It’s the time of year when Year 11 students have breathed a sigh of relief as they have finished the long journey leading up to their GCSE examinations. Most of these students will start their A-Level studies in September.
The jump from GCSE to A-Level is a huge one due to a substantial increase in both content and application. This is especially true for subjects like biology and chemistry; two subjects which I have studied at A-Level.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that they fall within the top five most difficult A-Level subjects.
The aim of this blog is to collate my experiences as both a former student and a teacher to provide some specific tips on approaching these two subjects for the best possible outcomes.
This might be obvious but, you have to be fond of the subject you are choosing to study! You are not expected to love it from the get-go but having a liking towards it during your GCSEs or knowing that you want to study something goes a long way in making you succeed at A-Level.
The reason why this is emphasized is that I have seen many students choose a subject like chemistry or biology for example because they want to study medicine at university.
There is external pressure to study the sciences as those subjects are considered “highly academic”, but you must do what's right for you, and only you know that best!
This could be influenced by parents or the will to gain a high-payed job as soon as possible - but you will make it much harder to push through the workload when the going gets tough if a passion for the subject is missing.
Some students find it extremely difficult and would be getting C’s and D’s as they just cannot cope. Sometimes, a subject is just not for you and that is okay! This is the reason why a lot of Year 12 students change subjects in their first few weeks and that is perfectly fine too.
There are many things that you as a student can do to help you feel more prepared ahead of the term actually starting.
Firstly, having a look at the specifications for your subjects can really help you not only to prepare mentally but also help you choose whether or not you want to study the subject in the first place (yes, this is taking it a step backwards but often people change well into term 1 for this very reason!).
The content varies little between exam boards, especially in English and the humanities but it’s still a good idea to check which exam board your school/college is affiliated with.
It's a given that to study any subject at A-Level, you need to have a sound understanding of its respective foundational concepts from KS3 and GCSE. I highly recommend you revisit your notes from the previous year and go through past paper questions over the summer to make sure you hit the ground running in the new year. If you don’t use the knowledge over the summer you are destined to lose it!
Because there is more than one paper for each subject, try doing a full paper of each type and then going through the mark scheme. You can also work through the paper and mark scheme question by question (don’t be tempted to take a sneak peek before you attempt it!).
This is an excellent way to test the relevant knowledge and skills and to identify gaps. Most of you must have crammed in content just to spew it out onto an exam and then forget about it. We are all guilty of that! But, you can now see why that is not advisable and just when you thought it’s over, you find yourself doing papers again.
Another thing to keep in mind once you actually start your A-Level studies is to try your best to read ahead on the topic you will be doing over the next lesson or two. Although you will be taught the topic anyway in class, reading ahead helps take off some of the mental load and doesn't overwhelm you in the lesson.
You will likely need to read and think about a topic several times to truly get it, so reading ahead prepares some questions in your head so they can be answered by your teacher in class.
It is expected for you to spend significantly more time on each subject than you did at GCSE. There is a reason why you study 3 (or 4) A-Level subjects and not 10. As you study fewer subjects, you’d expect loads more lessons…right?
Actually, due to timetabling issues and teachers busy with the other years - not all of your school hours can be filled with extra A-level classes. I know…you are probably not too upset by that!
Most schools, therefore, introduce free periods for A-level students to allow for self-study - something worth getting used to if you plan to go to university!
You may look at your timetable in September and think…”YES! Free periods with my friends!”, but please take these seriously. The free periods that you may have in your timetable now are not a holiday - use them to catch up on, or read ahead of your lessons.
Since you are at school already, use this time wisely. You’ll thank yourself in the evenings at home. Sherpa has gathered expert advice from GSCE and A-level tutors on what to watch out for in the step up to A-level.
If you can put in some time during the summer to practise them, you’ll start several steps ahead of others in the class as they blow off the cobwebs
A-Level biology contains a substantial increase in the depth of concepts which can result in cognitive overload. Moreover, around 10% of each paper you sit on will contain mathematical questions.
Let me provide some guidance to approach key topics which have major overlaps with the GCSE syllabus:
You have learnt that magnification = image size / actual size and can inter-convert between millimetres and micrometres. At A-Level, you will be expected to measure the image size of cells or organelles for the question most of the time.
You should also be expected to write extremely big or small numbers in standard form in accordance with the requirement. If there is no specific requirement, write numerical answers to 3 significant figures. E.g. if the answer is 0.0000578, write it as 5.78 x 10-5
Other key mathematical operations you shall need to be familiar with are % change, and logging and inverse-logging numbers.
Plant and animal cells both contain cell membranes, nuclei etc. At A-Level, some new organelles are introduced which increases cell complexity and questions on comparison can easily be worth 5-6 marks.
You will need to understand how their presence affects the cell’s functioning and the movement of substances. You will also learn the cell cycle but mitosis will only be a portion of the entire cell cycle as there are additional stages.
Carbohydrates, proteins and lipids (fats) are nutrients present in food but are also structural components of our body. You have already learnt that structures like muscles, hormones etc are made from proteins. At A-Level, you will learn their structural properties and how they are broken down.
To give you an idea of the complexity of these structures, below is a diagram of a glucose molecule called alpha-glucose.
The other two main biochemistry topics are photosynthesis and respiration. You shall be expected to remember the general equations for both.
Photosynthesis at A-Level will be split into two reactions: light-dependent reactions (which harness the energy) and light-independent reactions with numerous intermediary compounds.
Respiration will also involve numerous biochemical reactions which happen in different areas of the mitochondria. When asked for the location in an exam, you have to state the specific area in the mitochondria; just writing ‘mitochondria’ won’t be enough. Moreover, respiration is basically a process of the oxidation and reduction of certain molecules but you have to think of it in terms of the gain or loss of hydrogen and electrons as opposed to oxygen.
Here’s a pro exam tip for both topics: when referring to energy, always refer to ATP, a biomolecule which is the source of chemical energy in our body. My class on biological molecules will explore ATP in more detail.
Chemistry at A-Level not only has more content but the written examinations require students to apply their knowledge to unknown scenarios. Students need to hone their critical thinking and mathematical skills for this subject.
Here are some of the topics that will need to be known like the back of your hand to tackle A-level Chemistry:
Moles are a unit of measurement for an amount of substance and at GCSE, you have performed molar calculations using the below equations:
At A-Level, you will mathematically determine the efficiency of chemical reactions in industry using % yield and atom economy calculations. It is key therefore that you know how to calculate the percentage change of numbers.
In your exam, you will be expected to use different routes and equations involving moles within the same question and also use volume and pressure in relation to gas moles. E.g. you might have to calculate gaseous moles from volume and then use that to calculate the moles and mass of another chemical using molar ratios. The usage of ratios is similar to that used for calculating empirical and molecular formulae at GCSE level.
You have learnt the structure of an atom as having protons and neutrons in the nucleus, and electrons orbiting around it. At A-Level, you will be introduced to the idea of energy levels which electrons occupy and sit in. Therefore, the way of representing electronic configurations will be as per these energy levels. E.g. The electronic configuration for a sodium atom at GCSE was 2,8,1 but this will change at A-Level as you arrange electrons in energy levels rather than shells.
The ability to add or remove electrons impacts the reactivity of an element. You will learn that the energy required to do so varies from element to element. This concept is used at A-Level to determine trends in reactivity across some periods and groups in the periodic table. You shall be expected to draw trends in relation to the way the electrons are arranged in some common atoms.
This topic has one of the biggest overlaps with GCSE. The concept of ionic bonding as a transfer of electrons has little addition but you will have to remember the charges on complex ions and how that would look in the formulae of ionic compounds. E.g. dichromate ions, hydrogen carbonate ions etc and some GCSE ones (sulfates, nitrates etc).
Metallic bonding is the electrostatic attraction between positively charged metal ions and the sea of delocalized electrons. Covalent bonding is the sharing of electrons but at A-Level, you are introduced to the idea of unequal sharing of electrons too in a concept known as dative covalent bonding.
Moreover, you will look at how the type of bonding affects the shape of molecules and their physical properties. For example, simple covalent compounds like oxygen and carbon dioxide have low melting and boiling points compared to giant covalent structures like diamond and graphite. You will also look at how intermolecular forces impact physical and chemical properties.
Pro exam tip: This topic is heavy on scientific terminology without which you can lose many marks. E.g. use the word “delocalised” electrons instead of “free” and make sure you refer to compounds as ions or molecules depending on the bonding they contain. Also, always use the idea of intermolecular forces and energy when asked about the melting or boiling points of molecules.
Studying Maths at A-Level builds upon a lot of what you learned in more complex applications as well as learning difficult new techniques like Integration.
Students need to hone their critical thinking and be an expert in GCSE level topics outlined below to stand a chance of the highest grades:
Quadratics appear in every single topic of A-Level maths because they are how we express a question that can have multiple answers. Because of this, you need to be comfortable with:
Each of these methods gives up to two answers (roots) for each equation, and you would be expected to interpret the value of these roots, and then plot them on a graph.
Related to quadratics, surds are how we represent the square root of non-square numbers. This is a skill which can be called on for each topic, including how to simplify surds, multiply & divide them, and how to rationalize the denominator of a surd.
Trigonometry is a massive topic in year 12 and year 13, and it appears connected to seemingly unrelated fields like algebra and circles. This still all boils back down to sine, cosine, and tangent, so make sure you are comfortable with:
This topic is especially important if you are doing physics and/or further maths, as trigonometry features extensively in those subjects as well.
Visualising a question is important in many of the abstract topics of A-level maths, so make sure you know how to sketch out a graph, including a y-axis, x-axis, and how to calculate the gradient of a straight-line graph.
Studying Physics at A-Level is a huge step up from GCSE and you will see even more overlap to using Maths skills of A-level standard to solve problems for the final exam. Every topic will be revisited in more detail than GCSE and you will learn about wonders of the world like nuclear physics, radiation and thermodynamics!
The following topics are essential to going far in A-level Physics.
The most common topic which students struggle with in A-Level physics is electricity. This is often because students struggle to translate the concepts of electricity to envision actual electrons moving inside wires and components.
To ensure you’ve got the best start possible, make sure you understand the following equations, and how they relate to the actual electrons moving in the wire:
‘Mechanics’ is the term used to describe how objects move, and is the part of Physics which has the most in common with A-Level maths. Due to how mathematical it is, it’s important to know the most common equations used in mechanics, and how they interact with one another.
A physics question may ask you to find the acceleration on an object using F = ma, and then use that to calculate its velocity after a certain amount of time, and then use that to calculate how far the object has travelled in that time.
Mechanics also includes looking at energy transfers, with the two most common being:
Often these equations will be set equal to one another, as when an object falls, it loses height but gains kinetic energy, however when an object is thrown vertically it loses kinetic energy but gains height.
This is a skill a lot of students know how to do, but struggle to apply it to experiments, where in nearly all cases we will summarize our results as a straight-line graph to be analyzed.
The key part of a straight-line graph is that the value of the gradient of the graph (determined using Δy ÷ Δx) is the same as what you obtain algebraically by dividing the y-axis quantity by the x-axis quantity.
For example, V = IR is an equation above. If we were to plot a graph of Voltage (y-axis) over Current (x-axis), the gradient Δy ÷ Δx is the same as ΔVoltage ÷ ΔCurrent = Resistance of the circuit.
Some might say that moving from GCSE to A-level is the hardest transition you will ever make, but it’s actually not that big a gap. It will always be intimidating and overwhelming when trying something new, but I’m here so you do not have to go through it by yourself!
While learning English GCSE’s you roughly had 3-5 years to prepare, with A levels you’re learning new content, new mark schemes and exam criteria in 2 years.
It is going to be hard so your best bet is to lower your expectations initially, do not assume if you get a grade 9 in GCSE you will get an A* in A-level without putting in some serious work.
The following are aspects of A-level English that some people struggle with:
At A-Level, you'll be expected to delve much deeper into texts, exploring intricate themes, motifs, and literary techniques. Embrace the opportunity to develop a sophisticated understanding of literature and hone your analytical skills.
At GCSE level, you might talk about how a character is presented. But for A-level English Lit, it is better to talk about the characterization: how the writer creates that character: what could their intentions be?
For example, ‘Discuss the presentation of Iago in Act I of Othello’ or ‘Evaluate how effectively the final verse of this poem portrays the feeling of loss,’ etc.; you could be asked to write a creative excerpt, such as a diary for the character of Juliet after Romeo's first visit.
It’s up to you to engage with the texts you will be reading and formulate your own opinions and interpretations. Furthermore, you will be expected to communicate these ideas effectively, not just in essays and exams, but also during verbal discussions, which tend to make up a large part of the teaching structure.
If your strength was heavily skewed towards English language rather than literature or you are not much of a reader, I suggest thinking carefully about your subject choice.
Very few schools offer English language at A-level and you are expected to read a lot of literature. The workload can seem a lot harder for those students who are slower readers.
Your exam board specification will have a list of texts you will be studying. If you can find them out prior to the start of the course, it’s a good idea to read them over the summer. This will allow you to approach the text with a headstart on understanding its themes, characters and styles.
You will probably be studying longer and more complex books than at GCSE, so it's no longer the case that you can just be taught them from scratch as you proceed through the year. You may need to reach each text several times to properly interpret its meaning.
Reading outside the scope of the course syllabus is essential. Investigate literary analysis, scholarly publications, and internet sources to enhance your comprehension of texts and authors that you encounter during the source. Most of this happens in class at GCSE but you are expected to come up with your own opinions and comparisons more at A-level.
If you are studying Oscar Wilde for example, this could be reading secondary material on the society that Oscar Wilde lived in or more academic texts that discuss and analyse a particular writer's style, such as a book that analyses an author's use of simile, metaphor, and enjambment.
You may also wish to read other relevant literature, either for personal pleasure, or to expand your knowledge of different perspectives and, hopefully, vocabulary. Reading additional texts relevant to your study texts will enrich your arguments in assessments; so if you're studying a novel based on the WWII era you may wish to read other WWII novels.
Understand what past examiners give you marks on and what reduces your marks. This will help you not repeat the same mistakes again. At A-level, naturally more will be expected from each assessment objective than GCSE. It’s vital to be familiar with them from the start so you are applying your knowledge correctly throughout the year to prepare for exams.
Consider the areas where you can improve, be humble, and then make the necessary adjustments in the following practice essays. The secret to success is consistent, small improvements. One of the worst mistakes you can make at A-level is feeling too embarrassed to ask for help.
Teachers will give you valuable feedback on what needs to be improved and you will have more access to this than ever before. Don’t be shy or be afraid of criticism, nobody gets anywhere in life working alone!
The break between the end of year 11 exams and the start of year 12 is a whole month longer than usual, and rightfully so.
You have just completed an enormous number of exams and while you should definitely take advantage of the long summer to prepare for your A-Levels, don’t forget to have a restful and enjoyable summer too!
You cannot work productively unless you get away from work and mentally reset! So, it is highly recommended to take a break first. Balance is key! This balance should also be maintained once September starts to avoid monotony and keep your motivation and productivity levels steady over the next two years.
I wish everyone all the very best as they start this new chapter!
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