The transition from A-Level to University

Esther is studying Pharmacy MPharm (Hons) here at The University of Bradford. She gives us her perspective on the transition from studying A-Levels to studying a degree.



Esther Ikejie, Pharmacy MPharm (Hons)

We often read or hear a lot about what it’s like being a university student, but very little is published about the transition experience from being a sixth form (or college) student into the ‘big wide world’ of being a university student.

As I have a first-hand experience of it, I will be focusing on A-Levels and discussing the differences and similarities with studying a degree. Please note that these are solely based on my personal experiences, so other students may have different perspectives.

Workload and intensity

I remember when progressing from GCSEs to A-Levels, my teachers kept telling me “this would be the biggest educational jump you will have to make”. Looking back now I question whether this was supposed to motivate me or just simply scare me off.

No doubt about it, A-Level was a serious level up! As well as the subjects’ content, there were additional pressures to perform well enough to impress your chosen university and the course of your choice. Studying three subjects at a higher level, whilst completing the UCAS process (including the daunting personal statement) and actively seeking work experience (all to ‘score more points’ with universities), made the workload of being a sixth form student more overwhelming.

At university, there’s still the responsibility of getting work experience to complement your degree and enhance your job prospects in the future; however, this just doesn’t seem as pressured when compared to sixth form. This is probably because there are more years in a degree, and there are far more opportunities available to university students as well as increased support from the university, which makes the whole process a lot easier.

Assessment styles and course content

Unlike A-Levels, there are more varied assessment styles at university which allow for cumulative ‘points’ to be gathered, contributing to your end results. A-Levels assessments were limited to written exams and coursework, which meant that there was greater pressure to perform well in all assessments.

At university, assessments include a mixture of written and practical exams, lab experiments, application exercises and web portfolios (to name a few) which accommodate to a wider range of student strengths. In simple words, you can potentially make up for poor performances using the good ones from the assessment methods that favour you.

However, the intensity of the actual content of A-Level subjects is not compared to that of a degree. In terms of the course content, particularly the skills required and complexity, I believe there’s an increased demand from A-Levels to a degree.

Overall, I can say that the workload of A-Levels seems heavier, however, it’s not compared to the intensity of studying a degree, which requires a greater level of mastery, understanding and skill.

Accountability and motivation

There is a greater need for motivation as a university student. In A-levels, you’re still under the legal binding of education so attending sessions and completion is almost compulsory. So even if you lack personal motivation, the law should be good enough motivation to get you out of bed each morning.

However, at university, motivation becomes more of a personal responsibility as there is less accountability on staff and parents. Therefore, it’s easier to slip into the cycle of missing lectures, not putting in as much effort or even dropping out of university.

Mixing the elevated intensity and change of environment that comes with a degree can be quite difficult, but it’s important to try and keep motivated and to ask for help if you ever feel like you’re overwhelmed or struggling.

Staff-student relationship

Teachers in A-levels seemed more ‘hands-on’, possibly due to the increased feeling of responsibility for students’ achievements and success. As a result, more effort seems to be made by teachers in A-Levels to develop and maintain the staff-student relationship, than in university.

At university, there can be a perceived barrier between students and lecturers due to their higher qualifications and experiences (i.e. most of them are PhD holders and professors) which may discourage students from creating a relationship with their lecturers.

The university has a system to break down this barrier through assigning students with a Personal Academic Tutor (PAT), allowing for a more personalised experience with their lecturers. The PAT system provides students with a sense of continuity by having the same lecturer as their Personal Tutor throughout the whole course.

Student interpersonal relationship

As commonly said, the friendships you make at university are more likely to remain lifelong, this is perhaps due to the number of years you spend together completing your degree. University life is more challenging and the friendships you develop play a major role in creating great memories and shaping your university experience.

The physical distance created when moving away from your A-Level friends onto new paths can cause you to drift away from each other, but it’s important not to be afraid of these changes in relationships, as it often results in the formation of new, exciting and long-lasting friendships.

Perseverance and commitment

Understandably the progression from A-Levels to a degree is a significant leap, which requires preparation. It’s important to take full advantage of resources and the support available to help make the transition as smooth as possible; including academic services, PATs, loved ones, testimonies of other students and mentoring services at the University.

Finally, this exciting and challenging journey of university life requires perseverance through resilience, commitment and a positive attitude.

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