When I did the A Levels, my aim was to do my best and make it into med school. Little did I know that I would go on to achieve Top Scores in Malaysia for Chemistry and Biology, on top of getting all A*s.
This achievement got me thinking about what exactly contributed to this success. For me, the GCSEs were relatively easy to get through, but the A Levels were a completely different story. My old methods didn’t work anymore and I had to seriously rethink what I was doing.
In no way am I trying to boast about what I’ve accomplished, this post is a reflection of what I’ve done and I hope that it gives you some inspiration on what you can do to improve your own methods and strategies!
Unlike Thinzar who covered her specific subjects in our last blog post, I won’t be doing so because there are so many different exam boards for the A Levels. Instead, I will cover generalisable advice for all specifications and the key features to my revision strategy.
If you’d like to look at specific tips, click on each bullet point below:
Without further ado, let’s get into the main part of this post!
#1: Know your syllabus inside out.
The syllabus is produced by the exam board that provides the final exam, what more is there to say about its reliability? I used the syllabus extensively to decide what to include in my notes throughout my A Levels.
My notes were a centralised location for all the relevant information of each subject. Aside from the exam specification, I also supplemented my notes using the official revision guide (concise summaries in there!), past paper questions and what my teachers mentioned in classes.
My notes then formed the knowledge base from which I created questions, which leads on to point #2!
#2: Active recall and spaced repetition is your best friend.
A lot of you may already be aware of active recall and spaced repetition. I first learned about it from Ali Abdaal on Youtube but I’ll try to explain these concepts briefly so you can continue with the rest of the post! The video by Ali has been linked, check it out if you want to hear active recall and spaced repetition being explained in more detail.
The main principle behind active recall is that you engage more with the information, instead of passively reading your notes and highlighting relevant points. Especially since the A Levels are quite long, it’s very easy to disconnect from the content as you repeatedly review things. Instead of the typical methods students use to “revise” such as rewriting notes, reading the textbook, and highlighting things, Ali suggests that we use a more active way to revise, one that allows us to actually put our knowledge to use.
For me, I implemented active recall by using flashcards with questions that I made, explaining concepts to other people, and doing past paper questions.
We forget things over time. The quote “You lose what you don’t use” is especially true in this context! This applies to revision because the knowledge that isn’t used will be forgotten to make more room for more relevant things.
Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve below demonstrates how we forget things over time. If we use active recall to review information at some point, we basically disrupt the curve and the decline starts over again, as indicated by the curves in blue. This basically means that you end up remembering more of it over time.
Eventually, the intervals at which you need to review information get larger, so you might review a topic the next day, then in two days, a week, two weeks, one month, and so on.
Above: Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve.
I used Google Sheets to make my flashcards, which had questions that forced me to recall information from the syllabus. For example, I may have a question about the characteristics of the genetic code and my answer would include that it is universal, triplet, degenerate, and non-overlapping.
I also kept a record of the dates at which I did active recall for topics in my subjects. In Semester 2 of medical school, I colour coded the dates I did active recall so it was easier for me to know how difficult I found an overall topic. I used a traffic light system (red/orange/yellow/green) to do so, and that would tell me how much more work I had to put in and when I’d have to do a review again.
This is a screenshot of my active recall records from Y1 of Medicine, I only started colour coding the dates around April of 2020 which was quite late, but this is a really helpful way of just making yourself consider how difficult you found a topic! It gives you a quick overview without you having to go into the flashcards for each topic to check.
#3: Application of knowledge is key.
Everyone says this, but to actually do it is difficult. This is why tip #1 is so important because:
1. You need the knowledge base.
2.. You need to know your syllabus.
Missing out on either means you won’t be able to draw from your existing knowledge and use it in an unknown situation i.e. an application question.
Every time I saw an application question, I would recall the syllabus and ask myself what topics actually relate to it. From there I would then try to use my existing knowledge to answer the question. For some people, this is quite an instinctive thing to do but it might not be apparent to others so I tried to explain it. If you ever get stumped with an unfamiliar situation in exam questions, try following the process outlined in the diagram below!
#4: Core Practicals
When writing up your core practicals for Science subjects, make sure you understand why the experiment is carried out in a certain way! This helps you make links with your subject knowledge and can be easy marks to pick up.
Also, make sure that you know a strong method that includes relevant variables as questions asking for the experimental procedure can count towards a lot of marks in the exam!
#5: Find out why exactly you lost those marks!
It’s not enough to just know what you get wrong in tests/past paper practice but you need to understand what your thought process was when you answered it wrongly! By doing so you can correct any misunderstanding and prevent making further mistakes, which is something a lot of A Level students don’t do. Instead, they fall into the trap of memorising answers.
During my A Levels, I made a logbook of questions I got wrong in tests and past paper practice. I used a spreadsheet that included details of which paper it was, the question number, details of the question, the correct answer, and why I got it wrong/did not get full marks for the question.
This basically forced me to get into the habit of analysing why exactly I missed out on marks. For example, was it because I didn’t use the correct terminology? Or did I just not read the question well enough, meaning I answered it from the wrong perspective?
The logbook does take a lot of time and effort to maintain, if you can implement this principle without a logbook then go ahead! If you find it difficult to make a habit out of analysing your mistakes in exam questions, then it may be a good way to force yourself to start 🙂
#6: What about past papers?
Most A Level students swear by doing past papers. They are useful, especially if you’re doing essay-based subjects and/or Maths. They’re also a good way to implement active recall. As I was doing the linear A Levels, I didn’t have many to use. I ended up spreading all the relevant past papers across the three months before the final exams and using papers from the old spec for extra practice.
I do recommend past papers, but unlike a lot of other students, I don’t treat them as my holy grail for revision. This is because it’s very easy to fall into the trap of blindly doing papers and memorising answers that aren’t applicable to other questions, especially if you don’t have the habit of analysing why you make mistakes as mentioned in the earlier point.
I definitely didn’t complete all the past papers from the past 10 years for my A Level subjects by the time I did the finals, and I did fine anyway. Instead of just trying to get through as many past papers as possible, make the most of your past papers as explained above!
And that was the end of this A Level blog post! I chose not to cover resources much because of the range of exam boards out there. Let me know if you’d like to see more A Level related blog posts in the future!
To the Year 12 and 13s reading this, good luck! The A Levels is a long journey but you’ve got this! I’m available on Instagram if you need someone to talk to 🙂