When teenagers in the UK turn 16, they move from secondary school to sixth form or college. For most, this means a new environment, new teachers, new subjects and just generally lots of new things to deal with. One of these new things is the exams - in secondary school you do GCSEs, while in sixth form you instead do A Levels.
When I was getting ready to move to sixth form, my Year 11 teachers were all saying how hard it was going to be to go from GCSE to A Level. I kind of just disregarded it and was like ‘yeah yeah, sure, but I'll deal with it - it'll be fine.’ But BOY, did I underestimate just how big that jump was and just how hard it was going to be to adjust.
When it comes to A-Level exams, it is a lot more application based. At GCSE, you're mostly expected to memorise a bunch of knowledge and then regurgitate it onto a piece of paper with some relevant questions on it. A Level is very different from that. You not only have to memorise the basic knowledge but you then have to use that knowledge to apply it to any given scenario in the exam.
For example, in my Psychology exam, we had a question about why eating disorders may develop. However, rather than the question just being ‘explain the reasons why someone may develop an eating disorder’ we got given a big old scenario about this girl and her family situation with all sorts of seemingly irrelevant information thrown in for good measure and then told to explain why her specific eating disorder may have developed, explicitly referring to and quoting the information given to us. This would be a 12 mark question and if we didn't refer to the given scenario, we could get no higher than 6 marks.
Saying this, I think the reason for this difference may partly be because if you tried to memorise all the information you need to know at A Level, your brain may explode. Of course, I'm exaggerating a little here but what I'm trying to say is that there is so much more content at A Level than GCSE. You learn more content about one subject in those two years of sixth form than you ever could have in the five years of secondary school. At secondary school, you might have one fairly small text book for everything you've learnt over those five years. However, I get to sixth form and I have at least two textbooks per year for each subject and I'm starting with four subjects before dropping down to the compulsory three in Year 2. It's worrying, to say the least.
As well as the differences in the format of the exams, there were differences in the way the lessons were taught. In secondary school, you were usually told what you had to write in your notebook, what information was relevant and you were almost ‘spoon fed’ I suppose you could say. At sixth form, they are trying to prepare you for university. So you may be given a bit of help in what you might need to note down, but in the end you have to decide what needs noting and what doesn't and you have to be much more efficient in your method of note taking as you are given very little time to do so. You have to use abbreviations and acronyms plentifully or else you will miss a whole chunk of information because you're trying to finish writing the last chunk. It's very independence focused and you have to be prepared for that.
To go along with this, you have to be responsible for your own learning. In secondary school, teachers would forever be chasing you for homework and would nag at you if you missed a lesson and would listen to the same old excuses over and over again, like ‘I left my memory stick at home’ or that old chestnut of ‘the dog ate my homework.’ In sixth form, you don't get any of that. It is your decision and you'll pay the consequences if you don't get the results you wanted. You need to have some serious discipline to cope with this amount of responsibility and be extremely motivated to succeed and do the work and this was something I sometimes struggled with, usually when I was stressed. Too much stress for me equalled a lack of motivation - I had given up.
I'm aware that now that you've read this, if you're about to go to sixth form, you're possibly now thinking ‘oh God, what on Earth have I let myself in for?’ and I don't blame you for thinking that. It's not all bad though.
A good thing about A Levels though in comparison to GCSEs is the choice of subjects. At GCSE, you have a list of set subjects that you have to do, you have no choice. English Literature, English Language, Maths, Biology, Physics, Chemistry etc. I hated Physics at secondary school. So when I got to A Level, the fact that I didn't have to do Physics ever again made me very happy. I got to choose subjects that I actually had an interest in. This made learning more enjoyable because I actually cared.
Despite there seemingly being more difficulties and disadvantages than advantages, you can and you will cope. Sure, I struggled a lot and I nearly ended up dropping out after Year 1 and then considered not doing my Year 2 exams the week before they were due to start, but I did get through it in the end with a C in Sociology, a D in Psychology, a B in Photography and an AS Level (Year 1) B grade in English Language. So I'm going to give you my tips for coping with the transition and the workload. All I ask of you is that you do take this advice on board. A lot of this advice is advice I was given before I went to sixth form and I didn't listen but how I wish that I had.
So yes, sixth form is a hard and scary experience but you can definitely do this. Believe me - I know you can.
You got this.
Teenagers With Experience is an online platform ran by teenagers for teenagers. We provide support through sharing our own experiences and providing advice based from this. If you need support, feel free to reach out to us on one of our social media platforms. We will do our best to support you and if we feel we cannot we will direct you to more suited, professional support.