A-Levels and AS-Levels Explained
A-Levels and AS-Levels are an important part of the UK education system, offering students a pathway to higher education or the workforce.
However, the system can be confusing, particularly for those who are unfamiliar with it. It can be confusing as to what A-levels are and how AS-levels factor into the overall study process.
What are AS-levels?
An AS-level is an advanced qualification studied after GCSEs. The AS stands for Advanced Subsidiary and, in terms of UCAS Tariff points, an A at AS-level is equivalent to a B at A-level (40 points). You cannot achieve an A* at AS-level.
Students are not required to study AS-levels but have the option if they wish to. It effectively allows you to study a fourth subject on top of the three A-levels you have chosen and is studied for a year.
Previously, AS-levels would contribute to the overall score of your A-levels. However, in 2015, the UK government announced changes to how AS-levels are taught, which meant these qualifications may no longer have exam assessments and are now considered to be a standalone qualification.
There are other alternatives to studying AS & A-levels.
What are A-levels?
An A-level is a school leaving qualification. These subjects are generally studied over two years. Typically, students can chose between three and four subjects for their A-levels. Those who opt for a fourth choice will have that subject studied as an AS-level. Once you have selected your fourth subject, you will not be able to study it in the second year, meaning that you will have three A-levels to study in your second year. Most degrees you apply for will relate to the A-levels you studied.
Typically, A-levels follow on from GCSE study. Despite the recommended age of 16-18-year-olds, mature students will often study A-levels, especially if they have been asked to do so by an employer or if they have a clearer picture of their careers moving forward.
The jump from GCSEs to A-levels can often be a little extreme for some students. GCSEs are the culmination of work done over nearly ten years of studying, whereas A-levels are compounding a lot of information into a shorter space of time.
How are A-levels graded?
A-levels and AS-levels are graded A*-E. Previously, this was also how GCSEs were graded, however, in September 2015, the Department for Education moved GCSEs onto a 1 to 9 grading system.
Then-Education Secretary Michael Gove implemented the change. As a result, GCSEs focus less on coursework and more on academic performance in exams and controlled assessments. A-levels are studied based on both coursework and exams.
These grades are then converted into UCAS tariff points for students who wish to attend university. The higher your score, the higher the points you will receive. The grades you will receive for your A-levels will largely depend on the exam board you are sitting your exam on. Some exam boards may score their grades higher or lower than others, so specific grading boundaries are not as easy to come by as they are for something like the international baccalaureate.
An AS-level is an advanced qualification studied after GCSEs.
What A-levels should I study?
This will depend on you and the university course you want to apply for. Typically, students will pick A-levels that are closely linked to the course they are studying.
Despite this, there are several “facilitating subjects”. These A-level subjects are generally well-regarded by universities, regardless of the subject you are applying for.
The most common facilitating subjects are:
- Modern foreign languages
Not all universities will necessarily accept these for certain courses. There are A-level degree quizzes that can be found online, or you can use other resources such as Informed Choices. Teachers, parents, siblings, guardians and career advisors can also be invaluable sources of information and advice.
What do I do if I fail my exams?
Plenty of options are open for students whose exams do not go how they wanted. You can ask your school or college to re-mark your exam, though this may incur a fee, though this fee may be waived if your grade is changed. Re-marks are only for specific circumstances and may not be offered by all exam boards, schools or colleges.
You can also appeal your grade if you wish. Appeals can be done by the school or college you attended or by the exam board of your test paper. If you are still unsatisfied with the result of your appeal, you can always request an appeal from Ofqual, who will then take over the appeals process.
Retaking A-Levels is also possible. Many students decide to do this when they have not achieved the grades they wanted, and it often gives them a chance to revisit topics or areas they previously struggled with. You can retake A-levels at school, college, or sixth form. This gives you a chance to improve your prior grades and also gives you the opportunity to re-apply for a university if you did not meet their university entry requirements the first time or to gain some important work experience.
A-Level grades are then converted into UCAS tariff points for students who wish to attend university.
Will I be at a disadvantage if I don’t take AS-levels?
This will depend on you and your plans for the future. Not all universities require you to have an AS-level qualification, though some may. Most universities are looking more for the body of work a student has rather than if you have the right amount of UCAS points, so not having an AS-level is not necessarily a disadvantage.
Today, universities consider a lot more. Your personal statement, portfolios, work experience, or even university interviews or university entrance exams are more important to a university than whether or not you have an AS-level.
It is not uncommon for students to receive contextual offers. These offers are geared towards offering students who meet specific criteria (being a first-generation higher education student, being a young carer or being a refugee), in which their grades may be less of a consideration than they are with other offers.
What is involved with taking an AS-level?
This will depend on you and the choices you make. If you are studying an AS-level, you will effectively be studying four A-levels at once. You will sit an exam for your AS-level subject at the end of the year, determinining your final grade for that subject.
A-level and GCSE students are typically granted study leave. This is a process in which students can stay at home (or come to school if they wish) to study and revise for upcoming exams. AS-level students are not entitled to study leave, so you must find time to study away from school.
The workload will largely depend on you and your tolerance for study. Many students have reported that the workload is far greater than that of GCSEs, while others have said that they have noticed very little by way of change. Workloads can also be affected if you are sitting an AS-level on top.
Is it worth doing an AS-level?
There are pros and cons to sitting AS-levels. The pros are that they will increase the UCAS tariff points you will use to apply for a university. As they are separate from A-levels, it is an excellent way to still receive a qualification in a subject that you do not have the time or space to study beyond this point. Some universities may not specifically require AS-levels as part of their entry requirements. However, they will still see that you have them and will take their scores into account, particularly if they are higher scores.
Plenty of options are open for students whose exams do not go how they wanted.
The cons to this are that it can often take time away from studying your full A-levels. Most of your time will be spent in the first year studying for your AS-levels as you need to sit the exams for them at the end of the year. They can also be overwhelming for some students. As stated above, you will effectively be studying four A-levels in one year and not all students are well-equipped to deal with this.
Ultimately, the decision is yours. Only you know if the perks are worth the drawbacks and no one else can decide for you.
How much harder are A-levels compared to AS-levels?
This will depend on who you speak to. It is a common consensus that A-levels are much harder than AS-levels. This shouldn’t come as a surprise for most students, given that A-levels are worth 60% more than an AS-level.
The second year of A-levels is a lot harder than the first because there is more to learn. As a result, AS-levels, being only a year-long, will be much easier to study as there is less subject matter to cover.
What are my other options?
There are other alternatives to studying AS & A-levels. Many students explore other alternatives, especially if they think there are better options open to them or if they can study more vocational qualifications.
Many students decide to enter into the world of work after finishing their GCSEs. Some students feel that, after finishing school, they are done with their education and would prefer to go out and make a living. This is an excellent opportunity to build up some work experience and forge contacts within the industry you are working in. The best thing is that if you decide to improve your grades or are thinking of applying for a job with specific qualifications in mind, you can always return as a mature student.
Many students study BTECs. A BTEC is a qualification offered in England, Northern Ireland and Wales and specialises in a specific area or subject. BTECs are accepted by most universities and are good ways of having a head start in specific areas as these are technically considered to be vocational qualifications. BTECs can also be studied alongside A-levels, though this is usually done at a college rather than a school, which typically does not offer the BTEC qualification.T Levels are another alternative for students. Initially announced
in 2017, they were formally introduced into the world of education in August of 2022. These are technical-based subjects that developed alongside employers and businesses to provide students with more industry-based knowledge. At their highest qualifications, T Levels are equivalent to three A*s at A-level.
The second year of A-levels is a lot harder than the first because there is more to learn.
What can you do after A-levels?
The choice is yours. Most students tend to go to university and study for an undergraduate degree or a foundation degree. This option does not suit all students, but it is an excellent way of putting yourself in the best possible position to find a job in the job market.
Most employers are keen for applicants to have work experience before applying. With this in mind, looking into apprenticeships or some employment training can be a good idea. Some employers have also been known to send employees to university to study a part-time course wherein they can study for a degree in their field and work during the week.
It is also possible to pursue other academic routes. The aforementioned foundation degree can be useful. However, other alternatives exist, such as a higher national diploma or a higher national certificate and are equivalent to a bachelor’s degree, without the need to study a three-year course.