Students celebrating achieving an A* in A Level chemistry

How to get an A* in A Level Chemistry

Complete understanding of the syllabus, outstanding problem-solving skills, excellent exam technique and a focused plan are the key elements of securing the top grade for A level chemistry.

Achieving an A* in A Level chemistry is difficult – only around 1 in 10 students achieve this grade each summer. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a chemistry-loving genius that eats, sleeps and drinks the subject 24/7 to get an A*, rather, it takes a lot of hard work and careful preparation that should start from day one.

This guide summarises the requirements for unlocking an A* and suggests activities and resources you can use to help you secure this elusive result.

You need 100% understanding of the specification

100% understanding means no knowledge gaps or topics you’re praying don’t come up because you’re not confident with them. Walking into an exam knowing there are gaps in your understanding is a certain recipe for stress, because you know you’re effectively playing Russian roulette with your grades.

The starting point is having a complete set of notes that you’ve written yourself. Writing up class notes is essential because the act of translating concepts into your own words is a powerful test of understanding and helps to embed facts. You can’t make notes if you don’t understand what you’re reading, so this serves as a first test of understanding.

However, it’s insufficient to simply read over your notes and say you’ve understood a topic because the facts ‘make sense’. At A Level, the emphasis is on application of knowledge rather than knowledge recall and you can’t test this by simply reading over facts. You may have heard that effective revision means active revision, and this especially applies in chemistry, where only a minority of questions test straightforward recall of information. The majority test application of knowledge at varying levels of difficulty and harder problems involve multi-step procedures (e.g. calculations and mechanisms) that need to be learnt and actively practised. You should test your ability to do this by working through practise questions on every topic.

A key priority is to identify knowledge gaps and fix them as soon as possible, certainly well before the exam, so you need to keep track of your performance in each topic. Use the trackers that your school might have given you, or it’s easy enough to download the specification and use a simple ‘traffic lights’ highlighting system. Any topics highlighted red are your top priority in your revision plan.

If questions shed light on concepts that lead to your understanding them better, be sure to update your notes to capture this. Similarly, if you find certain questions have a standard mark scheme answer that uses preferred keywords or phrases, add the marking points to your notes for future reference.

You need an effective revision plan

The elements of an effective chemistry revision plan are:

  • Activities that help you remember facts;
  • Activities that help you practise skills and calculations;
  • A schedule based around daily goals;
  • A system for tracking your progress.

I am a firm advocate of the Cornell Note-taking system, because it’s both a system for taking and summarising notes, and for revising the factual content of the syllabus.

I’m not however a firm advocate of obsessively highlighting important keywords and facts, because highlighting something just labels it as important and does nothing to help you learn it. Embedding information is best done through repeatedly doing tasks that use that information, which means activities like exam-style questions, or using revision aids like mind-maps and flash-cards etc.

Your revision plan should ensure you devote adequate time to all the content you need to cover, and adequate time to addressing any weaknesses you have found when doing practise questions. The number of syllabus learning objectives give you a rough guide to how much time is needed for a given topic but remember that topics with fewer learning objectives may be far harder to master than ones that appear to have lots to learn.

Rather than just allocating time each day to whole subjects, it is better to break down your revision plan into achievable goals. You may have heard of SMART goals – goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. It’s recommended to build your revision plan around SMART goals and keep a record of the goals that you achieve and things like your marks scored in past papers. You can do this simply by crossing off list items, or as some students do, making charts that show scores achieved over time – either way, it is both empowering and motivating to have a visual record of your progress.

You need outstanding problem-solving skills

If you’re going for an A*, you need to be prepared for A* questions. These are often called ‘stretch and challenge’ questions, or in exam-board speak, discriminating questions, since they discriminate between top candidates.

Discriminating questions are usually one or more of the following:

  • Novel – they require you to apply familiar concepts in unfamiliar contexts;
  • Synoptic – they require you to see links between different areas of chemistry and connect different areas to develop a solution;
  • Unusual in terms of their style or language. Occasionally, you come across questions that are just baffling, either because they’re poorly-worded (this happens sadly), or because the language used makes no sense at all.

The need for problem-solving and deductive reasoning skills is because you need to first categorise the type of problem you’re facing, then select the correct approach, and finally execute the steps necessary to get to the answer, all without making mistakes.

How to improve your problem-solving skills:

You’d prepare to climb a treacherous mountain by climbing similarly treacherous mountains, not by taking gentle strolls through picturesque fells. It sounds obvious but the only way to prepare for hard questions is by doing lots of hard questions. You should therefore seek out discriminating questions if you’re aiming for an A*. Sometimes, these can be identified from examiners reports by scanning for words and phrases like “discriminating”, “demanding”, “challenging”, “beyond the reach of most candidates” … or “only the most able scored full marks….” that are being used to describe questions.

If you find a question that the examiner report states only 10% of students achieved full marks on, you want to do it because those will be the 10% that got A*s.

You will naturally come across discriminating questions by doing past papers – they’ll be easy to spot if you’ve been doing lots of past papers because they’ll immediately stick out as being obviously different and a lot harder from what you’ve seen before.

Grade boundaries (which are published and freely available from exam board websites) also help you find difficult papers. For example, the January 2011 F325 paper from OCR A required 65% for an A – it’s an extremely hard paper and a good one to work through.

It’s recommended to do past papers from other boards, because it will take you out of your comfort zone and force you to see questions that test the same content in diverse ways. If you do every available question on, for example, NMR from AQA, you might be thrown if you’re given one from OCR to do because you’ve become familiar with the style and difficulty of AQA questions. That’s not a good thing, because what if AQA switch question styles in the exam?

Because of this, you should exhaust your own boards’ past papers for the current specification first (and you will, since there are currently only two years’ worth plus some specimen papers available), then look at papers from other boards.

Resources to help prepare for an A*

You should also consider using some of following resources to help you prepare for A* questions, which include useful sources of practical skills questions and multiple-choice questions:

Pre-2015 specification A Level papers

A Levels were reformed and switched from modular (exams at the end of year 1 and year 2) to linear (exams at the end of two years) in 2015 (so, the first of the new AS papers were in 2016, the first A Level papers were in 2017).

You can therefore use pre-2015 specification past papers as part of your preparation. These are available from 2009 until 2017 (summer 2017 being the final opportunity students taking the old specification had to resit).

There will be missing content, and content that is no longer examined, but as a student targeting a top grade, you should know your syllabus inside-out and should therefore be able to spot questions that are no longer relevant. Be mindful of subtle differences between exam boards and when it comes differences between mark schemes, always go with your own board’s expected answer.

Papers that are particularly worth looking at are:

  • AQA A2 Unit 4: Kinetics, Equilibria and Organic Chemistry and Unit 5: Energetics, Redox and Inorganic Chemistry;
  • OCR A2 Unit F324: Rings, Polymers and Analysis and F335: Equilibria, Energetics and Elements. The latter had a reputation for throwing up exceedingly difficult questions and was the ‘killer paper’ for many students taking OCR A.

Pre-2008 Legacy Papers

A Levels were also reformed in 2008. Pre-2008, A Levels were linear as they are now, and included some of the current specification content that was removed in the 2008 – 2015 specifications.

Noteworthy papers include:

  • AQA Unit 4: Further Physical and Organic Chemistry and Unit 5: Thermodynamics and Further Inorganic Chemistry, including Synoptic Assessment (yes, this paper is as much fun as it sounds!);
  • AQA Unit 6: Synoptic Assessment. This is a multiple-choice paper;
  • OCR A Chains, Rings and Spectroscopy. This covers A2 organic chemistry;
  • OCR A Trends and Patterns, Transition Elements and Unifying Concepts. These three papers collectively test A2 inorganic and physical chemistry. The Unifying Concepts papers had some difficult, synoptic questions, similar in difficulty to the current A Level’s Unified Chemistry

International A Level

The international A Levels from Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) and Edexcel have broad syllabuses that mostly overlap with the current A Level specifications. Have a look at:

  • Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) A Level Paper 1 for multiple-choice questions;
  • CIE A Level Paper 4 for A2 structured questions;
  • CIE A Level Paper 5, which is on practical skills;
  • Edexcel International A Level Unit 3: Chemistry Laboratory Skills I and Unit 6: Chemistry Laboratory Skills II, which also examine practical skills.

International Baccalaureate Diploma (Higher Level)

The IB Diploma is tough and Higher Level chemistry is very tough. There is a great deal of overlap with A Level chemistry, which makes it useful for students wanting to excel at A Level chemistry.

  • Paper 1 for multiple-choice questions;
  • Paper 2 for extended response questions that are usually synoptic;
  • Paper 3 Section A tests practical skills and data interpretation. This is the most-dreaded section of questions across the three papers IB students take.

CIE Pre-U chemistry

The Pre-U was conceived to help bridge the gap between A Levels and university-level study. It’s an A Level alternative, so most of the syllabus overlaps with A Level. It does however include some first-year undergraduate concepts, and some of the content common to A Level is given higher-level treatment that can help prepare for stretch and challenge questions. The hardest exam questions are considerably harder than A Level questions, pitched at something above A* level difficulty. Papers to check out are:

  • Paper 1 for multiple-choice questions;
  • Paper 2 for structured questions, including practical skills;
  • Paper 3 for synoptic structured questions.

OCR B (Salters’)

Don’t overlook OCR B papers if you’re especially seeking practise at synoptic questions (obviously this advice doesn’t not apply to OCR B students!).

OCR B has similar content to OCR A, but it is taught in context though ‘storylines’ that show how each topic is applied in real-world situations. This inherently synoptic style of learning leads to questions that are more synoptic than for most other boards. It’s common for an OCR B question to be worth 30 marks and jump between three or four separate topics.

Many of the exam boards have legacy papers online, or they can be found on 3rd party websites, together with the examiner reports that will help you find harder question. If there is something listed above that you can’t find, email me and I should be able to provide it (except for IB past papers).

Should you read around the subject?

I’m reluctant to answer yes to this frequently-asked question, because for some students it creates a sense of anxiety about exactly what they should be reading, and what might come up on the exam that another student might have read that they haven’t. Rest assured, what will come up on the exam will only be based on the specification, so you must learn the specification, but don’t see the specification as a boundary, where what’s inside is fair game for the exam and what’s outside is off-limits. The toughest questions will push your understanding to its limits and by mixing together concepts, may even appear to have gone off-spec. For that reason, adopt the view that you can never know too much and have an open mind when it comes to content that is outside the specification.

Should you want to read more widely, the resources that I think best present chemistry at this level (purely my own subjective opinion) include the following:

Books

  • Chemistry in Context by Graham Hill, John Holman, and Philippa Gardom Hulme (although written for CIE A Level, I rate this as a solid general A Level textbook);
  • Pre-U Chemistry by Dr Michael A. Thompson (again, whilst primarily for the CIE Pre-U, this is an excellent general A Level chemistry textbook);
  • A Level Chemistry 1 & 2 by George Facer (though written for Edexcel, I rate this as the best of the mainstream A Level textbooks);
  • Oxford IB Chemistry Course Companion by Sergey Bylikin, Gary Horner, Brian Murphy, David Tarcy (for the IB, but a particularly good pre-university chemistry textbook with lot of added background);
  • Calculations for AS/A2 Chemistry by Jim Clark (this is written by a teacher with over 30 years’ experience helping students with calculations);
  • Practical Chemistry by Nora Henry (written for AQA, but this also covers most of the required practicals needed for other A Level boards and is – at the time of writing – the only book on the market to do this).

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Websites/Apps

You need excellent exam technique

Exam technique is about:

  • Effective time-management;
  • Giving accurate and detailed answers;
  • Knowing what mark schemes are looking for, and;
  • Avoiding common mistakes.

How to improve exam technique:

Except for time-management, improving the criteria above can be achieved by doing past paper questions so that you gain more familiarity with mark scheme requirements and iron out common mistakes. To improve your time-management however, you’ll need to start doing individual questions within the time limit to begin with, and then full papers within the time limit. The time limit for A Level averages around one minute ten seconds per mark, so aim for one minute per mark to allow enough time for checking and going back to harder questions.

You should always do a ‘post-mortem’ on every question that you got wrong. If you lost marks, why? What do you need to do to ensure you don’t drop similar marks in future?

Reading the examiner reports also helps improve exam technique. Examiner reports often start with a sermon lamenting the number of things students did badly. They then go on to give a question-by-question analysis that highlights common mistakes, misconceptions, and disallowed responses. Check examiner reports and ensure you don’t make the same mistakes as previous students.