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Transitioning from GCSEs to A-Levels


A-levels remain a popular post-16 choice for young people, and more than 250,000 sit them in England, Wales and Northern Ireland annually (BBC News). They are popular as they lay the foundation for higher education and beyond, and students get to study the subjects interesting to them in greater depth.

Moving from GCSEs to A-levels is a significant shift in a student’s educational journey, marked by increased complexity and independent learning. Some young people may find the leap from GCSE to A-level challenging. Therefore, knowing what to expect can help with an easier transition and hopefully help students feel less nervous and overwhelmed.

This blog post aims to provide valuable insights and guidance on transitioning from GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) to A-level (Advanced Level). It will hopefully help students prepare for this transition by offering information, tips, and strategies for a successful shift to A-level studies.

Transitioning from GCSEs to A-Levels

Understanding the Difference Between GCSEs and A-Levels

There are significant differences between GCSEs and A-levels regarding the number and choices of subjects available to students, the difficulty, the content and depth of study, teaching, and assignments and exams. Let us look at this in further detail.

Subject number and choice

The number of subjects taken will differ between GCSEs and A-levels, for example:

  • GCSEs – the average student will take nine GCSE subjects, with three core (English, maths and science), foundation and optional subjects.
  • A-levels – the average student will take three A-level subjects, which they will choose in the autumn term of year 11. There are no compulsory subjects, and they can pick all three, which will take two years to complete.

Students can choose to do more than three A-levels if they wish. They can also start with AS levels, which are one-year courses. They can then continue their AS subject to A2 to gain the full A-level qualification.

Difficulty, content and depth of study

A-levels are tougher than GCSEs, as they are advanced level 3 qualifications that prepare young people for higher education and their future careers. They require an increased level of:

  • Critical thinking.
  • Analysis.
  • Independent learning.
  • Research.

The content is more complex, and the assignments and exams are harder. GCSE subjects cover broader topics, whereas A-levels will look at them in-depth and require students to have a deeper understanding of topics.

Many A-level students have said it is an enormous jump from GCSE level. Knowing what to expect and being prepared can help young people transition smoothly. BBC Bitesize has a short film where coaches talk about their experience of taking A-levels here.


Students will be taught differently at A-level than in their GCSEs, as teachers/lecturers will cover course content and assessment objectives. However, they will expect students to do more independent learning.

At A-level, students will have less time in a classroom environment and more free study periods, which they will need to use wisely to increase their chances of success.

Assessments and exams

Students sit examinations at the end of the final year for GCSEs and A-levels. Some subjects, e.g. art and design, will also have coursework assessments. However, the grading is different between the two, for example:

  • GCSEs – number grading system, 9 (highest) – 1 (lowest).
  • A-levels – letter grading system, A* (highest) – E (lowest).

Although both qualifications have examinations between May and June, there are also differences between the number of exams and duration:

  • GCSE exams
  • Typically lasts for about four weeks.
  • Each exam lasts between 1½ and 1¾ hours.
  • Pupils have exams for each GCSE subject, which may include two to three exam papers.
  • A-level exams
  • Typically lasts for about six weeks.
  • Each exam usually lasts between 2 and 3 hours.
  • Students will have around three exams for each A-level subject.

The A-level assessments students will face will depend on the subjects they undertake and the exam board requirements.

Transitioning from GCSEs to A-Levels

Selecting the Right A-Level Subjects

Young people should align their A-level choices with their future plans, as it will impact their options for higher education and careers.

Most teens will start to think about what A-levels they want to do in year 11 of school and even earlier in some cases. There are over 40 A-level subjects, and they should consider the following when deciding which ones they will take:

  • Academic interests – students are more likely to be motivated and engaged in their A-level studies if they are actually interested in what they are studying. To identify their academic interests, they should consider:
  • What subjects did they enjoy studying during their GCSEs?
  • Which subjects did they do well in?
  • What non-academic interests do they have, what are they passionate about, and are there A-level subjects relating to these?
  • University aspirations – they should ask themselves whether they want to go to university and if so:
  • Do they want to do a foundation degree, Bachelor’s or diploma?
  • Which university do they wish to apply to, and what are their entry requirements?
  • What would they want to study?
  • Would the course align with their career goals?
  • Does the university have a list of non-preferred or preferred subjects, and what are they?
  • Career goals – do they have an idea of the career they would like or sector to work in? For example, to be a vet, they will require a veterinary science degree, which usually stipulates three A-levels in scientific subjects, such as biology, chemistry and physics.

It can be easier for young people to choose their A-levels if they know which career path they want to take. However, many do not know what they want to do post-16, which is normal. If young people are unsure of which A-levels they want to do, it may be advisable to choose ‘facilitating subjects’, which can open up more degree opportunities. These subjects are:

  • Biology.
  • Chemistry.
  • English Literature.
  • Geography.
  • History.
  • Maths and Further Maths.
  • Modern and Classical Languages.
  • Physics.

It is a big decision to make, and there is plenty of support out there to help young people decide on the A-level subjects to take, for example:

  • University admissions departments – can advise on the A-levels and grades needed for specific degree courses.
  • School careers advisors – can provide information, guidance and advice to assist young people in making realistic decisions regarding their A-levels.
  • Parents and guardians – may be able to advise and guide their teens about their interests and the A-level subjects that align with them.
  • Careers help lines – the National Careers Service has a careers helpline specifically for teenagers, and the information is here.
  • Informed Choices – a website that can help young people decide on the subjects to study post-16.

Young people could also look at books and online resources containing A-level syllabuses and content to see if anything sparks interest.

Transitioning from GCSEs to A-Levels

Preparing for Increased Independence

One thing students must be prepared for when embarking on their A-level journey is increased independent learning, also known as student-centred learning or self-directed study, but what does it mean? Independent learning is:

“A method or learning process where learners have ownership and control of their learning – they learn by their own actions and direct, regulate, and assess their own learning (Livingstone, K. 2012).”

Independent learning requires students to:

  • Set their own goals – A-level students have more freedom to choose their goals (within the limits of the course requirements). They will have assignments they will need to submit and exams to prepare for, but how they decide to achieve the learning outcomes will be their decision.
  • Choose how they will meet their own learning needs – every student studies and learns differently. At A-level, students are more autonomous and decide how/what/where/when they learn in line with their needs.
  • Carry out self-study – there are classes to attend at A-level, but students will also have free study periods, and teachers/lecturers will expect them to research and study during these periods and at home. Most A-level students will have to study for 14-16 hours per week outside the classroom, as a minimum.
  • Manage their own time – there is a significant amount of complex content to work through, assignments to complete and exams to prepare for. A-level students must manage their own workload to complete the tasks set and meet the required deadlines.

Independent learning does not mean students are left to study alone. There is plenty of support at school or college, and they can work with other students and in groups. They can also ask for further help from teachers/lecturers if they are having difficulties with their studies.

Independent learning helps students become active learners and develop vital skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, creativity, time management, organisation, etc., needed for university and other higher education courses and careers. Higher education providers and employers look favourably at those who can work independently with minimal supervision.

Transitioning from GCSEs to A-Levels

Study Techniques and Time Management

Time management is perhaps the single most important and challenging skill to develop as a student (The University of Sheffield). It is about using and controlling the time available, setting realistic targets and studying effectively to achieve goals.

At A-level, teachers/lecturers will not be hounding students to get work done or telling them exactly what they need to do. Therefore, they must learn to plan, manage and meet their own time to succeed in these higher qualifications.

Each student will have different ways of working and various methods for managing their time, but here are some tips and strategies that may help:

  • Have a home study space – students should have an appropriate home space, i.e. a room or an area within a room, to study. It should be somewhere with minimal distractions and have all the resources needed. It should be comfortable to enhance focus and concentration.
  • Plan tasks – students must look at what tasks they have and write them down to plan their workload and manage their time. They could put them on a to-do list or use a study plan or calendar. Planning is essential; as Benjamin Franklin once famously said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.
  • Prioritise workload – once students have planned their tasks, they will need to prioritise them in order of importance, i.e. task value, deadline and consequences of incompletion. They could list their tasks, put the priority ones at the top and tick them off once complete. They could also use an Eisenhower matrix.
  • Schedule time – students should allocate and commit time within a day or week to the tasks they have identified and their importance. They should have a start and end time for each day so they can have some downtime away from their studies to relax. They can use calendars, planners, diaries and spreadsheets.
  • Be SMART with goals – students should set Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely (SMART) goals and start with short-term and smaller goals, e.g. ‘write 400 words of the introduction for the assignment by 4 pm today’. It is better than larger ambiguous goals, such as ‘complete my maths assignment today’.
  • Establish a daily or weekly routine – having a consistent routine and sticking to it can keep students on track with their studies and help them work towards achieving their goals. Routines reduce stress and improve focus, productivity and well-being.
  • Factor in regular breaks and leisure time – students must include frequent breaks and leisure time when planning and scheduling their workload. Not only is this essential for good time management, it is also crucial for their academic performance, health and well-being.
  • Do not procrastinate – putting off tasks and getting distracted with other things will not help and can put added pressure and stress on students. Turning off TVs and mobile phones can minimise distractions and help them stay focused.
  • Be flexible – even with the best intentions, things do not always go according to plan, and unexpected events will crop up that affect a student’s schedule. Remember that schedules are not rigid and can be adjusted when needed.
  • Use time management tools – various tools can help students manage their time effectively, prioritise their work and meet deadlines. Some examples of tools include:
  • Revision timetables.
  • Student planners, e.g. Gantt Chart.
  • Calendars, e.g. Calendarpedia (UK Edition).
  • To-do-lists.
  • Apps, e.g. time tracker.
  • The Pomodoro Technique.
  • Action Priority Matrices.
  • Task breakdown.
  • Interruptions logs.
Transitioning from GCSEs to A-Levels

Importance of Organisational Skills

Organisational skills relate to time management, and some of the points covered in the previous section will also apply here. Organisational skills mean using available resources to effectively and efficiently complete tasks and achieve goals.

An Organised Student

  • Has a clean and tidy study space.
  • Knows where things are in their study space and on their computers.
  • Is punctual for their classes/lectures.
  • Plans, prioritises and schedules their daily and weekly workload.
  • Creates work that is neat and detailed.
  • Submits work before deadlines.
  • Has downtime at the end of the day and sufficient leisure time.
  • Is less stressed and anxious.

A Disorganised Student

  • Has a cluttered study space.
  • Cannot find things during their studies.
  • Finds it difficult to start or complete tasks.
  • Is late for classes/lectures.
  • Leaves work until the last minute and rushes to get it done.
  • Misses deadlines.
  • Procrastinates.
  • Has too much or too little downtime and leisure time.
  • Seems stressed, anxious and depressed.

Organisational skills are highly sought after and can help young people excel in their education, careers and overall lives. When it comes to A-level study, assignments and revision, these skills can help students to:

  • Manage their time effectively and prioritise their tasks so they can get higher quality work done in less time.
  • Handle multiple A-level subjects and study them alongside one another, i.e. multitasking.
  • Adhere to plans and schedules and meet assignment deadlines.
  • Feel more prepared when it comes to exam time.
  • Meet learning outcomes, get better grades and improve academic performance.

Here is some practical advice on how students can organise their notes, assignments and exams:


  • Find a suitable note-taking method, e.g. paper, card or electronic.
  • Do not try to write everything down in class; focus on what is said and note the important concepts.
  • Write down sources of information to help with referencing and to avoid plagiarism.
  • Add dates and topics to each note.
  • Ensure they are clear and legible.
  • Understand abbreviations if using them.
  • Highlight any points that need clarification with the teacher/lecturer.
  • Consolidate notes to identify any gaps in knowledge that need attention.
  • Store notes so they are easily accessible.
  • The Open University has some good note-taking techniques here.


  • Understand what the assignment requires. If there are any doubts, ask for clarification.
  • Plan the assignment and create a schedule.
  • Start well before the deadline to prepare, write and review the assignment.
  • Have a start date and date of completion to keep on track.
  • Break down assignments into smaller tasks to make them more manageable.
  • Even though it is aimed towards University students, Sheffield Hallam University has a helpful guide for planning and structuring assignments here.


  • Identify revision goals and set achievable targets.
  • Create a revision timetable, which includes breaks and time off.
  • Start revising early and try not to cram towards the end.
  • Use revision tools and apps to help in organising revision notes.
  • Use past exam papers and marking schemes to know what to expect during exam time and where other students made mistakes.
  • Plan exam days to know where to go and what to bring.
  • Nidirect has some further tips on revision here.
Transitioning from GCSEs to A-Levels

Building Critical Thinking and Research Skills

Critical thinking and research are two additional skills that students will develop during their A-levels. Critical thinking is:

“The art of making clear, reasoned judgements based on interpreting, understanding, applying and synthesising evidence gathered from observation, reading and experimentation” (Burns, T. & Sinfield, S. 2016).

Research skills enable students to find information and use it effectively. It also involves gathering facts and researching conclusions to answer questions (University of Southampton Library).

A-levels require students to develop critical thinking and research skills to prepare them for higher education and their careers and help them make sense of the world as they approach adulthood. A-levels help them develop these skills as they will:

  • Explore topics more in-depth than their GCSEs and learn to be inquisitive.
  • Undertake assignments requiring them to look things up, research, and find information not covered in lessons.
  • Have questions that require them to analyse and evaluate subject content and put forward reasoned arguments and conclusions to support their answers or thinking. It enables them to learn how to think and not what to think.
  • Solve problems logically and help them to be more confident, responsible and independent.

To enhance critical thinking and research skills, students can use various resources and approaches, such as (this list is not exhaustive):

Critical thinking

  • De Bono’s Thinking Hats – is a model and technique that can help students think critically and problem-solve. Further information on this is on BBC Bitesize.
  • Question Grid/Matrix – helps students develop their questioning skills and understand how to ask various higher-level questions.
  • Big Questions Little Questions – is a resource put together by the University of Oxford for the Study Higher partnership that has worksheets, quizzes, and other fun stuff to help A-level students develop critical-thinking skills.
  • Critical thinking podcasts and webinars – many universities have podcasts and webinars on critical thinking. There are also examples on Google Podcasts and YouTube.
  • Critical thinking workshops – some universities may offer workshops on critical thinking for key stage 5 students.
  • Critical thinking short courses – numerous short introductory online courses on critical thinking can help students understand and improve these skills.


  • The Internet – there is so much information on the web that students can use to develop their research skills, but they must ensure they look at credible sources as there is a lot of inaccuracy.
  • Google Scholar – free access to scholarly literature to help students conduct academic research.
  • Google Books – provides free access to full-text books.
  • The National Archives – provides online newspaper collections that students can access.
  • Libraries – schools, colleges and public libraries have books, journals, archives and online resources to help students hone their research skills.
  • Research skills workshops – there may be in-person or online workshops. Some universities may offer workshops for key stage 5 students.
  • Volunteering – some voluntary organisations may need help on research projects. There is information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-it, NCVO, Volunteering Matters and Indeed.
Transitioning from GCSEs to A-Levels

Balancing Academic and Personal Life

Studying for A-levels can be stressful for young people, especially when meeting deadlines and preparing for exams. They must maintain a balanced lifestyle, which includes regular breaks, leisure activities and self-care, for the following reasons:

  • It reduces stress levels and anxiety.
  • It increases motivation and productivity.
  • It enhances mood and increases energy to enjoy free time.
  • It helps young people learn time management and self-discipline.
  • It facilitates concentration and helps with memory and information retention.
  • It can have physical benefits, e.g. lower cortisol and blood pressure levels.
  • It can lead to better academic performance and grades.

Stress is “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation” (World Health Organisation). When young people feel stressed, they struggle to cope with the pressure and demands, which can have physical, mental, emotional and behavioural effects.

Stress is not always a bad thing. In small amounts, it can motivate young people to work hard and succeed. However, prolonged stress can result in reduced academic performance and lead to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.

Not having regular breaks, leisure time and self-care can cause stress and lead to burnout, i.e. a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by long-term stress (Mental Health UK). Here are some strategies A-level students could adopt to manage stress and avoid burnout:

  • Understand the causes of stress (triggers), recognise the signs and symptoms, take control and change their circumstances if possible, e.g., if they are struggling with assignments and feel stressed, then starting them earlier may help.
  • Find ways to relieve stress if they cannot change their circumstances, e.g.:
  • Try relaxation techniques, e.g. mindfulness/meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and breathing exercises.
  • Spend time outside in nature, e.g. forest bathing.
  • Do some Yoga, pilates or gentle stretching.
  • Spend time around animals, especially with pets.
  • Try self-help techniques, e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
  • Think positively and have gratitude.
  • Plan, e.g. create a study timetable, schedule or to-do list to help balance studying and leisure activities.
  • Talk to a trusted person, such as a family member, friend, teacher/lecturer or school/college counsellor.
  • Break down tasks to make them manageable, which will be far less daunting and overwhelming to take tasks a step at a time rather than trying to go through the whole thing.
  • Try to have a healthy lifestyle, e.g.:
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids, especially water.
  • Get plenty of exercise, e.g. jogging, cycling, walking and sports.
  • Relax before bedtime by not studying, watching television or looking at mobile phones for at least 30 minutes.
  • Get plenty of sleep, i.e. between 8-10 hours a night.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs and reduce caffeine intake.
  • Practice self-care, i.e. young people looking after their own bodies and minds. Tips are on YoungMinds, NHS Self-Help Tips and NHS Every Mind Matters.
  • Do enjoyable things and try new ones, e.g.:
  • Have days off from studying to enjoy other aspects of life, e.g. go out with friends or family.
  • Start a new creative hobby, e.g. drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, etc.
  • Try journaling, i.e. writing down feelings and thoughts.
  • Play video games, online games or board games.
Transitioning from GCSEs to A-Levels

Seeking Support When Needed

Even though A-levels require students to learn more independently, it does not mean struggling with the work alone. Most students will need some assistance at some point regardless of their abilities, the subjects they study and where they are in their studies. Therefore, young people should never feel embarrassed or worried to ask for help and support.

Students should always seek help and support when they need clarification on assignments or coursework or face other challenges and barriers to learning. Not only will this help with their learning and academic performance, but it also helps them develop vital communication skills.

Many people can help and support students who are having difficulties, for example:

  • Teachers/lecturers – are invested in their student’s learning and will want to ensure they obtain the best grades possible. They may be able to point students in the right direction, provide clarification where needed and signpost to other support services if they cannot assist.
  • Personal tutors – help to identify academic problems and assess the situation to decide on the best course of action to support students in their learning. Some private tutors can help students with subject content, exam preparation/revision and skill development.
  • School/college counsellors – most schools and colleges have counsellors who can help students find solutions to their challenges. They can also provide talking therapies, such as counselling, to provide a safe and confidential space for students to talk about their problems.
  • Parents/guardians – students may be able to seek help and support from their parents and guardians. They may help by giving a second opinion about assignments or revision and can work together with their teens on the best way forward.
  • Other students – others may be struggling with assignments, coursework and revision, so working with other students and looking at problems together can help solve them. There are also online forums, such as the Student Room, where students can obtain advice and guidance and talk to other students.
Transitioning from GCSEs to A-Levels

Preparing for University and Career Pathways

Young people’s choice of A-levels will impact their future university and career opportunities. Universities have specific entry requirements, i.e. certain A-level subjects and grades or equivalent qualifications. For example, for a degree in nursing, students will typically require an A-level in biology and other science subjects. Some careers, such as doctors, will require students to complete a specific path from A-level to degree and then medical school.

Young people should start to explore their potential career pathways during their A-level studies if they have not considered them earlier. Here are some ways they can do this:

If they know what career they want, they should:

  • Choose a degree or other qualification for that specific career. CPD Online College has Career Guides that detail the qualifications and experience needed for various job roles.
  • Check entry requirements on UCAS or contact University Admissions.
  • Look at what skills and experience are also needed, and if they have any gaps, consider volunteering or getting a paid job to develop these areas.

If they do not know what career they want, they should:

  • Decide whether they want to go into higher education, start work or work and learn, e.g. an apprenticeship or internship. There are also options to study for a degree and work part-time.
  • Think about their interests and if they relate to specific careers, i.e. if they want to help children learn and develop, they could consider teaching and education courses.
  • Research jobs and career pathways to see if a particular sector is of interest, i.e. do they want to work in the private, public or charitable sector?
  • Browse Career Guides and job profiles to see if any roles stand out. There may also be some less obvious jobs.
  • Consider what skills they have and how these relate to various jobs. The National Careers Service has a skills assessment here, which can help young people to see what careers may be suitable.
  • Identify the subjects they enjoy studying the most and see if higher education courses are available in these areas.
  • Consider how they coped with A-level assignments and exams. A coursework-based qualification, such as an NVQ, may be better if they do not like exams and are better at assignments.
  • Arrange to see a career advisor or expert if they are still unsure about their career path.

The most important thing for young people to consider when exploring potential career pathways is whether they can see themselves enjoying that job every day and if it aligns with their values. Salary should not be the only consideration when looking at future career options.

Transitioning from GCSEs to A-Levels

Embracing the Journey

Even though the leap from GCSEs to A-levels is significant, and some students may be nervous and worried about this next phase of their academic journey, they should consider it a new and exciting chapter in their education. A-levels are an important bridge between higher education and can help them develop essential life skills to help them succeed academically and professionally.

On embarking on their A-levels, it is essential for students to stay motivated and passionate about their chosen subjects. They should first select subjects they are interested in. They are less likely to remain engaged and will find it more difficult to study a subject that they find boring. Students should perform better in their A-levels if their courses are interesting and inspiring.

To truly embrace their A-level journey, young people should:

  • Believe in themselves and what they can achieve.
  • Listen to themselves and their own needs and not others.
  • Stay positive and try not to focus on the negative.
  • Understand they are harder qualifications, and there will be challenges
  • Focus on smaller goals and progress steps.
  • Celebrate the small wins, not just the big ones.
  • Learn lessons if things do not go according to plan.
  • Not be afraid to reassess goals.

It is important to remember that A-levels are only a part of the journey and not the be-all and end-all. While it is understandable young people want to do well academically, it is not the end of the world if they do not do as well as expected or have to adjust their education and career plans. As Jeremy Clarkson reminds students every year on social media, “If you didn’t get the right A-level results, don’t worry. I got a C and 2 U’s…”.

Young people should always aim high but remain realistic to avoid disappointment.

Transitioning from GCSEs to A-Levels


The transition from GCSE to A-level can be difficult. A-level content and concepts are more complex, there is more to learn, even with fewer subjects, and students will learn more independently. They can make the transition easier by being prepared and knowing what to expect with these higher qualifications.

Students should choose the correct A-level subjects to match higher education and future career aspirations. Undertaking A-levels that will inspire young people will help them to develop vital skills, such as communication, critical thinking, research, organisational and time management. These skills will support them in their transition from A-level to degree and beyond.

Students should confidently embrace the transition to A-levels, bearing in mind that if they get onto these qualifications, they can do well in further and higher education. There is plenty of help and support, so they do not have to undertake this journey alone. They must also remember to look after and be kind to themselves to remain focused, motivated and engaged to succeed in their A-levels.

A-levels will open many doors for young people, and there are numerous opportunities for growth, exploration, and achievement for those who want to do well. Our A-level knowledge hub has further information on A-levels that can help students navigate this important chapter in their lives.

Please share experiences, questions, or additional tips related to transitioning from GCSEs to A-levels in the comments section. Readers can also use this space to foster a supportive and informative community of students, parents, and educators.

Transitioning from GCSEs to A-Levels
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