The transition from GCSEs to A Levels is an exciting time that will present both new opportunities and challenges.

Life in sixth form/college is very different from school. You will grow intellectually and emotionally, develop new ways of thinking and learning, cultivate novel and existing interests, and gain a new sense of independence. It may initially feel quite daunting and overwhelming, and it can be difficult to navigate this new chapter of your life.

As a student who has successfully survived sixth form, here’s 10 things I wish I’d known before starting.

1.  You may initially receive lower grades

The transition from GCSEs to A Levels can be challenging. Courses generally have a settling-in period, so you won’t be thrown in at the deep end. However, the shift in course difficulty, workload, and responsibility is significant, nonetheless.

You might therefore find that at first you aren’t achieving your usual grades − but don’t worry! You won’t be the only one and your teachers will understand that A Levels can take some adjusting to. Trust me, although initially challenging, your hard work will be rewarded, and you will soon settle into the new regime.

2.  Be prepared for more independent study

A Levels place a much greater emphasis on independent study. In KS4, you typically spend around 25 hours per week in lessons. In comparison, if you take three A Levels, you’ll have around 13.5 hours of contact time with your teachers each week. You’re then expected to spend roughly the same amount of time studying independently.

Your learning during this time will be mostly self-directed. You won’t be restricted to specific activities and can take control of your own learning; for example, focusing on the topics you find most challenging.

Independent study should take place continuously throughout your two years at sixth form/college and shouldn’t be restricted to the run up to exams. You’ll be responsible for managing your time and establishing your priorities. You won’t be able to rely on your teacher’s nagging or reminders!

Independent study might include:

  • Preparing for upcoming lessons by reading ahead
  • Reviewing the content taught in previous lessons
  • Reading around your subject e.g. reading books and articles, listening to podcasts, and watching documentaries
  • Revising and improving previously assessed work
A male sixth form student independently studying at home.

Even in your independent study, remember to ask your teacher for help if you’re struggling.

Learning how to study independently is very important, particularly if you’re planning to attend university, where students are expected to undertake significantly more self-directed learning. Figuring out what works best for you now will certainly ease the transition to higher education.

3. Make the most of your free periods

One of the best parts of sixth form/college is not having a jam-packed timetable. You will generally have ‘free periods’ between some of your lessons each day. Your free periods are the perfect time to catch up on some homework, do some extra reading, get help from your teachers, or even begin researching your options for after sixth form/college.

A few hours a week may not seem like much, but over time, they add up. Try not to fall into the trap of wasting free periods by chatting and messing around with your friends in the common room. Yes, it can be good to take a short break, but free periods should (for the most part) be classed as ‘independent study time’ rather than time for socialising with friends.

If you’re easily distracted, be proactive and find yourself a quiet and secluded study spot − perhaps your sixth form/college library or an empty classroom − where you won’t be disturbed.

4. Start as you mean to go on

The start of sixth form/college is the perfect time to establish good study habits and routines. It’s very easy for work to pile up rapidly, so ensure that you keep on top of class notes and deadlines from the very beginning − Future You will thank you later!

Another good piece of advice is to revise as you go along. Rather than leaving revision until the end of the term or a few weeks before mock exams, make revision resources, such as notes and flashcards, after each lesson or topic. Test your knowledge and recall frequently. Doing small chunks of revision regularly will help to consolidate your learning, and will significantly reduce your revision workload by the time exams come around.

Three female sixth form students working during their free period.

5. Organisation is key

Organisation of your class notes, revision resources, and assessments is crucial to your success in sixth form/college and essential for effective exam preparation. At the end of Year 13, all of the content covered over the last two years will be examinable. Just before exams, the last thing you’ll want to do is spend hours searching for notes you made in the first term of Year 12.

Organisation may come easily to some students more than others, but it’s a skill that is vital for all students to master, especially those considering higher education.

There are plenty of small things you can do to stay organised and ensure that work doesn’t get misplaced:

  • Maintain separate subject and day folders; subject folders remain at home and contain the bulk of your notes, whilst a day folder is used to carry the work necessary for lessons that day.
  • Take photographs of or scan your notes and upload them to a computer, tablet, or online storage drive. This will ensure you have a back-up of your work and can be useful to enable revision on the go!
  • Use a physical day planner or a planner app to keep on top of your homework tasks and revision. For example, Notion is a great workspace planner that can be used to organise your schedule, tasks, and notes − their Personal Pro plan is free for students with a school email address!
  • Keep a copy of your timetable in your day folder, daily planner, and on your phone.
  • Colour code your subject folders, notes, and revision resources.
  • Pack your bag the night before school to ensure that you don’t forget anything during the morning rush!

6. It’s okay to switch or drop subjects

In the first few weeks of sixth form, don’t be afraid to request a change of subject if you know an A Level is not right for you.

Likewise, if you’re taking more than three A Levels and feel that you have bitten off more than you can chew, don’t hesitate to discuss your concerns with a member of staff. Universities only require three A Levels when making offers, and it’s better to do extremely well in three A Levels than average in four.

A Levels are studied across two years so it’s best to identify problems early on, rather than struggle and potentially end up with lower grades overall as a result.

Of course, whether or not you are allowed to switch or drop subjects will be at the discretion of your sixth form/college, so be sure to enquire before selecting your subjects.

A stack of multi-coloured folders. Organisation is key to success in Sixth Form.

7. Teachers are resources to be used

Although independent learning is a crucial part of A Levels, remember that teachers are still there for you.

Most teachers will be available for additional support before or after school, or during your free periods. They will be happy to answer any questions, talk you through difficult concepts, provide feedback on work, or recommend additional reading or resources.

Many teachers are experts in their field and know the syllabus inside out, so it would be silly not to take advantage of them!

8. Don’t underestimate the power of past papers

If you haven’t already figured this out from GCSEs, past papers are your best friend! Not only are they a useful way of gauging your understanding of a topic, but they prepare you for the type of questions that regularly come up in exams.

Don’t be tempted to leave past papers until you have completed the entire syllabus. Start practising exam questions early on, for example at the end of each topic. Check out our Questions by Topic to assess your understanding of a particular topic and identify where you need to improve.

It can also be helpful to keep a record of the marks you achieve in each paper, so that you can return to them in a few weeks or months time and see if you’ve improved.

Be sure to practise under time pressure, especially for long answer questions and essays.

9. Becoming an ‘all-round’ student

Yes, academic performance is hugely important when applying to university, but it’s not the only factor universities take into account when considering your application.

Universities want to know that you’re a well-rounded student who will positively contribute to university life.

Year 12 is a good time to begin thinking of ways to strengthen your university application:

Developing a diverse skill set early on will certainly pay off when writing your personal statement.

Extracurricular activities, including sports, are great to include in your personal statement.

10. Take care of your mental health

A Levels are a marathon, not a sprint! Taking time out of revision to relax and socialise with friends and family is imperative for your mental wellbeing. Eat well, drink plenty of water, and get enough sleep − yes, Mum knows best!

Your time is valuable − don’t let your studies claim too much of it. If you’re expected to spend two hours on an assignment but after four you still haven’t finished, then it’s totally fine to put it to one side. You’ve put the time and effort in. Similarly, if it’s 9 pm and you’re still working, you can call it a day. Your work will still be there in the morning, whereas your mental capacity will quickly diminish without sleep. Think of your A Levels as a new partner − personal boundaries are important!

I know it’s easier said than done, but keep things in perspective and try not to let the pressure get to you.

And finally, don’t compare yourself to others. You can only do your best, and nothing positive will be gained by comparing your grades or the amount of time you have spent studying to other students in your class.

Yes, navigating sixth form/college will be a challenge, but having made it through your GCSEs, there’s no reason why A Levels should be any different.

I hope these tips go some way to easing your sixth form anxieties! Remember, if you do find the transition between KS4 and sixth form particularly difficult, don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

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Molly Wood

Molly is a recent first-class graduate from the University of St Andrews, where she studied biology. As Project Manager at PMT Education, she oversees SEO, digital content, and media management.