- LEARNING TOGETHER | OCTOBER 19, 2019 -
FROM DDE TO A*A*A* - MY ADVICE TO A-LEVEL STUDENTS
Studying for your A-Levels can be a tough and relentless time, with high levels of overwhelming stress being a key characteristic of the two-year qualification. My A-Level experience was quite gruelling, so much so that I messed up my first year, meaning that I had to drop the year, move to a different school and restart from scratch. After failing my first year, I was immediately and suddenly inundated with comments from senior staff members from the school’s I attended that I wasn’t capable of succeeding highly in my A-Levels. Yes, my grades weren’t good, but I was surprised at how little faith there was that, with an immense amount of hard work and dedication, I could salvage my sticky situation, especially since my GCSEs showed so much promise. Surely encouraging a student, even if they might not be the next Albert Einstein, would be a more practical and motivating tool than to crush any dreams or hopes of achievement? I was lucky I knew strongly in my mind what my potential was, and thankfully I ended up with A*A*A* in Geography, Psychology and Business Studies.
With all that being said, I’ve described myself as the perfect example of how to do A-Levels completely wrong, but also how to do them right, and I always try and help students entering their A-Levels to ensure that they don’t make the same mistakes that I did. So, without further ado, here are some of my top pieces of advice so you can do your best the first time around!
Don’t listen to teachers who tell you you’re not capable.
The proof is in the pudding. Despite the fact that I achieved A*s, As and Bs in my GCSEs, as soon as I messed up my AS levels, I was put into the “can’t do it” box, which is a concerning attitude I witnessed too many teachers and senior staff members having. Even though I could talk for hours about the benefits of these staff being positive and the potential improved motivation and success for the students, the important thing to remember is to not listen to them, especially if you know that you are capable if you put in the work and are doing the correct subjects. Keep your head down, do your work and prove them wrong!
The ‘jump’ between GCSE and A Level is big – respect it.
“The jump” is possibly the most infamous phrase which has been coined by the English education system, and has been used so many times that it has become synonymous with the transition between the two qualifications. However, a significant issue that I encountered during my A Levels, but I didn’t acknowledge until after-the-fact, was that “the jump” was never put into context for the students in a way where we could comprehend accurately how big this “jump” was. We were told it was big, but besides that we were left to decide the extent of the bigness for ourselves, and so, naturally, we decided it wasn’t, and couldn’t possibly be, that big. Needless to say, we were wrong, and unfortunately, not many of us realised this, and therefore didn’t put the necessary amount of effort in, until it was too late. I was lucky beyond measure that I understood “the jump” in its full glory before I restarted my A-Levels, and I believe that the respect I learnt for the significant difference in difficultly, and the amount and type of work I needed to put in, was what allowed me to get the grades I eventually got.
Revise right from the get-go - start as you mean to continue.
I can’t tell you how many times I have given this advice out, how many times I haven’t been listened to and how many times I’ve been told “I should’ve listened to you”. I’m not suggesting that I am the A-Level Guru, by any means, but I know what it’s like to mess up big style and what a faff it is to have to start again. One of the things I learnt about how to compensate for “the jump”, was to make sure I knew the work as I went along because the course content is so vast, and even though it seems so dynamic, it’s intrinsically linked. A-Level content is also taught exceptionally quickly due to the sheer load that needs to be covered. This learning method will make revising a lot easier when it comes to exam season, because you will just have to revise rather than scrambling to learn what you didn’t before, and due to the nature of A-Levels, it could be too much work to handle.
If you do not understand something in class, ask your teacher immediately.
This is similar to the point above, but I want to stress how essential it is to make sure you understand every element that is being taught in your course. In GCSEs you can get away with not being as good in certain topics or modules than in others, as the exams are structured in a distinctive categorised style. Many A-Level subjects are transdisciplinary in nature (which is a fancy word that you’ll come across at university which you won’t understand the benefit of using until situations like this ha!). This means that the topics and modules within a subject and the individual subjects themselves (i.e. Geography and Business Studies) cross over, which allows you to create a holistic approach to your essays, and even if you are not doing essay-based subjects, information cross over is likely to happen. In short, it is critical you don’t miss out on any information as it might prevent you from understanding other elements of your subjects further along in the course. I've never understood the attitude of being content with only knowing 70% of a subject, especially one that you want to study at university or take forward into a career. Surely, the only way you can be truly good at your job is to know all the information. I'm sure you wouldn't want a surgeon who only knows how to do 70% of the surgery?
Don’t do a subject that you’re not enjoying.
When I dropped the year and moved to my new school, I said that I wanted to study Business, however, at the time, due to the fact I was enrolling late, there were no spaces left on the course. I was advised, due to Geography being my best subject, that I should do Travel and Tourism as “it is similar”, which was a complete and utter disaster. The teacher couldn’t control the class, I found the subject boring and nothing like Geography. It made me feel demotivated and it distracted me from the other two subjects which I loved. However, I didn’t think I could do anything about it, since I had no idea what other subject I would’ve taken instead. After 6 weeks, I’d had enough, and I went straight to a senior staff member and pretty much begged to be swapped to the Business Studies course (I even said that I’d sit on the floor if necessary). I was, remarkably, accepted, but was told that I should prepare to fail. However, I loved the subject and managed to catch up within a week, and three months later I scored 95% in the mock exam (the question I got wrong was a definition worth 2 marks, so not bad!).
I’ve said that A-Levels are relentless with the amount of work that is required, and it is ludicrous to believe that you are going to have the motivation or the headspace to understand the work in the necessary level that is required if, one, you dislike the subject, or two, because you dislike a subject, you are being distracted away from the subjects you do enjoy, and so the whole thing can turn into a mess. The subject you dislike will more-than-likely fall by the wayside, which will not do you any favours down the line as this will be used as an example by employers that you can’t work consistently (I know that sounds so harsh!). Demand to do what is right for you from the start - no one is allowed to prevent you from having the education you desire.
Surround yourself with good friends who don’t cause you any drama.
I suppose this could also be titled as “don’t get distracted by boys/girls”. Your A-Levels are the best chance you’ve got to create a solid foundation, for free, for any career path you choose to take. The better you do in your exams, the more options you’ve got down the line, whether you choose to go to university or to start work as soon as you leave school. My A-Levels have allowed me to have the ability to consider every university and relative course in the UK, as well as a variety of job opportunities, but my initial grades of DDE had, ultimately, cut my options down to a small pool of potential paths. The difference between when I got DDE and A*A*A* was that, for the former, I was subjected to a lot of “high school drama” and, for the latter, I removed myself as much as possible from any nonsense. Many people don’t take more than a small handful of school friends into adulthood, and I would encourage you not to let your “best friends” or “the love of your life” distract you from your studies, because if you fall out or break up, believe me you’ll regret not putting yourself first. Your grades are for life, but many of your high school friendships and relationships are, realistically, probably not going to be. Good friends will motivate you to put more effort into your work, and this will help you in the long run. It’s vital to surround yourself with people who inspire you to do more and increase your ambition.
If you have a specific career in mind, make sure you are choosing the correct subjects.
I’ve had many friends who have had a specific career in mind, such as becoming a vet, a doctor or an accountant, but didn’t check which subjects and grades were required in order to get into university, and therefore made the wrong choices and didn’t find out until it was too late. Before you start your A-Levels, and you have a career in mind which requires you to go to university to obtain a license to practise, please research the universities and the necessary subjects you need to study, and the grades you have to achieve, before you start your courses.
A-Levels are tough, and you will not enjoy every day.
Regardless of whether you love the subjects you’re studying or not, you will not find everyday a walk in the park – in fact, far from it. A-Levels can be a relentless experience and requires a significant amount of dedication and hard work. You have to view A-Levels realistically and recognise that it is just 18 months of your life that you won’t remember being as hard or as long as it feels in the moment, but they could set you up for life. I’ve repeatedly heard the argument of “grades don’t matter, your happiness does”, which I do agree with to some extent, however you will not be happy if your options for a career are cut dramatically short because of your grades, especially if you knew you could've done better. You'll regret it if you let your foot off the gas.
If you mess up your exams, re-sit.
Re-sitting and going back a year is the easiest and cheapest way to ensure you get the best A-Level results you can get. If you don’t do as well in your exams as you thought, and decide to go to a different university with lower entry requirements, in hope to do another degree at a higher-requirement university afterwards, it is an extremely expensive and long-winded way of doing things. By going back a year at school, you are just “losing” one year, but if you decide to do a second degree, not only are you “losing” three years, but you cannot get student finance for this. Besides having to pay for the second degree yourself, you will also have to pay for the living costs, and budget-in the repayment of the loan from your first degree (as, it could be assumed, in order to afford a second degree, you will have to be earning enough to pay for this degree, your living costs and have disposable income at the end, and, therefore, you’ll more than likely be in the tax bracket where you’ll have to start paying back your student loan as well as a percentage of your earnings in taxation, which is a large proportion of your salary with all the additional expenditures). Further to this, if you go to a lower-requirement university and then apply for the higher-requirement one, you still will not have the entry requirements that they asked for (e.g. AAB at A-Level). It’s harsh, but unfortunately, I’ve already seen many friends go through this and the headache that this can cause.
Utilise the school/college day.
When I started my A-Levels again, I decided to do all my homework (or as much as I possibly could, depending on my timetable) during college hours. This working method gave me a continuous structure and routine, which improved my organisation and productivity, but also allowed me to quickly re-cap and revise my work every night at home, so I never fell behind in class. I also had a few hours break every day to relax and enjoy my other hobbies and interests. Making sure you are completely on-top of your work is essential, but so is having some downtime to rejuvenate.
Get plenty of sleep.
I was religious in going to bed every night at 10pm (10.30pm at the latest). Getting at least 8 hours of sleep will help your mind and memory work more efficiently, meaning you’ll retain more knowledge and you’ll get more work done. Every hour before midnight is worth double of that after, and making sure you are well rested allows you to start the day early, bright and fresh, which will also improve your productivity.