
At first, I couldn’t quite grasp all the knowledge properly. And these were topics that we never covered at iGCSE level so we had to put in the hours, do extra studying and ask our teachers for help.
New experience with ‘labs’
For Physics and Chemistry, we had to do something called ‘required practicals’. These were essentially experiments we had to carry out in class in order to better understand what we were learning and because the practical experience was helpful when it came to answering exam questions on practical technique.
In fact there were whole exam papers focused on practical aspects therefore paying attention in ‘lab’ sessions and being aware of the method was absolutely vital.
Final exam season
Coming towards the end of my A-level course, exams were fast approaching. Really fast approaching. Exams for A-levels start in early May and can go on until mid to late June.
Doing 4 A-levels, I faced quite some trouble as I had to do several exams in one day. In fact, on my first A-level exam day, I had two exams, each of 2 hours.
You do feel quite tried after sitting a 2 hour exam and with two of those in a day, it seems very draining. In addition to this, being outside of the UK and doing my exams in South-East Asia, my exams were either at 4pm or 8:30pm.
However, if you’re in the UK, you’ll probably have your exams in the morning so you don’t need to worry about being in an exam past 10pm at night.
More A-level tips
Here I have a few A-level tips that you may want to look into. There’s plenty of useful information and guides you can find on this website as well.
Make notes early
In all honesty, I did not and could not make notes on every topic before the exam. This lead me to resort to textbook material and revision guides to obtain my information (nothing wrong with this remember as long as you test yourself and don’t just read). You cannot be making notes 1 or 2 weeks before an exam, unless the notes are completely from your brain without using material.
The important thing with making notes is that:
- You shouldn’t make notes verbatim (word for word copying) from a textbook or your teacher
- You can’t ‘waste’ time improving your notes if you aren’t going to memorise them. It doesn’t matter if you have the best notes in the world, if you can’t memorise from them, you’re wasting time.
Practice, practice, practice!
Knowing information is one thing, applying it is another. At A-levels, you will get questions in which the context is very important and the context can mess you up. That’s why knowing is never enough, you have to manipulate knowledge to answer exam-style questions. This is why practice questions are so important.
I would highly recommend that you make a question database, whenever you come across practice questions in revision or topic tests that you struggle with, save the question (take a screenshot or picture) and attach the mark scheme or answer to it. You could also make flashcards on questions you got wrong.
Also, when it comes to subjects that are highly based on writing essays (English, History, Economics, Geography and so on) you absolutely need to practice writing essays under exam conditions. The more essays you write, the more feedback you can get from a teacher and the better your skills will be in writing under pressure.
Use your ‘free periods’
When it comes to doing A-levels, you will have free periods at school, this means you won’t be in classes for the whole school day. Please, please use this time effectively. If you do 3 A-levels, you would obviously have more free periods than someone who does 4 A-levels.
At my school, students doing 3 A-levels have 22 free periods in year 13 over 2 weeks. That’s about 11 free periods per school week. Each period was 55 minutes, so on average, a student doing 3 A-levels has 10 hours of ‘free time’ at school each week.
And then there were students, like me, doing 4 A-levels. We only had 2 free periods in a week, so a student doing 4 A-levels has under 2 hours of ‘free time’ at school, each week.
Now school rules vary, but you can see that doing 3 A-levels does give you a lot more ‘free time’ than doing 4 subjects. But the problem comes in when students waste these free periods by not working, I’ve seen people just chatting, watching YouTube and even movies in their free periods- all inside a designated study room/area.
Predicted grades matter more than you may think
I say this because students fall into this attitude of not working hard in their first year (year 12) and then seem rather disappointed when their predicted grades do come out.
Since AS level doesn’t exist, you will usually get ‘predicated grades’ at the end of year 12 or somewhere thereabouts. Now, these do matter more than you think because these grades will be used to apply for university- that’s why focusing on year 12 is going to be a necessity.
Of course, you can always come to an agreement with predicted grades but this discussion should be made with teachers and tutors.
The point here is to start working hard, right of the bat. Get yourself into the studying and hard-work mindset as soon as you start your course because things will get very busy and time won’t stop for you.
Learn how to work independently
Once you get to A-levels, you do have more independence, in terms of responsibility and teachers’ expectations with work. However, that also means that you need to be abe to get work done without a teacher holding your hand all the time. You have to do the learning, ask your teacher for help but it all comes down to you.
This is the biggest tip I can give you, or any student really. You will be successful if you can manage your time. Yes there’s lots of work but the truth is, you always have time to do it. You just use that time in other things that is not studying.
I highly recommend that you get yourself organised through getting a personal diary or planner. Also creating a study timetable will be highly useful throughout the A-level journey- not just close to the exams.
Also, follow your specification as you go along. This will help keep you on track for everything that you need to cover (kind of like a checklist).
Notice how I used the word ‘control’. This is because every student procrastinates, whether you are top of your class or not. However, I’ve been able to use a tool that has saved so many precious hours for me. The app is FocusMe and I’ve used it on my laptop and my phone.
This is a website and application blocker that allows you to restrict your use of apps and websites to a bare minimum. I use to waste at least 1 hour everyday on YouTube and probably a lot more on the weekends. With FocusMe, I was able to control my device time- check out all the website/application blockers here.
For a full A-level revision guide I made, click here.
Other tips for High School/Sixth Form
A-levels and academics are definitely a big part of your upper years life but hold on. You need to keep in mind that you need to apply for university or maybe a job/internship/apprenticeship afterwards.
This means that you need to focus on your extra-ciricullars as well. A lot of universities are looking for well-rouneded students who are active in their community and if you don’t do anything over the first year of A-levels, you are in for a stressful second year.
In addition to this, some universities will require you to enter dates for when you started and finished a certain activity or role in the school so if you leave it to the very last minute, you could be harming your application.
Talking more about universities, another point I want to make is about applying for university and all the work that comes with that. Applying for university isn’t always as simple as filling an online form, you may need to write essays which must describe your actives as well as give interviews!
This isn’t even taking into account all the research you have to put in (grades required, finance, location, other requirements and so on) for picking a university. Plus, some universities will make you sit different tests like the SAT/ACT, STEP or IELTS as well which only removes some time from your busy schedule as you have to study for these.
I’ve probably made my A-level experience sound very intimidating and stressful which it was. I know I did 4 A-levles but doing 3 A-levels does take that down significantly. At the end of the day, if you can manage time and work hard, you’ll be soaring. But it’s always easier said than done.
While there’s tons of content and difficult ideas to grasp, A-levels continues to be a challenge even for students who feel academically bright. At A-levels, you should put less belief in your talents and work hard- if you don’t work hard, you can’t make it.
Always remember that self belief, hard work, resilience and working smart will lead you to success.