What Have A-Levels Taught Me?

I haven’t written in so long — not for myself, at any rate. Sure, I’ve had essays flying out of my ears — an expression I wish to propel back into widespread use —, and an endless quantity of notes, revision materials and the like. Amongst it all, I’ve had very little time to write here, and on the rare occasions that I’ve found myself without a looming deadline, I’ve had almost no energy, and very little motivation. Here we are, however, at the beginning of the easter holidays: two weeks of rest, relaxation and revision, because exams start almost as soon as I return to College, and the whirlwind of no-time, no-energy, high-productivity will resume. That’s not such a bad thing though, in fairness.

Every now and then, I think back to this time last year, in a kind of Facebook memories style thought process, although with more privacy and less capitalism than Facebook could ever be perceived as embodying. I was preparing for my GCSEs — the set of exams which English and Welsh 16-year-olds take, usually in 10-12 subjects —, ‘frantically revising’ for the most important set of external examinations I had sat to date, repeatedly preaching the importance of ‘not working too hard’, and ‘giving yourself a break’, to fit in with the social media crowd at the time, more than anything else. In retrospect, I think I got consumed by the ‘remember to rest’ idea, to the point where I spent more time congratulating myself for doing the smallest amount of revision, than I spent actually revising, which probably wasn’t the highlight in my timeline of productivity.

I remember being told by teachers and older students that, after GCSEs, I would have the longest, most enjoyable summer of my life, before the hard work of A-levels set in. I scoffed: they had no idea how hard I was working for my GCSEs; I knew exactly how hard A-levels would be, no doubt. Sure, the summer would be fun — and it was, of course —, but a-levels would be no different to GCSEs, just fewer subjects to think about. I wouldn’t have to work harder, or change my work-life balance.

I’m not sure that 16-year-old me would ever have imagined that, 12 months on, I would be working 10 times harder than back then. I’m just not sure I could have imagined that working any harder than I believed that I was then was even possible. If only I had known what was to come: there are less subjects, for sure, but easily four or five times the amount of work for each, compared to GCSE levels. I struggle to remember an evening where I haven’t done something towards my A-level subjects, whether that be reading, note taking, or essay writing.
And yet, I love it, truly. I’m studying what I enjoy, able to be creative, inventive and opinionated, and embracing everything which is new to me, and everything which I can dive deeper into, exploring realms of culture, politics and literature I never even knew existed, until they were briefly mentioned in passing during a class, or linked in an analytical article about 19th-century literature (yes, I’m one of those).

What am I trying to say, then? I suppose the depressing approach to my point here is that GCSE students who think they’re working hard have another thing coming: A-levels will take over your life, and leave you looking forward to the holidays like a child looks forward to Christmas, which despite including work, seem like paradise in comparison to the never-ending workload of term-time. From my perspective, however, I see it as a reminder that, despite believing you know exactly what lies ahead, you can’t understand something that you’ve never experienced. A-levels have not been what I expected a year or so ago, although those expectations were undeniably founded in a naive sense of egotistical self-absorption. Whilst being full-on, A-levels have allowed me to develop, learn and open my mind to all sorts of different ideas, time periods and ways of thinking, and for that I am grateful. Ultimately, I suppose it is one of those well-known situations; you get out what you put in. If you go into your A-levels, intending to coast your way through two years, then you most likely will, but the enjoyment really comes from putting in the effort, the reading, the research — all of it. That’s when you discover what you enjoy, what captures your imagination, why you’re studying the subjects you are. I could easily say before this year that I enjoyed studying French, for example, but ask me why, and I wouldn’t have had a clue. Now, I can identify the elements I enjoy: the different culture, the power of communication, and the challenge of putting myself in the position of someone who has grown up in a society different, in so many subtle ways, to my own. Following, and engaging fully in, A-level French has allowed me to discover that, and to use it as my foundation when approaching so many different aspects of the course.

In the meantime, I wish you all the best for any exams you may be sitting, as summer is traditionally exam season, in the UK at any rate. Look ahead to what you’re doing next year, but don’t think you already know how it will work, and how much you’ll need to put in: everything is a learning experience, and we learn by our actions, not our unfounded presumptions.

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