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A-Level Success Tips

A-Levels are rough. Taking place when university applications and the consequences of missing your offer loom overhead one can’t help but feel the pressure to perform well. In this article we will discuss the tips and tricks to getting As at A-level as I breakdown how I was able to get 4As in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics respectively. Although, I am a stem student these tips should apply to ALL subjects and if followed will almost certainly help you get the grades you desire.

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The first tip I have to all candidates sitting their A-Level exams is actually a piece of advice – ‘’do not cram’. Many students (especially those who found their GCSEs quite easy) make the mistake of thinking A-Levels can be crammed in study leave. This is not true. A-Level examinations are notoriously content heavy and so cramming is simply off the tables. To add to this, the key differentiating factor between A-Levels and GCSEs is the fact that A-levels often draw on candidates’ ability to think critically and apply their knowledge. Instead of being able to succeed by regurgitating rote learnt information, candidates will be expected to take what they know and apply it to unfamiliar circumstances, a skill that requires lots of practice and time to develop. As such, it is not realistic to believe that cramming is an option. Realize this early and start scheduling regular and repeated revision sessions to ensure that you are not leaving everything to do at the last minute.

Scheduling is an important factor on its own. With the sheer amount of content that you are expected to cover, it is easy to lose track of what you have and haven’t studied. I recommend planning your revision time, especially your holiday periods out carefully. Know what you need to cover on what day and STICK TO IT. If you do this, you can be certain that nothing will be unfamiliar come test date and that you will have the breadth of knowledge needed to succeed.

To add to this, make sure that you are using your revision time effectively. Studies have shown that strategies such as note taking or reading from textbooks are some of the lowest ‘yielding’ revision strategies you can implement. Whilst they make you feel like you are ‘doing work’ you will be doing nothing more than passing time as opposed to bettering your academic performance. Below is a list of 5 alternate and more effective strategies.

  1. Active recall via:
  2. Flashcards (ANKI is a great tool for digital flashcards as is QUIZLET)
  3. Blurting
  4. Teaching a friend a topic
  5. Mind-Mapping
  6. Using Spaced-Repetition
  7. Completing Practice Questions

Blurting is just a silly word for recalling bulk information to asses your knowledge. I usually pick a topic and write down everything I can recall on a piece of paper. I then go back and compare with my notes writing things I missed in a different color pen. After repeating this a couple times a day you will be amazed with the sheer quantity of facts you can recall. This works especially well with essay subjects! Spaced repetition is when you recall information in regular time intervals to ensure you don’t forget. ANKI and QUIZLET are flashcard apps that are programmed to ask you to review flash cards regularly. This all helps to build your long-term memory. The worst thing you can do is make a ton of flash cards and never go through them. Using these applications will help you increase your ability to recall information far greater than just reading a textbook which is often something we do passively and without much focus. By forcing yourself to actually produce information on paper you are far more likely to solidify the subject matter in your mind.

To do well at A-Levels you need to use the syllabus. The syllabus is a document released by all exam boards for all exams detailing exactly what candidates are expected to know for all their exams. Sometimes, the syllabus will also reveal the relative importance of different topics and how much a particular exam will draw upon a particular section of the syllabus. It would be foolish to not use this document to not only keep track of what you have to study but also of what you should cover in your revision schedule.

Initially, I found some of my A-levels more challenging than others. In particular I found chemistry to be quite the struggle. As such, I went to my teacher and spoke to them about just where I was seeming to lack understanding and worked with them in my free time after the school day. This is another key tip of mine – ‘Don’t be afraid to ask for help’. More often than not your teachers want the best outcomes for you in their subject. Teachers in general would much rather you come to them before an exam has taken place to ask for help in understanding than come after an exam when its too late. Teachers are also expertly used to guiding students through their particular subject. They will be able to clear up your confusion in ways you can’t just ‘google’. Furthermore, your teachers have a deep understanding of where you are going wrong so are in the best place to offer you guidance and help.

Online tools are some of the best tools you can use to prepare for exams. Thus far, we have mentioned QUIZLET and ANKI, two digital flash card applications that combine spaced repetition with active recall to enable you to learn rote information quickly. Beyond this, youtube is an excellent source of impromptu lessons that can clear up confusions which combined with google can be a source of expert knowledge in the comfort of your bedroom. I remember when I was doing my A-levels there was also a digital podcast focused on revision. Each podcast was a different topic – making it an excellent listen to and from school as a means of revising older topics passively.

My final few tips relate to doing well on exam day. It’s all too common to see amazing candidates with sub-par A-level results because they failed to do well on the day of their exams. This can be avoided in a few ways. Firstly, taking mock exams under exam conditions is the best way not only to assess your current aptitude but also to familiarize and adjust to realistic exam-like scenarios. To the many students reading this for which A-levels are their first real exposure to national board set examinations – this is perhaps the most important thing you can prepare outside of the core material of your individual subject. Be harsh on yourself. When you are taking a mock exam stick to the mark scheme religiously – perhaps obsessively. I used to annotate the key ‘mark scheme phrases’ in a different color on my scripts so I could look back on them when revising – especially in the days before exams.

When in the exam it’s important to write clearly but also concisely. Examiners know when you are waffling so don’t do it. Furthermore, if you can make your answers as easy to mark as possible. For questions where it doesn’t specify otherwise write in bullet points – making your work easier to mark and thus ‘easier to credit’.

The biggest factor that led to my success at A-level was paying attention in class. It sounds simple but it’s all too easy to sit back and play a passive role in the classroom. This leads to you leaving your classes without having learnt anything – adding more work to a never ending pile of things you need to revise come term’s end. I highly recommend engaging and interacting with your lessons in order to internalize as much of the content as possible.

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Written by Inesh Sood