British A-levels are no walk in the park. Doing them in one year is harder still. It takes a lot of organization and commitment to pull off.
As living proof that it can be done though – having done both Biology and Chemistry A-Levels in a single year – I’m here to tell you it can be done.
And while I didn’t get the top grades (I’d been out of education for 10 years!), I did well enough (AB) to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor and going to med school.
Still, if I had to do it all again? Here’s what I’d tell myself…
Taking A-levels in one year involves doing two years worth of work in one. That’s no easy task.
There’s a reason these courses are structured like this; volume. There’s a lot to the average A-level and many curriculum points to cover. That’s why they take two years to finish.
Although I did science A-levels, I feel this point applies to any subject. Don’t underestimate the work involved to get a good grade in these exams. Getting an A is going to require plenty of sacrifice.
Here are the main challenges:
- The structure: doing an A-level subject in a year means taking both components; the AS and the A level course at the same time. The A level (2nd year) content builds on the foundation of the AS (1st year). As both year classes happen side by side, understand that you’ll be playing catch up (hello Google and YouTube) to know what’s going on.
- The timing: learning content in a parallel rather than linear fashion (one year on top of the other) means you’ll inevitably have knowledge gaps. Keep track of these where possible. That way you’ll make sure you cover every topic you could be asked a question on.
Learn Active Recall Techniques
To do well on A-levels (even though they’re high school-equivalent exams) you’re going to have to do more than highlighting textbooks and re-reading your notes.
For the heavy science-based subjects or things like maths, you’re going to have to do a lot of self-quizzing. That means practicing all the question sections in your textbooks and really solidifying the methodology in your own mind.
For other subjects active recall techniques are important too. Making sure you know and can explain the important concepts of your subject, without referencing any books or notes, is massively important.
Here’s what you can try:
- Explaining a topic to yourself on a piece of paper
- Teaching a topic out loud to a friend or family member
- Making a question-quiz from your reading and then completing it without using the book
For more good examples (even though I talk about medicine you can apply these to any subject) check out this article.
Notes Vs Flashcards
Probably my best piece of advice for studying A-levels in a single year is to ditch notetaking altogether. Instead of notes write questions. And collect all these questions in an organized place, something like a spreadsheet or a paper notecard.
Obviously this is subject specific and lends itself well to some and not so well to others. Be sensible here.
The questions you keep can be used for flashcards. Flashcards are great because they build your memory of the subject long-term. Especially if you use a spaced repetition system to review them.
Spaced repetition just means you increase the interval time between reviewing your cards. So you learn one the first day, review it the next and then don’t see it again for another couple of days. It’s explained very well here.
Taking the time to do this for your subject, and to personalise your cards with your own words, images or “memory joggers” (mnemonics) can really help. You can also use other people’s created “decks” for A-level subjects too. Check out sites like Quizlet for example.
Avoid Resource Fatigue
Another thing I remember doing is constantly hunting for new books or YouTube channels I thought could help show me the topics in a new way. Now when I look back? I realize I was wasting a lot of time!
Avoid resource fatigue by taking the first couple of weeks of your course to find one good resource and stick to it. If it’s one your school or institution is using you might be stuck here – but don’t be afraid to use a different one at home or in the library away from class.
The important thing is going with something you enjoy using that’s comprehensive enough to cover all the syllabus points.
And not jumping ship to something new and shiny every week.
One quick tip: although most A-level boards (Edexcel, OCR, AQA etc) have the same topics on their curriculum, make sure your resource matches that of the exam you’re going to take.
Do Past Papers From Day One
This is maybe the most powerful tip. Collect all the past papers you can get your hands on (even those of the other exam boards) and archive them. As you go through your classes, note down the subjects you cover and start looking for relevant questions in your past paper archive.
Once you have some relevant questions that match something you’ve just learned or covered? Practice them. Do as many as you can.
Don’t worry if you get them wrong at first (this is a good thing). Review the answer and understand the reasoning first. Then keep a special record of them and make a plan to come back later (a week etc) and tackle the question again – I actually remember turning these into flashcards too.
Doing this will get you in the habit of regularly exposing yourself to the types of questions you’ll be asked. You’ll probably be able to spot patterns in the questions the more you do this too.
If I could recommend only one thing? Practice past papers from the very first day of class.
Not a moment later.
Identify Major Syllabus Points
Doing A-levels in one year doesn’t give you any time to waste. You’ll want to know exactly where to put most of your study efforts as soon as you can. This involves studying the syllabus points for both the AS and A-level courses as closely as possible.
Armed with a better idea of what you’re going to study over the next year then, it’s a good idea to then hop online and start searching around for the most common examination topics from this list (you’ll get a better idea of this too the more practice papers you do).
Make a record of these so you know where to pay close attention when studying. You can also ask your teachers the topics that examiners most like to test on too.
This is what I like to call 80/20’ing a subject. Scoping it out so you know the areas that’ll help get you the best results.
Ask Questions (Real Vs Online Learning)
One of the reasons I’m really thankful that I did my A-levels in person rather than online via self-study, is that I had a real life teacher to get immediate feedback from (shoutout Angela and Paul).
Doing both parts of an A Level in a year this is pretty fundamental. You need to get used to asking a lot of questions. And getting everything you might not be sure about sorted out as fast as possible.
In the nightmare that was A Level chemistry I found myself asking questions to my teacher all the time. When he didn’t give me an answer I was satisfied with (or still didn’t understand)? I made sure to ask again. Not stopping until I finally understood the concept.
Prepare to do the same. Teachers are there for that very reason.
Work to a Strict Schedule
Taking on such a big course load in a year means you’re going to have to be very strict with yourself. Discipline is the name of the game here.
That means tracking everything; coursework due dates, tests, exam dates etc religiously in some form of calendar or organizer. As well as reviewing it periodically so you know how to plan out the days and weeks ahead.
For me Saturday was always the review day. That’s when I’d pull out the calendar I’d been keeping records on throughout the study week.
I also worked on a rigid schedule. Whenever I got homework assignments I’d get them done the same evening (save having to worry about them later).
This is how my average weekday looked:
- Morning: blast through flashcard reviews before class
- Afternoon: classes, coursework etc
- Evening: make new flashcards and practice past paper questions
I pretty much did exactly that for a whole year in the run up to the exams. Getting focused, due those habits, was never really a problem.
You can find out more about how I recommend preparing for exams here.
Another thing I remember from this crazy year was the constant feeling of being on the border of complete exhaustion. If I had to go back in time and repeat the process? I’d be a lot more careful here – perhaps only working up to a very specific hour each day.
Doing A-levels in a single year, especially if you do more than one, will take a big toll on your time. It’s absolutely necessary however that you don’t burn out. So find some downtime to rest and take your mind away from study.
I had a lot riding on my grades so wasn’t too kind to myself in this regard. But I’m also sure I probably would have studied more effectively (maybe even coming out with two A’s) if I pencilled in the occasional day off once every couple of weeks or so.
Here’s what I would recommend doing looking back:
Stop working at a set hour: therefore ensuring you focus your study sessions more intently in the time scheduled (check out Parkinson’s law)
Make time for exercise: I did do this but often people forget!
Make time for family and friends: I isolated myself a lot looking back and that probably only added to the pressure and stress…
You’ve also got to remember to eat healthy and stay hydrated as much as possible too!
Finally, due to how hard A-levels are, it’s important to remember not to let failure get you down.
There will be some class tests, some coursework assignments, some mock exams etc that you might not do that well in. Or at least struggle a lot in attempting.
That’s completely normal. You just have to remember; failure is your friend. It teaches you the topics or tasks you know have to do better in – the things that, once cleared up, really will help you get that excellent grade.
Stay positive it’ll all work out.
Looking back on that year now it’s kind of crazy to think about how intense and fast-paced that year was. It’s only until I went through an email discussing my plans to get into medicine via this route with a friend of mine (shout out Alan MacPherson), that the stress of it all suddenly came back!
Would I recommend doing A-levels in one year? It seriously depends. My story (which you can read about here) called for it. But maybe yours is different.
The one thing you should know however? It definitely isn’t easy.
Image Credit – @charlfolscher at Unsplash
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.