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Transcript: Just How Hard is A-Level Chemistry


Hello, and welcome to the Chemistry Made Simple podcast. This is the podcast where we’re going to help you to get chemistry confident.

So this is a special episode. It’s a little bit different because instead of talking about some chemistry principles, we’re going to be talking about those concerns, myths, rumors, et cetera, that you hear when you’re considering doing A-Level chemistry or Highers.

The things you hear other students say, or you see what they write in the forums about A-Level chemistry. You perhaps hear rumors about how difficult it is, or it’s got this or that, that may worry you.

I’m going to go through a few of those questions and worries that I’ve heard as a tutor over the years, and talk about them in detail, clarify whether or not they’re genuine, whether or not they’re exaggerated, or whether some of them are actually false.

And I would say this episode isn’t to try and persuade you to do chemistry. Or to not do chemistry. That is going to be your own decision based on exactly what it is you want to do at university and beyond, and of course, whether or not you enjoy doing chemistry and sciences anyway.

So you may have already committed to doing chemistry, or you may have been thinking about it, or you may have to make that decision soon, or it may be something that’s a little way off for you yet. And in all those circumstances, hopefully this will help you, even if you’ve already made a start.

Is A-Level Chemistry a Huge Step up?

So the first worry or objection that I hear, the most common one is that it’s a big step up, a huge step up. In other words, going to A Level chemistry from the chemistry you learned at GCSE is a big step, a big change.

It’s a lot more difficult.

There’s lots of content.

There’s lots to learn, there’s lots to memorize, lots to understand.

Let’s think about this.

So, firstly, it’s great not to be complacent that it’s going to be a walk in the park, especially if you did well at GCSE.

And yes, it is actually quite a big step up, and all A Levels where you’re following on from your GCSE subject are a big step up.

The A in A-Level is Advanced Level, so it wouldn’t be advanced if you weren’t making a significant step.

And I would say it’s also true that, for chemistry, that’s probably a bigger step than for most other subjects. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why chemistry is considered one of, if not the most difficult A Level, depending on who you speak to. Nonetheless, other A Levels are a big step up too.

Can I Just Memorise the Content?

We also mentioned that there’s lots to learn, lots of content, and yes, that is true in all the sciences.

And probably some other subjects as well.

We also mentioned that there’s a much stronger need to understand chemistry when you’re doing A-Level. Again, that’s the same with other subjects as well. It’s often said that at GCSE, there are a lot of things to remember, and at A-Level, not only do you have to remember, but you have to understand and be able to apply what you’ve learned.

That’s certainly the case for chemistry, but it’s the case for a lot of other subjects as well.

How Much Extra Study Do I Need to Do?

And yes, you will have to do a lot of independent study. Again, that would be the same for other A-Level academic subjects too.

So, yes, it is a big step, but it’s not an insurmountable step. It’s a step taken successfully by many thousands of students every year, and there’s no reason why you won’t be one of those.

Should I Forget My G.C.S.E. Chemistry and Start Again?

Another one of the common questions that I hear is, “Should I forget everything I learned at GCSE and start again, because A-Level is that big a step up?”

I’ve heard that from students before, and I also hear the one that “GCSE chemistry lied to me.”

So, in other words, consider the situation where a new A-Level chemistry student is starting to study atomic structure at A-Level, and of course you study atomic structure at GCSE as well, and you find it so different.

It was very much simplified at GCSE.

It was a much simpler model, and now we don’t use that simple model any more.

We can’t, it doesn’t work in A-Level chemistry. In fact, if you go back to episode two of the podcast, I go into more detail about that.

And it’s not just atomic structure where this will come up, but it doesn’t mean that the GCSE chemistry or your teacher at GCSE level lied to you. They didn’t. They just used a simpler model, and this is quite normal.

We can use an analogy, compare it to the situation of someone wanting to be a chef. They generally don’t go into day one of their course or their apprenticeship knowing how to make a cordon bleu seven course meal from scratch perfectly, and present it perfectly.

No, that person learned the basics and then has probably done a lot of work in between.

But at each stage they learned, from the basics, how to weigh out their ingredients, how to mix them properly, how to cook or bake properly. They learned different techniques and processes. They learned how to make sauces, how to season things well, how to choose flavors that go well together.

And eventually during their apprenticeship, during their course, they’re going to end up learning and making some spectacular courses. But that doesn’t mean that all those first steps of how to prep, how to choose ingredients, how to make simple bakes and so on, weren’t a lie. They were just simpler.

This is the same.

The chemistry you learned at GCSE was simpler, and then you build on it, you learn more detail because jumping straight in from scratch with complex details, a complex atomic model, would be a disaster for the vast majority of students.

So it isn’t a lie, it’s just a gradual increase of the complexity.

And the other thing is, that budding chef, they don’t have to go and unlearn those basic things either. It’s not a case of unlearning them and starting again. You build on them, use them as a basis.

And the same for A-Level chemistry, you’ll use those basic concepts that you learned at GCSE and build on them. You don’t unlearn them. You take the important bits of it, add the new bits and build on it, build your understanding.

So this one isn’t true. Your GCSE teacher didn’t lie to you, and no, you don’t need to unlearn GCSE or forget everything and start again.

You build on it.

Will A-Level Be Easy If I Got a Good G.C.S.E. grade?

Another question I hear is, “If I got a good grade at GCSE, does that mean I’ll get a good grade at A Level?”

Yes, it’s helpful, but it’s certainly nowhere near a guarantee. There’s plenty of students that get a good GCSE grade at chemistry or science, and then at A Level chemistry they don’t do well.

Likewise, there’s other students who get a great A-Level result but didn’t do particularly well at GCSE.

And there could be all sorts of reasons for it. It could be a better or more inspiring teacher. It could be the fact that you’re going towards more requirement to understand, and that might help some students because it inspires them, it gets their attention, they’re more interested, and it might also not be good for other students.

So it might not be good for you if you’re good at memorizing things but not necessarily good at applying those things.

So this one is a maybe. A good grade at GCSE is obviously going to be helpful, but it’s certainly no guarantee of getting a good grade at A-Level.

“The Maths Content is Very Hard”

The next one I hear a lot is “There’s a lot of calculations, and the maths is hard in chemistry.”

To the first part of that I would say, yes, there are a lot of calculations. This goes hand in hand with the need to understand chemistry a lot better.

“The maths is hard,” I would disagree with.

So, what will you be expected to do? Well, you’ll be expected to do a lot of fairly simple calculations based on quantities, whether they be about grams and moles, whether they be about calculating the results of some analysis you do, some titrations, working out atom economy, yield. This is all quite simple and straightforward maths.

Sometimes you need to break long calculations down into steps, but the steps are fairly straightforward. And you just need to apply some logic to break it down and to go from one step to the next.

So there’s also a lot of mathematical or scientific equations that you will be learning and need to apply. These are equations to work out the pH, there might be equations related to gas laws, there might be equations related to equilibrium constants, to thermodynamics, to entropy, and to enthalpy, to reaction rates and so on.

With a lot of these, it will help if you understand some algebra and you understand how to rearrange mathematical equations.

Are A-Level Chemistry Exams Very Difficult?

Another thing I’ve heard a lot is that the exams are difficult or the exams require a lot of understanding, the exams along, they’ve got tough questions.

And yes, this one is true.

They are more difficult, they do require understanding, and some of the questions do require a lot of input. Not all of them, but many do. And again, that’s why it’s Advanced Level.

And again, I’ll help you through this podcast, and also the program, to understand how to answer such questions. But again, if you break it down, it’s not that difficult.

There is understanding, but I always say there’s a golden rule about answering questions in an exam, and the golden rule is, the examiner can only mark what you write down.

The number of times I see papers where the student’s complaining that they didn’t get the full marks for things that they didn’t actually write down, they’re expecting the examiner to know them, to know what was in their mind, to be a mind reader, if you will.

And actually, it’s only if you put pen to paper and write each step, each part of the answer down, that you get the mark, so always show your working.

Just some quick tips.

If there’s an equation that’s not given but might be required in the answer, then state that equation, whether it be a chemical equation or one of the scientific/mathematical equations, state that. There’s almost always a first mark just for doing that. Then show your working step by step. There’s usually marks for that too.

Also at this level, you often get down-marked for not using the correct term, so be accurate about using the correct scientific terms.

Say atom if you mean atom. Don’t use molecule.

Don’t say compound when you mean molecule.

So it’s accuracy of the terms you use, and this comes with practice, practice and make sure when you’re looking through the mark scheme and marking your own practice questions, don’t be lenient on yourself.

If you haven’t used the right term, if you’ve used an incorrect term, make sure you’re aware of it, make sure you correct it, and get in the habit of using the appropriate words.

Hopefully your teacher will drive this home to you too, and don’t be upset when they mark you down for inaccurately using terms or scientific words.

They’re doing it to get you in the habit of using the right phrases, the right terms, when it comes to answer from your exams, because just that one little thing is a mark dropped.

If you do that two or three times in the exam, that could easily drop you down a grade. So yes, this one, the exams require a lot of understanding and they’re difficult, yes, they are, but you have two years to work up to them, to get ready for them, to get yourself prepared and practiced and ready to do that.

And again, that’s something I can help you with in the Chemistry Made Simple program.


So, in summary, I would say, yes, chemistry is quite difficult. It is a big step up.

There is a lot of maths, but it’s not going to come all at once.

You’ll be advancing each concept one by one, gradually building your understanding of the concepts and your ability to apply the concept as well. So, as long as you understand the basic concepts and keep working on that, you’ll be fine. You’ll keep building on them as you understand them, and that’s a really important thing.

A lot of concepts in chemistry build on what you’ve already done. So, when you realize there’s something you are not au fait with, something you don’t particularly understand or don’t understand at all, that’s the time to go back and work on that, to make sure you understand it.

So, for example, if you don’t get something about the atomic structure, don’t leave it.

You’ll need to understand that when it comes to ionic bonding, covalent bonding, organic chemistry, some of the chemical analysis that you’ll learn, you need to understand that.

And it’s the same with a lot of the other topics and concepts as well.

So as long as you understand the basic concepts and how to apply them, and you keep practicing and revising that, you’ll be fine.

I hope this has clarified some of those questions and some of those worries that come up about studying A-Level chemistry.

Please don’t be put off. Yes, it’s difficult, but if you’re considering A-Level chemistry, if you enjoy the science and you apply yourself and you’re prepared to work, then you’ll do really well at chemistry. And I may be biased, but it really is an interesting topic, it blows your mind sometimes. And everything of value is worth working for, so don’t be put off by the level of difficulty of A-Level chemistry. You’ll be fine. You’ll do well.

So that just about wraps up this episode. I’ll be back for a more conventional episode next time, which will be about a chemistry concept. In the meantime, if you have questions or just want to get in touch, please do so.

So you can DM me on Instagram, that’s at chemistry made simple. )r you can email me, that’s Matthew at chemistry made simple dot net. It’s always great to hear from you.