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Just How HARD is A-Level Chemistry?

Is Chemistry the Most Difficult A-Level?

Whether you’re considering taking A-Level chemistry, you’ve committed to it or you have started your course already you will be familiar with the common beliefs around chemistry being one of the hardest A-Levels.

If not THE hardest A-Level, as some would describe it.

Of course, it goes without saying that it’s a very subjective opinion. If you’re anything like me you would consider taking Russian language or politics a difficult prospect.

We are going to consider:

  • A-Level chemistry is a huge step up
  • Is memorising content as effective at A-Level?
  • Do you have to start again with chemistry?
  • Did GCSE chemistry lie to me?
  • Does a good grade at GCSE mean I’ll get a good grade at A-Level?
  • The maths is difficult and there are lots of calculations
  • A-Level chemistry exams are very difficult

I’ve heard these from many students, and seen them discussed many times in forums and elsewhere.

This article isn’t intended to try to persuade you whether or not you should take A-Level chemistry. To make that decision you need to make your own assessment which would include whether it is important for your university or career ambitions, whether you find chemistry interesting, and whether you feel motivated to study advanced chemistry for the next two years, and your own personal considerations.

We will also introduce the golden rule of exam questions in this article.

A-Level Chemistry is a Huge Step Up

You will almost certainly have heard that progressing to A-Level chemistry is a giant leap from the chemistry you study at GCSE. Maybe you believe that too, and maybe it even made you think long about studying chemistry further.

And we should think about this in context. Progressing to any A-Level is bound to have higher expectation and be considered more difficult. After all A-Level is an abbreviation for “Advanced Level” and it is intended to advance your education, not just extend it.

It is true that A-Level chemistry is a bigger advance than many other subjects, and that is by necessity. Certain concepts must be introduced that complicate what we previously learnt, but these concepts can’t be watered down or left out anymore. For example, the atomic model becomes much more complex merely because we introduce the concept of quantum mechanics; this concept has to be introduced to enable understanding of the chemistry we will need to study at A-Level.

But don’t let the difficulty of A-level chemistry put you off. More than 50000 students choose to take it every year, so you are in good company. Naturally you have the new or developed concepts taught to you over the two years – you don’t have all that to deal with in the first lesson or even the first term. You need to a good study and revision plan, but there is no reason you won’t be successful like many other students have been before you.

It’s also a well established subject with support and resources widely available.

Is Memorising Content Effective at A-Level?

You may have found that if you could memorise a lot of facts at GCSE, and you could successfully restate these during exams for a good chunk of marks.

The way some of the questions were written invited you to memorise facts and equations. Other questions guided you to simple application of those facts. You could do very well if you revised and memorised facts well.

Expectations change and most A-Levels require you to understand much more than memorise. The expectation of more in-depth application of what you have learnt is required. And the questions are written in a way that doesn’t guide you towards the answer, so more understanding is needed just to know what you are being asked for.

This isn’t to be cruel. Chemistry is an applied subject, an applied science, so it is important to require students to understand it. To apply what they learn. The exam boards simply wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t develop a syllabus that develops and tests your application.

So the straightforward answer is that no, memorising content is going to be as effective a strategy as it may have been at GCSE.

Does A-Level Require Relearning Chemistry From Scratch? And did GCSE Lie to Me?

There have been times where my students have said they feel they need to restart or relearn chemistry, or to forget what they learned at GCSE and start again. I have even heard a student call the chemistry at GCSE called a lie.

And that’s understandable. There are concepts that you were introduced at GCSE that get developed almost beyond recognition at A-Level, so it isn’t surprising that some students feel that way. Maybe you have herd that, or even thought that way yourself.

Again, when we think this through it becomes clear that all that concept development is necessary. What you learnt before was a foundation to be built upon because the developed concept would be too complex for the vast majority of students to comprehend from scratch. To forget it and attempt to start again would be like laying the foundations for a house, but trying to build the house somewhere else instead. It would be an unviable house as well as a waste of the time and effort laying down those foundations.

“I Got A* at GCSE so I’ll Get an A at A-Level”

We’ve already looked at the how different the style of learning is at A-Level, so we can safely say that this is not a safe assumption.

After all, a student might have a great memory, or a great revision plan that helped them to get their A*. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will do well when it comes to Advanced Level, when it comes to requiring more understanding and being expected to apply that understanding.

And likewise, a student who didn’t do so well at GCSE may well be inspired and thrive at the opportunity to learn, apply and explain such a dramatic subject. Even if you didn’t have a good study plan you can discipline yourself to work to one at A-Level.

So, whilst an A* is a good indicator that you have the aptitude to do well, it is no guarantee and you will need to put in a lot of work.

In fact, that effort can get you a good A-Level grade regardless of your GCSE grade. There is, of course, no carry forward of earlier grades so you can get an A even if your GCSE grade was modest.

The Maths is Very Hard and There are Many Calculations

Again, I hear this belief frequently. Often I hear or read that a student believes they can’t do A-Level chemistry because their maths isn’t strong enough.

That’s a real shame, and I honestly believe it’s completely avoidable. Why so?

Well, let’s spilt this up – first the belief that you will need to do a lot of calculations in chemistry:

This much is certainly true. But this is only what should be expected when you study any applied science at an advanced level. Perhaps any applied subject, not just a science.
We already mentioned that studying this level of chemistry requires more application than at GCSE.

You will find that there are quite a few scientific equations to learn and remember. When it comes to answering questions, you will be expected to remember (and state) the equation. Usually any constant required is given in the exam question, or in the data sheet, but you do need to know how to use it!

The second belief is that the maths is difficult, and this is certainly a misconception.

The maths required for A-Level chemistry is not advanced. If you got a pass grade at GCSE maths then you will be fine.

In my opinion the most difficult maths you will face is the rearranging of scientific equations so you get a particular term to be subject of the equation – and this is straightforward algebra. Even though it may not seem straightforward at first glance.
I sometimes find students struggle to “see” the individual terms – you are used to seeing simply labelled terms (like “X” and “Y”) and will now come across apparently complex terms labelled with such things as ΔS, KP, or [H+]. When you come to recognise these as simple terms – and you will – you will find rearranging equations to be straightforward.

In my opinion doing more calculations can increase your understanding of chemistry principles because you have a dimension by which to compare, for example, how much difference it makes if you change the temperature or pressure used for a reaction.

Another calculation type some students struggle with is the calculation of concentration or amounts of substance from the results of an analysis, such as a titration.
I believe the biggest difficulty you have in this scenario is seeing that the calculation is actually many small calculations in a logical order. And each of those small calculations is simple as long as you understand the reaction ratio and moles.

So, in summary you will perform many and varied calculations in advanced chemistry. The difficulty of the mathematic operations you will do is actually no more difficult than your GCSE maths.

Naturally, I help you get to grips with how to do the maths and how to see the calculation steps in the Chemistry Made Simple program.

Listen to me talk about the calculations and more

Chemistry Exams are Very Difficult

Following on from my earlier that the chemistry content is deeper and requires more understanding, more application at this level it does follow that the chemistry exams are going to be more difficult at this level.

Naturally the examiners want to test your understanding of the new and the expanded topics. And they do so by testing your application as much as your recall.

And, as we already mentioned, this is normal for A-Level. Any A-Level exam will be a step-change in difficulty compared to GCSE. Be honest, you would be shocked if this wasn’t the case.

So, yes chemistry exams are difficult but not scarily so. Keep on top of your revision and exam preparedness and you will be fine. Don’t let this be the reason to not choose A-Level chemistry.

The Golden Rule of Answering Exam Questions

That brings us to one of the biggest complaints that students have following a mock exam or practice exam. That complaint is that the examiners (or teacher) didn’t award the marks that they should have. Maybe you have even thought that yourself.

When I get to look at the answer they wrote it is usually clear that they were awarded all the marks they were entitled to. “But it’s clear I meant [whatever would have got the marks]”.

In other words, they expect to be given marks for their thoughts, and not what they wrote!

Examiners can only mark what you actually write in your answer. They can only award what is there in front of them. They are not permitted to guess what they think you probably meant. They don’t have a crystal ball. They don’t even know you, so can’t guess what you intended to put down.

That’s why the golden rule is so important.

In summary you can only get marks awarded for what you write down. What you actually write. On the paper.

So the golden rule is to write down the all the point that answer the question fully.

There is usually one mark per relevant point (or calculation step). Make sure you have written enough, clearly enough, for the marks on offer for a question.

Some quick tips for multi-mark questions:

  • if the chemical equation isn’t given in the question, state the equation (if it is relevant to the answer). There is often a mark for stating the equation.
  • if the scientific equation isn’t given in the question, state this first in your answer (if it’s relevant). Again, there is usually a mark for this.
  • Show your working for calculations. Even if you get the incorrect answer, you will usually be credited marks for the steps you performed correctly

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