What Are A-Level Qualifications?

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Trying to figure out which further qualification you want to study can be tough, especially when you’re not too sure what the qualification is actually going to involve. This is true of any type of qualification, but particularly with A-Levels. As younger children, we often hear so much about other people taking the qualifications, but far less about what they actually are.

In short, A-Levels are a type of Level 3 qualification that you can study in a particular subject. Students typically study them at sixth form or college after finishing GCSEs. Due to this, it is a form of further education. A-Levels can come in a range of subjects from English and Maths to Japanese and Film Studies. Typically, students will take three A-Level courses. However, with permission from your sixth form or college you may be able to take four. Depending on what’s available at your school or college, you may also be able to combine A-Level study with other qualifications, such as BTECs.

Continue reading for more information about what is involved in A-Levels, how they are graded and where you can go after completing them. If you are planning to take A-Levels or considering your post-GCSE options, this article is just for you.

What are A-Levels?

When you go onto to study A-Levels, you may feel that you know quite a bit about them. Except that’s the question. Do you really? A-Levels are arguably the most traditional form of education in the UK (or more specifically England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

This means we often think we know everything about the qualifications when we don’t really know the facts. Take the qualification’s name, A-Level, as an example. Do you know what it stands for?

A-Level stands for Advanced Level and are a type of Level 3 qualification that you can study in a particular subject. Everything you need to know about A-Levels will be covered in this article and can also been seen in more detail through many more article on the Think Student website.

A-Levels are usually taken in an academic subject, such as maths or English. That said, it is also possible to take A-Levels in more active or creative subjects such as PE and Drama.

For more information about what a Level 3 qualification is in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, check out this governmental guide.  If you want to know more about what A-Levels are in general, have a look at this guide from UCAS.com.

Where do you study A-Levels?

In the UK, you have several options for what you can study after GCSE. If you decide that you want to study A-Levels, then the next choice is on where you want to go. Typically, A-Levels are studied at school, sixth-form or college.

The choice of where you go is up to you so long as you can meet the entry requirements of the institute. Carrying on with sixth form in your secondary school can be a great option, especially if you know it well and are happy there.

Just remember that the safe option is not always the best for you and there are other places available. For more information about where you study A-Levels, check out this guide by SuccessAtSchool.org.

Can you study A-Levels online?

With the rise of modern technology, almost everything is available online now. This is extremely helpful for your studies with so many online resources available. As well as study materials, there are also plenty of blogs to give you tips, information and advice from other students. However, you can even take online resources one step further and complete an entire A-Level course online.

Studying A-Levels online, also known as distance learning, can be great if you want a more flexible schedule. It also means that you won’t have to physically get up and go to school for your lessons as they can be taken from anywhere so long as you have an internet connection.

For more information about this, check out this article from openstudycollege.com. If you would like to know more about studying A-Levels online and the best online A-Level course providers, check out this article.

How many A-Levels can you take?

At GCSE level, students tend to take quite a lot of subjects. The standard number is ten, although it may be slightly higher or lower depending on the school you go to and your individual situation. However, if you consider all the compulsory subjects as well as your own choices, it’s really no surprise. For more information about how many GCSE you can take, look at this article.

In A-Levels, students take far fewer subjects. This is partially down to the fact that A-Level students do not have compulsory subjects. Please be aware that some schools do have compulsory subjects, and you should research this before applying.

Normally, students only take three subjects for their A-Levels. However, they may be able to do four if their sixth form or college gives them permission to. This permission is needed as taking four A-Levels is a very heavy workload and is pretty intense. For more information about how many A-Levels you should take, check out this article.

How hard is A-Level compared to GCSE?

By the time you get to A-Levels, you’ve probably had quite a bit of schooling, whether this be traditionally or otherwise. If you went down the traditional schooling route in the UK, then you probably went to primary school at age 4 or 5.

You will then have moved onto secondary school after finishing Year 6 when you’re about 11. By the time reach the age at which most people take A-Levels, you will have been in school for 12 years.

While it will depend on where you go, you may be glad to know that studying A-Levels isn’t quite the same as being at school. It is in fact, much harder.

Is the A-Level content harder than GCSE?

There are several reasons for A-Levels being much harder, one of which is that they are intended to be more advanced than GCSEs. Whilst GCSEs are a Level 2 qualification, A-Levels are a Level 3 qualification. For more information about what these levels mean check out this governmental guide.

While there is only one level between them, the step up can be quite big. This is particularly because A-Levels focus on more specific topics and go into greater depth. In comparison, GCSEs tend to cover topics quite broadly as they are only really meant to give you an overview.

Is the A-Level workload more than GCSE?

If the difficulty in content wasn’t enough, there’s also a lot more content and generally a much larger workload. At GCSE level, you will typically have about 25 hours of lessons each week and then maybe a bit of homework on top of that.

When taking A-Levels, you will be expected to do about 27 hours of study per week. Half of this will be spent in class and the other half will be independent study. You are also likely to be given more tasks that need to be completed in between lessons.

On top of all this, when taking A-Levels you need to be much more independent. As you’re almost an adult, you are expected to handle your own studies. Generally, you should put about 13 hours of independent study into your A-Levels each week. To reach this, you’ll need to do more than just your homework which is why the independence expected at A-Level is far greater than GCSE.

For more information about what A-Levels are like in comparison to GCSEs, check out this article.

How are A-Levels assessed?

The A-Level exam period is fairly similar to at GCSE. In Year 11, students take an average of ten subjects and each one has 1 or 2 exams. In this sense, GCSE exams are stressful as they are your main chance to show what you’ve learnt over the last two years.

A-Level assessments are structured in the same way and carry an equal level of stress. A-Levels are mainly assessed with written exams and coursework. You may have a mixture of exams and coursework, or just written exams, depending on the subjects you take. This can also rely on the exam board your school or college has chosen.

Each exam and piece of coursework is marked separately and then the grades of each will be combined to give you an overall A-Level grade. If your subject has coursework, this normally needs to be submitted before exam season starts.

The exam season for A-Levels is normally carried out from the middle of May to the end of June. For more information about how A-Levels are assessed, check out this article from goodto.com.

How are A-Levels graded?

GCSEs and A-Levels are graded rather differently, at least by exam boards in England. This is because GCSEs are now graded using numbers in place of the traditional lettering system. The grades A*-E are still used by Welsh and Northern Irish exam boards for GCSEs.

The number grades range from 9-1 with 9 being the highest, having the value of slightly higher than an A*, and 1 being the lowest grade, equivalent to a U (ungraded).

A-Levels, on the other hand, still use a letter grading system, even in England. These grades range from A*-E with an A* being the highest possible grade and E being the lowest passing grade. A U (ungraded) is given if you get below an E, which means that you’ve not passed the course.

The grade boundaries fluctuate massively each year. This is because the grade boundary is based on how well students scored in their exams. There is also a huge difference between the score needed to get each grade in different subjects.

For example, in 2019, AQA Physics students needed 68% to score an A whilst English Language students on the same exam board required 81% for an equivalent grade. To see a full list of A-Level grade boundaries for this exam board in 2019, view this file from AQA.org.uk.

How many UCAS points are A-Levels worth?

UCAS Tariff points are a numerical value used in applications for university. Level 3 qualifications all receive UCAS points and the value is based on the grade received and the type of qualification. Not all Level 3 qualifications have UCAS Tariff points, like apprenticeships, but most others do.

Higher Education providers use UCAS Tariff points in order to set their entry requirements. To get into university, you must have a threshold number of points set by the institution. However, not all higher education providers require you to have UCAS points, such as those offering Higher Apprenticeships. For more information about UCAS Tariff points, check out this guide from UCAS.com.

UCAS points are incredibly important, especially with the increase in the number of students continuing into higher education after reaching age 18. In 2021, 272,500 post-school students were accepted into university or college, which is 37.9% of the UK’s 18-year-old population. This is a 7% increase from 2020.

For more information about these figures, check out this article by UCAS.com. As these students are likely to have taken a range of different qualifications, UCAS points are a useful way to see who fits the entry requirements best.

As A-Levels are arguably the most traditional form of level 3 education in the UK, it’s no surprise that they have UCAS points. These are given for each one you pass with a grade between A* and E. Look at the table below to see what the UCAS Tariff points are for each grade.

Grade UCAS Points
  A* 56
A 48
B 40
C 32
D 24
E 16

For more information about the UCAS points of A-Levels, check out this guide from solent.ac.uk.

Are A-Levels further education or higher education?

As simply as possible, further education is education taken after finishing GCSEs and before starting university. In England, it is compulsory for you to be in further education until you are 18 but this doesn’t apply to the rest of the UK. For more information about the school leaving age, look at this article.

There are quite a few different types of further education in the UK, A-Levels included, so you have much more choice than in earlier stages of education. For more information about further education, check out this article.

Higher education is when you continue be in some form of education that goes above and beyond the limits of secondary school. This means that you will usually begin higher education at the age of 18 or later, although it is not necessary that you are this age. This article goes into further detail about the age restraints on university.

As higher education covers all the highest forms of education in the UK, it is generally a lot more specialised than other levels of education. You will generally only study one subject (and at the highest level, you generally only study one subtopic of a subject).

In the UK, higher education specifically refers to all forms of education that are Level 4 or above. Look at this governmental guide to see which qualifications, you can get at this level and for more information about Higher Education in general, check out this article.

A-Levels are a form of further education. This is clear because they are typically studied straight after GCSEs and before university. As A-Levels are Level 3, they cannot be higher education because it is Level 4 and above, as previously stated.

Do you need A-Levels to get into university?

As one of the most traditional forms of further education, A-Levels are a great route for getting into university. This is because they are accepted throughout the UK, so by taking them, you don’t have to worry as much about whether your application will be rejected.

A-Levels are the closest Level 3 qualification to university as they are the most academic. The step from A-Levels to university is less of a shock than BTECs to university, for example.

However, there are many routes to get into university, so it’s not completely and utterly essential to have A-Levels. You can study other forms of further education to get into university, so long as they provide UCAS points.

For some ideas of how to increase the number of UCAS points you receive, check out this article. Alternatively, you can click here for some alternatives to taking A-Levels after GCSE.

Can you get into university with BTECs?

In the UK, 95% of universities accept BTEC qualifications as a part of the entry requirements. Due to this, it’s no wonder that about 100,000 BTEC students in the UK apply to university each year.

BTECs can be a great route into university as they are vocational qualifications that can give you a more hands on experience than academic courses, such as A-Levels. This can be great for university courses orientated around practical work. For more information about going to university with BTECs, check out this article.

BTEC Nationals have UCAS Tariff points attributed to them, just like A-Levels. However, the grading system is a little bit different. Where A-Levels award a grade between A*-E, BTECs have grades ranging from Distinction*- Pass. The points scored from an A* line up with D* and so on.

For more information about the BTEC grading system, check out this article or click here for the UCAS Tariff point calculator.

Can you get into university with T-Levels?

T-Levels are another form of further education that are worth the equivalent of three A-Levels and last 2 years. When studying them, your time is split between being taught in a classroom and having work experience at an actual business. For a full guide to T-Levels, read this government-written article.

While T-Levels are still quite a new qualification, it is arguable that in a few years they may even fully replace other vocational courses, such as BTECs. If you want to know more about this, check out this article.

T-Levels are also a great route into university as they give you a more dedicated education in one specific area. There are unfortunately, some top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, who do not accept T-Level students. However, for the universities that do, T-Levels are attributed UCAS points. For more information check out this Think Student article.

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