A-Level Chemistry has garnered a reputation as being one of the hardest A-Levels out there. Given the amount of content and the complexity, even the brightest students can really struggle. To achieve an A* in A-Level Chemistry you’ll need to work hard, stay motivated and use all the methods that have brought students success in the past. In this article, I’ll be sharing some of the top tips for achieving the best grades in A-Level Chemistry.
To get ahead in A-Level Chemistry, you need to prepare before your lessons and recap the content soon after to solidify your understanding. When it comes to learning the content; organic synthesis, calculations and compound tests are the three big topics that often form large mark questions in the exams. Revising for A-Level Chemistry is a long process, but the best methods are to complete past papers and make an effort to understand the concepts, not just memorise them. Also, ensure you read the examiners’ report and the specification to improve your knowledge of the course and exams.
1. Don’t Let Organic Synthesis Stop You Getting An A*
Organic synthesis is a hugely important part of any A-Level Chemistry course. Questions relating to organic synthesis can cover mechanisms, reactions, conditions, bonding and many other key aspects of chemistry. Learning how every compound links to each other may seem impossible at first, but the best advice for memorising it all is to create a flowchart.
To achieve an A* in your A-Level Chemistry exam, your flowchart should include these things:
- Compound formula displayed formula using R groups works best!
- Compound structure and bonding
- Links to other compounds with conditions, reagents and type of reaction
- Relevant mechanisms
- Tests for the compounds
There is clearly a lot of information to try and fit in one diagram but colour coding and abbreviations can really help when condensing the information into something presentable! From experience, making this diagram takes a lot of time (so start as early as possible), however, it’s incredibly helpful for revision and in the exam too, especially if you’re a visual learner.
Making the flowchart itself is great for organic chemistry revision as you need to do research and pull information from your textbook. It’s important to note that some compounds and their reactions aren’t obviously displayed in your textbook so ask your teacher to check if you’ve missed anything!
2. Practice A-Level Chemistry’s Calculation Questions
Many students don’t expect the amount of maths needed within the A-Level Chemistry course. Maths is a very common subject to take alongside Chemistry but if you don’t or just don’t feel confident with A-Level Chemistry maths questions, don’t worry!
The first and most obvious piece of advice is to practice. The more calculation questions you do, the more comfortable you’ll feel with them. All chemistry calculation questions require you to follow certain steps and write down particular calculations to get the marks so once you practice, and learn what steps to take, calculations will be easy.
Next, it is really important to learn all the formulae and when to use them. The formula sheet will give you some, but not all, so make sure you have those memorised. Many students like to use formula triangles rather than the straight written formula as they can be easier to visualise and rearrange. Mole calculations will come up in every question so any formulas relating to moles are particularly important to know!
Some Chemistry A-Level textbooks have a maths section with questions and explanations but, often, these aren’t comprehensive and don’t represent the exam questions. Calculations in AS/A Level Chemistry has hundreds of maths practice questions relating to every topic and provides in depth explanations on how to find the right answer. It is quite expensive so you could ask your school or local library to order it – if you do decide to buy it, it’s well worth the money!
3. Know Each of Your Compound Tests in A-Level Chemistry
The various tests for different compounds is quite a simple part of the Chemistry A-Level course but many students underestimate the importance of this topic. In your exams, it’s likely that you’ll get at least one six-mark question on the tests for different compounds. This may be phrased as a practical question or a calculation question but knowing the correct test will score you vital marks.
With any question referring to compound tests, make sure you include the reagent, conditions, change in colour or appearance and the new compound formula. If there are any relevant equations, such as Ag+(aq) + e- = Ag(aq) for Tollen’s reagent, be sure to include them.
With any question regarding colour change or reactions, many students make the easy mistake of describing a solution as ‘clear’ – do not write this! A solution can be clear but still have a colour so you need to say ‘colourless’. Some exam questions will ask you to discuss the tests for several compounds, for this type of question you will need to try and give a different example for each compound otherwise you can miss out on marks.
The best method for revising compound tests is to create a grid. In your grid you’ll need every common compound on one side and the conditions, changes and reagents along the top. You could try adding some colour or drawings to make this easier to learn.
4. Do Not Just Try to Memorise A-Level Chemistry Content
With the amount of content in A-Level Chemistry, students will often panic and just try to memorise everything. Straight memorisation may help you with end of chapter questions or learning your flashcards but in the real exams, you will be capped at the lower grades. Over time, the Chemistry A-Level exams have become far more focused on problem solving and questions that link topics together. So if you want to achieve an A* in A-Level Chemistry, you need to thoroughly understand the concepts! Really understanding the concepts takes time and effort and requires much more than just making a few notes.
The most important thing is to ask lots of questions. Many students worry about bothering their teachers or asking stupid questions but, as almost every teacher has said, there are no stupid questions. Your teachers have years of knowledge and will be able to explain much more than the textbook can so get their help as often as you can.
Learning from your mistakes is really important to fully understanding chemistry; whenever you get the incorrect answer, take time to find out what went wrong and keep redoing the question until the concept clicks. Redoing the same style questions can seem tedious but it’s worthwhile in the end.
5. Prepare for Each of Your Lessons and Don’t Forget to Recap Afterwards
A common feeling among A-Level Chemistry students is sitting in a lesson feeling like your teacher is speaking another language. Firstly, Chemistry is a very confusing subject so don’t panic! If you want to tackle this confusion and move towards those As and A*s, you need to prepare for the lesson beforehand.
Your preparation could just be reading over the next chapter before you start, this will be enough to familiarise yourself with key terms and ensure a basic grasp of the concepts. If you want to be even more prepared, try writing some notes or making flashcards on the topic – not only will this save time later when working on revision materials but you’ll go into your lesson feeling confident and ready to learn. If learning one topic and trying to teach yourself the next seems like too much to handle, have a look at this helpful article on making a revision timetable.
Once you actually start learning the new topic, you need to recap the lesson afterwards – this is the best way to solidify your knowledge and keep it in your long term memory.
Some great ways to consolidate your knowledge are:
- Exam questions on the topic
- Writing flashcards for what you have learnt
- Creating a poster
- Making a mind map
- Teaching someone else
6. Do as Many A-Level Chemistry Past Papers as You Can
Although making notes, flashcards and mind maps can be useful, past papers need to form the foundation of your revision for A-Level Chemistry
Many students who got A*s did every practice paper they could get their hands on, by doing all these papers they built on their exam technique and saw where marks came from in certain question styles. Make a list of all the past papers you can find and tick them off once you’ve completed them, this will clearly show your progress and keep you organised. You can find past papers on your exam boards website or look on Physics and Maths Tutor.
When you’re doing a past paper, never go straight to the mark scheme. You should always try to attempt the question first, then annotate your answer using the mark scheme and analyse why you got the question wrong. Once you’ve completed a paper, you should do it again a few weeks later to see if your knowledge has actually improved.
A mistake many students make when doing past papers is sticking to lower mark questions and shying away from the 8-10 mark questions – make an effort to practice these longer questions because even getting half marks can raise your grade.
7. Use Your Exam Board’s Specification and Examiner Reports
To achieve an A* in A-Level Chemistry, you need to read the examiners’ report and use the specification. The examiners’ report is the third document attached to every past paper and mark scheme, it goes through each question and highlights common mistakes across the country.
By reading the examiners’ report, you won’t make the same errors as other students and you’ll easily spot where marks come from in the real exam. There are common questions or topics that will differentiate between low and high scoring students – the examiners’ report will prepare you for what those topics may be and how to get full marks.
The specification is the other document provided by the exam board and you can download it from their website. Use the specification as a checklist for your revision as it breaks down everything you need to learn for the course. The specification is an easy way to stay organised and you’re less likely to skip certain skills as it has already been laid out for you.
You can also try colour coding the specification to show how confident you feel in each area – by the time you reach your exams, you want everything to be green!
8. Ensure That You Are Using a Variety of Chemistry Resources
Although your textbook teaches you the content and can be helpful, if you don’t use other resources you will be limited to lower grades. It’s really important to use lots of resources as it helps deepen your knowledge and you learn to approach problems from various angles.
If you are struggling with a particular topic, watching YouTube videos can really help with explaining concepts in a new way – this is especially helpful if you are a visual learner. MaChemGuy is a highly recommended channel, he has lots of really useful and quick revision videos for A-Level Chemistry. Eliot Rintoul has some great videos for AQA A-Level Chemistry. Khan Academy has hundreds of different videos for chemistry which are all around ten minutes so they go into more depth.
If you want to read more to supplement your textbook, Chemguide is a great website that clearly explains every A-Level Chemistry topic and gives lots of detail.
Physics and Maths Tutor has lots of past papers, as I mentioned previously, but they also have links to premade flashcards, videos and question papers on specific topics if you want to focus on one area in particular.
9. Stay Motivated if You Want to Achieve an A* In A-Level Chemistry
A-Level Chemistry can be really draining and it feels like a very long two years. Many students begin to feel demotivated and the main cause is how long it takes for everything to click and come together.
With other subjects, many students will feel more confident once they start A2 and it all becomes a little bit easier. For most chemistry students, you won’t begin to feel confident until a couple of months before your exam. It’s really common for students to go from Ds and Cs in their February mocks to achieving As and A*s in the real exams.
If you are feeling really worried about your progress, don’t let it take over your life and take steps to tackle that anxiety. The most important thing is to work as hard as you can, you don’t want to open your results and feel like you could have done more.
Talking to your teachers and asking for help is vital, they have the best understanding of your progress and can really guide you on how to improve your revision and grow in confidence. If you want to read more about staying motivated, take a look at this Think Student article.