Studying for your A-Level exams can be a scary thought. A Level Chemistry covers many different topics so you need to be organised in your preparation and chemistry revision.
But fear not, we’ve put together a short guide on what you can expect to cover on this course and some tips on revising.
The chemistry A Level, no matter which exam board your school has chosen, is tough. According to one study by the University of Durham in fact, chemistry is actually the hardest A Level there is.
This might make you wonder, why on earth would I want to study that? And sure, that would be a fair question – considering that your results in your A Levels are going to determine your chance of getting into your preferred university.
Whilst it is a difficult subject, studying it is nonetheless really worthwhile – as it is good for your career, your ability to succeed in other subjects, and, if you like it, it can be one of the most rewarding subjects there is.
If you want to go into a field such as medicine, you will have to study chemistry – as many universities will specify a particular grade in this particular subject. If you want to go into science at all, chemistry will need to be one of your A Level subjects.
However, it’s not just useful for that. Universities and employers know, whichever subject you are hoping to pursue further, precisely this fact about the challenging nature of chemistry. It’s not one of the ‘soft’ subjects that often get criticised by the media. (In other words, people take into account the fact that yes, it’s a really hard subject to study.)
But if you are into the sciences in general, chemistry will provide a fascinating, rewarding, and stimulating subject. It will show the smallest things on the planet as well as the very things that make us alive. It will show you the ways that industry produces some of the most important chemicals for humanity and it can show you how doctors keep us alive.
Let’s take a little look at what else you’ll be learning.
The specific curriculum at A Level can differ from school to school, depending on what exam board you are with but the core topics remain the same.
After getting through your GCSEs, your knowledge of chemistry will be pretty advanced by now. At A Level, you will continue to further the knowledge of concepts you already know as well as learning new ones.
So, let’s have a look at some of the main fields that the A Level syllabus covers – from the principles of general chemistry to the behaviour of a specific molecule, compound, or reactant.
As you’ll know, physical chemistry refers to the application of the theories and ideas in physics to the proper material stuff of chemistry. What you get is the study of the atomic, the subatomic, the molecular, and the particulate – all the microscopic things and forces that make up everything we are and the world is. Put simply, physical chemistry is the study of how matter behaves at the smallest level.
In the physical chemistry section of your A Levels, you will build on your GCSE knowledge of atoms and their structure. Here, you’ll learn about the history of our knowledge of the atomic structure, through historical chemists like John Dalton, Amedeo Avogadro, and Dmitri Mendeleev.
You’ll also engage with the range subatomic particles – from electrons, protons, and neutrons – and explore the nature of ionisation energy, electron configurations, atomic mass, and charge. You’ll be further required to be able to analyse the phenomena with the coolest name in chemistry, spectra (which, unfortunately, is just the plural of spectrum).
You will also have some more equations to learn! You’ll have to learn redox equations as well as Le Chatelier’s principle which can be used to predict the effects of changes in temperature, pressure and concentration on the position of equilibrium in homogeneous reactions.
You remember moles from GCSE? You better do, because they come back in force. You’ll be required to find the relative atomic and molecular masses of compounds – and you’ll have to be able to use that great discovery by Avogadro, the Avogadro constant (although, you don’t need to learn its value by heart).
There’ll be equations with ideal gases, equations with empirical and molecular formulae, and the good old balanced equation will be entertaining you too.
A lot of your A Level Chemistry course will be calculating, calculating some more, and calculating again, so let’s hope your mathematics skills are up to scratch. But this part of the course will have you experimenting too – with titrations.
Any memory of how compounds hold themselves together chemically? Of course you knew it: bonds – and there are a whole load of bonds to keep you occupied.
At GCSE, you will have learned about ionic bonds and covalent bonds. But, at A Level, you have a couple more to deal with: dative covalent bonds and metallic bonding. You’ll have to learn about what, at a subatomic level, distinguishes these different bonds – and about how material scientists use their knowledge of these bonds to produce new materials that are helpful for industry etc.
You’ll also have fun thinking about the forces between molecules, or what we call inter-molecular forces. You’ll have to explain how the strength of these forces affect the boiling and melting points of different substances – and you’ll come across the forces so nice they named them twice: dipole-dipole forces.
Maybe, reading through this, you were crossing your fingers and hoping – desperately – that this pair of chemical substances wouldn’t show up this year. Of course they do.
This time around, you’ll be looking at weak acids and bases, you’ll be thinking about pH curves, and you’ll be working out pH yourself. Of course, this is going to mean a few more calculations. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
What is inorganic chemistry? The study of any compounds without carbon in them – which is the exclusive domain of organic chemistry (see below). In inorganic chemistry, you will learn about halogens, transitions metals and alkaline earth metals, as well as testing reactions of ions in aqueous solutions.
It’s unlikely that any of you are going to be too surprised to hear that the inorganic chemistry part of the course will kick off with the Periodic Table – that ubiquitous chart pioneered by Mendeleev and used by every student of chemistry ever since.
For A Level, you are going to focus mainly on four parts of the Table: groups two and seven, period three, and the great big chunk of stuff in the middle known as the transition metals.
In regards to these things, you are going to be looking at properties of elements including the atomic radius, first ionisation energy, and their melting point. But you’ll also look at these elements’ practical usage – in medicine for example – as well as the ways that they all react with each other.
There is plenty of opportunity for experimentation too, however, with concentration calculations, test tube reactions, and reductions. You’ll look again at catalysts too.
As we said above, organic chemistry is the study of those compounds that are largely based on carbon. This is the only distinguishing feature of the two fields.
Although it’s based almost entirely around carbon, organic chemistry is a hugely diverse field – covering medicines, plastics, and petrol to food, the chemicals in your body, and the many synthetic materials made by professional chemists. We’ll look here at a sample of the things that you’ll need to study.
In organic chemistry, you will learn the difference between alkanes, alkenes and alcohols.
Alkanes are the main component of crude oil, and, as such, you’ll be looking at the processes of fractional distillation, cracking, combustion, and chlorination. As crude oil is such an economically important – and politically potent – substance, you’ll also be looking at the environmental consequences of such processes, as well as the significance of these substances for industry. A heads up: there’ll be practicals too.
Halogenalkanes are much more reactive than alkanes, and they are used for things like refrigerators (you might remember chlorofluorocarbons) and generally in pharmaceuticals. You’ll be looking at what these things are made of, how we use them, and the potential of environmental damage from their manufacture.
Alkenes, meanwhile, have a double carbon bond, meaning that they can be particularly reactive. You’ll be studying these too.
And every over-worked adult’s favourite chemical substance, alcohol. You’ll be looking at why this is important for medicine and agriculture – and you’ll be making some ethanol of your own.
You’ll have learned about polymers before. However, at A Level, you’ll be extending your knowledge of these substances to include condensation polymers. What are these, how are they formed (clue’s in the name), and what are they used for? All of these questions will be answered – as well as the most important one (‘why exactly am I studying this?’).
Amines, however, you may not have come across before. Do you remember ammonia, though? These are an edgy chemical twist on those substances – but with the addition of alkyl or aryl groups.
These three things are the chemical substances that make up life – and you’ll be looking at the structure and relationships that each of these form.
Amino acids – and their super-fun constituents, zwitterions – build up to make proteins, and you’ll be required to know the structure of both these acids and the proteins inside out. A part of this course looks at the important role that hydrogen plays in the whole thing – as well as those things called enzymes (which are a specific type of protein).
Meanwhile, your knowledge of the human body would be sort of lacking without an engagement with deoxyribonucleic acid, the famous DNA. You’ll be looking at the role of hydrogen in this too, as well as at the elaborate process that forms the double helix.
Alongside the chemical stuff itself, you’ll also be looking at the tools chemists use to study that stuff.
Two of these techniques are chromatography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. The latter is used to investigate the structure of compounds, whilst the former offers a helpful technique in studying and separating the different parts of a mixture.
Whilst we’ve done a whistle stop tour of the main content of the A Level courses, there is something just as important to know about. That’s the ways by which the course is assessed. There ain’t no point in learning all that stuff if you don’t know how you are going to show that you know it.
The thing is that the assessment will differ slightly depending on the exam board with which you are studying.
|AQA||Three papers + practical. |
All AS and all A2 papers must be sat in the same year.
|20% of your grade will be on maths. |
15% will assess your practical work.
|Edexcel||Three papers + practical. |
All papers for each year sat in a single year.
|Teacher assessed practicals will contribute to your grade.|
|OCR||As above.||As above.|
It’s easy to look at all of this and get overwhelmed. But don’t worry. You will be taught each section in small chunks and you will just keep building up your knowledge.
A Level chemistry is pretty advanced and it takes a lot of work to do well in this subject. It’s a good idea to revise new information throughout the course to make sure you really understand a concept before you move onto the next one. Trust us, this is a lot easier than trying to do it all in one go one month before your exams!
Here’s a short list of some techniques to help you best prepare:
Building a chemistry revision timetable can add structure to your revision techniques and help you identify which topics you need to prioritise.
Like we said, do this regularly not just before your exams. Set some time aside each week to go over ideas and concepts you’ve covered in class.
The great thing about A Level is that you have less subjects to think about, giving you time to really go into depth on each one.
Creating a revision timetable is a great way to organise your study time so you’re spending enough time on each subject.
Take the first step by setting your study goals to build a strong foundation for success.
Preparing for your exam through proper revision will leave you feeling confident on the day (Photo credit: Xin Li 88 via Visualhunt.com)
One of the best things you can do is to do as many past chemistry papers as you can.
Practising past papers will help you get familiar with the:
Using past papers to revise is a really useful tool. The more at ease you are with the format and style of questions the better, you won’t get any surprises on exam day.
Look up the mark scheme for your past papers and make sure your answers are hitting the points needed to get the marks. The best answers are concise explanations rather than descriptions.
Try writing out model answers for certain questions that come up again and again. This will get you into the practice of writing answers that the examiners are looking for. Remember, exam answers are not just about your knowledge of the subject but also about your knowledge of the mark scheme itself.
The chief examiner’s report is basically a guide of what not to do in an exam. It compiles comments from all examiners each year and tells you the most common mistakes students make.
Of course you don’t know what’s going to be in your exam, but it is useful to understand how the papers are marked.
Use this to focus your mind when doing your past papers. The most common mistake is just not reading the question properly! Don’t fall into that trap.
Continuing on the theme of writing concise exam answers, we recommend you start building a scientific word bank.
Every time you learn a new word, phrase or expression for a certain topic or concept add it into the bank.
Having the right vocabulary can help demonstrate your knowledge of scientific concepts, and that equals more marks!
Reviewing your notes 10 minutes before class is extremely useful for further learning. (Source: Visual Hunt)
If you find your work too much to tackle alone, then why not enlist the help and support of fellow students. Create a study group and connect with your classmates for support! This will allow you to fully prepare for your A-levels as well as enrich your learning by exploring the thoughts and ideas of others.
A levels can be stressful so working with a group can take the burden off a little, you’re all in it together!
Plus you and your classmates can test each other’s knowledge and level of progress.
(Just remember, no one can do the work for you, that, we’re afraid, is up to you).
If you’re feeling stressed, tired and that it’s all getting too much, take a break. There is no point forcing yourself to study for hours upon hours as this will not result in a positive outcome. There is no shame in taking a break and it can often be more productive than trying to go for hours staring at the same textbook.
Taking regular study breaks and exercising is proven to engaging your brain in studying and improve your exam performance in the long-run. Exercise is a powerful tool which can boost your brain’s ability to be productive and can increase your concentration.
Everyone is always looking for the best way to study but the reality is that each person is different. You could be a visual learner, or an auditory, reading or writing learner. Finding your style will make remembering and recalling information a lot easier.
You’ll also find out where you work better, at home, at the library, at a friend’s house. Whatever it is do what’s best for you. You don’t have to be like everyone else:
Mix up your study habits and methods by listening to podcasts, watching videos or documentaries, studying in a new locations or even something as simple as using different colours for your study notes.
Your brain will recall where you were or how you revised for a topic which will help you remember more information. Give it a go!
The day of your exam can be the most stressful of the entire examination experience but there are ways which you can minimise your anxiety.
As mean as it sounds, try avoiding panicking friends and keep to yourself. Keep your goals in mind and remember all of the hard work you have put in to prepare.
Give yourself plenty of time to get to the exam hall on time so you can enter calmly and with a clear mind.
And don’t underestimate the power of eating a healthy breakfast the day of your exams! Your brain needs fuel to operate (and you really don’t want to be the person with a rumbling stomach in the exam hall!)
Whatever methods you choose to revise just make sure you give yourself time to prepare. Little and often is always best, keep on top of your revision throughout the year; don’t leave anything till the last minute.
Not only will you save yourself stress you’ll give yourself the best possible chance to achieve the grades you deserve.