How to do well in your A Levels

Wednesday 17 July 2024, First year

by Zoe Haylock

How to do well in your A Levels

Zoe Haylock

We’ve all been there; in our heads we know we are capable of great results yet, on paper (and in some of our teacher’s heads) this doesn’t seem possible. I ended my first year of A Levels getting C’s and D’s in my exams. I started 2018 (the year of my exams) with an E and D in my English essays. I. was. Freaking. Out: I wanted to go to Durham and so I needed A* A A! I had to plead with my history teacher to predict me an A. She told me I should probably apply to universities asking or C’s and D’s instead.

Yet, I ended up getting four A*’s and an A* in my EPQ in my exams.

Although I know this partly came about because I a) went to a good college and b) had time to study and c) had no big commitments like being a carer, it also occurred due to one thing all students can do: work hard. I know not all students want those grades- which is fine- but, if you are like me, and want to make the most out of every situation and prove naysayers wrong, then this advice is for you.

(p.s. I know some of you may think that I relied on natural talent or being clever. This couldn’t be further from the truth- I am no better than anyone else and I believe anyone can succeed if they work hard)

1. If you don’t know it, ask

I probably had more of a relationship with my teachers than my friends in the last few months of Sixth Form. I was constantly thinking about how to improve myself to do better- a planner is a great way of documenting any sudden queries you have. I would ask my teachers questions at the end of lessons frequently. I gave in extra essays, asked for short meetings to go through things. My natural state is to be an introvert so I understand how some students my find this at first difficult. Now, I also know not all teachers allow you to do this. In this case, I confided with other students and other teachers for help. Take every opportunity you can; workshops, meetings, asking to go to extra lessons. By the end of revision I wouldn’t let a “no” stop me.

2. Keep determined

We all have those teachers who don’t feel the need to give students extra help, or do not have the time to support you so you need to be self-determined to do well. There were some students around me who had Oxbridge offers even though they were getting C’s in tests and had bad personalities. Yet, if you isolate yourself from this- block everything out, determination will empower you. Don’t think about what others are doing, just yourself.

3. Learn early

Doing linear A Levels (side note: who ever thought this was a good idea?) means you have to remember a lot of information in a matter of weeks. My 40% component in history covered 1855-1964 Russia- try remembering how to spell Vyshnegradski and Lunarcharsky when you are all stressed out. I knew it would be hard to learn so much. That’s why in the Christmas holidays before exams I started making revision cards for this topic. By May, I had them pretty much revised and learnt. People in my history class would wonder how I remembered it- the trick is to start early so that you don’t get stressed out about it. One teacher of mine used to say that the best prep for exams is to “know your stuff”; starting early is the best means of getting to this stage.

4. Try to see A Levels in a positive light

This can seem a hard one.

Although some annoying people say that A Levels are not simply a memory test and accurately assess your knowledge, this is utter nonsense. I love education and know I am lucky to have it, for free, but, memorising the four-step guide on how to write a conclusion and sitting in a hall for 3 hours is not education, learning, or worthwhile. The hardest thing was revising knowing that it was really, actually, a waste of time and mentally straining. Yet, one thing I did learn from my A Levels, is that hard work can get you anywhere- if you try, you will succeed. Just learn how to write the essay, how to make unique points and what the examiners want without thinking too deeply knowing that A Levels are positive because they teach you about working hard, and not necessarily test your intelligence.  

5. See A Levels in a negative light

Who cares? Knowing that the exams don’t define you is critical. I worried since the beginning of A Levels about my exams. I wondered how on earth I would function and not have panic attacks constantly. Yet, when actually doing them, I was happy and I slept easy. This is because I had worked hard and I also didn’t really care about what I got. I knew that what I was writing in my exams was some superficial construct that was made with the sole intention of fulfilling a spreadsheet rather than measuring my intellectual capability. I learnt way more in lessons than doing the exams and knowing that the grades I gained did not define me made the exam process so much easier.

6. Know your limit

One thing I promised myself was that I would not allow myself to become a wreck due to exams. I heard stories of students not eating, fainting, and harming themselves. I set myself a limit; if I was to ever feel complete dismay and depression I would not take it any further. I knew it wasn’t worth it. I think this mentality actually kept me sane because I knew that my livelihood was more important. I would advise you to do the same; know your boundaries and promise yourself to never go beyond them.

So yeah, it takes revision and hard work. You have to own what you’re doing and not become a victim to the exam boards which definitely do not measure your true potential. I’m no smarter than anyone else- and I don’t want anyone to measure themselves by their grades, it makes no sense. But, I did the work, I had a goal for myself (not created by my family, teacher or uni) and made it happen. Now, I’m starting university to start the whole process over again!