Memorising A-Level Content

What’s The Difference Between A-Levels And GCSEs?

In A-Level by Think Student Editor1 Comment

GCSE exams are hard enough, let alone A-Level Exams! How intense are A-Levels, and how do they compare to GCSEs?

The short (and obvious) answer – it depends on what A-Levels you choose. In general however, every A-Level has more content that students have to learn than it’s equivalent GCSE counterpart. Furthermore, the difficulty of A-Level content is much higher than that of GCSE content. It is very important to remember that all A-Levels are not created equal – some are much harder than others.

If you are just comparing the pass rates, A-Levels, across the board, have an average pass rate of 97.6%, whereas, GCSEs have an average pass rate of 66.9%. There are many reasons for this gap between pass rates.

In this article I’ll be taking a look at the ups and downs of A-Levels compared to GCSEs. I’ll cover most of the questions surrounding this topic, and point you towards some other great articles too. So without further a do lets jump in!

How hard is A-Level content compared to GCSE content?

GCSE work can be tough at time, I’ll be the first one to admit that – but how does A-Level content compare?

First of all, it’s important to recognise that you take 3 or 4 A-Levels compared to your average 10 GCSEs. 

Even though this sounds like it should be easier, I can guarantee you it’s not. A-Levels are intended to be a step up from GCSE, and many are designed to challenge even the most capable students. 

A-Levels build on and challenge what you’ve learnt at GCSE in specific areas of learning. For example, taking an A-Level in Chemistry would build on your existing GCSE knowledge of the subject.

We know they must be hard, because A-Levels are what universities look for from students. Without A-Levels, it’ll be hard to get into that top band of education.

A-Levels take two years to complete, because of the depth of the content. Because you take so few A-Levels, the content is considerably difficult. 

A-Levels focus on very specific topics and try to maximize the difficulty. This is the opposite of GCSE, where your learning is broader and covers more subject areas with easier content. 

Not to say that GCSEs are easy, because they most certainly aren’t. Many students fail each year from very silly revision mistakes – or sometimes just from pure laziness. However, the most common mistake students make at GCSE is not knowing when the right time to start revising is.

It really does depend on what A-Levels you take, because some are harder than others. For example, A-Level Further Maths is considered to be the hardest A-Level you can take and, therefore, it is considerably harder than many others.

Some A-Levels are a bit easier, and these tend to be the ones that GCSEs are rare for. A-Levels that fit into this category are ones like Business Studies, Sociology, and Psychology.

Of course, their difficulty depends on how you are as a student, too. If you’re more of a problem solver then A-Level Further Maths will be easier, and vice versa.

If you already know what A-Levels you will be taking, I highly recommend you check out some of the other more specific versions of this article on our website, such as:

How does the workload compare between A-Levels and GCSEs?

Yeah yeah, we get it – A-Levels are hard. But, how much work do you get for your studies?

The quantity of work does not increase that much from GCSE to A-Level. In school, you do (on average) 25 hours of lessons per week. In comparison, for 3 A-Levels, you take about 13.5 hours of lessons per week (for 3 A-Levels).

This doesn’t include your independent study at A-Level, which takes up another 13 and a half hours. As it is recommended that you do the same amount of revision outside of college as you do inside of college.

This, in total, gives you an average of 27 hours of work a week (13.5 hours in-college and 13.5 hours out of college). As you can see, it’s only a couple more hours than school – if you actually do the independent study that is.

Bear in mind, that the number of hours you work outside of college is dependent on the school and college you go to. Some may have different ideas about how long you should be working for. But, it’s really down to you – no matter what school you go to.

In college, you get a lot more independent work than you do for your GCSEs. This is because you’re expected to be able to learn content on your own – sometimes even before the lesson where you will be properly covering that topic.

It makes sense if you think about it. When you get to university, the content you learn will be almost entirely your responsibility. You have to do so much independent study for A-Levels to prepare you for your life after college. Without the experience of your independent study, you’ll be stuck when it comes to university and jobs.

The difficulty of the work you’re given will affect how long it take you to complete it. Harder work will take longer to complete, whereas easier work will be a breeze.

The difficulty of the work that you are given varies massively depending on what A-Levels you have chosen. Therefore, I recommend (once again) that you check out the more specific, single-subject focused articles below:

How hard are A-Level exams compared to GCSE exams? 

GCSE exams are long and tedious, not to mention how many of them there are… So, how do A-Level exams compare?

A-Level exams are usually longer than GCSE exams, as there is more content you have to be assessed on. However, as you only study 3 A-Levels instead of around 9 GCSEs, you will have much fewer exams during the exam season at the end of Year 13.

They also tend to be harder than GCSE exams, funnily enough. A-Levels themselves are intended to be a step up from GCSE, and so are the exams.

Depending on the A-Level you take, the style of the exam questions can be different too. A-Level exam questions tend to be longer than GCSE questions, as you’re expected to be able to recall a lot more information. 

For example, at GCSE, the biggest question you would’ve got in a maths paper would have been worth 5 marks. In direct contrast, A-Level Maths questions can be worth up to 9 marks! You can read more about the specific differences between GCSE Maths exams and A-Level Maths exams over on this Think Student article.

However, it is not just the final exams you have to worry about during A-Levels. During studying at college, teachers are constantly giving you end-of-topic tests (normally at the end of each week). Not only are you expected to do well in these tests, but they normally keep a record of the grade you get in these mini-tests.

What this means, is that your progress is constantly being tracked whilst your doing your A-Levels. Meaning, as soon as your grades slip, teachers are all over you with extra work. However, at GCSE, schools have a much more relaxed attitude to your marks in end-of-topic tests – this is not the case at A-Levels. 

What are the pass rates of A-Levels compared to GCSEs?

So, we know many students take A-Levels after their GCSEs, but how many actually pass?

Quite a lot, actually. The pass rates of A-Levels are very high, and this could either be down to the students new found independence, teachers more relaxed attitude, or both.

As I have said earlier, A-Levels, across the board, have an average pass rate of 97.6%, whereas, GCSEs have an average pass rate of 66.9%. I also mentioned that where reasons for this distortion in pass rates. I will explain them now.

So, why is the pass rate for GCSEs lower than A-Levels?

Well the explanation is two-fold.

Firstly, at A-Level, every student who is doing a particular subject has chosen to be there. This is not necessarily the case at GCSE. This means that, at A-Level, students are more enthusiastic and passionate about their subject – resulting in them being more motivated to do well and get a good grade. 

Secondly, a pass at A-Level is considered to be a grade A* – E, whereas, at GCSE, a pass is considered to be a grade A* – C (or 9-4). Therefore, it is much easier to pass at A-Level than GCSE as a lower grade is considered to be a pass.. For example, if you got a D in Maths you would’ve passed at A-Level but not at GCSE.

Don’t take that as A-Levels being easy, though. A-Levels require hard work and determination to see through till the end, and are only for a select few.

Of course, the pass rate of an A-Level depends on what subject it is. An easy subject will have a high pass rate, as students find the course easier and therefore ace the exam. In contrast, a hard A-Level (like Further Maths)  will have a lower pass rate, as students struggle with the content.

It can also depend on the popularity of the course. A popular course will have a more accurate pass rate, as there are more students to contribute to the average.

Because A-Levels are so independent, it mostly depends on you as a student as to whether or not you pass. 

If you put in the work, then you’ll see some great grades at the end of college. If you don’t work hard enough, you’ll see the opposite. 

It helps if you pick A-Levels that suit you best. For example, try taking A-Levels that you’ll enjoy. If you enjoy your work, you’ll engage with it better – meaning more efficiency in your studies. 

It can also help to take A-Levels that you (most likely) will be good at. If you were good at English at GCSE Level, it might pay off to take the A-Level English courses.

It’s all about getting the right balance of what you enjoy and what you’re good at. With the right mix, you should do really well in all of your A-Levels.

How much independent study for A-Levels vs GCSEs?

The amount of work you complete for A-Levels determines how well you’ll do in your exams. But, how much of that work is really down to you?

I’ll start off by saying that many teachers will try their hardest to ensure your success in your A-Levels. They will teach you the content you need to know, and try and assist you when you’re struggling. This means that even in your independent study, you can go to them for help. Make sure that you’re not TOO independent in your studies, or you might find that it doesn’t go so well!

However, sometimes, you will get a teacher that either just doesn’t care about whether your struggling or doesn’t actually know how to help you when you are struggling. This combined with college’s more relaxed attitude towards teaching can cause your focus on a subject to really slip away.

In this sense, A-Levels require YOU to be the source of all effort towards a subject. Because sometimes, your teachers just won’t be there for you at A-Level. This means that, it is truly you who determines what grade you get in an A-Level – unlike GCSEs, where your teachers will stick with you to the very end, no matter how much you have given up.

It’s not that teachers are mean at A-Level. It’s just that they teach so many students, who do actually care about there subject, that they won’t waste their time on you if don’t show work ethic and motivation.

This is because, at GCSE, your teachers are responsible for you. However, at A-Level, you are responsible for yourself and teachers are more similar to university lectures.

As I’ve previously mentioned, you’re expected to do about 13 and a half hours of independent study every week. This is so you can keep up with the work you do in class.

If you don’t keep up with the work you do in class, you’ll struggle when it comes to your A-Level exams. You won’t understand the content you need to know, and you’ll lack the information you need to answer the questions.

It’s important to focus and get your independent study done, because your A-Level exams matter. Universities look for good A-Level results before you can be accepted!

Of course, universities look at GCSE results too, but not nearly as much as A-Level. If you want to get into the very top-band universities, then you need around the A*A*A region.

Because A-Level results are important, and independent study makes up 50% of your grade, you can see how important independent study is. 

Not only do you need A-Levels for university, you also need them for job applications, too. Good A-Level results will stand you in good stead for when you enter the working world.

How much support do you get during A-Levels compared to GCSEs?

We know independent study takes up 50% of your time for A-Levels, so what support is there to help?

Independent study can be hard, monotonous, and laborious, and so sometimes it’s important to share the load. There are lots of resources available to help you with your independent study, so don’t panic. 

The first one, that is sometimes easily forgotten, are other students. Remember, you’re all in the same boat, learning the same content. The best thing you can do at A-Level is befriend people who are better than you.

If you’re struggling, try talking to someone else who is in the same course as you. It’s likely that there’s a student who understands the topic better than you, so why not ask for help?

If that fails, try your teacher. As I’ve said before, your teachers can be a great source of information. Plus, it’s their job to help you reach success in your A-Levels. Therefore, no matter how much they might hate you – they are obligated to help you!

In reality, they are the masters of the subjects they teach. They should always be willing to help at all times.

Don’t forget to talk to other staff at the college, too. Most colleges have a welfare team, that are there specifically to make sure you get through your education. So, if you’re feeling stressed or anxious about your independent studies, try having a chat to your welfare team. They should be able to take some of the weight off of your shoulders.

You can’t always go to teacher for help with a subject for whatever the reason is, therefore, you need to use other resources by yourself. Not only can you revise from the numerous textbooks available, you can find loads of resources online. There is a huge amount of information that can help you if you start surfing the internet.

How long do A-Levels take to complete compared to GCSEs?

How Long Do A-Levels Take Compared To GCSEs

GCSEs are tough, and so are A-Levels. So, how long do you have to endure them?

GCSEs effectively run for 5 years throughout school. Well, slightly less than five if you take out that extra-long break you get when you finish them.

This is considerably longer than A-Levels take, as these exams only take 2 years. So, what’s the difference?

One major difference is the number of exams. You take a lot more GCSE exams than you do A-Level, and for good reason. 

The reason you take so many GCSEs is so you can keep an open mind about what you want to do after school. The wide range of subjects means that you keep your options open, and you can go for specific A-Levels at college. 

If you’re worried about exams, make sure to take a look at one of our other articles on the site. It has loads of helpful tips on the best time to start your revision.

A different article on things to avoid during exam season is a great help too. Check it out if you’re in need of some help with your exam techniques.

This is reflected by students only taking 3 or 4 A-Levels in college. A-Levels have a much more focused course, where you learn about the things you want to. 

Therefore, A-Levels take less time to complete than GCSEs. Their focused content and the fact that you take less exams than you would for GCSEs means that they are shorter.

However, some A-Levels may make you wait longer to complete them. If you take some hard A-Levels and don’t pass them, you may find yourself waiting another year to complete them…

Again, this depends on you as a student. If you don’t keep up with the work and don’t listen to advice, you’ll find yourself in this position.

How hard is doing 3 A-Levels compared to 4 A-Levels?

You’ve decided on A-Levels for college, but you’re just not sure how many to take.

The short answer is, 4 A-Levels are definitely a lot harder than 3! If you want a full explanation, take a look at this Think Student article. Otherwise, here are a few pointers.

First of all, the workload is significantly higher. If you thought 27 hours for 3 A-Levels per week was hard, try 36 for 4.

Not only do you have to do more work, you also have to try and balance all your A-Levels. If you take 4 A-Levels, you’ll struggle to keep all of the info you need in your head.

And I haven’t even mentioned your personal life yet. Your personal life will be hugely affected by a fourth A-Level, as you’ll get less time to socialise with friends and family. 

Taking 4 A-Levels is not recommended by either me or colleges, unless you’re the best of the best. A very small percentage of students take 4 A-Levels, and for good reason. 

It’s very easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of work of 4 A-Levels. Quite a few students who take 4 AS-Levels in the first year drop one in their second year, because of how hard it is.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to take 4 A-Levels. If you’re a hardworking student, and you think you can do it, then who am I to stop you?

4 A-Levels can be good for university. Even though they don’t like to admit it, universities will prefer a student with 4 A-Levels over a student with 3. 

This is because 4 good A-Level grades shows great motivation and integrity in a student. Another writer on this website goes into a bit more depth about that in there article, if you wanted to find out more.

How many students take A-Levels compared to BTECs?

The answer is, a lot of people. A-Levels are by far the most popular courses to take at college, if only for how many there are. BTECs tend to be for the less academically gifted students. However, they can be a great alternative to A-Levels in some situations.

Because of the wide range of A-Levels you can take, many students decide to take them over BTECs. They offer very specific content, and are great for if you already know what you want to do after college. 

A-Levels are also good for if you don’t know what you want to do after college. Because you can take 3 or 4 A-Levels, you can choose to take a wide range and keep your options open. 

Keeping your options open can also be good if you don’t want to go to university. For students who prefer to go to straight into apprenticeships or jobs after A-Levels, then this could be for you.

This is because employers will see your wide range of skills and choose you over other candidates.

If you’re wondering what else you can take at college, then you’ve come to the right place. Other courses you can take include BTECs, Diplomas, and different types of certificates. 

These other qualifications that you can get are more specified to a particular course, unlike A-Levels. You can only take one of any of the above-mentioned courses, as opposed to 3 (maybe even 4)A-Levels. Check  out this Think Student article to learn more about BTECs.

What revision materials are available for A-Levels compared to GCSE?

A-Levels are tricky, and we’ve seen what support there is for them. But what support is there for the actual content?

You’ll most likely need the support for your independent study. Whilst in lesson, you’ll be fed the information you need to know, and your teacher will be able to help if needed.

This means that the revision materials you use for your independent study must be easily accessible. This limits the amount of resources substantially.

The best revision material you can get is the notes you’ve made in class. The notes you make are written by you so you can understand them, which is very important when revising.

If you don’t understand your revision, then you won’t understand the content. If you don’t understand the content, then you won’t get many marks in the exam!

Another good revision material to use is textbooks for your course. You can usually buy them online, depending on what courses you’ve chosen to take.

If you don’t fancy spending heaps of money on textbooks, then you can probably find them in your college library. If you’re lucky enough to have a college library, use it – it’s invaluable to your studies. 

Revising from exam board approved textbooks is a great way to undertake independent studies. Because they’re approved, you know that all the content you need to know is there.

You also know that there’s nothing there you don’t need for your exams in the textbook. You don’t want your independent study to be wasted on stuff you don’t need!

And if you’re really stuck on what to use for your revision, then you can have a look online. There are loads of resources available for you to use on the web. 

How do GCSE and A-Level revision timetables compare?

We’ve taken a look at the similarities and differences of GCSE and A-Level exams, but what about the revision?

Firstly, let’s take a look at why revision is so important. If you want to succeed in both your GCSE and A-Level exams, then revision is something you’ll need to do.

Revision helps your brain to consolidate the information you’ve learnt in lesson. It’s important in GCSE, as you have to know lots of information.

It’s also important in A-Level, as you don’t spend as long in class as you do at GCSE. As I’ve already said, A-Levels are a lot more independent than GCSEs are. 

The more revision you do, the higher your chance of success – and the more likely it is you’ll get good grades. 

The recommended revision plan for GCSEs is to start around the 10th of March to the Easter Holidays. Starting during this period will hopefully leave you enough time to go over all the content you need to know.

If you’re not sure what the right GCSE revision plan is for you, make sure to check out this article. This article has all the info on revision plans, and can help if you’re not sure when to start your revision. 

For A-Level exams, the revision start date is slightly different. Because there are so many factors to take into consideration, there is no specified start date to revise.

For example, every student is different, and learns at a different pace. Because every student is different, that means lots of different A-Levels too!

Lots of different A-Levels taken by lots of different students means that it’s hard to pinpoint a good start date. I recommend seeing what works best for you – just make sure that you leave yourself enough time to cover everything.

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3 years ago

Thanks so much for this it was soooo useful
How hard is A level chemistry compared to physics?
And how hard is A level chemistry compared to maths?