Upon reaching the A-Level stage you realise just how vast the range of subjects you can study is. Not only that but now you have the complete choice to study what you want without being restricted by compulsory subjects. There a several ways that you can go about picking the right ones for you. You may be choosing based on a future career or even a future university course that you want to study. Whichever you decide, it can also be useful to bear in mind what other students think about these subjects. Due to this, looking at which subjects students consider the hardest can give you a little bit more perspective when making your decision.
Be advised. Information regarding how this ranking was formed is discussed at the end of this article. Please understand that this list is not definitive. Although we’ve tried our best to use the most appropriate metrics for this ranking, judgements on the difficulty of an A-Level subject are heavily dependent on the individual student.
Hardest A-Levels: Student Perception vs Pass Attainment Rates
Below you can find the visualisation A-Level subject difficulty rankings (top – hardest, bottom – 14ᵗʰ hardest). Displayed on the chart are both our own internal polling results and our analysis of pass attainment rates (a grade C or above) for the 2022 cohort.
Click a chart legend (colour key) to filter the ranking by specific metric.
(*) Difficulty perception represents the proportion of students who voted that specific subject as the easiest A-Level during our polling. You can learn more about how we collected this data at the end of this article.
(**) Pass attainment rates refer to the proportion of students in 2022 who achieved a C or above. This data was collected from both here on Ofqual’s website and this page on the JCQ website.
Walkthrough of the A-Level difficulty rankings
Continue reading to learn more about what are considered the 10 hardest A-Levels. This section will tell you a little more about the courses themselves and why they’re considered hardest. If you want to have your say, please vote in the poll at the end of this article.
10. A-Level Psychology
3.16% of the poll considered A-Level Psychology as the hardest A-Level, putting it in 10th place. In 2022, 79.3% of students achieved a grade C or above and 10.4% of students achieved an A*. As the average for all subjects was 82.1% achieving a grade and 14.5% achieving an A*, this suggests that A-Level Psychology really is one of the hardest A-Level subjects as it means that it is almost 3% below the average.
In A-Level Psychology, students will have quite a lot of content, especially as there are lots of case studies they will need to learn. Due to this, students may find A-Level Psychology one of the hardest A-Levels as they have to memorise all of this in order to be able to use it in exams.
Other aspects of the A-Level Psychology course seem to bring out more of a debate into whether or not they’re difficult. This is especially as some students will consider the exams difficult and others won’t. To learn more about all of this, check out this Think Student article.
9. A-Level Foreign Languages
5.12% of the poll considered A-Level Foreign Languages as the hardest A-Level, putting it in 9th place. In 2022, 88.9% of students achieved a grade C or above and 20.1% of students achieved an A* for French 89.3% got a C or above and 22.5% got an A* for Spanish and 91.4% received a C or above and 26.6% received an A* for German.
This would seem to suggest that student’s perception of how hard A-Level Modern Foreign Languages are don’t match up with the pass rates. This is likely partially due to the fact that native speakers are also able to take their language at A-Level if it’s offered as an A-Level course. This means that these students may find it easier and be more likely to get these very high marks, which would also bring up the number of students that get a C or above.
In A-Level Modern Foreign Languages, students learn about more than just the vocabulary and grammar rules. Instead, more emphasis is placed on the culture of the country or countries where the language is spoken. During the A-Level course, students will typically learn about different themes related to the countries that speak the language, including things to do with national and regional identity, pop culture, social issues and history.
What many A-Level Modern Foreign Languages students, like me, find difficult about this A-Level is how much of a jump it is between GCSE and A-Level. By this, I mean that during your A-Level studies, you’re mostly expected to know the language and be able to use it effectively, rather than just be learning it as you were at GCSE.
8. A-Level Computer Science
5.22% of the poll considered A-Level Computer Science as the hardest A-Level, putting it in 8th place. In 2022, 76.1% of students achieved a grade C or above and 14.4% of students achieved an A*. With the proportion of students that received a grade C or above, it would seem that A-Level Computer Science is very much in line with what is expected of the harder the subject seems, the lower the grades achieved.
However, the higher proportion of students achieving an A* doesn’t quite match up with this. This is likely due to the fact that students who take A-Level Computer Science will generally be interested in the subject and already be familiar with computing. In fact, having the GCSE may even be a requirement in order to make the A-Level accessible.
Despite this familiarity, students may still consider A-Level Computer Science difficult due to its content and the work you have to put in. This is because other than all of the coding and topics that may have been familiar at GCSE, students will also have to learn and apply theory as well as have to use everything they’ve learnt in order to carry out their coursework.
Students may also find A-Level Computer Science difficult due to the coursework itself, this is because it may often come down to lots of planning and trial and error before you can get it just right. This can be stressful and time-consuming and simply difficult to do. To learn more about this, check out this Think Student article.
7. A-Level History
5.65% of the poll considered A-Level History as the hardest A-Level, putting it in 7th place. In 2022, 87.5% of students achieved a grade C or above and 12.1% of students achieved an A*.
With the proportion of students gaining a grade C or above, this doesn’t quite seem to match with students’ perception of how hard it is as it is over 5% higher than the average for all subjects. This is likely due to how A-Level History students are very likely to be very interested in the subject and also most are probably good essay writers, allowing them to do well in exams.
Studying A-Level History myself, I find that one of the hardest parts is how much content there is. This is especially as there are so many different things that you need to know in quite a bit of detail in order to be able to use these key facts in exams.
Also, many students struggle with timings in A-Level History exams, which may lead many to consider it even more difficult. This is because A-Level History is an essay-based subject and so it can be difficult to allocate the right amount of time to each essay or section of the paper in order to be able to answer each question properly. To learn about why A-Level History may be considered difficult, check out this Think Student article.
6. A-Level English Literature
6.27% of the poll considered A-Level English Literature as the hardest A-Level, putting it in 6th place. In 2022, 88.2% of students achieved a grade C or above and 16.5% of students achieved an A*. This is much higher than the average and could suggest that students’ perception is much worse than it really is.
However, this is like other subjects, likely due to the nature of A-Levels meaning that students have picked these subjects completely for themselves and most likely actually enjoy them, meaning that they will probably have the academic ability and commitment to do well regardless of how hard it is.
For A-Level English Literature, students will often find that the workload is one of the hardest parts. This is likely due to the sheer number of texts that students have to study and the depth that they have to do this in.
Also, students may find it difficult to get the right technique in order to score well in exams. This is especially as there is a noticeable gap between what you would have got used to at GCSE level and what you have to do at A-Level. For more on A-Level English Literature, check out this Think Student article.
5. A-Level Biology
8.81% of the poll considered A-Level Biology as the hardest A-Level, putting it in 5th place. In 2022, 75% of students achieved a grade C or above and 12.8% of students achieved an A*. This is much more in line with what is expected with the grades being slightly lower than the average of all subjects.
In A-Level Biology, students learn about quite complex topics, that are a big step up from GCSE. These may include things from gene expression to energy transfers in organisms. Due to this, students may find A-Level Biology difficult due to the content itself.
Also, A-Level Biology may be considered difficult due to the nature of the exams. This is because for some exam boards, students will need to complete an essay as part of their exam.
Due to being a science subject rather than an essay-based one, students who take A-Level Biology are likely to be less familiar with essay-based subjects as it often picked alongside other science-based subjects. To learn more about this, check out this Think Student article.
4. A-Level Maths
11.73% of the poll considered A-Level Maths as the hardest A-Level, putting it in 4th place. In 2022, 78.5% of students achieved a grade C or above and 22.8% of students achieved an A*. For being considered so hard, the proportion of students gaining an A* being so high can seem strange.
This is likely due to the fact that there are often restrictions on who can take A-Level Maths. This means that the students who do take it will probably already have very good mathematical skills and so will be able to do well in the exams, despite how hard it is.
A-Level Maths students will often consider it hard due to the content. This is because there is quite a lot of it as it is split into pure maths, statistics and mechanics with each having their own topics. This content is also more difficult with students covering topics that they’d probably not even heard of at GCSE, such as differentiation, integration and even kinematics.
To learn more about why students may find A-Level Maths difficult, check out this Think Student article.
3. A-Level Physics
14.51% of the poll considered A-Level Physics as the hardest A-Level, putting it in 3rd place. In 2022, 77% of students achieved a grade C or above and 16.4% of students achieved an A*. Similarly to A-Level Maths, the proportion of students getting an A* grade may seem strange due to how many students consider it the hardest.
This is once again likely due to the grade requirements student will need at GCSE before they can take A-Level Physics, as well as the fact that students wanting to take this A-Level will generally be aware of just how difficult it is when choosing it.
Students will often find A-Level Physics hard due to the difficulty of the content, although this will depend on what each student struggles with particularly. Also, students may find the exams themselves difficult as they will need a certain methodological approach in answering questions in order to gain the marks. To learn more about this, check out this Think Student article.
2. A-Level Chemistry
16.38% of the poll considered A-Level Chemistry as the hardest A-Level, putting it in 2nd place. In 2022, 75.4% of students achieved a grade C or above and 13.6% of students achieved an A*. These figures being slightly lower, would suggest that students really do find A-Level Chemistry harder than A-Level Physics.
Students often find A-Level Chemistry difficult due to the difficulty of the content. This is because many of the concepts will be difficult to get your head around and due to there being quite a lot of this, it makes it even more difficult.
Also, there is quite a bit of maths skills involved with A-Level Chemistry. This goes beyond the basics of maths and even what is taught at GCSE as students will have to use logarithms, which is first taught in A-Level Maths.
To learn more about why students may find A-Level Chemistry difficult, check out this Think Student article.
1. A-Level Further Maths
20.64% of the poll considered A-Level Further Maths as the hardest A-Level, putting it in 1st place. In 2022, 92% of students achieved a grade C or above and 39.7% of students achieved an A*.
Considering these figures alone would suggest that students’ perception of the A-Level Further Maths course is that it is much harder than it really is. However, this isn’t particularly the case.
This is because the students who take A-Level Further Maths will generally have very good mathematical skills. This is especially as sixth forms or colleges will often have restrictions on who can take A-Level Further Maths.
Plus, in order to have the dedication to keep at it, despite the difficulty, students would need to be academically suited to this course and able to do very well. This in turn also explains why the proportion of A*s is much higher than the rest of these A-Level subjects.
A-Level Further Maths is primarily considered difficult due to its content as well as the workload. When studying this course, students study a range of topics under the main themes of pure maths, statistics, mechanics and decision. The more specific topics include things like complex numbers, matrices and hyperbolic functions.
How were these rankings decided?
For each A-Level subject on this list, we discuss both of the following factors:
- Our findings through student polling (ranking factor)
- Our research on pass rates (based of Ofqual’s data release)
To prevent the complexity of attempting to combining these, we rank each subject by solely its student polling results. As stated, it isn’t perfect, and students should absolutely be taking these rankings with a pinch of salt.
How was the polling data collected?
Between January 2021 and December 2022, we displayed a poll on this page which prompted readers to vote on which A-Level subject was the hardest. Within this timeframe, we collect 2,088 votes, excluding submissions that were disregarded from the data set due to formatting issues or other errors.
Some key limitations of our polling methods that could’ve swayed results:
- Static ordering of subjects on voting form: A previous iteration of our survey form listed A-Level subjects in the same order each time. It could be argued that this would favour the subjects that were listed at the top. This issue has been fixed in our updated voting form below.
- Voting form displayed only a subset of A-Level subjects: Previously, only a small selection of A-Level subjects was displayed on the survey. We have since expanded the size of this selection on the voting form.
- Potential bad actors: Despite having anti-spam software in place, it is possible repeated entries were made by single individuals. With respect to privacy, we don’t ask for more information than we need and as a result, it is almost impossible to identify submission users to check if they are unique.
This article is a member of a series of A-Level ranking articles listed on this site. If you find our data and analysis within this article helpful, you may also wish to take a look at this Think Student article to learn more about what students have voted as the 10 easiest A-Level subjects.