GCSE retakes during A-levels: Advice to my sixteen year old self

Hannah missed the grades she needed at GCSE and had to retake several of them during her A-level courses. But it didn’t stop her from reaching her first-choice university; here’s how she handled it. 

Beginning my A-levels with two GCSE retakes on my plate wasn't easy. I had to make a lot of tough decisions over the next two years and at times I wanted to give up. 

In total I did four GCSE and one AS-level retake. Three were taken alongside my A-levels. It was hard work but I did it. I went on to sit in lecture halls with A* students who had never sat a retake in their lives. Three years later I went on to achieve a 2:1 in history from the University of Birmingham. 

I've written this because I want to let you know that you're going to be OK. I know how anxious many of you are about the months ahead and how 'failing' is one of your biggest fears. I hope that sharing my experiences will give you courage and the strength to keep going. 

You'll never know exactly how things will turn out but if you stay determined, believe in yourself and study hard I know you will succeed. 

These are all the things I wish I could have told my 16-year-old self, what I learned and my advice to you.

know yourself

Know yourself

You'll realise you've made the right decision by staying at your school sixth form. 
My best friends all went to the local college but I decided to continue at my local school. This was mainly because I knew I would have to re-take my maths GCSE. I wanted to be in an environment where I felt understood. My teachers knew that I worked hard and sympathised with the fact that my failings in maths were largely down to confidence issues. 

My advice to you: 
Chose the place you'll learn best. The easy option is to go where your friends go, but that might not work for you. If you need to re-take exams, being in the place where the teachers already know your strengths and weaknesses can help soothe the stress of having to start your A-level studies whilst swotting up for your GCSEs. 

Check out class sizes, too. I received a lot of support because the sixth-form was so small. It helped me build really productive relationships with my teachers. These were invaluable when it came to them putting together my reference for my uni application. If you are thinking about applying to uni in the future this is something to strongly consider. 


More on TSR: 
Things A-level student wish they'd known 
The A* question thread 
Beating stress at college

Core Subjects

Persevere with core subjects

You'll pass your Maths GCSE on the third re-take 
I'm going to be honest, it sucked and I hated it because it made me feel stupid. It was always the algebra and trigonometry at the end of the paper. Just seeing that big triangle with the '4 marks' beside it and the intimidating equation below used to make me feel sick and my head swirl. 

Finally I achieved a C through taking modular exams. Four exams in total across the year. I realised I was actually OK at maths. In a couple of the exams I got Bs, it was still trig and algebra that continued to trip me up.

My advice to you: 
Keep going and stay focused. I know you're fed up and disappointed but Cs in maths and English are so important. If you're considering applying for uni in the future you need them. Employers will also always look for C and above so even if you're not considering a degree as one of your options they are still important. 

Ask your school or college whether you can retake in November and get your head down and dust off those past papers. If you're going to retake next summer make sure you study throughout the year. Don't leave it until the last minute. Your GCSE maths and English are just as important as your A-levels.

Advice to my sixteen year old self

Don’t judge your personal performance on other people’s abilities

Instead of re-taking double science GCSE you'll try single science and achieve a C. 
This was another huge setback. It meant I had to retake science alongside my AS-levels. Single science was also perceived at my school to be the easy option: 'science for dummies'. All I wanted was to get my C and rub out the DD on my exam results sheet. 

My advice to you: 
Forget the labels. Everyone has an opinion about how hard or easy GCSE exams are. Shut out the noise and focus on the grades you want to achieve. In a few years’ time you won't care what you did or how you did it, you'll just be chuffed you got the mark you needed. It will sit happily on your CV for many years and will potentially be a vital part of your uni application. Believe me when I say it's worth the sweat and tears.

It's stressful managing retakes alongside your current exams but if you prepare throughout your year and make a plan with your teachers it is manageable. 

More on TSR: 
TSeven steps to beating stress 
How thinking positively can help you succeed 
How to set a study goal

Be honest with yourself

Be honest with yourself

You’ll realise you don’t like history AS-level and change courses 
I was so bored. I had always loved history but I couldn't bear studying 'the rise of the Nazi's' for the fourth time, the Russian Revolution text book was drab and to be honest I just didn't care about the 'birth of the Labour Party'. The only option I had was to change to sociology but this would mean discontinuing with philosophy and ethics because they clashed on my timetable. This meant I went from four AS-level subjects to three pretty much immediately. But with two GCSE re-takes, I soon learned this was a blessing in disguise.

My advice to you: 
Don't struggle for two years with a course you despise. Be honest with yourself. A-levels are hard enough without you having to drag yourself through the syllabus. If you have a warning siren going off in your head right from the start, talk through the options you have with your teachers. It's better to make the change in the first term.

I actually studied history at university. History A-level wasn't required for the course but at the time of quitting the AS-level I had never considered that this may affect my options when applying to uni. Before you make a decision it's best to know whether this may impact any of your future options. 

I thrived on the sociology course because the course modules gripped me. It made me realise how important this would be when making my uni choices. The content of the course has to come first every time, if you love what you're studying it will never feel like hard work. 


Don't play the blame game

Don’t play the blame game; take control

You won’t get a remark in your drama and theatre studies AS and you’ll have to retake. 
I got a D but in English literature and sociology I achieved Bs. I think that pretty much confirmed I could write an essay. I was baffled. I requested a remark and waited to see what happened. 

After months of checking with my teachers and nothing happening I was told it had never been sent back to the exam board. I was so upset and angry. But more than anything I felt really let down by the system. 

I had no idea about the process, I had no idea who the school's exams officer was and my teachers had never spoken to him about the remark. 

My advice to you: 
If you honestly think something is a bit strange about your grade speak to your teacher and find out who the exams officer is immediately. Depending on how close you are to the grade boundary, make a decision together about whether going for a remark is the right thing to do. 

I had to retake my AS drama theory at the same time as my A2 exams, it was hard but it is possible. Again it all comes down to preparation, it's down to you at the end of the day to make things happen. All my school could do was apologise and that was never going to get me my B so I had to take matters back into my own hands and retake. 


Only you can create the happy ending that you want

However tough things are now for you, I hope my experience helps you to realise that it's time to start thinking of exams and qualifications as keys that open doors. If things haven’t gone quite to plan you always have options. Determination and hard work can get you back on track.

In my experience exams don't define who you are or what you can achieve in the future. They are stepping stones, your beginning but never your end.


More on TSR: 
Chat to others in the Year 12 thread 
Get your study questions answered 
Choosing your A-levels