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A Level biology fieldwork

Is A-Level Biology Hard?

5 min Read|February 07 2024
|Written by:

Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa

Contents

Biology remains one of the most popular A-Level subjects. 61,130 students appeared for the A-Level biology exam in June 2020, making it the third-most popular A-Level. But does this mean it’s for everyone?

If you’re passionate about the natural sciences, A-Level Biology will open up a world of possibilities for you. But the jump from GCSE to A-Level is a big one, and even a solid science background doesn’t guarantee that you’ll stick the landing. On the contrary, A-Level Biology is much more content-heavy with an extensive syllabus, elaborate concepts, exciting labs, and intricate exams.

This begs the question: is A-Level Biology hard?

The Short Answer

A-Level Biology is definitely one of the more difficult A-Levels, but not for the reasons you might think. Unlike other concept-heavy science subjects like Physics and Chemistry, A-Level Biology is difficult because of its huge syllabus.

But as far as the content is concerned, each concept is pretty straightforward and easy to commit to memory. At the end of the day, it all comes down to your ability to memorize concepts and manage your time. A-Level Biology demands a lot of out-of-class study hours. Since you’ll probably be taking Chemistry and/or Physics alongside Biology, it can be very draining— but it’s not impossible.

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What Background Do You Need For A-Level Biology?

The entry requirements for A-Level Biology are a grade 6 or higher in GCSE Combined Sciences: Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. This is equivalent to a grade B or higher. A good understanding of Chemistry principles is going to prove helpful for surviving A-Level Biology, as there are many overlapping concepts in the latter.

Moreover, you also need a grade 5 or above in GCSE Mathematics and English, which is equivalent to a grade C or higher.

A-Level Biology Syllabus

Eight core contents comprise the syllabus of A-Level Biology:

Biological molecules; Cells; Organisms exchange substances with their environment; Genetic information, variation and relationships between organisms, Energy transfers in and between organisms (A-Level only); Organisms respond to changes in their internal and external environments (A-Level only); Genetics, populations, evolution and ecosystems (A-Level only); The control of gene expression (A-Level only).

The first four topics are taught in the first year. These topics are comparatively easier than the final four, which means your first year in A-Level Biology will be a smooth transition from your GCSEs to your final A-Level exams. Each topic stems into further subdivisions, and some of them can be impossibly lengthy. However, you’ll notice that a lot of these topics are based on the ones you have already learned in your GCSEs. The only difference is that you’ll learn about them in much more detail. You’ll find yourself self-teaching a lot, which is common across all A-Levels. Luckily, there are countless resources at your disposal from online A-Level Biology tutors to free crash courses on YouTube.

A-Level Biology Exams

There will be a total of five A-Level Biology examinations. The first two take place at the end of your first year, while the last three take place at the end of your second year.

AS Examinations

At the end of your first year, you will be assessed on your understanding of topics 1-4. There are two exams, each carrying a 50% weightage: paper 1 and paper 2. Both papers:

  • Are 1 hour 30 minutes long,75 marks
  • Assigns 65 marks to short-answer questions and 10 marks to long-answer questions.

A-Level Examinations

A-Level Biology examinations occur at the end of the second year. It assesses you on all topics you have studied throughout the two years, which means you need to start preparing well ahead of time. There are three papers in total, carrying a weightage of 35%, 35%, and 30% respectively. Paper 1 includes topics 1-4, while paper 2 includes topics 5-8. Paper 3 is a test on your practical skills and knowledge and requires critical analysis of given experimental data.

Are A-Level Biology Exams Hard?

These exams are a little more challenging than what you might be accustomed to in your GCSEs. They place a higher emphasis on long, essay, critical analysis questions. Some of these questions may look daunting on paper. But they are essentially straightforward questions based on specific details you will have memorized.

The key to cracking these exams is through past papers, which help you understand the paper pattern, learn how to answer specific questions, and essentially predict most of the questions. Keep in mind that 10% of the overall assessment of AS Biology will require mathematical skills equivalent to Level 2 or above. Moreover, 15% of the overall assessment will test your skills and understanding of practical work.

What Is The Pass Rate of A-Levels Biology?

The pass rate of A-Level Biology was 99.5% in 2021, which is a slight drop from 99.7% in 2020. However, this decrease in the pass rate only reflects the hardships that students faced vis-a-vis schooling during the pandemic. In fact, the fail rate in 2021 was at an all-time low at 0.5%, down from 4.1% in 2019. Rest assured, even if you don’t secure the highest grade, you would really have to go out of your way to fail the subject.

Is It Easy To Get An A* In A-Level Biology?

44.1% of students secured A*s and As in their A-Level Biology exams in 2021. This is actually a huge increase from 36.8% in 2020 and 23.5% in 2019. At the same time, the percentage of Bs and Cs decreased from 24.8% in 2020 to 24% in 2021. Considering the fact that this percentage was even lower in pre-Corona 2019, it will continue to decrease as things start to turn the corner following the pandemic.

Conclusion

A-Level Biology can seem difficult. But almost everyone who studies it seems to agree that it’s not the content itself, but rather the volume of content that makes it so tough. In reality, A-Level Biology is actually much easier than Physics and Chemistry. While the latter two are concept-heavy and mathematical-based, A-Level Biology is quite straightforward.

At the end of the day, most of what you really need is a good work ethic. Taking help from good A-Level tutors can significantly boost your performance. The rest is just a matter of memorization and commitment to learning.

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Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa

Written by: Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa

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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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