Taking exams is a struggle for all students, no matter what their ability. Whether at A-level or at GCSE, the process of studying for and taking exams is stressful. The main ambition is to obtain the highest grade possible in order to prepare you for the next stage of your career. However, it is sometimes the case that aiming for a solid pass is the best course of action. As a student, it is vitally important that you know what a pass is for your course, and how you can get there. This really helped me when I was taking my exams.
Officially, the Government states that to pass a GCSE exam, a grade 4 or above is required and to pass at A-Level, students must gain an E grade or above. However, a solid or ‘high’ pass is closer to a 5 or D/E borderline. Each year, the number of marks needed to pass varies, as the grade boundaries will fluctuate, as the difficulty of the exam changes too. Remember that there will be more than one paper to sit, as well as coursework in some subjects, so chances are that if one goes wrong, you may be able to drag your grade back up to a pass.
Read on to find out the importance of understanding grade boundaries, how to focus your revision to help pass the exam and other tips for making the whole passing process just a little bit easier.
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What is a Pass at GCSE?
To pass in a GCSE subject, the government says that students must obtain at least a Grade 4 in their final exams. However, the more respected pass is from a grade 5 upwards, even though this isn’t technically the minimum pass grade. Whilst most students think that grades rely on percentages, they are actually formed by the marks scored, as there may be multiple papers with a different number of marks in each, so this allows exam boards to find an average.
Therefore, you want to be looking to pick up as many marks as possible in order to push yourself over the grade boundary and into a pass. Also note that if there is more than one paper, the total marks for both are added together for a final mark, and if your subject involves coursework, such as English or History, this will also make up a percentage of the final grade.
What is a Pass at A-Level?
At A-level, the smallest grade needed to pass is an E, although the government again states that a D is the more respected grade. At this level, the grades can be split up into high and low variations, so you would preferably be achieving a high E to confidently say you have passed.
As with GCSE, the grade awarded is based on the marks attained during the exam, and there will be multiple papers to sit. Generally, there are less ‘easy’ questions with A-level, and no SPAG marks are awarded, so it is often more difficult to pick up a high number of marks, despite having relatively high-grade boundaries. Therefore, it takes much more preparation and practice to achieve a pass in an A-level subject.
Remember that coursework and any other non-exam-based work (such as the practical performance for Drama) will be taken into consideration for this grade as well.
What are Grade Boundaries?
Grade Boundaries are formed by the exam boards to decide the number of marks a student needs to achieve overall to gain a particular grade. At GCSE, these grades are based on the total year groups’ ability across the country, while at A-level, the boundary is decided by senior examiners at Ofqual, who compare the difficulty of the current year’s paper with the previous year’s and adjust the boundaries accordingly.
The boundaries vary between subjects and between the exam boards within each subject, as some test on more difficult content or create harsher mark schemes. Overall, the grades you are awarded should be fair and in line with students of a similar ability to yours taking subjects with other exam boards.
In other words, if you and your friend have the same level of intelligence, you should receive very similar grades even if one of you sits a more difficult paper.
If you are worried about passing, click here for a list of the easiest GCSEs.
What Factors Affect GCSE & A-Level Grade Boundaries?
The difficulty of the paper. As previously mentioned, a more challenging paper will also have a lower grade boundary, so the marks needed for a pass should be lower. Because of this lower tier and higher tier papers have different grade boundaries. For more about different tier papers click here.
The exam board you sit the exam with. In the UK, there are five main exam boards students can sit exams with, as well as other newly emerging boards with lower profiles. Of these, Edexcel is the most popular for GCSE and A-level subjects, closely followed by AQA. It is extremely important to know which exam board your school is entering you with (and chances are they will be different for different courses) so ask your teachers if you are unsure. These boards have different boundaries to each other, based on the structure of the exam, number of pass level questions and the time allowed. You can find the GCSE boundaries for Edexcel in 2019 here for reference.
The ability of your year group. If you are a GCSE student, then the grade boundary is based on student ability. First, the papers are marked, and the raw marks are sent to the chief examiners. Then, the top portion of marks are awarded a grade 9, and the rest of the grades are spaced evenly below this. So, if the year is less able, you’re more likely to pass.
All of these factors are taken into consideration before the final boundary is set, and this is the reason that some papers will have a higher mark needed to pass than others.
How Can You Turn Your GCSE Grade into a Pass?
At GCSE, the way to increase your grade and turn it into a pass depends on the exam style. In STEM subjects such as Biology and Maths, the key is to gain as many marks as possible by writing as many correct points as possible. However, for subjects with an essay-based structure, like English and History, you should focus more on improving long answer technique.
The first thing to do in order to improve the grade is simply learn the content. There will always be some questions on a GCSE paper written to test the basic knowledge of the subject, and gaining these marks puts less pressure on you to answer higher level questions in more detail. Learn your stuff!
After this, it’s all about prioritising. If your aim is just to pass the exam, then a Grade 9 is unlikely to be within reach. Therefore, you should find out which topics require a higher understanding, and which are easier. Then, spend your time nailing the easy stuff to make sure you can definitely attain a passing grade.
If you don’t achieve a pass, then you might want to read this article about retaking your GCSEs. Click here to read more.
How Can You Turn Your A-Level Grade into a Pass?
With A-Levels, obtaining a pass is a little bit trickier because they have been designed to be very difficult. The reason you have to spend two years concentrating on only three subjects is because the exams are hard, even for very intelligent people. So, turning a failure into a pass at A-Level requires a hell of a lot more work than at GCSE. Click here for some great revision techniques.
Again, the most important thing to do is learn the content. Especially at this level, there is no room for silly errors or dropped marks due to neglecting to learn the information, as you need all the correct answers you can get. To make it even more difficult, there are basically no “easy” questions for less able students; the expectation is that you can be bothered to learn the basic facts for these exams.
After this, you need to find your weaknesses and practice, practice, practice. The more familiar you are with how to structure answers and the wording of questions, the more confident you will be on exam day. There is nothing worse than opening an exam paper and not understanding what the question is asking for.
Finally, use your teachers. This advice applies at GCSE as well, but they are even more useful at A-Level. There are fewer online resources available for higher education students, so you need all the help you can get. Remember, your teachers have got countless numbers of students through their exams, so they will know the specification well, and they want to help you. Take advantage of that!
What Exam Formats Are There at GCSE That Make Passing Easier?
At GCSE, there are a couple of exam formats which have been created to make the process of passing somewhat easier. Legally, all students must pass their exams in the core subjects, Maths and English, before they can leave school, so to make this easier on some people, the foundation and higher tiers were put into place.
At foundation level, the top grade that can be achieved is a 5, however, the questions asked are easier on average than the questions in a higher paper. So, if you are a student struggling to make a grade 4, this could be very useful to you. Read this article to find out more about the tier system at GCSE.
Similarly, to this, GCSE Science students have the option to take Double instead of Triple. All this means is that you are still assessed on all three sciences, but only using paper 1 content, and the qualification counts for two GCSEs instead of three. However, you can still achieve up to a grade 9 in the subject, it just allows the exam to become that little bit easier to pass.
What Exam Formats Make Passing A-Levels Easier?
At A-Level, there are technically no “easier” formats, but you can opt to take a subject as an AS Level rather than a full A-Level. All this means is that the subject will have less to learn for the final exam, but the grade will only be worth half of an A-Level.
It isn’t really recommended to take subjects at AS instead of at A-Level because the qualification doesn’t hold the same merit or weight, but if you’ve put as much effort into passing as possible and none of the techniques listed above have worked, then speak to your teachers about the possibility changing to AS Level.
In summary, a passing grade is a 4 at GCSE and an E at A-Level. The best way to get yourself across the grade boundary is to gain as many “easy” marks as possible and learn the information. After that, you just need to practice everything you don’t understand well and sometimes, skip out the most difficult content. Remember, if worse comes to worst, you can speak to your teachers about changing the exam format which you take. Good luck!
Here are some good articles on how to prepare and revise effectively for your exams: