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Moving from A-levels to university

Stephanie Webb interview four students about how they found doing degrees different to A-levels, what was hard, and why they all think university is better than school and college.

Rachel, English

The biggest difference between university and A-levels is probably that studying at degree level carries much more personal responsibility. Support is always available but you have to seek it out for yourself and make sure to monitor your own progress too. At A-level, to an extent, you are given the information you need to reproduce in exams and assignments; at university, tutors seek your independent thought and encourage you to create your own arguments. I remember A-level assessment as being quite formulaic, but in exams and essays at uni tutors are looking for original and creative responses.

Being encouraged to think independently, and having the freedom to choose what to read and write about is actually one of the best things about studying for a degree. Seminars become a space for debate and discussion and you get to meet people with similar interests to you, including your tutors. University tutors don’t have to follow exam boards like A-level teachers do. They choose their own topics based on their areas of interest and expertise. The passion of the academic staff was one of the best surprises about my uni course; it makes for such a stimulating environment. During lectures, you get to absorb information from real experts. I found lectures invaluable.

Looking back, A-levels were probably a bit restrictive. It wasn’t until I got to uni that I learned what really interests me in my subject. I definitely enjoyed my degree more!

Sophie, Geography 

I found that A-levels helped me when I started university because they gave me the skills to write well, absorb information, and prepare for exams. There are things they don’t prepare you for though. Although I got As for essays at A-level, the feedback I got for my first university essay wasn’t as good as I would have liked. At school, I was given sources to work with and not taught how to do wider reading.

I really enjoyed the varied nature of my degree and that I would study everything from politics in South Africa, to the history of civilization, to Marxism, all in the same month. Looking back to what I knew at 18, I have to say that the variety of things I studied for my degree taught me a lot about the world. . At uni, I had to learn how to research extensively and be able to extract the salient points from readings and reference them to form an innovative argument.

I found what I studied at university very different from A-level, and at first it wasn’t what I expected at all. But strangely, as time went on, the more my course veered from what I expected, the more I came to enjoy it as it covered so many issues and subjects I had never learnt about or even heard of before.

Cheryl, History and Philosophy

When you start a degree, everything is new at the beginning! I felt bombarded with info at first! One of the big differences is how much you learn and how quickly. For example, at A-level I spent a whole year studying Cromwell and James II. It’s not like that at uni at all! When I studied medieval queens, I was covering more than one queen every week for a whole term.

Although it maybe didn’t seem like it at the beginning, one of the best surprises about uni is that actually you can manage the workload! You become more independent and grow as a person. You discover just what you’re made of and how much you can handle. The sense of accomplishment is one of the best things about going to uni. It’s a life changing experience.

Izzy, Medicine

One of the biggest things about moving from A-levels to degree level is getting used to the volume of content. At A-level my condensed revision notes for a topic might have been a few sides of A4; at uni, they’re whole folders! You have to realize that you can’t expect to learn everything you are taught anymore. Instead, it’s about selecting which bits you really need to know, and you have to figure this out for yourself. I found the lack of a clear syllabus like there is at A-level quite a shock. For example, the university doesn’t specify any core text books and I have to decide for myself which will be most useful. Self-directing just means, though, that I can choose what resources to use based on what works best for me, personally. And I’m not on my own. The best thing about being at university is the community you have around you. At university, not only are you studying the thing you really want to do, you also have the freedom to be the person you want to be.

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