Is University Harder Than A-Levels?

In A-Level, University by Think Student EditorLeave a Comment

Without the experience of having done a degree as well as A-Levels, it is very difficult to make a judgement about which qualifications are harder to get, but perhaps you would like to have a bit of background knowledge of what you are getting in to if you start a degree at university after you have left sixth form. Although this article cannot give a generalizable answer to this question (as there are so many factors which can change the answer), it will provide you with a great deal of information to compare both degrees and A-Levels, so that you can get an idea of what both qualifications are like.

The short answer here is that several factors have to be taken into account in order to come to a judgement about the difficulty of A-Levels compared to university:

  • The pass marks for A-Level courses vary depending on subject, so some require higher percentages of marks in order to pass compared to degrees, whereas others require less.
  • A-Level students are able to spend a lot more time in lessons, and tend to have more contact and support from teachers, compared to university students.
  • University students are required to do a lot more independent study than A-Level students are.
  • Content is more detailed at university than it is at sixth form. This can be explained by the fact that a degree generally focuses solely on 1 subject, and so content has to be more complex and go into more depth.
  • Grades are decided differently between universities and sixth forms. The interpreted difficulty of these systems depends entirely on the individual and how best they work.
  • Degrees take longer to achieve than A-Levels.

Although a short summary of this article has been provided above, I would strongly recommend that you read the entire article to get as much information as you can about this subject.

How Does the Pass Mark at A-Level Compare to Universities?

Pass marks in A-Levels and university work slightly differently, so it is somewhat difficult to compare the 2 types of qualification in terms of their pass marks. However, we can look at the percentage of marks needed to achieve different grades in a few examples to get an idea of how difficult A-Levels are compared to university.

Generally, universities follow a fixed percentage system to determine what grade an individual gets at the end of the course and exams for their degree. The details of these percentages can be found below, but essentially, a pass mark is usually 40%.

Grade Awarded Percentage
1st 70%
2:1 60%
2:2 50%
3rd 40%

By comparison, A-Levels do not tend to have a standardised set of percentages which determine the grades that students achieve. Instead, they are variable and based on the marks achieved by students all across the country.

This means that grade boundaries vary across subjects, which can make it difficult to compare between A-Levels, let alone between all A-Levels and University! An example of a set of grade boundaries can be found below. This has been produced using information taken from the Pearson GCE subject grade boundaries (2019). Here, A-Level Biology has been given as an example subject.

Grade Awarded Percentage
A* 66%
A 56%
B 46%
C 38%

This is an example where, as you can see, grade boundaries for A-Levels are lower than those for University. This is not the case for all A-Levels, as it is influenced by the number of people taking a certain A-Level, as well as the general achievement of the students in a particular year.

An example of a subject where the grade boundaries are harsher than those of universities is A-Level Spanish. The grade boundaries for this subject can be found below, and again, the table has been produced using information taken from the Pearson GCE subject grade boundaries (2019).

Grade Awarded Percentage
A* 83%
A 73%
B 61%
C 46%

As you can see, the grade boundaries for different A-Levels can vary hugely, even when the subjects have been sat in the same year! Therefore, if you are comparing the difficulty of A-Levels and university based on their pass marks, you must be specific about the A-Level subjects that you are comparing.

How Many Hours Do You Spend in Lesson at Sixth Form Compared to at University?

Again (unfortunately!), this is not something that can be answered with just one set of teaching hours for University and one for A-Levels. Every Sixth Form will have slightly different expectations of their students in terms of how much teaching they should receive, and the contact teaching hours for university courses vary depending on the subject and the university.

On average, for each subject taught at A-Level, students should receive around 4.5 hours of teaching. This means that a student who takes 3 A-Levels would have around 13.5 hours of teaching time in total, per week. This is an average, and so individual Sixth Forms may vary around this figure. This happens because of the variation in teaching methods between Sixth Forms.

At University, learning is generally a lot more independent, and so you are likely to find that you have less lecture or seminar time than A-Level students. This means that you have to take responsibility for your own learning, and need to be able to manage your time well! This does of course vary depending on the subject that you have chosen to study. A student who is studying Medicine (which has a large practical component) will have many more teaching hours than other courses where work can be done independently.

Another key difference between A-Level and university teaching is the class sizes that you will have. At A-Level, you will have smaller classes, where you have fairly regular individual contact with your teacher. However, at universities, learning tends to be in the form of lectures, where there is little to no opportunity for individual contact with lecturers. Some courses will also involve smaller seminars, but these are much less regular than A-Level classes!

How Many Hours of Independent Study Do You Have to Do at Sixth Form Compared to University?

As a result of the fewer hours of teaching that students generally receive at university, the demand for independent study is much higher than it is at A-Level.

A-Level teachers will usually set homework for you to do throughout the week, which you should use as a starting point for your independent work. Revision is also important throughout your A-Level courses, and so this should be factored in to your time.

A good rule to follow is that, as an A-Level student, you should do around 4 hours of independent work per subject, per week. This includes homework and assignments, and hopefully leaves time for you to create revision resources as you do your course. This means that a student who is studying 3 A-Levels should be doing around 12 hours of independent work spread out over the week.

Obviously, the number of hours that you spend working out of Sixth Form should increase as you move closer to your exam period (if you would like to find out when this will be, take a look at this useful article). You can find out more information about how many hours you should spend revising for A-Levels every day by reading this helpful article.

Generally, university courses give you the freedom of choosing some of the modules that you study, and you will likely find that these modules are assigned ‘credits’. These allow you to judge how much time you will have to put into the overall study of a certain module. Modules that are worth 10 credits usually require around 100 hours of study, 20 credit modules need 200 hours, and so on.

Most of these hours are independent study hours, and so it is important that you can manage your own time. These hours would need to be completed over the course of the semester, and so if you had to complete 60 credits as a requirement made by your university, your 600 hours would break down to between 40-50 hours of university work a week.

This looks like a huge number – try not to panic! This does include all of your lectures, and sometimes you will find that this number of hours is not necessary for a particular module. It means that your degree essentially takes up as much time as a full-time job would.

As you can see, the independent study required by university courses is a lot more challenging than that required by A-Level courses. This is one of many reasons that your degree should be in a subject that you love!

How Hard is A-Level Content Compared to A Degree?

The difficulty of content when comparing A-Levels and university depends entirely on the subjects that you take at either level, and the types of skills which you have.

For example, someone who is bilingual may find a language A-Level to be easy, compared to someone who is learning a second language from scratch. Someone who is more analytical, and skilled in written communication may find a subject like History A-Level to be a lot easier than someone who has to learn those skills as they go. The same applies to degree programmes. Some people will innately have skills which make a subject seem easier for them than it is for the other individuals on their same course.

Because of the subjective nature of how difficult the content is for A-Levels generally compared to university, it is very hard to compare the content that you will be required to study. However, if you were to take a singular subject, for example Psychology, and compare the A-Level and the degree, you would (to no surprise) find that degree-level content is a lot more challenging to learn than A-Level content.

This is because a degree allows you to learn more in-depth information related to your subject than a singular A-Level would. This makes sense on many levels, including the fact that a degree takes a lot more study time than A-Levels as a whole, and that a degree (usually) consists of just one subject (unless you are doing a joint honour course). This means that the information, by default, has to be more complex and detailed than the information studied at A-Level.

How Are Exams Graded at Sixth Form Compared to University?

Most A-Level courses are linear, which means that you learn all of the content, and are then tested at the end of your courses during one singular exam period. Once you have completed these exams, they are sent off to external, exam-board markers, who mark your exams to provide the board with a percentage that determines your grade (though as we said before, these grade boundaries are variable, and depend on everyone else’s performance in your specific A-Level subjects).

Often, the exam papers are marked by multiple markers to ensure that they are fair to all students. This is especially important for essay-based subjects where judgement of your ability is slightly subjective. Once this whole process has been completed, you receive your A-Level results.

At university, the system is slightly different. Instead of a singular exam period, you will usually have exams dotted all the way through your degree programme (in small exam periods at the end of each semester). These will be taken into consideration when your university decides your degree grade.

Usually, the exams don’t count towards your final grade in your first year (but it is important to check this with your university and the specific course you do), though they are very important in both the second and third years of your degree.

In addition to these exams (which provide evidence that you have a strong understanding of the modules that you have studied), you will be required to do a dissertation, which is essentially a long essay on a particular subject. This will be marked, and is likely to have a strong influence on the overall grade that you achieve at the end of your degree.

It is very important to note that there are slight variations in the way of assessment depending on the course that you take and the university that you study at. However, your university will give you detailed information on assessment when you start your course.

How Long Does it Take to Get A-Levels Compared to a Degree?

One final difference between A-Levels and a degree is the time that it takes to complete the qualifications.

Most A-Level courses take 2 years to study, and most students take 3-4 A-Levels at the same time. University degrees, on the other hand, tend to take 3 years (for most undergraduate bachelor degrees), and are focused on one singular subject.

This is a strong indicator of the difference in the amount of knowledge required to get a degree compared to getting A-Levels, and perhaps suggests that it is much more difficult to learn all of the content needed at university compared to at A-Level, as it takes a longer amount of time, even though there is only one subject to be focused on.

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