Getting ready for A-levels

Paul, now at university, remembers preparing for A levels a few years ago. Here's his advice, along with some gems from the TSR community

Having had time to reflect on my own experience of stepping up to A-levels and then looking at advice from the TSR community who've been through the same process, I've been able provide a helpful list of 10 tips I believe will smooth your transition from GCSEs to A-levels and put you ahead of the game.

1. Learn to be more independent

Prepare to study more on your own. You’ll almost certainly be spending less time studying during lessons and more under your own steam at home or in the library, so it’s a bit of a change.

That means you should probably renew that library card and ask teachers what interesting books you could be reading outside of lessons. For the first time you’ll be taking control of your own education.

What TSR members say on independent learning

Shadoo: "It helps to try and learn some of the content at home and if you have any problems you'll be able to ask your teacher within the lesson." 

Tilly-Elizabeth: "Don't pick subjects that your friends are doing or that your parents want you to do. Make your own decisions." 

Charlottecrb: "Revise topics as you complete them and keep going over content during the whole year from the beginning. Use your free periods to study so you can relax when you get home." 

Taynaz: "Do NOT assume you can get away with memorising things to get good grades. I'm sorry A-level just doesn't work that way."

2. Know your subjects

A-level examiners don’t want you to simply regurgitate stuff, they expect a wider grasp of the subject beyond textbook chapters. While you're now being asked to narrow your focus onto your favourite few subjects, you're also required to look into them more deeply.

Perhaps it's worth buying magazines related to your subject, like New Scientist if you're taking a science, to see how your subject is relevant to the real world.

What TSR members say on knowing your subject

zimbo97: "When you pick your subjects make sure you research around them and have a long-term plan. I always found it weird that when picking A-levels, all that matters is 'have fun' but when picking a uni degree it's all about how useful it is. Your subjects will decide your degree 90% of the time." 

RoyalBlue7: "Understand the bigger picture before going into details. Especially for biology."

3. Choose subjects you enjoy

Two years is a pretty long time to study a subject. That's why it's important to choose subjects that interest you as well as help your career ambitions.

Find out about the courses yourself to check that they really will interest you - don't rely on second-hand advice.

What TSR members say on enjoying your subjects

MidnightDream: "Pick subjects because you like them and actually want to do them. If you hate them you're not going to want to revise them as much as the ones you like. Also don't overestimate the time you have until exams start because they seriously come out of nowhere." 

ladymarshmellow: "Choose subjects which you actually have an interest in and an aptitude for. It makes it far easier to stay motivated and thus do well in the final exams." 

HannahBanana1995: "Do the subjects you enjoy the most, as you're more likely to commit to and get the best grades in subjects you are interested in and enjoy."

4. Think sensibly about your workload

Plan your time carefully. You can’t commit to everything so be brutally honest with yourself over any extra stuff – sports, hobbies or work. I had to make a decision between tennis and football - it was a tragic day.

Taking time out to do the stuff you enjoy can actually help motivate your study. However, if leisure activities take too much priority, they can be a hindrance.

What TSR members say on balancing your time

Swanbow: "Free periods aren't free. Use that time to study or else it'll come back to bite you." 

Venus fly trap: "Find a good balance with everything. It's great to join clubs and do extra stuff, but make sure the extra things don't overwhelm you and impact your work. You can't do everything after all. Equally, do work and use your frees, but don't work every free, every breaktime, every lunchtime and every hour after school. Find a good balance that works." 

lu1219: "My biggest piece of advice would be to keep up your hobbies even though you may feel you don't have enough time for everything. Try to get some exercise every week and don't stress too much. It's key to doing well."

5. Read the A-level specification

Bear in mind that certain subjects may require a greater intellectual progression from GCSE to A-level than others. Maths and physics have often been mentioned as particular subjects which take a bit of getting used to.

So, prepare to be pragmatic over the amount of time you spend studying and revising for each subject every week from the very start. 

What TSR members say on A levels

toolyb: "Some subjects take longer to accustom to than others, so don't panic if there is one subject that you take longer to get to grips with." 

bokonist: "Work as hard as you can in your first year - it will really help you in the second year." 

6. Make sure you realise that the second year can be demanding

There can sometimes be a great deal of difference between the first and second years of a course, as I found to my peril. I enjoyed the first year of English language, only to struggle so much with a unit in the second year that I dropped the course.

Had I read the specification before, I would have been able to make this decision earlier and saved a lot of time and stress. 

7. Prepare to learn plenty of new stuff

It’s not just the old topics in more detail. In maths for example, it’s been mentioned on one of our forum threads that there’s a "huge amount of brand new content" to get to grips with in the first year of A-level. This doesn’t necessarily mean a higher level of difficulty, though, according to TSR forum user MelonSponge

8. Spy on the work of your nearest and dearest

With permission, of course. Are there any elder siblings or mates who did similar subjects? Ask them and they might well share their experiences.

There’s nothing wrong with getting an idea of the standard and detail of work expected, and this will hold you in good stead. According to my younger sister, it was reading feedback from my teacher that really helped her.

9. Talk to your teachers more

You're not a kid anymore and your teachers should be treating you (almost, if not completely) as an adult. Make sure you ask your teacher if you can change a subject early on if it doesn’t turn into what you hoped.

Far more than GCSEs, your choices matter for university and being stuck on an A-level course you wish you'd dropped earlier is a truly miserable experience. If this is the case, be honest with your tutor and explain your situation - they will usually understand. 

10. Ask the TSR community

You've come to just the right place if you're looking to prepare early to take the pressure off down the line. By asking questions on TSR’s A-Level forums, you'll be sure to get plenty of experienced and generous students who have been through the experience and who can help you prepare.

Talking to fellow A-level students can be comforting, and sharing your knowledge is sure to improve your chances of achieving the results you want. 

More on TSR: 
Check out all our A-level study and revision tools and resources
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