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Tips, tricks and tears: a guide to navigating A Levels

By: Saffron Vanderkolk-Pellow

The summer of my first year in college I was stressed, every student I know was, but the stress didn’t relate so much to the exams themselves but to the idea that in exactly a year’s time, we’d be sitting the exams that decided whether we would go to university. Now, looking back as a second year Geography with International Relations student at the University of Plymouth, I wonder why we stressed about the things we did. Here are three things I wish I’d known when I was doing my A levels. 


1 – You don’t have to know exactly what degree you want to do when you start your A levels: 

When I applied for my A levels, I knew I wanted to go on to higher education, but I hadn’t settled on what I wanted to study. At the time I thought this was a problem because I couldn’t specifically tailor my A levels, it actually became a positive because it allowed me to take a range of subjects that covered many areas. I chose two subjects that I was interested in pursuing at degree level and two I thought I’d enjoy; this gave me the opportunity to see where my strengths lied and to understand what I wouldn’t want to take further. If you know what course you are planning to do, then jump straight into the A levels that suit it, but for those who don’t, taking an eclectic range could open new horizons in the future.  

2 – Your degree title may change between the time you start and finish applying for university. 

When I began applying for Geography degrees, I didn’t expect there to be so many different types!, I seemed to spend hours sifting through them all, trying to work out what made them all different and eventually, I gave up. Trying to understand what separated them was impossible, instead I came up with a list of what I wanted in a degree, what I would I be willing to comprise on and what was a non-negotiable, then began looking for courses that matched my specifications. I had no interest in undertaking a physical geography degree, so I crossed off any with physical in the title and anything that was a BSc (Bachelor of Science). This left me with BA (Bachelor of Arts) degrees or geography with a humanity subject. It did take some time, but I then found Geography with International Relations, a degree in which avoided the physical aspects and instead looked at global issues. Not once before beginning to apply,  did I consider a degree that included modules around history and politics but, by allowing myself the time to reflect on what I wanted, I found a degree that suited my strengths and expanded my perspective.  

3 – A -Levels are more than just a stepping stone to the next place, slow down and enjoy it.  

By the time I got to January of my second year, all we could speak of was what we going to do after – some of us were going to university, some were looking for jobs, other had apprenticeships lined up. The one question that was permanently going round the college corridors was ‘so what are your plans for next year?’ and whilst it was exciting to look towards the future and what was next, I think we could all have taken a step back and just enjoyed that moment. Those two years are a bridge between school and the beginning of independence, so it’s important to make sure you leave time to go to the beach, watch Netflix, and work out what makes you happy. Revision is vital and it is paramount that you leave plenty of time to work hard but spending time with your friends and taking time for yourself is just as important.  


So, what would I tell 16/17-year-old me? 

  1. Calm down, choose the subjects that interest you, the ones that you enjoy and the ones that challenge. 
  2. Trust the process, write your lists and follow the path that it takes you. 
  3. Don’t spend two years stressing about the final grades, work hard but have fun, enjoy the moment, they’ll become some of your best memories. 

A-Levels are a challenging time and I hope that keeping these three things in mind might take a little bit of the stress away, best of luck! 

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