In this blog post, we talk about how to pass A-Level chemistry with guidance from top Medical Students.
- Quick Summary
- Use the Specification
- Making Notes
- Revising the Content
- Method 1
- Method 2
- Applying the Content – Exam Papers
- How Can You Improve?
- Your Questions Answered
Don’t have time?
Here’s a quick summary of everything we talk about:
- Make notes
- Use active recall and spaced repetition to revise
- Keep drawing the mindmap for the organic reactions
- Do practice questions for inorganic
There are always stigmas that A-Level chemistry is the most difficult A-Level to achieve an A* in (see more about this below).
However, if you implement the two tips mentioned below, you can make it much easier for yourself. They are:
- Having the driven mindset that you want to do well
- Use the correct resources and study methods that work for you
I firmly believe that these are the main ways to make A-Level Chemistry a smooth and enjoyable subject. It helped me reach my potential and there’s no reason why you can’t do the same.
This blog will go into depth about various tips that will fully prepare you to succeed in A-Level Chemistry, so hopefully, after reading this, you’ll be ready to apply both the mindset AND revision techniques to get that A*!
Use the Specification
Whatever exam board you are doing – be it OCR A, OCR B (Salters), AQA, Edexcel or WJEC – make the relevant specification your best friend.
Everything that will come up in your exam will be directly from the specification, so it is a valuable resource to use both as a guide for your revision and a checklist to decipher what you know and what you don’t know.
I highly recommend that you edit/write around the specification.
So, either print out a copy of your specification or open up a digital version of it, for example in iBooks. Anywhere you can edit it.
The main reason for this is so you can tick off what you know.
After learning about a topic in class, for example, “Carboxylic Acids”, ensure to make notes on that topic before the next lesson.
For example, let’s say the Carboxylic Acids topic is split into 4 subtopics, where each subtopic is covered per lesson.
After 4 lessons, you would have finished the topic and had a test on it.
To ensure you don’t fall behind and prepare for the test properly, you should be making notes on each subtopic the same day you learn about it. If you have time, you should also be reading ahead and making notes on the next subtopic.
This ensures you can stay on top of your work, consolidate your knowledge and be ready for the next lesson.
Taking notes can take a long time; despite the common advice that you “shouldn’t spend too long making notes”, I was personally reluctant to follow this because my study methods were different to others, but they worked for ME (remember the second point at the start of this blog? – use the study methods that work for you)
So, this is how I recommend you make notes based on what I learned during my A-Levels.:
Use the Kerboodle Textbook (online digital textbook) to locate the relevant subtopic and read everything under the first subheading.
Note: the textbook is not always correct and often has mistakes so use a CGP revision guide or chemguide.co.uk to double-check the information.
This is a CGP revision guide that I recommend.
Once you understand it all, use different coloured pens to draw diagrams (i.e. – for reaction mechanisms) and explain them using your own words.
Personally, this took me a while because I tried to layout the information on the page that made it user-friendly and easy for me to look back at.
I am a visual learner so the more ‘aesthetically pleasing’ my notes were, the more inclined I was to look back at them to revise from them.
Don’t Redo Notes
The main long-term technique to use is to only make notes ONCE for each topic, never more than once.
Making notes more than once is not very useful as it is a very passive way of learning the information.
However, using the original set of notes that you spend so much time making is of great use. This is because over time, with the use of active recall and spaced repetition (see this blog post for more), you will have a visual memory of your notes – as if the notes have been imprinted into your brain.
Take your notes to class all the time.
Whenever you hear something in class that you didn’t read or make notes on previously, jot them down in the margin or around the relevant part of the subtopic – these facts are likely to stick in your brain.
It doesn’t matter if your notes become slightly messy – remember, your notes are for YOU so as long as you can understand them they will always be useful.
Revising the Content
Making notes shows that you’ve understood the topic. But that isn’t enough. You now need to:
- Memorise it
- Apply it
There are two different ways you can do both of these:
- Method 1 – this is where you will use active recall and spaced repetition.
- Method 2 – a shortened version of method 1
Let’s start by going into depth of Method 1.
- Choose a topic you want to revise. Let’s say its Rate Constants. Get a scrap piece of paper and write down everything that comes to mind about Rate Constants – a definition, equation, graphs – everything. This does not have to be neat.
- Once you can’t think of anything else, open up the notes and compare what you’ve written to the original notes. If you’ve missed anything then fill in the gaps of knowledge by doing one of 3 things:
- In a different colour, write down what you’ve missed on a scrap piece of paper
- Highlight or circle the information you missed in your original notes.
- Write them down on a sticky note and stick it onto your wall – but only do this for content that you genuinely struggle to remember
- Open the relevant part of the specification and tick off the topics with this system:
- Green Tick = I know this well
- Yellow Tick = I kind of know it but not 100%
- Red Tick = I don’t know this at all
Repeat this process constantly.
You will realise that each time you do this, you will remember more information until one day it will become muscle memory and your specification will be filled with green ticks!
After Active Recall
Once you’ve understood and learnt the topic, you need to be able to apply it to questions to test if you’ve learnt the content properly. Here is the list of resources you can use for topic questions:
- Physics and Maths Tutor
- Summary Questions in the Kerboodle textbook
- End of Chapter questions in the Kerboodle textbook
- CGP revision guide questions
- CGP workbook questions
Note that these questions are not past papers. Past papers will be done at a later point in time (see below).
Rather, these are just questions that can be found at the end of a topic or on online resource banks.
Whenever doing questions try to be disciplined and take these pointers on board:
- Don’t Use Notes
- Don’t look back at your notes when attempting questions.
- Try to answer them using the information that you’ve previously actively recalled.
- Learn From the Mark Scheme
- After answering the questions, use the mark scheme to check your answers.
- You must be harsh on yourself – think like a teacher or examiner – if they read that answer and compared it to the mark scheme, would they award you the mark? If the answer is “No”, then pinpoint what you’ve missed or where you’ve gone wrong and note it down around your answer.
- Alongside the mark scheme, you can also use your notes as a way of checking the answers.
- Time Yourself Properly
- Try to time yourself as much as you can.
- It’s ok to be lenient with yourself when attempting questions for a certain topic for the first time but as you get used to the structure and style of questions, it is important to become stricter with yourself – approximately a minute per mark is a good time frame so that you are forced to think and work faster – this helps you deal with exam pressure
- Have the Right Environment
- Whenever attempting questions, try to recreate the atmosphere of the exam hall.
- For example, I would try and do questions in a quiet/silent room, I opened up a timer on my iPad for each batch of questions AND I wrote my answers on paper.
- This helped create a more tense and ‘exam-like’ environment so I quickly got used to the nerves that I’d feel in the exam – and it worked! I barely felt the nerves when doing the paper!
- Use Other Exam Boards
- Students always seem to hesitate to use other exam boards for questions but it’s really good to use them to help improve your exam technique.
- For example, 2 questions can we worded differently but lead to the same answer – this helps broaden your understanding of a topic and allows you to tackle questions with a different perspective.
This method is essentially method 1 but only using the exam practice questions.
You can simply jump straight to questions as soon as you’ve made your notes because exam questions require you to actively recall the information.
The only issue with this is that you may run out of questions quickly. However, you can always do them again at a later date because you won’t remember them a few months down the line.
So use the information under “After Active Recall” in the section above to put this method of just doing questions into practice.
Applying the Content – Exam Papers
Once you have covered enough of the syllabus, you should start doing past papers.
This is different from your bog-standard questions because past papers are the closest thing to your real exam as possible.
You should, therefore, do these at the end.
I have listed a few points that you should follow when you start to do past papers.
- Create a Checklist – Make a checklist for all the past papers – the list can be long if you include old spec AND different spec papers so don’t be intimidated by the list you create.
- Be Careful With Time – Allocate yourself the exact time that is given in the paper and time yourself when you do the paper – do it one sitting to get the feel of what’s it like in the real exam.
- Mark It – Mark your paper using the mark scheme and just like with the practice topic questions, ensure you are harsh on yourself, so you don’t become too complacent.
- Reflect on What You Need to Improve – Failing to record where you went wrong is a key aspect of doing past papers that majority of students forget. It’s a great feeling getting questions right, but you need to work on where you went wrong if you want to improve. Identify where you went wrong, look back at your notes to correct your understanding of the topic and make a note of the question next to that paper on the checklist that you made at the start. This way you can go back to the question and try it again in the future.
Keep drawing out the mind map of reactions from scratch, ensuring you write out the conditions and equations for each reaction. Doing this once a week will fix it to your memory before your exams.
The more you do this, the faster you’ll get at recalling the mind map so you can then start to focus on the more difficult, application questions.
A good chunk of inorganic chemistry is maths so the best way to get better is to do lots of questions, especially ones from other exam boards.
The greater the breadth of inorganic questions you’ve seen, the easier it’ll be to deal with harder mathematical questions in the exam.
The resources listed above have a whole load of challenging questions on all the inorganic content and there’s enough there for your A-Level course.
How Can You Improve?
A-Level Chemistry can be very frustrating, especially if you feel like your progress has just plateaued and you’re not reaching your target grade.
But I assure you, with the driven mindset and perseverance to achieve your target grade, you will improve.
Here are some tips on what you can do to bump up your Chemistry grade:
Ask for Help
Many people choose to get private tuition if they feel like they are struggling but I truly feel that all the resources are already available for you.
One is your teacher!
If you’re ever struggling with anything and you can’t seem to figure it out for yourself then you must try and get help from a teacher.
They are the best source of guidance when it comes to understanding a concept or question.
Pester them if you have to – their sole job is to help you achieve your potential!
The other resource is the internet!
YouTube videos are a saviour when it comes to explaining complex topics, for example, Hess’ Cycle or Buffers.
So use these free resources to your advantage – it’s all I ever used and I never felt the need to get tuition because my teacher plus the YouTube videos were enough.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
The number of hours you spend revising is a very weak indication of how well you’re doing at the subject.
You can learn and achieve a whole lot more in 60 minutes of solid revision than 3 hours if you remove distractions and remain focused (check out this blog on “How to Revise Effectively”)
Keep Your Morale High
If you don’t perform well in a test at school/college or you simply cannot understand a topic after many attempts of trying (this is often the case with topics such as Proton NMR or buffer calculations), do not give up.
Ask for help from a teacher or simply take a break from that topic and come back to it in a few days with a fresh mind – there’s a good chance you’ll understand it better.
Your Questions Answered
How Hard is A-Level Chemistry?
A-level chemistry is a big jump up from GCSE chemistry because there is more content and the content itself becomes more complex.
So generally it is considered a difficult A-Level.
Only 7.6% of students achieved an A* in 2019.
However, don’t worry.
The same statistics show that 96.1% of students passed A-Level Chemistry, achieving between Grade A*-E.
So the majority of students passed the subject but only a small proportion achieved the highest grade.
This link will take you to a table of statistics for all A-Levels where you can find the success rate for A-Level Chemistry.
Hopefully, this can give you hope that you can also pass it, with the potential to do even better.
Is it Needed for University?
A-Level Chemistry is a requirement for many university courses including medicine, dentistry and certain types of engineering.
You can find out if is a compulsory requirement under websites of the relevant universities that you are looking to apply to.
To conclude, A-Level Chemistry is undoubtedly a challenge.
But, you can tackle those obstacles head-on and do well if you have the correct mindset and use the correct revision strategies.
If you’re planning on choosing A-Level Chemistry or are currently doing it I wish you the best of luck – you can get that A*!
Written by Mustafa Kaderbhai
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