How Hard is A-Level Physics

How Hard is A-Level Physics? (Compared to GCSE)

In A-Level by Think Student Editor

A-Level Physics is widely considered to be an A-Level that challenges even the brightest students. Although everyone seems to regard the difficulty of A-Level Physics extremely highly, how true is this reputation that the subject has got itself?

As always, below is a short answer to the question of “How Hard is A-Level Physics?” – for those of you who are either too busy or are too tired to read the full article…

Although A-Level Physics does rely heavily on fundamental GCSE and A-Level Maths skills, the complexity of the mathematical methods used in the A-Level Physics are of a relatively basic standard. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, there is no super hard, complex and advanced maths in A-Level Physics, just the basic core skills – you don’t even need to know how to do integration!

That being said, A-Level Physics really does value a student’s approach to a question, as often an A-Level Physics question will take you outside of your comfort zone and expect you to apply prerequisite knowledge. This means that the real hardness of the A-Level might actually stem from how good your methodical approach is to question styles you may have never seen before.

For a more black and white view on things, here are the A-Level Physics pass rates… Firstly the average pass rate across all A-Levels (meaning all those who got A*-E) is 97.6%. In comparison, the pass rate for Physics is 95.3%. Therefore, according to the pass rates (more detail here), A-Level Physics is harder than the average A-Level.

How Much Content is There in the Physics A-Level Syllabus?

A-Level Physics Syllabus & SpecificationAs I’m sure you would have already guessed, the Physics A-Level syllabus is in fact substantially larger than its GCSE counterpart. What you may have also guessed is that the GCSE and the A-Level syllabus tend to overlap sometimes and cover much of the same content – namely: Electric Circuits, Moments and Nuclear Radiation.

Furthermore, when studying A-Level Physics, it is automatically assumed by your teachers (and your exams) that you can recall and reuse all prior physics knowledge you learnt at the GCSE level. There are of course exceptions to this statement, for example, there were three people in my A-Level Physics class who hadn’t even done the GCSE – it’s worth mentioning that they really struggled in their first year!

Many people argue that A-Level Biology is a much greater step-up in terms of the actual amount you have to learn from GCSE. You can read more about how hard A-Level Biology is compared to GCSE biology here.

Getting back to the actual quantity of content in the A-Level syllabus, here’s an interesting comparison that illustrates the difference between the GCSE and the A-Level quite well… The A-Level Physics specification has 191 learning objectives (things to learn) whereas the GCSE Physics specification has 296 learning objects (see GCSE syllabus here and A-Level here).

Although the above fact initially seems to portray the GCSE syllabus as being the larger and bulkier one, if you dig a little deeper it proves the opposite. Looking into it, you notice that each learning objective on the A-Level syllabus actually covers more content (higher knowledge per LO density, if you will). This leads to there being more content overall to learn on the A-Level syllabus. Lastly, each learning objective on the A-Level syllabus is significantly harder to learn, this moves onto the next heading nicely.

How Hard is the A-Level Physics Content?

A-Level Physics DifficultyThe short answer is it depends. This also happens to be the most useless answer. “What does it depend on?” you might be asking. Well, it depends on what your strengths are and which topics you are currently studying within A-Level Physics. In an effort to be more helpful, let’s look into what particular elements of the A-Level make it more challenging than the GCSE counterpart.

The main thing that sticks out to most students when they are learning A-Level Physics is how much more you have to understand particular units of various quantities. For example, at GCSE you just learn that the unit for Force is the Newton, N. In comparison, at A-Level you have to be able to derive different units from more fundamental base SI units. This is of course just one example, but I feel that it effectively demonstrates the extra step that the A-Level takes.

A rather crude way to summarise it is as follows: GCSE Physics is more about memorisation and recollection of surface level knowledge, whereas, A-Level Physics yearns for deep understanding of topics and relies less on memorisation and more on how you express your understanding of a topic.

If you want to learn more about how A-Level content differs from GCSE content, check out this article.

In addition to theoretical difficulty, A-Level Physics also has a large practical side to it. Every A-Level Physics student has to perform all the required practical’s on the syllabus (listed here). Furthermore, they don’t just have to do the various experiments, they actually have to document it in a presentable way – ensuring to follow the scientific method at all times.

Although you don’t get a physical mark for completing the “lab book” (as it’s called) you do get a Fail or Pass grade. It is a requirement of the A-Level that you pass your practical write-up! If you struggle with practical write-ups, this really could be a deal breaker for you!

How Hard Are the Actual A-Level Physics Exams?

A-Level Physics ExamsThe way I tend to describe A-Level exam questions is as follows: “more mathsy”. Not saying that’s the technical term, but it’s certainly how I felt when doing the exams… A-Level Physics papers tend to contain a lot of calculation questions (meaning questions where you will actually have to get it to a final value as an answer).

Side note: if you’re thinking about taking A-Level Physics, you’re probably going to take A-Level Maths, so check out this article on how hard A-Level Maths is here.

You may be thinking that GCSE Physics had lots of questions of this nature and you wouldn’t be wrong. GCSE Physics did have lots of calculation questions, however, their style did differ from that of the A-Level questions.

Answering GCSE Physics calculation questions normally followed a very basic structure: get values from question and pop them into a memorised formulae and boom, done! A-Level questions however, are much more abstract and do not have a single structure that you can follow to find a solution. 99% of questions you’ll find on an A-Level Physics paper will be mingled into a situation that will confuse things immensely – it is here where you are expected to use the skills you have learnt to remove unnecessary information and apply your knowledge to get down to a single number.

If you want to know which A-Levels have the hardest exams, check out this list of the hardest 10 A-Levels!

What Are The Typical Grade Boundaries For A-Level Physics?

A-Level Physics Grade BoundariesJust to make sure everyone is on the same page, A-Levels are grades A* – U and not 9 – 1 like GCSEs are. Below are the Edexcel grade boundaries for the year of 2019 (more here):

A* – 68.7%  | A –  58.7% |  B –  49.3%  | C –  40% | D – 30.7% | E –  21.7%

When seeing these grade boundaries, the first thought that people have most of the time is how low they look. It must be easy! Ah, no.

The fact that they are so seemingly low means that the exam was very, very hard. It also (most likely) means that students who took their A-Level Physics exam in 2019 did not do very well – probably because the exam was so hard.

What Exams Do You Take For A-Level Physics?

A-Level Physics Exam DateA-Level Physics students will take three separate exams at the end of their two years of (hopefully) successful studying. As aforementioned, students will have also prepared a practical lab book that contains write-ups for all of the various different experiments they have done throughout the course. This practical book is marked, but only given a Pass or Fail grade.

The below breakdown for the papers is for Edexcel Physics students only. It may differ with other exam boards! More information can be found here.

The first two Physics papers that students take are each an hour and forty-five minutes long (1.75 hours). Furthermore, each paper is worth 90 marks which equates to each paper being worth 30% of the total qualification.

The last paper that students take is an exam which assess your knowledge of practical physics. This is where your knowledge on experimental physics comes in – all those in-class practical’s do actually have a purpose! You are expected to really know your stuff when it comes to how each practical works and how you yourself would setup different experiments to prove different hypotheses.

This last paper is two and a half hours long and it is worth 120 marks – meaning it makes up 40% of your total A-Level Physics grade… This exam is not the one to mess up…

Find out when in the year the A-Level exams actually take place here.