How to: Prepare for Your A-level Courses.

In-Depth Guide

Ever hear this line?

"Trust me, A-levels are SO much harder than GCSEs. You won't know what hit you." 

If you're just about to start your A-levels this September, then you probably have. 

And it's true, there's no getting away with last minute studying during your A-levels, the workload really is a lot bigger and more challenging, and so the techniques you used to get through your GCSE's just aren't cut out for higher level education.

Having had the experience of starting my A-levels twice now (I retook the first year of my A-level courses in 2013 because I wanted to improve my grades), I've picked up a few things on how to get prepared for them through a lot of trial and error people. 

So I thought I'd save you the hassle, for all those starting new courses this September, and have created an in-depth list of what to do this summer to prepare yourself well for getting epic A-level grades.

Kicking off with the basics, your A-level course is currently broken down into 2 separate years - the AS year (year 1) and the A2 year (year 2). 

This guide will cover how to prepare for both years, and I'll be using my Psychology A-level course (my exam board is AQA) as a case study to guide you through the preparation process.

Here's what I'll let you in on:

1. Make sure you know what topics you'll need to learn inside-out for the exam
2. Make to-do lists for each course so that your topics have been broken down into smaller and more manageable tasks
3. Set deadlines
4. Get your studying material ready for September
5. Decide how you'll deal with setbacks throughout the course, like procrastination

It's a very in-depth guide and is the type of article you bookmark to complete parts of it on seperate dates, so if you'd like to, that's what I'd recommend.

If you like what you read and fancy getting more tips on how to boost your performance at school, then I'd love to invite you into my VIP email crew. You'll get an exclusive workbook on how to get A's, plus you'll never miss a post from me again. Join us here:

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TASK 1: Know what topics you'll be studying this year 

Every exam board will produce a document called the specification (or as I like to say, 'spec') for each course - this is a glorified list of all the topics they could possibly ask you about in the exam, so this is the best place to start your preparations for A-levels. 

For AQA, here's where you'll want to be clicking:

Take a look at the spec and print off the following:

  • The list of topics they'll test you on in the exam: You'll find these in the 'subject content' section for AQA.

Found it yet? The list of topics will look something like this:

  • 'Specification at a glance' - this will tell you briefly what's involved in the course. Here's the information you'll need to gather from it:
  1. How many units there are in each course - for most A-levels there are 4
  2. How many exams you'll be doing and what each exam is worth in terms of making up your final grade (here my first unit's exam in Psychology is worth 25% of my final grade)
  3. How long each exam is (I get 1 hour and 30 minutes for each exam)
  4. If there are any compulsory/optional questions in the exam
  5. If there are any coursework units

  • Assessment objectives - these are a description of what skills examiners are expecting from A/B/C/D/E/F/U grade answers, so learn them by heart! You'll want to be thinking about this criteria list whenever you do any work, to make sure that you're meeting every assessment objective for maximum marks. Here's where to find them:

 Aaand you're there.

 For my psychology course I have 4 objectives to meet;
1: show my understanding of psychology
2: analyse and evaluate psychological ideas and studies
3: know how to conduct experiments
4: write well.

Now I've circled the headers, but the stuff underneath them detailing precisely what skills you'll need to learn is the most important stuff.

So grab a notebook and rewrite the objectives in your own words (to ensure that you really understand what's being asked of you), rather than copying and pasting it without really thinking about them.

  • The 'weighting' of each assessment objective - in other words, what objectives are more important? For my Psychology course:
  • In my first year (the box under 'AS'), A01 (Assessment Objective 1) could give me approximately 17% of the total marks available, whereas A02 (Assessment Objective 2) could give me 21%. This is the same for my unit 1 and 2 exams, so I need to focus on putting more A02 in my essays than A01. 
Ok, I swear. The complicated maths degree stuff ends here ;)
I crossed out the Unit 1 and 2 section because it's just a repeat of the box at the top

    Some exam boards will also provide extra resources to help you, like:

  • The 'teachers lesson plans' - Here the exam board will show you how to break up the topics in the spec, give extra details and suggest tasks you could do to help you learn the content.
  • Recommended reading list - This will tell you what they think you should read in order to learn the courses and includes short reviews about the books to help you choose the best.
Your best bet in finding these extra resources is in this area of the AQA website:

  • Example answers - they'll show previous students answers to questions with a little commentary by the examiner about how they would mark the answer - this is a great read to teach you what and what not to do. You'll find them at the bottom of the 'past papers and mark schemes' page, although they're not offered for every subject.

  • Examiners reports - this is a document that examiners produce every year saying 'ok, so we read 1000+ answers and here's what everybody did badly and this is what the amazing students did...'. Again, this will teach you how to improve your answers. I recommend printing a few of these out, reading them and then putting a sticky note on them with one action that you'll take from the examiners recommendations that'll improve your answers.

Overview Checklist - Track your progress by coming back here whenever you've accomplished a new task & tick it off:
Most important;
Print the list of topics you need to learn from the Spec
 Make notes, in your own words, on what each Assessment Objective is
 Print off 3 examiners reports (to start with)
 Read one examiners report and write down, on a sticky note, 1 improvement you can make in your own answers from what the examiner has said

 Extras for students who really want to go for the top A's;
Make notes from the 'Specification at a glance'
 Make notes on what the 'weighting' of each assessment objective is and which assessment objective will get you the most marks
 Print off the teachers lesson plans
Print off the recommended reading list
 Choose 3 books from the recommended reading list to find online/borrow/buy
 Print off example answers & analyse them 

TASK 2: Make a to-do list of all the topics you'll need to know - these will be called your milestones

On a sheet of paper I like to break down each main topic into a list of smaller topics to learn about.

Eg. For Psychology, the memory unit [main topic] was broken down into these smaller topics:
  1. The multi-store model, including the concepts of encoding, capacity and duration. 
  2. Strengths and limitations of the model
  3. The working memory model
  4. Strengths and limitations of the model

This is a really useful strategy to adopt because it will stop you from falling into this studying trap:

"I'll study all of my memory stuff tonight" - a BIG, scary, ambiguous task which will lead to this -> "ok, I have no idea where to start. There's so much to do!" -> "Oooh, look! Doctor Who is on tonight. I think I'll watch that instead". And welcome to the world of procrastination.

Whereas if you break down the main topic into small, specific tasks, you'll become much more productive, and enter this scenario instead.

"At 8pm I'll read and make notes about the multi-store model from my textbook for 5 minutes". Now that we've introduced the 5 minute studying challenge and have made a really simple, easy and specific plan that won't cause you to scratch your head in confusion, it'll lead to this -> "well those 5 minutes were EASY. I can so do a few more [30 minutes later and you're still working on it]".

Hellooo productivity.

Once you've made that list of smaller topics, here's what to add to it:

In the margin add 3 circles that you can tick off as you progress through the year;

1st circle: when you finish making notes on this topic, tick this circle

2nd circle: when you've taught this topic to your class mates/friends/online viewers, tick this one 

(Ps. this idea is based on research that states that when we teach something, our brains are actively processing the information - because we're thinking carefully about what we say so that our 'students' understand it well - and we're more likely to store that information into our long term memories. Aka. we'll remember the topic for longer! You can learn more about this in this 2 minute video).

3rd circle: when I write an essay or do practice questions about this topic (this will ensure that I practice exam techniques for each topic), I'll tick it.

So now you know precisely what to do for your course.

TASK 3: Set deadlines for each milestone

Create a deadline for when you want a certain task(s) on your to-do list done. 

If you don't do this part then your studies will just drag on, because you'll have no idea when to work on certain topics, you'll just do it at random times when you feel like it (which, let's face it, will be never). 

Once you've chosen a date to complete a certain section/number of topics, work backwards to figure out how many topics you'll need to be covering each day.

Eg. here's my timetable:

Deadline: I want to finish the Psychology 'aggression' unit [main topic] by the 13th August 2014. 

Therefore I need to complete 2 smaller topics per day in order to meet this deadline.

In my planner (I'm using this one at the moment because it provides a full page for each day, so there's lot's of room. It's £6.49. FYI. that links an affiliate one.) I write down, the night before, the 2 smaller topics I want to study the next day so that there's no faffing around in the morning trying to decide what to do. 

I also write down what time I want to start each topic, which works well, otherwise I'll say 'meh, i'll just do it later' and we all know what that means. *Insert a day full of TV, shopping and absolutely no studying*.

A key thing I want to say here, about planning what time to start studying, is to allocate a lot longer than you think you'll need for it, and take breaks into account. 

So, for example, if I think a note taking session will hopefully take 1 hour, I block out 2 hours for me to do it and include one 20 minute break. I nearly always end up using that extra time.

TASK 4: Find resources to study from

Now that you know what you'll need to learn about, it's time to get your hands on:

Textbooks - for A grade students, I fully recommend getting 3 to 4 books. This will ensure that you have a deeper understanding.  Working from one basic source is what C grade students do. The A graders want to know more, they look around for lots of view points and ideas about their subjects. Do that. 

Ps. for my American readers, StudentRate has a really useful 'compare the prices of textbooks' section, which also tells you if there are any coupons you can use to save money. It's definitely worth using when you shop around for the cheapest books.

Another alternative is using Google Shopping to compare prices for textbooks.

Pps. In the interests of complete honesty, I want to let you know that I'm currently working with Studentrate to cross-promote our websites. However, I'm not receiving any money for talking about them, and my views are entirely my own and genuine. I really would recommend them, which is why I agreed to work with them in the first place. They're a student discounts site, so if you're from the USA and like the sound of them, you can check them out for yourself here.
Searching for the cheapest version of my Psychology A-level textbook. If they had a UK version of this I would be all over it.

Journals - these are big, fancy documents written by scholars and academic-y nerds - they write serious stuff, way past degree level, so for all you 'gimme a 100% here', this is for you! 
I'm using online free ones at the moment, such as Jstor for History. Get a free account and you can view the articles from journals online. You can't print/download anything (that's for paid accounts), but if you right click and 'save as' a page or screen grab it then you can work around this by bending the rules a little ;) (hey, i'll do anything to get stuff for free). 

I'm also enjoying Boston University's journal for english literature essays.

Google books/Amazon preview- if you want to read excerpts then Amazon and Google Books often let you view around 30 pages of most books for free.

If you need a book for free, try searching for the title in google with :pdf at the end. Some universities etc may have scanned it and put it up online. Just print it out or download the document on your laptop/kindle/ipad to take into school.

Search for presentations or handouts that other schools/revision websites have posted online via a quick google search of your subject + exam board + the term 'A-level'.

TASK 5: You'll probably procrastinate - plan how you'll deal with it and get back on track

This is a challenging issue, so here are the things I'm experimenting with to reduce my procrastinating habits:

Use social pressure to make you study - tell your peers when you're expecting to finish learning about a topic and offer to teach it to them at a certain date. You don't want to look bad, so you'll be more likely to do it.

Social pressure in action:
    I recently borrowed a book from a friend and normally I read a tiny bit and won't finish it for weeks, sometimes months. However I've got a reputation for being a book stealer now lol, so when I promised to give the book back within a week, it seriously motivated me to get all 350 pages done and make my notes within that time. He'd be so annoyed and angry if I kept it for longer. So moral of the story is, it works!

    Another example is that for History I've asked my teacher if I can take over teaching a few topics from the first unit when we get back in September, and I've already begun making some powerpoint presentations ready for the class. So again, social pressure is working.

Use rewards to motivate you - I've noticed that I always promise myself a reward (eg. for finishing my A-level exams this year I wanted to go sky diving), but I either forget about them or can never be bothered to organize them. 

So this time I'll try booking a reward beforehand, so that I'm really committed and have put my money where my mouth is, and then if I fail to meet my studying deadline I'll have to cancel the reward and lose my deposit etc. That seems a lot more effective. 

Has anyone had success with this method before though? Let me know in the comments.

Commit to the 5 minute studying challenge - of all the things I've ever tried in reducing procrastination, this has certainly been the most effective. You can read more about it and my experience with the challenge by following the link.

    Now I'd love to hear what you think, in the comments below:
  • What courses are you about to start this year?
  • What kind of preparation have you already done for them? Or are you starting from a blank slate?
  • What tips, that I've suggested in this post, would you be willing to try out?
  • Do you have any tips you'd like to share about preparing for A-levels?

Ps. the image is courtesy of Carmen from The Chronicles of Her

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  1. Ahhh this is just what I needed... And just as I thought I'd have a relaxing pinterest sesh! Thank you Sanam, I'm starting to print off your articles to motivate me. I'm anxiously awaiting GCSE results but am trying to think ahead now to AS levels. Keep up the good work (cliché phrase- it's half eleven, forgive me) and looking forward to updates. E x

    1. Hey Ellie,

      Haha, there is no relaxing when I'm around! ;)

      That sounds like a good plan, if you need any extra help, just pop me an email :)

      And eek, me too. There's just 2 weeks (ish) left until A-level results day. Good luck though! x

  2. Yes! I so wish this blog had been around in the summer before I started AS because I only figured all of this out as I was waiting to go into A2!! Incredible post as always Sanam!!

    1. Amy, welcome to my world haha, I wish I'd known this before too. It took me 2 years to figure it out ;)

      And thank you so much :D x

  3. Hi Sanam ,
    Your blog is just Amazing ! Shame i found it too late into the year though :( I was wondering if you would give me some advice since you seem to have figured it all out :D
    Ive just completed my AS exams and i know i haven't done as well as i would have hoped and will probably be retaking the year. How did you find retaking year 12 ? Where there any ups or downs ? Did it hinder your chances of getting into a top university? x

    1. Hey Mina :)

      Thanks so much :D I wouldn't say I had it all figured out though ;)

      What subjects did you take or are planning to retake?

      In terms of what my retake year was like, I wrote a few posts about my progress as part of the A* Grade Challenge ( If you scroll down to the bottom of the article, I've left links to those posts.

      As to whether it'll hinder my uni chances, I don't really know. I haven't actually applied to any universities yet. Try speaking to the university you want to apply to about their opinions on retake years, that should give you some better insight :)

  4. This is awesome!
    We don't have A levels here or GCSE's, but the study tips are super useful!
    Everything is so detailed that I feel like I'm taking A levels too haha :)

    Great post, Sanam! :)

    1. Hey Effie :)

      Thanks a ton! I'm glad you're finding it useful :)

      So what qualifications are you currently doing?

    2. That isn't a very common term here. Although I did search Google and I hope I got a good grasp of it (Qualifications, that is) :)

      I was supposed to do a really long explanation of our system, but I think it's better to point you to the American School System. Our system is pretty close to how they work :)

  5. I want to be productive and do this but I just want to enjoy my summer and think about studying later...
    So are we supposed to do this for all 4 A-levels and all the mini topics??? :/

    1. Hey anon,

      If you don't want to get everything done right now, then I'd recommend just getting step 1 completed for all 4 a-levels. That'll ensure that you're really prepared when September starts :)

  6. Hi, I didnt do all of this i cant lie but it did motivate me to save all my specs to my folders on my laptop and start reading through the important parts of them so thanks for the motivation!


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