How to succeed in A-Level Chemistry?

The second post of our A-Level revision series, focusing on Chemistry.

April 2022
Chandan Sekhon
Cambridge University - 1st Year Medical Student

Welcome to the second post of the A-Level revision series, this time focusing on A-Level Chemistry! This is a subject people tend to dislike because of the vast jump in difficulty from GCSE to A-Level. As difficult as Chemistry may seem, it is by no means impossible - you just have to be smart in how you go about studying for it.

How do you learn A-Level Chemistry content?

For Chemistry, memorisation of information doesn’t get you very far. This is because chemistry is more of a skills-based subject that requires practice. However, there is some memorisation involved, for example, definitions for the different enthalpies, bond angles and shapes, inorganic ion colours and reactions etc. For these, I would recommend using flashcards – active recall is definitely the best way to learn this content as it challenges you whilst keeping you engaged. Additionally, making posters or post-it notes to stick around your room or bathroom may be beneficial for you (particularly if you are a visual learner!) – not only is the process of making these very useful for your revision but it is also a great way to fit in revision when you wouldn’t normally e.g. when your brushing your teeth or eating breakfast. Similarly to A-Level biology, I wouldn’t recommend making full notes. It is time-consuming and if you are just rewriting the textbook, it is a pointless exercise. You would be better off using the blurting method (described in the A-Level biology article) and websites such as Chemrevise to get the information you need.

How do you succeed in A-Level Chemistry?

The single most important thing you should do to prepare for A-Level chemistry is exam practice. Personally, I spent 90% of my time doing exam practice and 10% memorising content. This may seem extreme but most students struggle with this subject because of exam technique. It is difficult to get your head around certain concepts, such as equilibrium and organic chemistry, but the best way to get better at them is to practice. Luckily, there are a lot of resources for A-Level Chemistry available online, so please make the most of them! Use websites like Physicsandmathstutor and Exampro to access past-paper questions, as well as textbooks and revision guides for further practice.

When revising definitions, use those provided in mark schemes – every time you see a definition appear in a mark scheme note it down so that over time you create a comprehensive list of accurate definitions. It is highly likely that the questions you get asking for definitions will be the same number of marks and have the same marking points as those used previously.

It is highly likely that you will come across questions that look like completely unfamiliar content – and these may panic you initially! These are application of knowledge questions – if you do get flustered remind yourself that they cannot ask you anything that is not covered on the syllabus. If you follow the tips I’ve provided and do adequate revision, the knowledge you have will be sufficient to answer the question! It may not be obvious what to do at first glance and therefore I would advise taking a methodical approach. Highlight the parts of the question providing bits of information that may be useful: for calculation questions, this could include relative formula masses (Mr), moles, masses of substances, temperatures etc. Then try plugging these into the formulas you do know, gradually as you work out different values you should begin to recognise the steps you need to take to achieve the answer they are looking for. Sometimes these questions may not be calculation related. For these, again, highlight the information you are given and think about how this may have similarities to the content you have learnt. Once you have identified similarities, you can apply your knowledge to this new scenario.

It is also important not to neglect mathematical skills when you are revising for A-Level Chemistry. Calculations form a huge proportion of the total number of marks available for chemistry exams so it is useful that you know how to approach these logically. Sometimes they will try and trick you by providing information you do not need, to see if you are taking the time to read the question and select relevant details. Please do practice these calculations and if there is a question you can’t do, or you don’t understand, make sure to ask your teachers.

Another factor to consider is the practical questions - personally, I used to lose the most marks here because I didn’t enjoy them much and didn’t prioritise them at all. You may be asked to draw diagrams of the apparatus set-up, recall steps for specific practicals and explain why these steps are taken, report what you would observe etc. These questions come up every year (and some exam boards even have a separate practical paper!) so it is important not to neglect them.

I would also recommend doing questions (particularly those requiring maths skills) from exam boards other than the one you are studying. There will be overlap in the content covered and the questions are likely to be very similar - therefore you should use this to your advantage and practice with all the resources available to you.

To summarise…

A-Level Chemistry is hard but it is not impossible. It takes a lot of work to succeed in the subject because the onus should be on practising exam techniques to refine your performance in exams. Memorisation can only get you so far for Chemistry! However, with adequate and strategic preparation, I promise you will be able to succeed in the subject. Good luck!

Author: Chandan Sekhon

Editor: Allegra Wisking

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