How Hard Is A-Level Biology?

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

In A-Level by Think Student Editor5 Comments

For all you academics out there who are deciding on A-Levels, you might want to consider this one. A-Level Biology is a great subject to take, but just how does it compare to its GCSE counterpart and other A-Levels? 

In this article we’ll be talking through how difficult A-Level Biology can be, and what you need to be able to succeed with it. 

For those of you wanting the short answer: A-Level Biology is quite a hard A-Level, even for the most skilled science students. It’s a completely different ball game to GCSE, it goes much more into depth and there’s a lot more content you need to know. For those reasons, I’d suggest getting at least a 6 in at GCSE level before you even start considering taking the subject. 

If you’re just looking at pass rates, the pass rate of A-Level Biology is 96.6% (in 2018 at least). In contrast, GCSE Biology pass rates are only at 89.2%, and so quite a difference. I’ll talk more about these results later in the article, so keep reading. 

How Much More Content Does A-Level Biology Have Compared to GCSE Biology?

A-Level Biology Content VS GCSE Biology ContentA-Level Biology is a different caliber to GCSE Biology, and it has a different amount of content. Usually, the more content there is, the more difficult the subject – so just how much content is there? 

Here’s a list of the content you’ll go over in A-Level Biology. 

  • Biological Molecules 
  • Cells 
  • Organisms exchange substances with their environment 
  • Genetic information, variation and relationships between organisms 
  • Energy transfers in and between organisms 
  • Organisms respond to changes in their internal and external environments 
  • Genetics, populations, evolution and ecosystems 
  • The control of gene expression 

All of these modules are then split up into sub modules, too. As you can see, there is a lot of content that you learn in A-Level Biology. Take a look at the AQA A-Level Biology specification for more depth on what you’ll study. 

Luckily for you, a lot of the content follows on from what you learn at GCSE. This means that it’s easier to understand, as it’s based on previous knowledge you already have. 

The content that follows on from GCSE is in the first year, and then the second year follows on from that. It’s basically a train of content, with each year following on from the last. 

Some of it, though, is completely new content. This seems to be where most students struggle, especially topics in year 2 such as genetics and gene expression. 

All of the sciences share these traits, whereby the content ramps up in difficulty throughout the years. For more information on how hard A-Level Chemistry might be, take a look at this article. 

I find the content in A-Level Biology to be a lot more (quantity wise) than GCSE, but that’s just my opinion. Others who worked harder than me in school might not find it so bad, but it can be up to your interpretation. 

How Much More Difficult Is A-Level Biology Content Compared To GCSE Biology Content?

A-Level Biology Difficulty Compared To GCSE Biology Content DifficultyA-Level Biology is quite hard, maybe even one of the hardest science A-levels. How does it stack up to its GCSE counterpart, and what should you look out for? 

A-Level Biology takes the subject to the next level, and should be taken seriously. Even the most able students will struggle with this A-Level, so you need to make sure you’re up to the task. 

A-Level Biology is at least 2 or 3 times as hard as the GCSE. There is a lot of content (as I’ve already mentioned) and this makes mastering the A-Level incredibly difficult. 

And that’s not to mention the actual difficulty of the content. The concepts are harder, the processes more in-depth, and the exams longer. 

You also don’t get as much support for A-Level Biology as you do GCSE. You’re expected to learn more of the content on your own, which is much harder considering how difficult it is in the first place. 

There is still support for A-Level Biology, just not as much as GCSE. You’ll still be taught by a teacher, you’ll just be expected to work on that knowledge outside of class too. 

I’ll talk more about how independent the subject is later on in the article. 

The pass rate of A-Level Biology is 96.6%, and the pass rate of GCSE Biology is 89.2%. These results are quite different, but what does that mean? 

The reason there’s such a gap is because the A-Level Biology pass rate doesn’t include those who dropped out before taking the exam.  

The reason students drop out of A-Level Biology is because it’s so difficult. You’ll find that it’s harder for students to drop out of a GCSE, and so the pass rate is a little lower as a consequence. 

In conclusion, A-Level Biology is a lot more difficult than GCSE. Not only is there more content (which you have to learn on your own) the content is more difficult to understand, too. 

How Do A-Level Biology Exams Compare With GCSE Biology Exams?

A-Level Exam HallIf you want to take A-Level Biology, you’re going to need to know what the exams are like. They’re long, they’re hard, and they are incredibly boring. 

All three A-Level Biology exams are 2 hours long. They also come with some coursework you’ll have to do too, but more on that later (well it’s not really coursework). 

One thing’s for sure, there aren’t as many multiple choice questions as there are in GCSE. Most of the A-Level Biology exam questions are extended writing questions. 

This is because A-Level Biology really pushes your limits and tests your understanding of the content, and so requires you to explain every answer. 

There are also quite a lot of case study type questions, where you have to pick out data and use it to answer the question you’re given. 

These questions usually require you to apply both your knowledge and the data that’s already there. Do this successfully, and you’re well on your way to passing your exams. 

In many ways, however, the A-Level Biology exams are similar to the GCSE ones. You have to take them in silence, alone, no internet, just you and your knowledge. 

There are also opportunities for you to show your maths skills in A-Level Biology exams. Just like in GCSE, you’re required to use different equations and show your working to complete maths based biology questions. 

You’ll be tested on multiple mathematical skills such as arithmetic and numerical computation, handling data, algebra, graph manipulation, and geometry/trigonometry. 

For a more in-depth guide to what maths skills you’ll need to use in your A-Level Biology exam, look here. 

Just like GCSE Biology exams, you’ll need to revise your best if you want to pass. The content is difficult and there’s a lot of it, so make sure you’re going over it as much as you can. 

What Is The Pass Rate Of A-Level Biology Compared To GCSE Biology? 

A-Level Biology Pass Rate vs GCSE Biology Pass RateOne of the indicators of how well you’ll do in A-Level Biology is the grade you got at GCSE. Even more so is the grades other people got at A-Level. 

You’ll want to look at pass rates when thinking about any A-Level to decide whether or not it’s right for you. Especially with A-level Biology, many students ignore this and take it anyway (and drop out). 

A-Level Biology has a pass rate of 96.6% as of 2018. This seems quite high, and it is – but there’s a hidden factor that’s not taken into account. 

Every student that drops out of the course before the exam is not taken into consideration when calculating the pass rate. This means that it will naturally be higher, as there are less people taking the exam who don’t know the content. 

However, it’s a little bit harder to drop a GCSE. Right from when you pick your options, you have a very short time period in which you have to decide if your choices are right for you – and many students just assume they are. 

This is why the GCSE Biology pass rate is only 89.2%. Students are unable to drop the subject, and so just take the exam anyway. 

Don’t let these pass rates fool you – just because the percentage of people passing A-Level Biology is higher than GCSE Biology doesn’t mean that it’s easier. 

In fact, the boundary required for a pass at A-Level is different to that of GCSE anyway. For GCSE, you have to get a 4 (or a C) and at A-Level, you only need an E. 

Therefore, it’s actually easier to get a pass at A-level (in terms of marks, anyway). The reason you only need an E is to counteract the intense difficulty of the content, and how much there is. 

How Independent Is A-Level Biology Compared To GCSE Biology?

Independence Of A-Level BiologyIndependent work is something that most students struggle with in college. No matter what A-Level you’re doing, independent work is essential – but how much do you have to do for A-Level Biology? 

I’ll start off by saying that you’ll get three lessons a week, each an hour and a half long. That’s all the in-class time you’ll get, so make sure you make the most of it. 

Because once it comes to your independent revision, you’re on your own. You’re expected to do at least an hour outside of class for every lesson you have, going over the content to make sure you know it. 

Without this independent work, you’ll find that you start to fall behind in lesson. You won’t have the same understanding that other students who have done the work will have, and you’ll get left behind. 

I’d say that you could scrape by on about half an hour of independent study for every lesson you have, but I’d really recommend an hour. 

Half an hour really pushes your limits as a student, and makes it more difficult for you to get good grades in A-Level Biology. Even the most capable students struggle without the right amount of independent revision, so don’t let this be you. 

Subjects that require a deep understanding of the content usually have more independent work. This is compared to subjects where all you need to do is learn heaps of content. 

A-Level Biology is one of those subjects where you need a deep level of understanding. As we already know from what the exams are like, you’ll need to be able to apply the content in many different ways and tie in things from all sorts of modules. 

That’s why independent work is so important, even more so for A-Level Biology. Make sure you study outside of class too, or you could end up watching your grades go down the drain. 

What Revision Materials Are Available For A-Level Biology? 

Revision Materials A-LevelYou know what textbooks you’ll need for A-Level Biology, and they’re good for when you’re in class. The question is, what can you use to help you outside of class? 

There are lots of revision materials available for you to use, and they’re mostly always available. One good place to start is in your college library. 

Every college should have a library, or at least somewhere quiet where you can go to study. If a college doesn’t have this, it might be time to switch. 

Take a look at this list of factors to consider when choosing a sixth form college. There’s more information on what you’ll want to be looking for, and what you should definitely be avoiding. 

There are loads of ways to revise for A-Level Biology. Flashcards and mind maps are just a two of the many effective techniques you can use to your advantage at A-Level. 

What’s even better is that both flashcards and mind maps stem from your own understanding of the subject. There’s no need for you to go out of your way to get effective revision materials, as you should already have everything you need in your brain. 

If you do want to go out of your way though, you can utilise exam questions and past papers. Going through past A-Level Biology papers and reviewing exam questions is a great way to improve both your exam technique and content understanding. 

It’s easy to find them – past papers will most usually be on an exam board’s website. Inside those past papers will be the exam questions that you can use to work on your A-Level Biology skills. 

You can also find exam questions in most textbooks/revision guides. Just work through the questions, and at the end you’ll find you’ve got yourself some good exam grades. 

To find a revision guide, just do the same as you would for finding a textbook. Always keep an eye out for that ‘approved by (insert exam board here)’ sticker/label. 

Which moves me onto my next heading…

What Textbooks Do You Need For A-Level Biology? 

A-Level Biology TextbooksA-Level Biology is no easy subject, and so you’ll need lots of support to help you through it. What textbooks are available for A-Level Biology, and what textbooks do you need? 

The best textbooks to get for any subject are the ones approved by your exam board. If you’re ever in any doubt of what to get, just look for a sign somewhere that says ‘approved by (insert exam board here)’. 

What’s even better is if you can get a textbook that’s actually made by an exam board. Instead of just being made by someone else and approved, the textbook will have exactly the content you’ll need for A-Level Biology. 

I’m going to try and make this simple for you. Below, I have listed which textbooks (and revision guides) you really should be getting for each exam-board of A-Level Biology. If you click on the links, you can go buy them off straight away.

AQA A-Level Biology Recommended Books:

Edexcel A-Level Biology Recommended Books:

OCR A-Level Biology Recommended Books:

What Are The Minimum Requirements To Study A-Level Biology? 

A-Level Biology Minimum RequirementsIf you want to study A-Level Biology at college, you’re going to need some good grades. What grades do you actually need, and do they differ depending on what college you want to go to? 

The minimum required grade to study A-Level Biology is a 6 (B) at GCSE. Without this grade, you’ll find it difficult to get any colleges to accept you onto their A-Level Biology courses. 

You need this grade because without it, there’s no way you’ll be able to keep up with the course. There’s too much content and it’s too difficult for you to do without at least a 6 at GCSE. 

Most of the first year content of A-Level Biology follows on from the GCSE. What this means is that you need a good level of understanding of GCSE basics before you can move on to the harder stuff. 

You’ll need adequate grades in other GCSEs too. Especially with subjects like maths and the other sciences, good grades will make it easier for you to study A-Level Biology. 

It also depends on what college you’re applying to, however. If you’re applying to a more prestigious college, they’ll ask for better GCSE results. 

The more popular the college is, the more people that are applying to it. Therefore, the college will have more choice of students and will be able to bump up their entry requirements. 

If the college isn’t so good, it’ll be less popular – meaning it’s easier to get in. It’s up to you to decide if you want a good college with less chance of getting in, or a not so good one that you’ll definitely be accepted into. 

Colleges are also starting to look at your experiences as well as grades. If you’ve got any biology experiences like clubs or science fetes, make sure to put them on your CV and let your college know for a higher chance of being accepted onto the course. 

What’s All This About Not Being Able To Use Your GCSE Calculator At A-Level?

A-Level Calculator vs GCSE CalculatorIf you’re anything like me, you’ll still want to use the calculator you did at GCSE for your A-Level Biology course. Is it really worth that few extra quid to buy an upgrade, or can you just stick with what you’ve got? 

The answer is yes, you can, but not if you want to make your life a hell of a lot easier. The GCSE calculator is usable for the syllabus of A-Level Biology, but you’ll want something a bit better later on in the course. 

Most students use some variation of the Casio FX-83GT for their GCSEs. It’s alright if your calculator model isn’t exactly the same, most GCSE calculators will have the same functions. 

The GCSE calculator comes into its own in the first year of college, where the content is fairly straightforward and follows on from GCSE. All you’ll need is simple equations, and that your GCSE calculator can handle. 

What it can’t handle is the more complex equations, using sigma and other functions. For example, Simpson’s index of diversity will be easier if you have an upgraded calculator. 

If you want the best calculator for A-Level Biology, I’d suggest taking a look at the Casio F-991-EX. It’s the perfect calculator for A-Level Biology, and is also perfect for A-Level Maths. 

The Casio F-991 EX has many of the functions that you‘ll need to use for A-Level Biology. It will make the subject a lot easier for you, the maths parts at least anyway. 

It’s important to minimise the amount of time and brainpower you spend on figuring out the maths, because you can just get a calculator to do it for you. This allows you more time to work on the actual content to ensure you pass your exam. 

The best thing about this calculator is that you can use it in your exams, too. And why wouldn’t you? You want the best chances of success in your exams, and the Casio F-991 EX can give you those chances. 

What Other A-Levels Go Well With A-Level Biology? 

A-Level LibrarySo you’ve decided that A-Level Biology is the right A-Level for you, but you’re not sure what to take with it. There are loads of A-Levels that you could take with A-Level Biology, but only a few that really work well. 

A-Level Biology is a very versatile subject, and really can go with most anything you choose. If you’re worrying that you’re making the wrong choices, don’t – A-Level Biology is the right pick for anybody. 

A-Level Maths is probably the safest pick to accompany A-Level Biology. A-Level Maths will help you when it comes to the maths part of A-Level Biology, as the content is very closely linked. 

A-Level Maths is also good to help you develop your problem-solving skills, something you’ll need in A-Level Biology. The better your problem-solving skills are, the better of you’ll be in your exam. 

A-Level Biology works well in combination with the other sciences, too. Taking either A-Level Physics or A-Level Chemistry is a good idea, as some of the content between the subjects will tie in. 

Taking both A-Level Maths and another science alongside A-Level Biology will give you a very strong set of A-Levels. Provided you get good grades in them all, that set of A-Levels will make it easier for you to get into higher education (such as university). 

You might want to consider taking A-Level Computer Science, too. In an age where technology is advancing all the time, A-Level Computer Science is highly regarded among employers. 

Not only do employers like to see A-Level Computer Science, but universities like it too. If you have A-Level Computer Science on your application along with A-Level Biology, you’ll find it much easier to get into university. 

There are loads of other combinations for A-Level Biology, so if you’re stuck for ideas, just have a look at this article of A-Level combinations that universities love. 

You might also want to try taking an EPQ with A-Level Biology. An EPQ is basically a massive writing project that you create an essay for, and it’s worth half an A-Level. 

You can write it about anything you want, but it might help if you make it about your A-Level Biology course. You could talk about some controversial biological topics, such as cloning. 

That way, you not only get a better application for university (or whatever you might want to do after college) but you also develop your A-Level Biology knowledge. 

Have a related question? Hit me up with a comment below and I’ll answer it for you!

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1 year ago

Great article, very helpful! 🙂

1 year ago

i want to cry – yr 12

7 months ago

what if i want to take biology and psychology as a levels?
would that be too difficult?

Last edited 7 months ago by A M
Reply to  A M
18 days ago


18 days ago