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A-Level Psychology: A Complete Guide

A-Level Psychology: A Complete Guide

10 min Read|June 11 2024
|Written by:

Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa


Looking into the human mind and its complexities, A-Level Psychology offers a fascinating journey. Why choose this subject? It's not just about understanding theories; it's about applying them to real-world scenarios, uncovering the mysteries of human behaviour and mental processes. This A-Level bridges the gap between scientific exploration and the everyday experiences that shape our lives. So, if you're curious about what drives people, this might just be the perfect subject for you.

Is a Psychology A-level worth it?

Deciding on A-Level subjects is a pivotal moment for many students, and Psychology stands out as a compelling choice. But, is it truly worth your time and effort? According to the British Psychological Society, psychology is one of the most versatile subjects you can study, given its combination of both science and arts. This versatility opens up a a lot of career paths, not just in psychology but also in fields like marketing, education, and human resources.

  • University Admissions: A-Level Psychology is respected by universities, with many psychology teachers in undergraduate courses listing it as a preferred subject.
  • Employability: A background in psychology provides a unique insight into human behaviour, a valuable asset in any job market.
  • Skill Development: It enhances critical thinking, analytical skills, and understanding of research methods.

Here is what an expert A-Level Psychology tutor has to say:

"Taking Psychology in your A-Level opens up a variety of career paths that you can choose. From clinical psychology, helping those with mental health issues, to educational psychology, supporting students' learning and well-being, or even market research, understanding consumer behavior for businesses. It's a pretty interesting subject to pick and will surely open doors to a lot of opportunites for you!"

Expert opinions reinforce the value of A-Level Psychology. This makes it an excellent choice for students aiming for both academic and professional success.

Number of students who took A-Level Psychology exams in the past 10 years

Graph showing number of students who took A-Level Psychology exams in the past 10 years in the UK

Is Psychology a hard A-level?

Determining the difficulty of A-Level Psychology depends on various factors, including a student's interest and strengths. However, data and expert opinions offer some insights. In a recent poll, 3.16% of participants considered A-Level Psychology as one of the harder A-Levels, ranking it eleventh. This perception might be attributed to its comprehensive curriculum that encompasses both scientific research methods and complex theories of human behaviour.

  • Pass Rates: In 2023, 69.7% of students achieved a grade C or above, and 5.6% secured an A*, below the average for all subjects.
  • Comparative Difficulty: While it's deemed challenging, A-Level Psychology's difficulty is often compared to that of other humanities and science subjects, requiring a balance of essay-writing and statistical analysis.


Table showing A-level Psychology grades distribution

Experts argue that the perceived difficulty of Psychology A-Level can be mitigated with effective study strategies and a genuine interest in the subject matter. It demands dedication and an eagerness to delve into the intricacies of human behaviour and mental processes, much like any other A-Level subject.

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What is in A-level Psychology?

A-Level Psychology is a comprehensive course that dives deep into the human mind, offering insights into why people think, feel, and behave the way they do. The curriculum is designed to provide a broad understanding of various psychological concepts, theories, and methodologies.

  • Core Areas: Students explore major areas including cognitive psychology (how we think and perceive the world), social psychology (how we are influenced by others), developmental psychology (how we develop over our lifespan), and biological psychology (the biological underpinnings of our behaviour).
  • Research Methods: A critical component of the course is understanding research methods in psychology, including experiments, observations, and case studies.
  • Psychopathology: Learning about different psychological disorders and their treatments offers a window into the challenges and complexities of mental health.

CIE A-Level Psychology Syllabus

The CIE A-Level Psychology syllabus covers essential to advanced psychology topics, split into AS Level for basics and A Level for in-depth study in areas like developmental and abnormal psychology. It prepares students for higher education and careers in various psychology fields.

TopicAS Level ApproachesTopicA Level Approaches
1Biological1-4All AS Level Approaches
2Cognitive5Clinical Psychology
3Learning6Consumer Psychology
4Social7Health Psychology
8Organisational Psychology

Table showing CIE A-Level Psychology syllabus

Note: Topics 5 to 8 are the specialist options and only two must be chosen.

AQA A-Level Psychology Syllabus

The AQA A-Level Psychology course offers a comprehensive exploration of psychology, from fundamental concepts at AS Level to advanced topics at A-Level. It blends theoretical knowledge with practical applications, preparing students for higher education or careers in psychology and related fields.

TopicCompulsory content
1Social influence
5Approaches in Psychology
7Research methods
8Issues and debates in Psychology

Table showing compulsory part of AQA A-Level Psychology syllabus

TopicOption 1TopicOption 2TopicOption 3
10Gender13Eating behaviour16Forensic Psychology
11Cognition and development14Stress17Addiction

Table showing optional part of AQA A-Level Psychology syllabus

Experts in the field emphasise the importance of this curriculum for developing a solid foundation in psychology, fostering critical thinking, analytical skills, and a develop an appreciation for the diversity of human experience. This makes A-Level Psychology not only a subject for those interested in pursuing psychology further but also for anyone keen on understanding human behaviour from a scientific perspective.

What is the A-level Psychology exam structure?

The A-level Psychology exam structure is designed to evaluate students' understanding of psychological concepts, theories, and research methods. It typically spans two years, culminating in a series of examinations that assess various areas of psychology such as cognitive, social, biological, and individual differences.

Each paper usually comprises a mix of multiple-choice questions, short answer questions, and extended writing. The exam is structured to test not only the students' knowledge but also their ability to apply this knowledge to novel situations, analyze psychological data, and evaluate psychological studies critically.

CIE A-Level Psychology Exam Structure

The CIE A-Level Psychology exam assesses students through multiple-choice, short answer, and essay questions across different papers, focusing on both theory and application of psychological concepts.

Paper No.1234
NameApproaches, Issues and DebatesResearch MethodsSpecialist Options: Approaches, Issues and DebatesSpecialist Options: Application and Research Methods
Time1 hr 30 min1 hr 30 min1 hr 30 min1 hr 30 min
Total Marks60606060
AssessmentShort answers, extended response and essays questions based on core studiesShort answer, scenario-based and planning questions based on core studiesQuestions from two specialist optionsQuestions from two specialist options and a planning question
% of the A Level25%25%25%25%

Table showing CIE A-Level Psychology exam structure

AQA A-Level Psychology Exam Structure

The AQA A-Level Psychology examination framework rigorously evaluates students' understanding and application of psychology principles. It includes various question types like multiple choice, short answers, and detailed essays, spread across a series of papers that cover distinct areas of the psychology syllabus.

Paper No.123
AssessmentIntroductory Topics in PsychologyPsychology in ContextIssues and Options in Psychology
Time2 hr2 hr2 hr
Total Marks969696
SyllabusCompulsory content 1–4 aboveCompulsory content 5–7 aboveCompulsory content 8 above and Optional content, one from option 1, 9–11, one from option 2, 12–14, one from option 3, 15–17 above
% of the A Level33.3%33.3%33.3%

Table showing AQA A-Level Psychology exam structure

Choosing the Right Exam Board

Selecting the appropriate exam board for A-Level Psychology is crucial, as each board offers a slightly different syllabus, assessment structure, and resources. In the UK, the main exam boards for A-Level Psychology are AQA, Edexcel (Pearson), OCR, and CIE (Cambridge International Examinations). The choice of board can influence the topics studied and the style of examination questions. The following are statistics for the UK in 2023:

  • AQA: With 65,193 candidates in 2023, AQA is the most widely chosen board for A-Level Psychology in the UK. It is renowned for a comprehensive syllabus that covers a broad range of topics.
  • Edexcel: Edexcel had 5,218 candidates and is appreciated for its clear structure and support materials.
  • OCR: OCR, with 5,975 candidates, offers unique modules that might appeal to students interested in more niche areas of psychology.
  • CIE: It is globally the most popular for A-Level Psychology. It offers an international perspective on psychology, which is appealing to a wide range of students.

Psychology graduate experts recommend considering the specific areas of interest in psychology, assessment styles, and available support materials when choosing an exam board. Each board's curriculum is designed to provide a thorough understanding of psychological principles, but the focus and depth of topics can vary. Therefore, it's essential to research and compare the syllabuses, published resources, and past exam papers to find the best fit for the student's learning style and interests.

How do you get an A* in A-Level Psychology?

Securing an A* in A-Level Psychology requires dedication, a strategic approach to study, and a deep understanding of the subject. Here are essential strategies that can significantly enhance your chances of achieving the top grade:

  • Engage in Active Revision: Use a variety of revision techniques, such as flashcards, mind maps, and practise questions, to reinforce key concepts and theories.
  • Master Research Methods and Statistics: A strong grasp of research methods and statistical analysis is crucial, as they form the backbone of psychological investigation.
  • Utilise Past Papers: Regularly practise with past exam papers to familiarise yourself with the exam format and improve your time management exam skills further.

Incorporating these strategies can lead to a deeper comprehension and better performance:

  • Tutoring: Personalised tutoring can address individual weaknesses and clarify complex topics, providing a tailored approach to learning.
  • Study Notes: Creating comprehensive, well-organised study notes helps in both consolidating information and enhances recall during exams.

Experts emphasise the importance of understanding the marking scheme and feedback from past papers to hone exam technique. Consistently applying these methods can not only improve knowledge retention but also build the critical thinking and analytical skills necessary for achieving an A* in A-Level Psychology.

Have a look at our comprehensive set of A-Level Psychology Study Notes developed by expert A-Level teachers and examiners!

What A-Levels go best with Psychology?

Choosing A levels that complement psychology can enhance your understanding of the subject and prepare you for higher education or a career in related fields. The interdisciplinary nature of psychology means it pairs well with a variety of subjects:

  • A-Level Biology: Understanding biological processes provides a solid foundation for the biological aspects of psychology, such as neuropsychology.
  • A-Level Sociology: Offers insights into social behaviours and institutions, complementing the study of social psychology.
  • A-Level Maths: Essential for grasping all the theories of statistical analysis used in psychological research.
  • A-Level English Literature: Develops critical thinking and analytical skills, useful for evaluating psychological theories and other case studies students do.
Grades distribution of A-Level Psychology in UK 2021-2023

Graph showing grades distribution of A-Level Psychology in UK 2021-2023

Combining psychology with these subjects to not only broaden your knowledge base but also to develop a versatile skill set that is highly valued in higher education and the workplace. For instance, a strong background in both psychology and biology can be particularly advantageous for students interested in pursuing neuropsychology or clinical psychology as a career.

Best A-Level Psychology Resources

For students embarking on A-Level Psychology, leveraging the right resources is key to mastering the subject. Here’s a list of top resources that have been highly recommended for effective study and revision:

All the above resources are extremely important. Interactive resources such as video lectures from Khan Academy or training courses from Crash Course Psychology can further enhance understanding and retention of complex psychological concepts.

Common Challenges and How to Overcome Them

A-Level Psychology students face several challenges throughout their course, yet each can be navigated with the right approach:

  • Understanding Complex Theories: Simplifying theories into key components and utilising mind maps can help in making sense of complex concepts.
  • Memorising Studies and Researchers: The vast number of studies and associated researchers requires effective memorisation strategies; mnemonic devices and storytelling techniques can aid in this process.
  • Application of Knowledge to Exam Questions: Mastering content is one aspect, but applying it accurately in exams is another; regular practise with past papers and focusing on adapting knowledge to different types of questions can enhance exam performance.

Addressing these issues requires a proactive study approach, ensuring that students engage actively with the material and practise extensively, especially with exam-style questions, to improve their understanding and application skills.

Past Papers and Practise Questions

Utilising past papers and practise questions is a pivotal part of preparing for A-Level Psychology exams. This method is not only recommended by educators but also supported by statistics showing students who consistently use past papers tend to score higher. Here's how these resources can be a game-changer in your revision strategy:

  • Familiarity with Exam Format: Regularly working through past papers helps students become accustomed to the structure and timing of the actual exams.
  • Identification of Weak Areas: Practise questions highlight areas that need more focus, allowing for targeted revision.
  • Application of Knowledge: These resources provide an opportunity to apply psychological concepts and theories to exam-style questions, improving critical thinking and analytical skills.

Experts in psychology education stress the importance of incorporating past papers into study routines early on. The feedback from these exercises is invaluable, offering insights into how examiners mark questions and where students can gain or lose points. This practise not only enhances exam technique but also builds confidence, ensuring students are well-prepared and familiar with what to expect on exam day.

Why is Psychology A-Level so popular?

A-Level Psychology's popularity can be attributed to its engaging content and the valuable insights it provides into human behaviour and mental processes. This subject has seen a steady increase in enrollment over the years, with students and educators alike recognizing its benefits and applications.

Gender distribution across A-Level Psychology

Pie chart showing gender distribution across A-Level Psychology

Majors in Higher Education:

  • Psychology and Psychiatry: Essential for those looking to pursue careers in mental health and therapeutic services.
  • Criminology and Forensic Psychology: Offers foundational knowledge necessary for understanding criminal behaviour and the justice system.
  • Educational Psychology: Prepares students for roles in educational support and development.
  • Sports Psychology: Useful for those interested in the psychological aspects of sports performance and motivation.
  • Business and Marketing: Provides insights into consumer behaviour and human resources.

Career Paths:

  • Clinical Psychology: Involves diagnosing and treating mental health issues.
  • Human Resources: Applies psychological principles to improve workplace productivity and employee satisfaction.
  • Market Research: Utilises understanding of human behaviour to analyse market trends and consumer needs.
  • Counselling: Offers support and guidance to help individuals through personal challenges.
  • Educational Support: Assists in the development of educational programmes with in depth advice and student welfare services.

Skills Development

  • Critical Thinking: Enhances the ability to evaluate arguments and evidence systematically.
  • Communication: Improves understanding and conveying complex ideas effectively.
  • Empathy and Understanding: Fosters a deeper understanding of human emotions and behaviours.
  • Research Skills: Develops proficiency in designing and analysing psychological research.
  • Analytical Skills: Strengthens the ability to dissect information and draw conclusions.

The broad applicability of A-Level Psychology to various fields of study and career paths, combined with the development of a wide range of transferable skills, contributes to its popularity. It not only equips students with a comprehensive understanding of psychological concepts but also prepares them for a diverse array of opportunities in both academic and professional settings.

Conclusion and Next Steps

A-Level Psychology is a great subject for understanding how and why people think and act the way they do. It's becoming more popular because it helps students gain a lot of useful skills, like how to think critically and understand others better. To do well in this subject, students need to work hard, use the right study materials, and practise a lot with past exam papers. Choosing the best exam board for you, using study resources wisely, and staying engaged with the course will really help. For anyone interested in the human mind or planning a career in areas related to psychology, taking A-Level Psychology is a smart move. It opens up many doors for future study and work opportunities, making it a valuable part of your education journey.


What GCSEs do you need to do A-level psychology?

To study A-Level Psychology, most colleges and sixth forms require you to have at least 5 GCSEs at grades 9-4 (A*-C), including English and Maths. Some may also prefer you to have a science GCSE, given the scientific aspects of the course. However, specific entry requirements can vary between institutions, so it's always a good idea to check with the place where you plan to study. A strong background in English is particularly beneficial due to the subject's emphasis on essay writing and comprehension.

What is the hardest subject in psychology?

The perceived difficulty of subjects within psychology varies among students, but many find research methods and statistics to be among the most challenging. This is because these areas require a good understanding of scientific principles and mathematical skills to analyse data effectively. Topics like neuropsychology can also be demanding due to their complex integration of psychological theories with biological foundations. Ultimately, what one might find hard, another may find fascinating, so it often comes down to personal strengths and interests.

Does A-level psychology have maths?

Yes, A-Level Psychology does include an element of maths, primarily through the study of research methods and statistical analysis. Students are expected to understand and perform statistical calculations to analyse data from psychological studies. This includes measures of central tendency (mean, median, mode), measures of dispersion (range, standard deviation), and understanding probability and significance. While it's not heavily maths-focused, a good grasp of basic mathematical concepts is essential for success in the course.

Can I study psychology without biology?

Yes, you can study A-Level Psychology without having studied GCSE Biology. While having a background in biology can be beneficial due to the biological aspects covered in the psychology syllabus, such as brain function and neurochemistry, it's not a mandatory requirement for most A-Level Psychology courses. The course is designed to introduce and explain all necessary biological concepts, ensuring all students, regardless of their GCSE subjects, can understand and engage with the material.

Do you need a calculator for A-level psychology?

Yes, you will need a calculator for A-Level Psychology, particularly for the research methods component of the course. This part of the syllabus involves statistical analysis, where you'll calculate things like averages, standard deviation, and probabilities. A basic scientific calculator that can perform these functions is sufficient. It’s important to familiarise yourself with how to use your calculator for these statistical tests, as it will be a valuable tool during your exams.

How long does the A-Level Psychology course take?

The A-Level Psychology course typically takes two years to complete when studied full-time in a sixth form or college setting. It's structured to be taught over this period, with the first year often focusing on AS-level content (if taken as a standalone qualification) and the second year delving into A2-level material, leading to the full A-Level qualification. Examinations are usually taken at the end of the second year.

Can I study A-Level Psychology online?

Yes, you can study A-Level Psychology online through various education providers. Online courses offer flexibility, allowing you to study at your own pace and fit your learning around other commitments. These courses provide all the necessary materials, including lecture notes, interactive exercises, and access to tutors for support. However, it's important to choose a reputable provider and ensure that the course is accredited and that you have a way to sit your exams, as some online courses might require you to arrange your own exam centre.

How much coursework is involved in A-Level Psychology?

A-Level Psychology primarily assesses students through examinations, with the majority of the course content evaluated in this way. However, the amount of coursework involved can vary depending on the exam board. Some specifications may include practical assessments or coursework components, but these are generally a small part of the overall assessment. It's essential to check with your specific exam board (e.g., AQA, Edexcel, OCR) for the exact structure of the course. As of recent years, the focus has been more on final exams rather than coursework.

Are there any field trips in A-Level Psychology?

Field trips in A-Level Psychology are not a compulsory part of the syllabus, but some schools and colleges choose to include them to enhance learning. These trips could involve visits to psychology departments at universities, research institutions, or places relevant to specific psychological studies and theories, such as museums or historical sites related to key psychological experiments. Whether you'll have field trips depends on the resources and approach of your teaching institution, but they can offer valuable real-world insights into the application of psychological theory.

How does A-Level Psychology support a career in medicine?

A-Level Psychology provides a strong foundation for a career in medicine by offering insights into mental health, patient behaviour, and the psychological aspects of illness and healthcare. Understanding psychological principles can enhance patient care, communication, and empathy in medical practise. It also prepares students for the psychological components of medical school curricula. Furthermore, psychology knowledge is beneficial in various medical fields, such as psychiatry, paediatrics, and general practice, where understanding the mental and emotional state of patients is crucial for effective diagnosis and treatment.

Can I combine A-Level Psychology with an apprenticeship?

Yes, you can combine A-Level Psychology with an apprenticeship, especially if the apprenticeship is in a related field such as healthcare, social care, or education. This combination allows you to gain practical work experience while studying psychological theories and principles. It's a great way to apply your learning in real-world settings and can enhance your understanding of psychology in practise. However, balancing study and work commitments requires good time management and organisational skills. It's important to choose an apprenticeship that complements your academic studies and career aspirations.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa

Written by: Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa

Oxford University - PhD Mathematics

Rahil spent ten years working as private tutor, teaching students for GCSEs, A-Levels, and university admissions. During his PhD he published papers on modelling infectious disease epidemics and was a tutor to undergraduate and masters students for mathematics courses.

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