• Abbie Tibbott

Friday Special: A Brutal Review of my A-Level Subjects

Welcome to my second Friday Special!


If you’re stressed about A-levels, you’re not alone. My sixth form experience was marred by the fact that I took completely the wrong subjects due to poor advice and a general uncertainty about my future. Asking young people to choose subjects that may determine their entire future is extremely played down by schools and colleges, and I definitely believe that if I had been given better advice, my A-level experience would have gone significantly better. I’ve had several questions about the subjects I chose, my grades, and whether I’d recommend them for studying a history degree. Although the system and grading has changed since I left school, I thought I’d go through each subject and review it in terms of my enjoyment, the relevance to my life nowadays, as well as the experience of actually studying it. Spoiler alert, it wasn’t all good news!


 

Biology (A2)


Overall Grade – D

Subject Rating – 2/5

Relevance to my current life – 1/5


Now, I chose biology because I had good GCSEs in the subject, and science A-levels are well respected by universities when you apply. I think I already knew that I wasn’t destined to become a scientist in the future, seeing as I had (and still have) difficulty with maths. I had enjoyed the biology courses I had taken so far and was promised an enriching experience complete with dissections and coursework. I was told that the maths involved with biology was achievable for me (it wasn’t) and that due to my grade B at GCSE I should have no problems with the maths element (a lie).


I felt like the staff weren’t particularly honest with me about the maths involved in the course, and I definitely suffered. The coursework was relatively straightforward, but the exams were impossible to get through without the use of maths. I actually re-sat one of my AS exams, but I still didn’t do very well. I’m better at writing essays, and the short-answer questions involved revising an extreme amount of information and then having to apply it. Many of my friends did very well, but it ultimately didn’t suit me. I also felt like I couldn’t ask for help as I was expected to get on with it. I understand that A-levels are the next step in learning to work independently, but I needed much more support than I was ever given. Also, I think I did one dissection overall, and there was never enough equipment to go around. Pretty boring to be honest.


If you’re wondering why I didn’t drop biology after the first year, I was faced with choosing between continuing with that, or with music (discussed below), and I decided music interested me less, and I honestly couldn’t face another year in that classroom! I don’t think I’ve used any of the skills I gained in biology, apart from being able to answer a quiz question every now and then. If you struggle with maths, I wouldn’t recommend biology unless there is a lot of support available, or you’re willing to seek extra tutoring.


 

Music (AS)


Overall Grade – C

Subject Rating – 1.5/5

Relevance to my current life – 2/5


I’d taken music for GCSE and received an A, which I was very happy with. I play the violin and piano to an intermediate standard, so the performance element of the course hadn’t been that challenging. Music was meant to be my ‘fun’ A-level, but it turned out to be the opposite for a few reasons. Firstly, the class size was small, I’m talking a maximum of eight people, and the majority were male. Ironically, I met one of my best friends through that class, but she was the best part of it in all honesty. I felt like my teacher never had a lot of time for me, especially when we had to compose our coursework piece, as he was always busy teaching other members of the class who were unfamiliar with the software. Learning the set pieces and revising the theory was fairly straightforward, but I would have struggled without my prior knowledge. When it came to the recital, I gave a performance on the piano which I enjoyed, and it went fairly well. However, the exam was extremely difficult, and I felt like I hadn’t had enough practice of the exam structure seeing as we only sat one mock paper.


I still enjoy music as it remains a significant part of my daily life. I enjoyed the theory aspect as well as the performance opportunity but didn’t feel like a valued member of the class, and didn’t like my classmates terribly much, outside of the four girls. My teacher wasn’t my biggest fan, and I always got the impression that he thought that I had too much to say for myself. I’m not sure that the AS actually taught me anything in terms of musicality and caused me more stress than anything. Also, the homework sucked, and hardly anyone completed it. Okay, rant over!


I decided to drop music after the first year as I simply couldn’t face another year of it! I knew biology was hard, but I was worried I would end up with a U in music, so I chose the lesser of two evils.


 

English Language (A2)


Overall Grade – A

Subject Rating – 5/5

Relevance to my current life – 4/5


English was by far my most favourite A-Level, which surprised me seeing as I had taken it on a whim. I loved learning about child language acquisition, and we had essays to write every week which really prepared me for the exams. The coursework was engaging, and I got to choose what to write about which made it all the more interesting. I really found my feet with English as it made me realise that essays were my favourite method of answering questions, in direct contrast to biology’s exam format.


My teacher was completely brilliant, and I looked forward to every single lesson. The classroom environment was really chilled but still engaged, and I never felt worried when presenting or answering questions. I contributed frequently and engaged with feedback, which set me in a great place for when I went to university. The skills I learnt whilst studying English have helped enormously with being able to express myself well at university too. I’d recommend it to anyone thinking of studying history at university, and it’s a great complement to essay-based A-levels.


I decided not to study English at university as there weren’t many institutions which offered a linguistics course, and I wasn’t interested in the literature side of things. I have no regrets about taking the language course as it made sixth-form more bearable.


 

History (A2)


Overall Grade – C

Subject Rating – 3.5/5

Relevance to my current life – 5/5 in the skills I gained, not the periods I studied.


Of course, I have two history degrees, so it’s unsurprising that I took history as an A-Level. I wrote my coursework piece on how ordinary German people were implicated in the Holocaust, which was my first taste of researching at a higher level. Unfortunately, I was taught to reference completely incorrectly, so when I arrived at university, I had to seek help to teach me how to reference in the correct Oxford style. I received high marks for my coursework, but my exams were inconsistent. I wrote weekly essays for homework, so I thought I had plenty of practice when I went into the exams. Unfortunately, my teacher was simply too generous when marking my practice papers or I bombed the exams (not likely seeing as I had revised) as I wasn’t achieving the high marks, which dragged my grade down to a C when I was predicted an A.


I hold a lot of resentment towards my history grade, and I still haven’t completely let it go. I taught myself how to revise effectively, did endless exam practice and regularly engaged with feedback, only to get less than satisfactory results at the end. It ruined my confidence in history when I first attended university, and it was only after I got my first essay results back in the first semester that I realised that it may not have been completely my fault.

The subjects offered on the course were Charles I and the USSR. Since then, I haven’t gone anywhere near modules that covered either as I can’t stand them! If history taught me anything, it was how to organise revision materials and to prioritise exam practice. My A* grade at GCSE still laughs at me from time to time, but I like to joke that I peaked at university instead. I wish the teaching had been a little bit better, and that marking would have been more honest. Overall, if I hadn’t have taken history, I wouldn’t be where I am now, so every cloud has a silver lining.


I hope you enjoyed reading about my experience of studying at A-level. I’d like to also mention that my sixth-form experience was full of laughter and opportunity, so I don’t regret studying there. I just wish I had received some more realistic guidance so I would have been able to choose subjects that suited me better. If I could go back, I would take Government and Politics and Classics to replace Music and Biology.


 

It all worked out okay in the end, but if you’re considering your A-level options:


· Choose subjects that you have an interest in. Deciding on a course purely for its university prospects will make you resent it for the two years you’re studying it.

· Work to your strengths and bear university choices in mind. If you know you want to study a social science, there may be particular subjects you have to take, but for your other options, choose subjects which complement the skills you already have, such as essay writing.

· Don’t be afraid to take a subject that you didn’t study at GCSE. I wish I would have branched out and chosen some of these instead of sticking to what I knew.

· Friendships shouldn’t dictate your choices. There’s no guarantee you’ll end up in the same class as them, and they won’t be sitting your exams for you. I know this is obvious, but it still needs to be said.

· Look up what’s involved in each course. Read the prospectus, talk to teachers and friends in higher years and look up past papers on the exam board’s website to give yourself an idea of what you’re getting yourself into.


Whatever you choose, make sure it leaves you plenty of options for studying at a higher level and that it’s something that you’re not afraid of committing to. I didn’t have the most successful A-level experience, but I made the best of it where I could. I hope this answered your questions!


Happy studying!