Making the jump up to studying A-levels from GCSE is often said to be the hardest in education. But why is that the case? And what can you do to prepare yourself for the transition?

Read on to find out!

Quality and quantity

One of the main challenges of studying A-levels is the need to learn information for as many as five subjects, which often have multiple exams on top. If we look at A-level Maths for example, this one subject has three different papers, more if you are taking the Further Maths A-level as well.

Then there are subjects that focus more on coursework deadlines, spread throughout the academic year. These may also require you to carry out independent research or study, which can be challenging if you're used to revision or textbook-based ways of learning.

All of your A-level subjects require in-depth knowledge. At university, while you may take a combined course, you will likely take far fewer topics than at A-level and find it much easier to prioritise as a result.

Students taking an A-level exam

More focused study time at university

At A-level, you will typically need to balance independent study with classroom lessons. While that does mean you'll have more time with your teacher or tutors, it can put pressure on time spent revising or on external commitments. By contrast, university students spent less than 11 hours a week in lectures on average pre-Covid, according to a 2019 survey.

Some might argue this makes university harder than studying A-levels, however being able to focus solely on a handful of topics makes for a less congested timetable. This also means you can spend more time going back over areas you are struggling with.

Most university courses have reading weeks, which work in a similar way to the study leave period you may receive at A-level. You will be off timetable to dedicate time to relevant, independent study for your chosen course, freeing you up to focus on specific topics you may be less confident in.

Studying at home or a library

Dedicating time to your areas of interest

Both A-levels and university studies are similar in that you choose the subject or subjects that you are passionate about or see yourself building a career in. However, knowing what you need to prioritise while studying A-levels is not easy. University, on the other hand, is often more focused.

You may be expected to complete a placement as part of a degree, too, though this often means that you won't need to attend lectures, so you can dedicate your full attention to this important stage of your education.

Outside of lectures, university presents further opportunities to further your personal development. You may decide to join a society that lets you learn about a certain topic, like history for example, to supplement your degree. Or you might want to choose something completely different!

Organising areas of interest and priorities

Getting the right balance

Studying A-levels brings intense pressure. It can be a challenge to know how much time to dedicate to each of your chosen subjects, alongside any extracurricular activities you might have, but that pressure can set you up well for university study.

As we've already alluded to, being able to focus on one or two topics a semester as opposed to three or four (or more) as is the case at A-level frees up your mind and can also make timetabling in your hobbies and interests more straightforward. This, in turn, lets you get away from studying for a time and reduce the risk of burning out.

Balancing study and life

Coping with pressure

Pressure affects us all. Even well-prepared students come unstuck when it comes to exams, especially at A-level where the significance of getting the 'right' grades is hammered in from day one. Don't worry, we're not going to labour the point! Instead, we'll remind you that being prepared for A-level exams is good practice for when you move on to university.

At the start of each year of your degree, you'll be notified of the key dates such as when your assignments are due, when you'll need to hand in drafts of your dissertation, and if there are any exams that you'll need to sit. This is similar to A-level, when you will need to work out your revision timetable and how much time you'll need to dedicate to your individual subjects. The difference is you'll have already built up your organisational skills!

Coping with pressure

Everyone is different

Though we've hopefully given you an idea about the challenges of university compared to studying A-levels, the fact is that your set of circumstances will be different to your friends and classmates. Some students find the independent way of studying at university to be ideal, whereas others need more contact time with a tutor in order to fully understand the course material. And don't forget, the nature of the subject itself might result in it needing more independent study and research.

It is also worth mentioning that A-levels act as a gateway to learning at university. If you can master the content in your chosen courses, you will demonstrate to the institution(s) you are applying to that you have a good grasp of the ideas you will encounter during your undergraduate. It's essentially the first test universities expect you to overcome.

Asking for help in lecture

How are university exams different to A-level?

Typically, A-level exams take place in the summer and winter terms. University exams are similar in that they, too, take place in January and in May depending on the course and the institution. The difference is that the latter also has other means of assessing understanding.

For example, you might be required to submit a group presentation, or design a leaflet, alongside essays and question-based examinations. This is different to A-level, where typically grades are awarded based on exam grades or coursework marks. The variety that comes from university study can afford more opportunities to demonstrate unique abilities, whereas the linear approach to revising for A-level exams can suit logical thinkers.

An exam hall for A-level and GCSE

How do I get into university?

A-levels are the traditional qualifications needed to progress to university. That said, there are alternatives.

Consider taking an Access to Higher Education Diploma if you have found studying A-levels challenging or didn't get the grades you wanted. These courses open opportunities to study areas such as healthcare and education at degree level, from which you can progress further to a career or additional training. Or, you might want to consider taking an internship or apprenticeship to gain workplace skills, which you can then use for further study.

There is also the option of using UCAS Clearing to find alternative courses and institutions, even if you got the grades you needed.

Getting to university

Get the qualifications you need

At Oxbridge, we're here to help you reach your goals and aspirations. Our online A-level courses all follow the latest syllabuses from the UK's leading awarding bodies, such as Edexcel, OCR, and AQA, with personal tutors on hand to support you all the way.

We are also proud to provide Access to Higher Education Diplomas and the opportunity to retake GCSEs. Speak to our advisers to find the right path for you.