I hate to say it, but there really is a step-up between GCSE and A Level. It caught me out – I just thought that the way I had worked at GCSE would sail me through and everything would be rosy.

Without sounding too big-headed, I did pretty good at GCSE and, to be honest, I didn’t really have to put in a huge stack of hours to do that – it was more about remembering facts and processes.  A Level represents quite a different beast, however.  It’s about the application of knowledge and understanding why you’re learning what you’ve been taught – all a bit more philosophical.

The days of turning up to class, doing the homework, bit of revision and nail an exam – it won’t really stick at A Level.  The main reason is because you aren’t spoon-fed all the information you need.  At to that a big step-up in complexity and some deep thought and you’ve got a recipe for disaster if you don’t change the way you tackle your work.

How do I know this?  I didn’t adapt – and promptly bombed my AS Levels as a result.  What you’re realise is that you dropped down to four subjects or so for a reason – there’s more to learn and it will take longer to get your head round the material.  To quote my Physics teacher, “If you think you completely understand quantum mechanics, go back and look at it again, because you won’t.”  Quantum physics and the nuances of Wave-Particle Duality aside, I suppose the immortal words of Mr Spicer are easily transferable to most A Levels – you’re really going to have to work at this.

The step-up might not be so noticeable for the first few weeks or so of Year 12, but I think that, looking back, the teachers were just trying to ease us in.  Don’t be fooled by it – eventually the easing in stops just when you’re beginning to get used to the nice pace of working and the ‘going over the GCSE stuff.’  Predictable and annoying, yes… but eventually you do have to begin that process of learning the trickier stuff.

With that all in mind, here are some of the things that I did (or, in some cases, should have done) to ensure that you make the most of your A Level start.  Please do note, this isn’t about making the actual work easier – there’s no way about that – but rather to make sure that you don’t feel so swamped by it all.

  1. Firstly, I would immediately suggest that you make sure that you’re fully organised, with a notepad for each subject and everything admin-related already out of the way.  You don’t want to, for instance, be getting a folder for each maths module, but only 6 weeks into the term.  Keeping notes organised is right at the very top of your list of things to do – and you need to make the best-possible star with it.  Like, from day one.
  2. You need to get in the right frame of mind and make sure that you understand that you’re going to have to put a load of extra hours to keep yourself going.  I know it sounds tough, but there is no way around it.  Sadly, the days are gone where a simple ‘Class, Homework, Revision, Exam’ theory is going to work.
    The ideas and concepts you’re going to be thinking about are going to be more complex and even the brightest minds might take a while to get their heads around it.  For example, I always remembered GCSE Physics teaching me about particles like protons and neutrons.  However, when you get to AS Level, things become much more abstract.
  3. You will have free periods of time in your timetable – unless you happen to have taken on the world and stacked yourself full.  Don’t take that as an excuse to spend all day relaxing in the common room or wherever seems most convenient.  There is a reason why you’ve got that time to yourself – it’s so you can sit down and make sure that everything in your education is in order.  Even the most-organised among us (and I am certainly not one of them) will need to take some time to ensure that everything is up to date and the odd gap is filled somewhere along the line.
    In terms of stepping up to A Level… well, you need to plan early what you’re going to do and when. Your school should give you a timetable with all your lessons at the beginning of term, so in theory you’ll be able to get cracking with this planning early.
  4. Strangely, you need to get thinking about what you want to do when you leave Sixth Form.  I know it sounds odd, but the sooner you think about it the sooner you can get settled into your work or make some adjustments to your course.  Many people choose A Levels based on something they want to do in the future, so the best course of action is to get researching and setting yourself some goals.

OK, I’ll admit that I didn’t really make the best use of my time during the first half of Year 12 and, to be honest, it had a great effect on the rest of the year – it even put me under pressure heading into Year 13 and affected what I picked on my university application.

Teachers will love to drill it into you every five minutes about ‘how it isn’t GCSE’ and you ‘need to take responsibility’ for your learning.  After a while, you’ll be sick of hearing it and it will be frustrating to see teachers use that as an excuse for seemingly everything, but they have good intentions.  It’s likely that they’ve seen what happens if you don’t apply yourself.

The best way to get started, however, is to consider the changes you’re about to go through as you enter the last two years.  It’ll be tough, for sure.  But take it with a considered approach and you’ll be just fine.




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