A-Level Chemistry is a really popular choice with students. It is a required subject by many universities if you want to go on to study a science-related degree. This includes competitive courses, such as Medicine and Engineering, which will ask for students to achieve top grades.
However, A-Level Chemistry is by no means an easy subject to do well in. It’s full of complicated reaction mechanisms, periodic patterns and equations that thousands of students struggle to wrap their heads around each year. There is plenty of general revision advice available on the internet and given to you in school, but it can be harder to find specific advice to help you with a certain subject.
There’s no getting past the fact that hard work is needed to do well in A-Level Chemistry. Nevertheless, there are plenty of good habits and handy tips to help you work smarter, rather than just harder, to get those top grades – keep reading this article for more information!
1. Make sure you understand the concepts of A-Level Chemistry in class
The A-Level Chemistry course is a mixture of facts you need to memorise, and concepts you need to understand. Often, it is the things you need to learn off by heart that worry people, as it is easy to make a mistake. However, these facts can be easily revised at home, as many times as it takes for them to stick in your brain.
On the other hand, it is much harder to teach yourself a new concept at home if you haven’t understood it in the lesson. Additionally, most of your final A-Level paper will require you to use concepts you are familiar with and apply them to new situations, rather than just recall information.
For this reason, my best tip would be to make the most of lesson time, from the very start of your course. It can be easy to zone out in the classroom and tell yourself that you’ll just complete the work at home – we’ve all been there! Your future self will thank you if you do your best to focus on what the teacher is going through in lessons.
If you don’t understand what’s going on at any point during a lesson, don’t be shy to ask! Your teacher should be happy to help you get your head around a new topic, and it will be much easier than trying to Google your way through it later.
As well as this, recapping what you have learned that day once you get home is a good way to make sure you don’t forget the content. Try to recap it little and often, rather than leaving it all to one big chunk right before your exam.
Finally, most schools will run drop-in sessions or revision clubs, particularly near exam season. If there is still something you are struggling with, take it to one of these groups, to make sure you fully understand the concepts and can apply them to exam questions.
2. Make your own revision resources for A-Level Chemistry
I would highly recommend making your own revision resource such as mind maps and flashcards, rather than relying only on things like textbooks and videos. Making these resources is a form of active revision in itself, and you then have plenty of notes to revise from when the actual exam comes around.
For A-Level Chemistry in particular, there are a few particular resources that can be really helpful. One of these is a map containing the organic synthesis content you have learned.
Organic chemistry is a big part of the course, no matter which exam board you do. A lot of this subtopic involves learning about the reactions used to convert between organic compounds, including mechanisms, reaction conditions, and any catalyst used.
It can be confusing to remember the details for each reaction. Making a big mind map of all the reactants, products, mechanisms and conditions is a great way to revise. It is then really helpful to have all the information summarised in one map – it can make organic chemistry seem a lot less overwhelming!
Check out these examples from OCR and Physics and Maths Tutor to get an idea of what your map could look like. Remember, though, the process of making your own mind map can be just as helpful as using it to revise from later – don’t be too tempted to just rely on these resources.
It’s also helpful to make flashcards for parts of the chemistry course that need you to learn specific facts. For example, the shapes of molecules, or tests for specific compounds, are usually topics you simply have to sit down and memorise.
Flashcards are a great way to help with learning these, and can be used to quickly recap the topic and refresh your memory. Check out this Think Student article for some advice on making great flashcards.
3. Practise relevant maths skills for A-Level Chemistry
Calculations make up a considerable part of the A-Level Chemistry course. Although the actual maths involved is usually just multiplying or adding numbers on your calculator, the questions are much more difficult. There are often equations involved, and you may need to remember to convert units or rearrange a formula.
Have a look at this page of the AQA website for the maths skills they expect A-Level students to have.
The first thing to do is to make sure you are familiar with the formulas that might come up. Even though some of them may be given to you in the exam, you will need to understand what they mean, as well as what units are used.
Then, the best thing to do is to practise calculation questions. You will soon become familiar with the style of questions in exams, and the common ways they can try to trick you out. For instance, you may have to convert the numbers they give you into standard units before they can be put into a formula.
When you get more confident, make sure to have a go at a few longer calculations. There are plenty of questions worth 6 marks or more, involving multi-step calculations. These can seem really daunting, but they are possible!
If you get stuck at first, looking at mark schemes is really helpful, as they will have a clear method shown step by step. Then, try to work through a question on your own, and compare your working with the mark scheme after you have attempted the question. You will be surprised at how quickly you improve!
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!
4. Do as many A-Level Chemistry past papers as possible
Past papers are possibly the best way to make sure you are prepared for any one of your A-Level exams, and Chemistry is no exception. I would definitely recommend trying a few full papers before you sit the real exam.
As much as you can, try to complete the paper in exam conditions. That means no looking up a fact you have forgotten, or getting distracted by your phone – it won’t be there in the exam! This helps you get used to the time pressure, and format of the questions, so nothing should surprise you when you sit the real paper.
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.
We have already mentioned mark schemes, which are really useful to check you are answering questions in the way examiners are looking for. Additionally, examiners’ reports and exam boards specifications can be a useful resource – more on this next.
5. Use the 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.
If you struggled on a question, it can be useful to know that others did too. Equally, if you found a question really hard, but it was generally well answered by students, you know that is likely a topic you need to work on.
Finally, specifications for A-Level Chemistry are available on exam board websites. These are sometimes skimmed over by students, but they are actually a hugely helpful resource.
Everything you could possibly be tested on is included in the specification. One idea is to use the specification as a checklist, ticking off the topics you are confident with, and highlighting the ones you are less sure of.
6. Use a range of revision resources and techniques for A-Level Chemistry
We’ve already mentioned making your own revision materials and doing plenty of past papers. There are lots of other ways to revise, and it’s a good idea to try and use a range of these. Using different revision resources and methods can help the information to stick in your brain better, as well as making revision less monotonous.
Check out this article from Think Student for lots of top tips and techniques for revision. You might find that you learn better by watching videos rather than reading articles, or that you focus on your work better if you are working in a study group.
The same is true of the actual resources you use – a different website might explain things in a better way for you to understand. Here are some of the best available revision materials for A-Level Chemistry:
- Physics & Maths Tutor – This has a huge range of free resources for A-Level Chemistry, arranged by exam board. This includes revision notes, mind maps, flashcards and practice questions organised by topic. Check out their website by clicking here.
- Save My Exams – Once again, this website has plenty of detailed revision notes and practice questions. However, there is a limit to how much you can access for free each month. To access this website, click here.
- Chemguide – This website has a really detailed explanation of A-Level Chemistry topics. It sometimes goes into more detail than you need to know, but this is so you can understand exactly what is going on, and the website makes it clear what you actually need for your exam. To find all of this on their website, click on this link.
As well as these, don’t neglect your own class notes, school textbooks, and any revision materials you have made. These can often be the most useful, as you will hopefully have class notes written in a way you understand, and an exam-board specific textbook containing everything you need to know.
7. 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.
As mentioned above 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!
8. 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.
9. Don’t leave questions blank in the A-Level Chemistry exam
There are plenty of general tips for exam technique, and for more on these, check out this link from Think Student. One of the important tips I would emphasise for A-Level Chemistry is to not leave any questions blank.
For example, long answer questions can seem difficult, and it can be hard to know exactly what the question is asking from you. However, there are marks available even if you don’t get the complete answer. It is always worth having a go and writing down your ideas, even if you are not sure they are entirely right.
Additionally, calculation questions often have marks for your working out, even if you do not get the correct final answer. Make sure to write down your working as you go along, even if you only get as far as rearranging the formula – it might still be given credit in the mark scheme.
10. Make sure you are familiar with the equipment in the A-Level Chemistry exam
The equipment you will need for an A-Level Chemistry exam is fairly simple: basic stationery as well as a ruler and calculator. However, you will also be given a data sheet in the exam, and it is helpful to be familiar with this before the exam. These are on exam board websites – for example, click here to look at AQA’s.
A periodic table will be given to you, which you will almost certainly need to use in the exam. I would advise using the same periodic table the exam board will give you when you are doing practice papers, so you know exactly how it is formatted.
There is also other information included on the data sheet, such as NMR and infrared spectroscopy data. Before the real exam, check through this sheet, and make sure you understand whatever is on there and when you would need to use it.
11. 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.
Hopefully, this article has covered all the main advice to do well in your A-Level Chemistry course. Make it a goal to try at least a few of these tips throughout the course, and see which ones work best for you. Best of luck!