10 essential tips for anyone starting A-levels

Student in class

We asked the TSR community what one piece of essential advice they would give to someone starting their A-levels right now. Here are the 10 most useful things they came up with.

1. Set a goal

A-levels are hard work. You need to be motivated to knuckle down and get all your studying and revision done if you want to succeed. But it’s pretty difficult to push yourself if you don't have goals and constantly remember why you’re doing these courses.

Find something to motivate you: a dream career? Uni? Making parents proud?


Keep your goals in mind so you can rationalise the hard work. Sometimes it seems pointless but just remember what you're working towards.


2. Believe in your potential

Anyone can get better at anything. You’re probably not going to do brilliantly in every test and piece of homework but if you put the study hours in, act on advice your teachers give you and practise lots of questions, your marks will improve.

Try your hardest in everything but, as clichéd as it sounds, make sure to believe in your own potential – you're probably more capable than you think you are, trust me. Don't be disheartened when you revise hard for a mock and get a D, revisit it and look at where you went wrong, then learn from it and move on.


Don't be put off by failures early on, keep at it. I managed to go from 3 Ds and a U to an A, 2 Bs and a C. If I can make that sort of improvement then so can anyone else. Good luck to all those starting out with their A-levels.


3. Work hard but keep a balance

It’s important to attend lessons, get homework done and revise for tests. And if you take study a bit further by doing some extra reading or practise questions, your effort will most likely be rewarded with good grades. But remember that life is about more than studying. You need a social life and time to unwind.

There's less pressure at sixth form to follow all the rules, and teachers are generally less angry with you for not doing homework, but often homework will be something like making notes, doing a little bit of extra research, or doing past exam questions. All of these things are incredibly helpful and a sustained work schedule throughout the year can really boost your summer grade.


Don't overwork yourself. Give yourself breaks and if you feel like it's all getting a bit too much, it's OK to take a breather.


4. Be organised and stay organised

You probably don’t have exercise books for A-levels so you need to keep track of all that paper. Get files for each subject and file your work away in date order. Keep hold of those teacher handouts and make sure you use some sort of calendar to make a note of deadlines, exams and anything else.

Make notes continually throughout the year. I would recommend using one folder for each of your subjects and keeping all your notes in one place. This will make everything so much easier when you come to revise.


Don't leave anything for the last minute! (TRUST ME)


Try to keep on top of work throughout the year. You'll be glad of it when it comes to exam season, when all you need to do is revise rather than re-learn.


5. Review your work regularly

Something you learn in September might not be examined until 20 months afterwards so it’s inevitable that some work will be forgotten. Checking what you’ve learned regularly and testing yourself on it is the best way to keep it fresh in your mind. 

Revise little and often to keep your memory in check and so you don't stress out and get overloaded before exams! I wish I’d been reminded of this.


Start making your notes and revision cards from the end of the first half term and as you progress throughout the year so you don't leave things to the last minute! (Leaving things to the last minute is a big NO NO.)


6. Use your teachers

Most teachers know a lot about the courses they teach, meaning they know how to score high marks in exams and they know the common mistakes. Most teachers also like to help, so they are probably the most important resource you have. Make sure you make the most of their expertise.

If a teacher goes too fast, don’t be afraid to stop them. I spent all year writing half-finished sentences or unfinished diagrams. Even if you’re the last in the class, don’t let them move on.


Don’t forget to ask questions. The only silly question is the one that hasn't been asked.


Build up good relationships with teachers. They are more likely to be reasonable with you when you miss work and will be there to give you advice. Most teachers will be able to tell if you're struggling, and are more likely to be lenient with you when you need it if you win their trust first.


7. Avoid comparing yourself to other students

There will probably always be someone who does a bit better than you at something. Comparing yourself to them will only be de-motivating. The only person you need to compare yourself to is... yourself. Learn from the mistakes you make and your work will gradually improve.

Don't be held back by other's opinions on whether you'll succeed. If you want it, go for it!

The Lawful T.J

Remember, we all study and learn at a different pace so if someone understands biology better than you – it doesn’t matter. Work at your own pace and everything will make sense eventually, even if it feels hard at the beginning.


8. Don’t think ‘free’ periods are ‘free’

Most A-level students are not in lessons all day long. They have ‘study’ or ‘free’ periods. It’s very tempting to use all these for relaxation and socialising. But if you can use just some of them for study then you’ll buy yourself more free time at home.

Use your study/free periods wisely. It's very tempting to sit in the common room and tell yourself you'll do the work when you go home, but it's SO much easier to work really hard in your study periods and get lots done, so that when you go home you can relax.


Use your free periods to do homework and write notes. I had two or three frees a day and by the end of the year when I was writing notes late into the night I totally regretted not using them


9. Past papers are your friends

There are only a certain number of questions that can be asked on a specification. Inevitably the same old questions about the same old things keep popping up. The more you practise questions and check your answer against the mark scheme, the more you’ll gear your work to what examiners really want.

As you do more and more, you start to recognise types of questions and find that there is a pattern/method to answering certain questions. Complete as many past papers as you can (especially for science and maths) and mark them using the mark scheme. Then go through the questions you got wrong (preferably with your teacher) and have another go.


Past papers are your friend. As you do more and more, you start to recognise types of questions and find that there is a pattern/method to answering certain questions.


Check out this article from our sister site The Uni Guide for advice on how to use past papers to revise effectively.

10. Look after your health

Studying A-levels can be stressful. There’s so much to think about and a lot is expected of you. The pressure can build up quite quickly and may feel overwhelming at times. That’s why it’s important to look after your physical and mental wellbeing.

Many students become quite stressed during the first term of A-levels. It’s OK to stress but too much stress is not good for your health. If you feel the need to discuss how stressed you are or if there is something bothering you about your studies or even personal issues – make sure you discuss it with a friend, teacher or another adult.


If you're feeling overstressed consider talking to a school counsellor as they can be helpful. If you're feeling down, depressed or anxious about anything, take care of it and do not avoid the situation. Even though getting help may be time consuming, your health comes first and, if not dealt with, it can have an even worse impact on your education. In order to do well academically you need to be doing well mentally and physically too. Look after yourself. 


And finally...

Enjoy it!

Most importantly, remember to enjoy it! These are all your choices. Even though it's tough at times, it's worth it in the end.


The two years fly by really quickly. Yes, A-levels are tough but they’re also the years where you grow up to be an amazing adult with lots of opportunities so do make sure to make the most of your memories. Good luck to everyone starting A-levels.

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