What Is A Level Chemistry Like?

How Hard is A-Level Chemistry? (Compared To GCSE)

In A-Level by Think Student Editor3 Comments

It can be difficult for a lot of students to decide on which options to pick for Sixth form or college. A lot of the time, it’s due to students worrying about the leap in difficulty from GCSE levels of work and knowledge required, to A-Levels. The leap in difficulty can seem astronomically high, especially if you haven’t finished the whole of your GCSE course! This extends to A-Level Chemistry, of course. How difficult is A-Level Chemistry, then, when compared to GCSEs?

To put it briefly, A-Level Chemistry is a very challenging A-Level. It is meant to be a step up from GCSE. For starters, there’s a lot more independent study to be done, which most students find challenging. While a great understanding is needed of concepts to do well for GCSE Chemistry, the skills and knowledge needed for the A-Level makes it undoubtably a lot harder.

Disclaimer: A subjects difficulty is highly subjective and depends on the personal ability of the student. What one student may find challenging, another student may face less difficulty with, and vice versa.

What do you think? Do you find GCSE Chemistry or A-Level Chemistry more challenging? Answer below on the poll; it’s always great to hear different opinions!

A-Level Chemistry vs GCSE Chemistry: which is harder?

* This poll is anonymous. Only your vote and the time it was submitted will be sent to Think Student Ltd.

If you would like to read more about the differences between GCSE and A-Level Chemistry, check out the rest of this article!

Is A-Level Chemistry harder than GCSE Chemistry?

In many students’ eyes, A-Level Chemistry would definitely be way more difficult than GCSE Chemistry as a subject. However, difficulty is determined by opinion, which can vary greatly. The vast consensus, though, is that any A-Level is generally more difficult than its GCSE counterpart. 

This is due to other complicating factors, not just perceived difficulty. As a GCSE student, new content can be difficult to understand anyway. A-Levels are also approached with a “this will be difficult” mindset; these preconceptions are tough to get rid of!

As you get older, you become more knowledgeable because your brain matures a lot more! Chemistry at GCSE will therefore seem a lot easier looking back on it because you understand the content more.

How difficult something is, is just relative. A GCSE student will find some subjects difficult to grasp the concept of, and the A-Level student may struggle too with further concepts.

Additionally, at GCSE, the student also has a multitude of different other subjects to revise and study for. This can make internalising all that Chemistry knowledge at GCSE a lot harder. Also, at A-Level, students also go in already knowing a lot of the concepts!

When looking at perceived difficulty, each will have challenges for the students doing those subjects. However, as a whole, A-Level Chemistry would generally be harder than GCSE Chemistry simply because the content and skill needed increases in both range and depth.

What are the pass rates for A-Level and GCSE Chemistry?

It may help to decide difficulty for yourself based on pass rates for both GCSE Chemistry and A-Level.

Check out the pass rates for 2022 in the table below.

Qualification Pass rate (4 or C and above) 7 or A and above
GCSE 92.8% 49.6%
A-Level 75.4% 38.0%

If you would like to check out some more statistics for GCSE Chemistry, check out this graph from Ofqual.

If you would like to continue looking at the grades for A-Level Chemistry, check out this graph from Ofqual.

It is also important to understand why the statistics could be higher for GCSE Chemistry for pass rates. For starters, a lot of students end up taking Combined Science, which has a whole third of the content removed for Single Science. The subsequent exam is therefore a lot simpler for a lot of GCSE students.

Additionally, there are no higher or foundation papers for A-Level Chemistry. The pass rates for GCSE Chemistry could also be high because some people do sit foundation papers, and it’s easier to pass on those.

However, in the end A-Level rates for passes are undoubtably lower. This could suggest to a lot of people that the exams themselves are a lot harder, especially since those taking A-Level Chemistry had to have had good grades in it!

What exam boards are used for A-Level?

The main exam boards used for A-Level Chemistry in the UK are AQA, OCR, Edexcel and WJEC. There are also others including CIE, Edugas and CCEA.

AQA’s website can be found here. Their pass rates in June 2022 (C and above) were 77.7%, and 13.1% of students doing A-Level Chemistry with AQA received an A*. More information on AQA pass rates can be found on their spreadsheet here.

OCR’s website can be found here. Their pass rates in June 2022 for C and above were 72.39%, and 13.41% doing their board’s exams received an A*. To read more information about their results statistics in 2022, check out this spreadsheet from OCR.

Edexcel’s website can be found if you click here. In June 2022, their pass rates were 78.0% for Cs and above, and 17.6% of students received an A*. To read more information about their result statistics in 2022, check out their report here.

WJEC’s website can be found here. In June 2022, 86.8% of students received a C or above, and 22.4% received an A*. To read more about this, check out their report here.

Below is a table to help you compare them more easily.

Exam Board Pass rate (C and above) Percentage of A*
AQA 77.7 13.1
OCR 72.39 13.41
Edexcel 78.0 17.6
WJEC 86.8 22.4

A-Level vs GCSE Chemistry syllabus

When you look at the A-Level syllabus and content, a lot of it is really similar. This is because, at the end of the day, students doing A-Level Chemistry will cover things they already learnt at GCSEs, just at a much higher level.

The syllabus may look harder as well because concepts are introduced that you would have only heard in passing at GCSE. Completely new topics are on the syllabus as well, which can look daunting to a lot of people.

What content is covered for A-Levels?

There are 3 main topics covered by A-Level Chemistry: organic, inorganic and physical chemistry. How it’s divided is up to the exam board themselves. In addition to those 3 main big topics, practical skills are also assessed typically.

For example, AQA leaves the three topics as they are, whereas OCR splits it into six modules. It’s important to check with teachers which exam board you are doing and see how topics are divided so you don’t get confused later on!

A lot of the content is things that you may have already covered in GCSE Chemistry. Some examples include reaction rates, atomic structure, bonds, alkanes, and amount of substance. A-Level Chemistry will simply let you look at those topics in a lot more detail.

However, a lot of the content may be completely new. Some examples include thermodynamics, optical isomerism, aldehydes and ketones, nuclear magnetic spectroscopy, and many others. Additionally, some topics you may have heard of before mentioned in GCSE lessons. Now’s simply a chance to learn about them!

Additionally, you learn a lot more different practical skills that are necessary to do well in exams. Practical skills are assessed in all the exams usually (though it may vary board to board). There will also be extended responses for some questions.

It’s not just practical skills you need for Chemistry A-Level. You also need a good grasp of maths to do well. There are a lot of formulas to remember that you may not necessarily get for your exam. Additionally, you need to be quick with the calculations in your exam, so you don’t run out of time!

Below you can find links to the specifications of each exam board:

What content is covered for GCSEs?

First, the question is whether you’re doing Single or Combined Science. Combined Science students have a whole third of the specification removed, so they don’t cover as much as Single Science students.

This also means that they get two GCSE grades for science instead of three. Additionally, those students who do Combined Science may find it more difficult if they choose A-Level Chemistry as they don’t have as much prior understanding as Single Science students.

To read more about the similarities and differences between Single and Combined Science students, check out this helpful article from Think Student for more information!

Typically, there are around 10 different topics that you cover at GCSE Chemistry level. However, some exam boards sometimes choose to combine the topics into bigger chunks or otherwise organise them differently. It’s recommended to check with your teacher or exam board about how the specification is structured!

Below is a list of the 10 topics that are covered (subject to variation!):

  • Atomic structure and the periodic table
  • Bonding, structure and the properties of matter
  • Quantitative chemistry
  • Chemical changes
  • Energy changes
  • The rate and extent of chemical change
  • Organic chemistry
  • Chemical analysis
  • The atmosphere
  • Using resources

How many exams are there?

The key difference between A-Level Chemistry and GCSE Chemistry is the number of exams at the end of the linear course.

GCSE Chemistry only has two exams at the end of the course; A-Level Chemistry instead has three.

Immediately, it can be seen that A-Level Chemistry looks more difficult. The extra exam reflects how much content is assessed at A-Level.

Also, some of the questions in the A-Level are a lot more different from the GCSE questions. For example, there are a lot more practical questions and extended response questions to answer for the A-Level exam.

The A-Level exam can also be seen to be more difficult based on the pass rates after the exams when compared to GCSE pass rates. 92.8% of students received a C/4 and above for GCSE Chemistry in 2022, whereas only 75.4% of students received a C/4 and above for A-Level Chemistry.

To read more about the pass rates for each exam and exam statistics in general, check out Ofqual’s Analytics web page here!

Another reason that A-Level exams are objectively harder is that there is no way to reduce the difficulty. For example, at GCSE Chemistry, there is the option to choose Combined Science as opposed to Single Science, which makes the exam easier.

Additionally, there is also the option of doing foundation or higher tier chemistry. While foundation chemistry only goes up to a Grade 4, it’s got a lot of easier questions than higher tier chemistry.

On the other hand, everyone does the same exams under their respective exam boards for A-Level Chemistry. That is something important to consider when looking at the lower pass rates for A-Level Chemistry compared to GCSEs.

Grade boundaries

Grade boundaries are also a good way to determine how strict or difficult an exam board is. Below you can find the A-level grade boundaries for each exam board from June 2022 (WJEC are not included in the table because of many varying grade boundaries depending on different components).

Exam board Maximum mark A* A B C D E
AQA 300 237 196 158 121 95 64
OCR 270 213 168 132 97 92 27
Edexcel 300 235 192 155 119 83 47

Below you can find the links to the reports for each exam board’s grade boundaries for June 2022:

What grades do you need to do A-Level Chemistry?

What grades you need to do Chemistry A-level will usually depend on your school’s recommendations for the subjects.

Typically, to do A-Level Chemistry, you would need a 6 in chemistry, or a 7-7 if you did combined science. Additionally, you would need a 6 in GCSE Maths.

It may vary from school to school, but those are the rough grades that you would need should you choose to do A-Level Chemistry. Getting a 6 in chemistry is a given, since it’s a continuation of GCSE Chemistry essentially at a more advanced level.

The 6 in GCSE Maths is because chemistry has quite a lot of maths to it. There are many formulas to remember and calculations to calculate! It’s essential to have a good grasp on maths, which is why many sixth forms have a good grade in GCSE Maths as a requirement for taking A-Level Chemistry.

Should you take A-Level Chemistry?

Consider what you want to be doing after college. You may have a career in mind or be unsure. Either way having an idea of what you’re working towards will help motivate you.

If you want to go to university, find the course university that suits you best. Research and find out what are the minimum grades that you need for that course at that university. Set these as target grades for yourself.

If your dream job doesn’t involve chemistry, perhaps reconsider this option. You don’t want to ‘waste’ two years only to find out what you need for university, or your career doesn’t need chemistry and needs something else instead, and that Chemistry would be taking the place of a more important subject.

That being said, you may have no idea what you want to do after college – and that’s okay. So long as you enjoy chemistry at GCSE, you’ll most likely enjoy the A-Level as well. Just remember chemistry is ranked one of the hardest A-Levels, so make sure you are up for the task. You can find out more in this Think Student article.

Which subjects does A-Level Chemistry go well with?

Chemistry goes well with many subjects.

Some of the best subjects to do alongside A-Level Chemistry:

  • Biology
  • Physics
  • Maths

Biology + chemistry and physics + chemistry go well together as they contain overlapping subjects which helps you consolidate your knowledge, as well as geography, geology, and environmental science.

Maths goes very well with chemistry and just about any science. Chemistry, along with the other sciences, is a facilitating subject, meaning that it is a subject that can open you up to many different university course options.

If you want to learn more about good A-Level combinations check out this Think Student article.

How much independent study do you have to do for A-Level Chemistry?

Regardless of your college, exam board or teacher, A-Level Chemistry requires a lot more independent study than at GCSE. It’s likely that the most study you did at home was for revision or homework that you get given about once a month if that. Unfortunately, that won’t cut it for A-Level.

Colleges will expect you to spend roughly the same amount of time in lessons as doing homework/revision outside of lessons. This is a good general rule of thumb.

Your teacher will set you homework, which at A-Level you really should do. At school, you could probably get away with not doing some homework.

Whether your teacher asks for it or not, it’s important to get it done because it will help you deepen your knowledge of a subject and improve your recall. so, in 2 years’ time you will be able to look back and still understand earlier concepts.

Also, the last thing you want is to make a bad impression to your teachers in the first term – you don’t want to be on your teacher’s bad side.

This isn’t just for A-Level Chemistry, either – all A-Levels are a step up in independency from GCSE. But if you want to succeed in your A-Levels, you need to be able to handle that.

Don’t worry if you think you can’t because there’s always support available for you! Most colleges will have a welfare team that are there specifically for your wellbeing. Make sure to talk to them if you have any problems with independent study.

There are always other methods of support available if you don’t like the sound of that. Talk to your friends in the same course for help, you’re all in the same boat! 

You can also just have a chat to your teacher/tutor. They know the most about the course, and so are most likely to be able to help you if you’re struggling with the content.

As I’ve said before, you may have to learn the basics of topics at home to build on it in class. This makes it even more important to do the independent study because it’s crucial to understand the lessons.

I would suggest making flashcards alongside notes on subjects. This will pay off in the future when you revise for topic tests and of course the final exams.

Don’t make too many; you don’t want to overwhelm yourself and revise from 100 flashcards for one topic, because that isn’t effective or efficient.

Depending on the size of the topic, you should probably make about 10 per topic, but you may want to do more. Make them on important words as in exams they ask for very specific definitions.  

I’d recommend creating a timetable and mapping out your college time; where you have free periods add in times to do independent study for your subjects.

Never forget to give yourself breaks as you don’t want to make your college life miserable. If you plot your timetable effectively you theoretically could finish all your work before the weekend and use it for leisure.

The most important thing that leads to A-Level Chemistry success is… timing! The date when you start revising for your A-Level Chemistry exam is so essential to how easy or hard you will find the chemistry exams. To find out when you should start revising for your A-Level exams, check out this Think Student article.

How do you revise for Chemistry A-Level?

A good way to revise for Chemistry A-Level is through textbooks and revision guides. Textbooks cover content in great detail, making them ideal if you don’t remember or understand a concept. On the other hand, revision guides help recap the content quickly. Therefore, it’s good to have both when revising for A-Level Chemistry.

Below are some links to revision guides on Amazon:

There are many revision resources for Chemistry A-Level. When purchasing anything, make sure to read the reviews so you don’t waste your money!

If you’ve already got enough revision guides or you don’t feel they help you, why not try watching videos on the topics to recap them? For example, Freesciencelessons has great videos on YouTube!

If you prefer active learning more, try flashcards or quizzes! A good website with a lot of quizzes and revision content is Seneca Learning! There are many different types of courses as well, not just Chemistry.

Of course, the best way to get experience for exams and revise effectively is to look at past papers and exam questions.  Not only is this a great way to test what you know, it’s also excellent to familiarise yourself with the mark scheme to not miss marks next time. Additionally, you can revise more of the content you struggled with and see what areas you’re weak in.

To read more about when to revise and revising for A-Levels, check out this article from Think Student.

While it is important to revise content and try your best to do well, it’s also important to take breaks and allow your brain to process the information. While revising, you must try to maintain a healthy sleep schedule and nourish your body! Not only can it give you more peace of mind, but it can also help you retain information a lot better!

To read more about how to cope with A-Level stress and regulate the stress healthily, check out this article from Think Student!

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3 years ago

Very helpfull! Answers all questions I had around the subject, thanks!

3 years ago

very helpful. May I ask how do i make sure i have enough time to go to work and do well in college?

Reply to  jesse
3 years ago

u don’t, if you do three intense alevels you may have to consider giving up your job around exam periods especially in the final year. Alevels are no joke and you have to spend alot of time revising if you want to suceed