Making the grade: A* students share their revision tips and secrets
What separates the A* students from the rest? We asked those who got top grades in their exams to divulge their tips and study hacks.
This is what students on our sister site The Student Room (TSR), who received at least one A* in their A-level exams, attributed their success to. And no, none of them include leaving things to the last minute...
Alternatively, skip down to our top A-level revision tips including answers to common study questions.
How to revise: revision tips from A* students
Read the examiners' reports
Rather than try to guess what those marking your paper are looking for, it can pay off to do a little digging. Believe it or not, the answer is out there...
What baffles me is that, year upon year, the exam boards make public a document that is, wait for it, written by the people who are going to mark your papers. And in it, they tell you what they like to read. They also give you examples of what not to do.
Exam-technique wise, this is the most useful and important resource you have. Utilise it. Be all fancy and print it off and highlight key points and make spider diagrams. Stick it on your fridge. Memorise it, then eat the paper – whatever! Just make sure, if you're doing an essay subject, you walk into that exam knowing that, for the past five years in a row, examiners have given high marks to pupils who offer criticisms to viewpoints, or who relate to personal research.
Want more advice? This video has some general advice from A-level examiners.
Check past papers
This is a great way to get accustomed to the type of questions you'll face in an exam, as well as the language the questions will be told in – something like this might throw you off if you're encountering it for the first time on exam day.
So put down those revision cards and mind-maps once you've learned them. There's no point going over something a million times; you need to be able to apply it. At least two weeks before your exams, start concentrating on past papers. Do each one at least twice. With each one, trawl through the mark scheme and ensure you understand everything there. This gives you a better idea of how to think through an exam question.
I rarely just know the answer. In the harder questions, I have to think about it and work it out. That's what you need to be able to do to get the high grades.
Using past papers? This video has some tips.
It might seem tedious, but it's best to have all your bases covered than spend the exam kicking yourself that you didn't revise that one area you glossed over.
Make it more manageable
Starting to revise can feel overwhelming, especially if an exam covers two years of work. Breaking things down can be a great psychological win and make things slightly more achievable.
For my exams, I broke down a module into 20 sections or topics. It meant it didn't seem like much of a chore to start the next one, as they didn't last long. Then, before I knew it, I'd whizzed through the module without it being much work.
Break it down: this video explains how breaking information down into smaller pieces makes it easier to remember.
Don't be tempted to cram
Don't leave things to the last minute, thinking that it will stick in your head if you do (it won't).
Get into the habit of doing a little nightly or weekly throughout the year. By the time you get to revision season, everything will (hopefully) feel more manageable. This will also leave you more time to practise and test what you really know.
Go home from school and make flash cards and posters and so on. That way, when you come to the exam period, you already know most of it and it's just brushing up on final details. Don't frantically cram for an exam. There's no point - it won't go in.
Create a plan
Having everything written down in front of you will ensure nothing gets forgotten and give you a basis to work from. This can make a real difference when you have multiple subjects to study for.
I then put this into a timetable so when it came down to revising I wouldn’t spend ages just flicking through any book finding something to revise, but would know exactly what area I was to cover in that time period.
Getting organised? This video has more tips on making a revision timetable.
Common A-level revision questions: FAQs
When should you start revising?This will depend on how many exams you have, when they are and how prepared you are already. Most students will begin just before or during the Easter holidays, but focus on what your needs are, and plan accordingly.
Mocks are a great way to kick off your revision, whether these take place before or after Christmas. Here you can start getting your notes together, figure out a study plan and discover what techniques work best for you. This can save time when preparing for the real thing, later.
When you get your mock results back, this will tell you how you’re doing, what material has stuck and what you need to work on. Check out our tips on what to do if your mocks go badly.
From there, you can decide when to begin. This might begin with simply making notes or highlighting key information, and ramp up slowly to actually memorising this and doing past papers. Again, things will vary from student to student; don’t try to get too bogged down by what others are doing.
Your teachers can also give you some guidance on when to begin and what you should be doing, as they will know you best.
How many hours should you revise per day?Again, this will depend on how much you need to revise, how you’re doing so far and how you best revise.
You don’t want to be in a situation where you haven’t got enough time to cover everything you need to, so start early if you have to, to get the job done. Cramming, overly long revision sessions and not covering material in enough detail won’t do you any good.
Stick to short revision sessions, take breaks, and switch up what and how you study to keep things interesting. A four-hour study session without breaks may look impressive; but if you’re not remembering what you need to, how effective is it really? The human brain can only go so long without being distracted, so don’t push yourself beyond your limits.
If you need to meet a certain number of study hours in a single day, experiment with revising at different times to avoid long, unproductive sessions. This might mean doing a little work before school, at lunchtime or after school (before and after dinner).
This might not sound fun, but exam season is where you’ll need to learn to prioritise commitments in your life (temporarily) for a greater goal – a worthy life lesson. So things like extracurricular clubs, sports, part-time jobs, browsing Instagram, playing video games and seeing friends might need to be put on the shelf (if possible) for now. That doesn’t mean you should be working 24/7 and not blow off steam here and there; but be smart with your time and earn your rewards.
Time to revise? This video covers how much time to spend studying.
What are the best revision techniques to study effectively?Studying in shorter sessions with breaks, and revising different subjects in different ways, often works best for most. This will keep your brain stimulated, whereas doing the same thing for too long will likely make you switch off.
Revision doesn’t mean sitting in your room alone staring at a book, either. Everyone is different and there are lots of ways to approach studying, so find the method that works best for you – use your mocks to help you decide what works for you:
Alone vs with others: do you need a disciplined friend to keep you motivated and stop you reaching for your phone? Or will you simply be distracted by their presence?
At home or elsewhere: not everyone has an area at home to revise comfortably for long periods. Whether it be Netflix, games or dad popping in to grab your laundry, many distractions at home can stop you getting into the groove.
Study rooms at school, the library or a local café can be alternative study spots. Make sure you have sufficient light so you’re not straining your eyes, a sturdy chair that won’t leave you hunched over, and enough space for all your books, notes and equipment (plus a study snack).
With music or in silence: dead silence can drive some people doolally, but if you’re revising a particularly tricky subject, you might need to focus. Others need some sort of background noise; this could be music (from hard rock to block out noise to indie folk to chill out to), the radio or television, or even just the happenings of their local café.
Reading vs taking notes vs explaining it out loud etc: for most, reading is not enough and you’ll need to shake things up, especially when hopping from one subject to another.
Making notes might take a while, but taking the time to write down (not typing) key information can help it stick. Another question to ask yourself is how much you should write down. This could start of as extensive notes, slowly narrowing down to flashcards or brief ‘crib notes’ with acronyms, key names and formulas as exams draw near.
But how do you know it’s all sticking? Try making notes without looking at your books, completing past papers, and even explaining key concepts to others – in fact, this last one is a great tip to check that what you’re learning makes sense to you.
Revision help, hacks and tips: survive exam season with our full advice section
And if you're revising for a Btec, take a look at our top tips from current and former Btec students.