How Hard Are The A Level Exams? Harder Than You Might Expect.

The A Levels are a series of (very) challenging exams that 16-18-year old students who follow the British curriculum are expected to sit at the end of the year.

Each year hundreds of thousands of students sit their exams and the vast majority of them feel that they are some of the most difficult and challenging exams they have sat in their entire lives.

We have analysed the relative difficulty of the A level exams in comparison to the GCSE and College as well as other equivalent high school exams around the world.

How hard are A-Levels?

A-levels are harder than most exams high school students are giving across the world. The A-levels are significantly harder than GCSEs since they have more difficult exams and complex concepts. A-levels are equivalent in difficulty to many university courses.

The primary reason for A level exams being so difficult is that students need to spend two years preparing for 3 to 4 A level subjects. The A levels are divided into two parts the first year is often referred to as the AS level and the second year as the A2 level.

Students are often left surprised by the difficulty of the A level exams and have never experienced of such challenging and difficult exams in their lives before.

It is no wonder than many students retake their A level exams because they did not prepare well for the exams having a habit of leaving (Me included) too much content and past papers for last minute revision.

Last minute revision never works with A levels. To succeed at A levels, you need to focus on mastering the concepts and employ consistent study routines to make your exams less difficult and student life more bearable.

An A level student's desk cartoon

A levels vs the GCSE Exams

Most students sit the GCSE exams before doing their A levels. The knowledge required for GCSE exams is pretty basic and the application required for that knowledge is minimal. The jump in difficulty and knowledge required from GCSE to A level is pretty significant.

Students give far fewer A levels than they give GCSE, since A levels focus more on depth then breadth. To succeed at A levels, you need to have a solid understanding of many concepts as well as a strong ability to apply those concepts in many different real-world situations.

Many high achieving students who had previously got A*’s and A’s in their GCSE exams end up getting B’s and C’s in their A levels. This is perfectly natural due to A levels being harder and more challenging.

A levels vs University Courses

The A levels are pretty intensive and an ideal preparation for universities in the UK and around the world. Many universities in the United States, Canada and Europe give credits to A level students for university courses; thereby allowing them to waive their first year of university courses.

The A levels are highly regarded by many universities around the world and they basically allow A level students to sit with the second-year students of those universities.

This shows that A levels are equivalent in difficulty of many university courses and hence are challenging exams students in their high school are giving.

A level difficulty

A levels vs Other High School Exams (SAT and AP)

Most high school students would definitely agree A levels are more challenging than their exams. High school in most countries ends at grade 12 however A levels is one year longer and it ends in the Thirteenth Year

Furthermore, the SAT exams require basic English and math at high school level. The A level exams on the other hand not only require strong English and Math skills but also high competency and understanding of the subjects the students takes.

Ap exams are relatively easier than their A level counterparts. For example, the hardest math AP exam is Calculus which is equivalent to the A level math exam.

However, at the A level that is not the hardest math exam; it is actually Further Maths. Most high school students in the world have nothing equivalent to the Further Maths A level exam.

What makes A levels so Difficult?

Students find the A level exams difficult because of several reasons including:

  • The big jump from GCSE’s to A levels is not what many students had anticipated. Many A levels concepts have been mellowed down and not properly explained at GCSE level. The extent of application of the subject knowledge at GCSE is mostly regurgitation whereas at A levels it is highly complex and analytical.
  • The A level syllabus is almost three times that of GCSE and requires similar amount of effort and hard work. The A level syllabus is more comprehensive and naturally the questions and difficulty is expected to be of similar nature.
  • Furthermore, the harsher marking by A level examiners means that there is less chance of an incomplete answer getting part marks and even complete answers without the right diction and proper explanation are heavily peanilized
  • University is quite similar in nature to A levels with short semesters and little student-teacher interaction, A levels focus more on independent study and in-depth understanding.
  • The second year of A levels is even harder than the first. The concepts are more challenging and students often end up with worse grades in their second year.
A level tests and exams

Is the Singapore A level harder than the UK A level?

In short, the Singapore A level is harder than the British A level level since the Singapore exam board intentionally makes the Singapore A levels harder than all other A level exams.

The Singapore A level exams are more difficult because Singapore stives to create a strong education standard that is world renowned for it’s difficulty. Some of my friends who took both exams can testify the Singapore version was more challenging and had harder problem sets.

Many top universities require grades in the range A*AA-A*A*A* from UK A level students but the same universities require AAA from the students of the Singapore A level; thus, further highlighting the relative difficulty of the Singapore A level exams.

How to do well in your A levels despite the exams being difficult?

The trick to succeed at A levels is to adopt consistency, hard work and perseverance.

Make it a habit to study every day and to revise all the concepts the very day they are taught in school. If you have issues in understanding any concept, immediately go to your teachers or Google it and try to remove any confusions.

The biggest mistake Many A level students make is not clearing up the possible confusions during the school year and at the end of the year they are seen panicking between their notes, past papers and the textbooks trying to figure out everything they have missed.

Memorizing a definition is easy and most examiners allow paraphrased definitions. A level is about understanding difficult concepts and applying them (can’t emphasize this more) which are time consuming, need regular practice, and where A level examiners are harsh.

Never leave all the revising for the last minute and make sure you complete at least 5 years’ worth of past papers. Past papers are the best exam practice you can give yourself.

You should realize that despite the A level exams being relatively difficult, many students do well in them by adopting the right study methods and making sure they leave very little for last minute revision.