Deciding what to do after GCSEs can be pretty confusing. Even if you have decided to stay in school, it can be difficult to decide which exams to take. Many students are confronted with the option of taking exams called ‘AS Levels’ without having much of an idea of what they really are. So, in this article, I will aim to explain and lay out what an AS Level is, and how it differs from an A Level, to hopefully give you a better understanding of all the options you have once you finish GCSEs, and maybe give you a few pointers as to which options will be right for you. So, what is the difference between an AS Level and an A Level?
In short, an AS Level is the first full year of an A Level. This means it only takes 1 school year to complete the course, while an A Level takes 2 years. Naturally, A Levels are more time consuming and will require twice the amount of work, but they are also worth double the UCAS points in comparison to AS Levels. A-Levels are worth up to 56 UCAS points, whereas, AS Levels are worth up to 20 UCAS points.
Although you may now have the short answer, I recommend reading the rest of the article to give you some more details, as well as helping you decide whether an AS Level might be the right option for you.
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What are AS Levels Compared to A-Levels?
So, what exactly are AS Levels? As mentioned earlier, an AS Level is half an A Level, or the first year of a full A Level qualification. A Levels are split into two years, the AS Year (year 1) and the A2 Year (year 2). When you take an AS Level, you will take an exam at the end of the first year, or multiple exams depending on the subject, and this will determine your grade, the same as A Levels. However, since reforms in 2015, the AS Level grade you get cannot be banked as part of your final A Level grade, but instead is a separate qualification. This means that you only study the first year of the full A Level course, but it is a completely separate qualification. This results in you getting an AS Level, which is worth around half an A Level, for doing half the content.
What this means is that pupils can gain a qualification in a fourth subject even if they don’t want to do a whole extra A Level, or study it for two whole years. An AS Level is 180 hours of teaching, while the full A Level is 360 hours. Unlike A Levels, you cannot achieve an A* at AS Level, and an A is the top grade you can achieve. While an AS Level is half the content of an A Level, it is worth less than half the UCAS points. An A grade at AS Level is worth 20 UCAS points, while an A at A Level is worth 48. Basically, an AS Level is nearly half an A Level, where you only take the first year of the course, and get around half the UCAS points.
What Does Taking an AS Level Entail?
Having established what an AS Level is, you will probably want to know what you will actually go through if you choose to take one after GCSEs. As already said, an AS Level is half an A Level, and tests the first year of the full A Level course. What this means is for the first year of college of sixth form, you will essentially follow the timetable of someone taking 4 A Levels. This means less free periods and more time in class, as well as more work to do when you have free periods and when you’re at home. However, at the end of the first year, you will take your exams.
Now, it is worth remembering that generally, you will take some exams in all your subjects at the end of year 12, where the grades will be used for predicted grades, and potentially university applications (this is different whichever school or college you go to).
Having said that, please remember the exams you take for your AS Level at the end of first year or sixth form will be the final exams in that subject. They decide your final grade, and you need to take them seriously. This is another key difference when you study an AS Level to an A Level. You will begin revising and preparing for the exams in the final term of the first year.
This can mean multiple things. One, it can take time away from A Level studies, and you need to balance your time properly in this scenario. On the other hand, it gives you great practice for the next year in terms of preparing for exams.
With A Levels, you will probably get study leave, which is a time when you don’t have to go into school, and you don’t have lessons. This allows you to devote all of your time to revision, similar to what you probably had before GCSEs. However, you won’t get this luxury for your AS Level, and you will need to know how to balance your time. On the other hand, having the subject out of the way in Year 12 means that your A Level subjects get more focus in year 13, and it is a real motivator if you do revise and work hard for your AS Levels, as it shows you that you are able to do the same for your A Levels.
Is it Worth Taking an AS Level or an A-Level?
So now you know what an AS Level is, is it worth taking one? Well, like all choices you have to make when deciding what to do after GCSEs, it is really up to personal preference, and everybody will be different.
What is always worth remembering when making any choice about post GCSE life is that you need to do what you think will work for you, not just copy your friends or follow the majority. Firstly, it’s worth checking if your school or college actually offers them, as they are not legally obliged to, and some don’t. If you can’t do one, that certainly makes the choice a lot easier!
However, if your school or college does allow you to take an AS Level, it’s worth having a think about the pros and cons of taking one, and if it’s the right option for you. The first thing to make clear is that your AS Level does matter.
Following the recent government shake up in 2015, when they made the AS Level separate to the A Level, some people have been saying AS Levels are pointless, and the whole thing is a waste of time This is simply not true, and I would implore you to block out these criticisms. AS Levels are still important and valuable.
Firstly, they are still worth 40% of a full A Level in terms of UCAS points. This means if you want a qualification in a subject, but it’s your 4th choice and you don’t really want to take 4 full A Levels, an AS Level could be the perfect option for you.
Also, universities see the AS Levels when you apply to them. Now, a uni will not base their decision on whether or not you have an AS Level, as they are aware that not all schools offer them, but if you do have a high grade in an AS Level, this will without a doubt help you in the application process.
Don’t forget, applying to uni can be competitive, and any edge you can get will be useful. In the absence of an AS Level, the main grades the uni will look at, (aside from predicted grades) will be GCSEs, as they were your last formal assessment, so if you didn’t do quite as well in your GCSEs as you wanted, maybe that’s another reason to consider taking an AS.
So, there is definitely a point to taking AS Levels. Whether they are right for you specifically is another question. Maybe you want to take 4 full A Levels, which may mean you don’t have time for an AS Level. Maybe you simply don’t have a subject you want to take an AS Level in. This is all fine, and it won’t hurt you in any way not having an AS Level, but you can gain certain benefits if you do have one. So, if an AS Level makes sense for you, and is something you want to pursue, it is definitely worth taking one.
How Much Harder Are A Levels Compared to AS Levels?
So, we know an AS Level is the first year of an A Level. Naturally, this means that an A Level is a harder qualification, as it requires twice the amount of work. However, as we also know, it is worth more than double what an AS Level is worth. So, you need to be able to weigh up how important a subject is to you, and whether you are willing to devote twice as much of your time to that subject.
To make this decision, you need to know how difficult A Levels really are compared to AS Levels. Because in reality, to simply say they are twice as hard is often untrue, or at least simplifying the issue.
The second year of an A Level course is generally (though not always) harder than the first, as there is more to learn, and it covers more complicated content. This means that when doing an AS Level, you will not only have half the work, but the likelihood is it will also be the easier half of the course.
Maths, for example, is one of the most common A Levels, but I also know lots of people who wanted a qualification in maths, but weren’t willing to commit to the full, 2 year course, and a large part of this was because of the increased difficulty of the course in the second year. Another point to bear in mind is that with A Levels, you have 2 full years of content to revise come the end of the course.
AS Levels are much more manageable when it comes to revision, as there is only one year of content, and it’s the year you’ve just done. Also, when it comes to the debate of 4 full A Levels or 3 and an AS Level, that extra A Level will take away time from the other 3 when it comes to revision, while an AS Level will already have been completed at that time, which is another factor that adds to the difficulty of A Levels rather than AS Levels.
A Levels are difficult, but they are manageable with hard work, so don’t be scared to take A Levels in the subjects that are most important to you. However, when it comes to a 4th subject, or one you’re happy to just have a qualification in, and isn’t an urgent priority for you, it may be worth saving yourself some time and a lot of hard work and taking an AS Level instead.
Why Are AS Levels Becoming Less Popular Than A-Levels?
In 2016, over 270,000 students took at least one AS Level qualification. In 2020, that number had dropped very drastically to 27,100 students.
There is no obvious answer as to why this has happened. Nothing has drastically changed since the 2015 reforms in terms of the layout of AS Levels. However, numbers have dropped at a remarkable rate regardless. Perhaps, after the reforms, the new AS qualification seemed new and exciting, but now the excitement has worn off, and people aren’t as bothered about taking it.
Either way, the point that I feel needs to be made to any students reading this and wondering why many other students don’t seem to want to take AS Levels anymore, is not to be put off by that. As far as I can tell, there is no real or logical reason as to why the decline in numbers has occurred, aside from what I mentioned above, and therefore, there is no reason for you to panic about taking an AS Level. They still offer you the same rewards as they ever have done.
When entering this next stage of your life, it is imperative not to simply follow the path of others simply because you don’t want to be ‘left out’ or different. You need to do what’s right for you, and if an AS Level is what you want to do, then you need to do it, no matter how many others around the country, or in your school, follow the same path. AS Levels may have decreased in popularity, but that does not in any way mean they have decreased in value or importance.
If you feel there was anything in this article that I didn’t cover, please make sure to find out the answers to your questions before going into the next stage of your life. Ask your school or college, or do some more research. I hope this article gave you a better understanding about what the differences are between AS and A Levels, and whether an AS Level could be the right option for you.
What Options Do You Have, Other Than AS Levels and A-Levels?
All I’ve discussed in this article has been A Levels and AS Levels, but many students may be wondering if they are the only options to consider when thinking about post-GCSEs. To make it clear, they are not.
While AS Levels and A Levels do have differences, they are generally quite similar, obviously, as an AS Level is taken from an A Level course. Therefore, if neither of these qualifications are right for you, you’ll need to take a look into some of the other types of qualifications you can do after GCSEs.
There are plenty of other options to consider that are totally separate from AS and A Levels when it comes to academic study, or even doing something more practical. Other options include BTECs, which offer more practical skills than A and AS Levels, as do apprenticeships, which offer you the chance to head straight into the workplace of your choice, and gain some experience. There are also IB Diplomas, and a whole host of other options, and I would highly recommend you read some of the other articles on the site that talk about them before you make your final decision.
Hopefully this article has helped with making you more aware of the differences between A Levels and AS Levels, and which is right for you in certain situations, but please be aware of all your options before you make your final choices about what to do after GCSEs.