Date of Publication: 15 February 2021
There’s no denying it. Choosing your A-Level subjects is one of the hardest decisions you have to make during your school years. Not only can they play a huge role in deciding what you study at university, but they also hugely differ in their difficulty, so you want to choose the ones which are right for you, your learning style and ability.
It’s true, there is a significant jump from GCSE to A-Level. And as you begin your A-Level studies you will soon realise why there is a reason why you only select a few (usually 3) subjects, compared to the ten or so GCSEs you have to study. The depth of study you go into will greatly increase, and you’ll usually be required to study more independently – both difficult matters to become accustomed with.
However, one major thing which not all students are aware of is how big the gap can be between certain subjects. For example, the content you may cover in GCSE Physics will significantly increase in complexity as you move towards A-Levels, compared to a subject like Theatre Studies where you will definitely study more in-depth, but not have to learn as much complex subject matter. Therefore, before you start to narrow down your A-Level options, it’s important you are aware of how difficult some of your subjects could be at studying.
We’ve put together a list of the top 15 hardest A-Levels ranked in order from easiest, to the most difficult. Hopefully, this should help you gain further insight into what studying these subjects at a higher level could mean for you, and help you to make a more informed decision about your A-Levels.
What are the hardest A-Levels?
It’s important to note that how difficult you perceive a particular A-Level to be will be subjective to your learning style and the type of subjects you currently excel at. You should always make a final decision based on your academic position and what you hope to study in the future. Only you will – in your gut – know if you will manage the workload of a particular subject.
With that being said, there is a general consensus that some A-Level subjects are definitely harder than others. After doing some research and looking at the statistics, we’ve put together our list of what believe the hardest A-Level subjects are.
In order of easiest to most difficult, our list of the top 15 hardest A-Levels are: Art, Design & Technology (Product Design), Business Studies, Politics, Economics, History, English Literature, Psychology, Modern Languages, Mathematics, Computer Science, Biology, Chemistry, Further Mathematics, and Physics.
Surprisingly, Art A-Level is often ranked among some of the most difficult A-Level subjects to take, despite the common assumption that it is a ‘soft’ subject.
Many people assume studying Art at A-Level can be easy, particularly if you are a gifted artist yourself. However, this is an extremely naïve view to have towards Art and other Humanities subjects, especially if you’re expecting to go into it with ease.
For starters, what many students fail to realise before beginning their studies is that Art A-Level actually demands strong essay-writing skills and analysis. Although you are required to produce Art for assessments, you can only score highly if you can produce an effective ‘Personal Study’ analysis which you submit alongside it. If you’re not a confident essay writer, then this can of course be very difficult for students, especially because it can really affect your overall grade if not written to a high enough standard.
In terms of time commitments, Art A-Level is also probably the most demanding of all the A-Levels, meaning it should only be taken if you have a genuine passion for spending hours getting lost in your work. You should also consider if you really have the time needed to dedicate to the subject too. If you are studying another subject which you find particularly challenging, you may not be able to commit to Art with the time you want to – and this could affect your grade on the whole.
However, if you are strongly passionate about studying an Art-related subject at university and pursuing a creative career, then an Art A-level can be hugely beneficial. Not only will you develop both your creative and writing skills, but you will also build an enormous portfolio of work which you can use for future university applications.
14. Design & Technology (Product Design)
Over the past three years, A-Level entries for Design and Technology have fallen significantly, by 63.8%, with more and more students finding it one of the more difficult subject design subjects to pursue at A-Level.
Design and Technology can be split into different areas of product design, with most students struggling with at least one area. These include: Detailed Analysis of Design, Innovation, Product Build, and Marketing – topics which are usually brought together by a written design examination at the end of your two years of studying. Often, students may really love one aspect of product design, such as the innovation stages, or the market research areas of analysis. However, it’s usually the other areas of design which catch them out.
On top of this, as with an Art A-Level, students often underestimate the amount of time they will need to dedicate to Design and Technology outside of the classroom. Thinking of new ideas and creating concepts can be a hugely time consuming (yet rewarding) task, and is one you need to have the time and space to enjoy if you are to do your best work. Therefore, if you are opting to study it on top of another Art subject , or just another subject in general which requires a significant amount of independent study, you should really consider if you have the capacity to study it.
With that being said, Design and Technology can be a hugely rewarding subject. It’s one of the very few where you will have the chance to create and build a product from start to finish – which many innovation and entrepreneurial students enjoy doing. In terms of creating a portfolio of work for the future – it gives you an opportunity to create something great.
13. Business Studies
With a 98% pass rate, A-Level Business Studies remains one of the highest achieving subjects, but often one which many students complain about in terms of difficulty.
The topics you will cover are apparently fairly straightforward to understand, and can be very valuable for your future workplace. These can include; Improving Marketing Performance, Analysis of a Business’ Strategic Position, How to Improve Financial Performance, and How to Decide and Manage Overall Strategy Shifts.
However, the difficulty comes in how much content you have to cover. Your examinations rely on you knowing and confidently using data and business jargon – which, if all is completely unfamiliar to you, can be a huge memory challenge. Therefore, if your school offers it, you are recommended to study Business Studies as a GCSE subject if you are thinking of pursuing it in sixth form.
The exams themselves are also quite varied, which can be hard to master if your skills lie in only one area. For example, some students prefer to answer the longer, heavier-marked questions which require detailed explanations, whereas others find their strength in the case studies you have to analyse and apply your logical reasoning to. There are also short, lightly-marked questions which require succinct, definite answers – tricky for those moments in exams where you can have complete mind blanks and can’t rely on explanatory responses to score you marks.
Hugely exciting, yet very, very, complex, Politics remains one of the most relevant, but equally, challenging A-Level subjects you can study in sixth form or college.
Usually, your two year course will have you study two prominent political landscapes: UK Politics and Government, and the US Political system. You’ll examine some of the great ideas which have shaped the world, including liberalism, socialism, and conservatism, and the effects they’ve had in different countries.
Where most students feel uncomfortable with the subject is the amount of discussion and debate involved in classes and in examinations. Typically, your classes will focus around difficult debating questions such as; ‘Is Britain truly democratic?’ or ‘Why is gun culture so much different in the US compared to the UK?’ And you need to feel confident in your knowledge and point of view to pose a convincing argument. In this respect, students who are more introverted often find these classes slightly more challenging.
Your classroom discussions will help you in your final examinations which are heavily essay-based and require you to produce convincing arguments on topical debates. You need to be comprehensive in your writing skill and have a formula nailed down for writing great essays. You also need to keep up-to-date with global affairs and changes in political activity, which many students fail to maintain on top of their other study commitments.
Although studying Economics can be a hugely rewarding and valuable subject, many students struggle with it at A-Level, particularly because of the tricky essay structure and the combination of skills it demands.
The examination is based on a mixture of science and essay writing, which are typically two skills which students have divided abilities with. Essay writing requires a lot of practice and critical analysis, whereas the technical aspect of the subject demands students to feel confident with using mathematical principles and applying them to social dilemmas.
On top of this, A-Level Economics also covers a very broad syllabus, meaning memory retention is a critical skill to succeed. As you study, you’ll learn the content in two ways: macroeconomics, which covers larger parts of economies, such as government budgets and tax rule effects on mass populations, and microeconomics, which focuses on how large factors affect small businesses and individuals, such as market structures, pricing, and cost of living.
Although these concepts are relatively easy to understand, the complexity comes from the mathematical knowledge you need to apply to them. A-Level Economics is a math-heavy subject, relying on you to interpret graphs and apply formulas to real-life economic scenarios to problem-solve and predict future trends. The difficulty lies in needing to understand the underlying principles before using them to diagnose and understand different economic variations.
Despite having one of the highest pass rates at A-Level (98.9%), many students claim History is one of the hardest A-Levels, mainly due to the amount of time and effort needed to commit to it. The depth and level of which you explore historical matter is a significant step-up from GCSE, which can be surprisingly challenging for students.
At A-Level, History covers a lot of content, and content which you don’t have any choice over. You could study anything from Italian Unification to 20th century Russia (the Lenin to Yeltsin years). Different exam boards will have different content options. Therefore, before you even consider taking this subject at A-Level, you should find out from your teachers exactly what material you could be covering if you study it at your school. The last thing you would want to do is spend lots of your study time learning about a topic which doesn’t interest you.
Furthermore, students pursuing History at A-Level require an affinity for extended writing, as well as a good memory – which can make it really tricky for students who aren’t confident with these skills. Your assessment of the subject will be through essay-style exams and coursework, where you will be responsible for remembering all the important dates and facts needed to write your essay with conviction.
With this being said, if you are able to master essay writing and discover some helpful strategies to memorise important information, then you’ll be developing a foundation of skills which can help you massively in higher education and beyond as you enter the workplace.
9. English Literature
Deceptively, English Literature can be a really difficult subject to succeed at, especially because it depends so much on your ability to be creative and come up with your own ideas.
Unlike many logic-based subjects, such as Mathematics or any of the sciences, English Literature doesn’t come with a textbook that tells you what to use to pass an exam. Of course, you can learn how to write a good essay and analyse text, but the ability to originate ideas and write them with conviction is individual to each writer. And this type of learning doesn’t suit everyone – which is why it often regarded as one of the hardest A-Levels.
Further to this, when it comes to the analysis of text and other writing, you will need to examine them a lot more deeply than at GCSE, to help you produce original ideas to use for building arguments in essays and other assessments. Examiners will be reading hundreds of essays on the same subject as you are writing, and you need to find interesting ways of tackling the text to impress them.
From these points of view, for students who prefer a more structured approach to learning – where you memorise and apply formulas to problems, rather than analysing and creating your own reasons behind why things are the way they are, English Literature can be particularly difficult. Add to that the amount of time you’ll need to spend reading independently outside of class – you need to really love the subject if you are to work hard to excel at it.
Although Psychology A-Level is one of the most popular subjects for students to uptake, it is also one with one of the highest drop-out rates, with only 73% of female and 63% of male students continuing the subject from first to second year (AS to A2 level).
Mainly, this is due to the fact that Psychology requires a high retention rate of information. When it comes to the examination, you’ll need to remember lots of studies along with their findings – off by heart – so that you can use them to build convincing arguments to complex questions about human behaviour.
On top of this, what many students fail to understand before choosing Psychology A-Level, is that the subject requires essay-writing skills, especially being able to write lots of information in a short amount of time. You need to be proficient in English and confident in building a solid argument in your writing in order to achieve good grades.
At its heart, Psychology is a science. And many students drift towards being literature/creative-based students, or towards being more logical and scientific in their thinking. It isn’t often you find students who are equally balanced in both. Psychology requires a combination of both scientific theory and abstract reasoning, which can be tricky to master when you’re also trying to retain lots of information.
7. Modern Languages
Studying a foreign language has long been considered difficult. The reasons for this are obvious; you need to learn a whole new vocabulary, understand new grammar rules, and be able to speak confidently to ensure you are heard correctly.
In terms of A-Levels, Modern Languages are considered among some of the most difficult. In fact, in 2019, The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation in the UK (Ofqual) formally acknowledged that French, German and Spanish A-levels are ‘of above average difficulty.’
Why? Well, partly due to the reasons mentioned above, but also because of the way you are assessed. Modern Language assessments demand that you master three different types of examinations: a reading paper, a listening, reading and writing paper, as well as a spoken oral examination. All three of these papers demand very different skills, which you will need to spend lots of time revising if you are to succeed.
However, if you enjoy learning about different cultures and love to explore language rules (of all forms), then learning a Modern Language can be hugely rewarding – not to mention the career opportunities that can come from being a bilingual speaker.
Mainly, this is due to the rapid advancement of knowledge. Although the first year is essentially a follow-on of your GCSE skills, where the first half of the year is focused on ensuring all the class members are at the same level, the months following become much more complex.
When you move into your second year, you essentially focus on learning three advanced topics – pure theory, mechanics, and statistics. And you need to be able to master all three areas if you are to succeed in your final examinations. Mechanics, especially, can be difficult if you’re not a student that enjoys Physics, whereas learning pure mathematical theory can be tough if you’re someone who excels on applying formulas to real-life scenarios to understand them.
With this being said, Mathematics is one of the most relevant subjects in the world, with so many in-demand careers for you to choose from. If you can master the tricky subject matter, you’re bound to have success in the future.
5. Computer Science
With drop-out rates at 4.9% (June 2018) – some of the highest for A-Level students – Computer Science is definitely classed as one of the hardest A-Level subjects.
When you study the subject at A-Level, you’ll focus on two separate areas: programming and theory. Essentially, the programming side introduces you to basic and universal programming language, whereas the theory topics lead you to grasp an understanding of the inner workings of a computer, down to the micro details.
Where students tend to be most surprised by the course is that it isn’t very practical in how it is taught as a subject. If you’re a kinaesthetic learner, then you may struggle to grasp the theory, as it’s unlikely you’ll ever be dissecting computers in class. But, if you love theory and understanding all the steps behind what and how machines operate – then you’ll certainly enjoy the challenge that this subject brings.
In terms of the scientific A-Levels, Biology actually ranks as one of the easier options. However, it’s probably no surprise that even this science A-Level is still considered really difficult by many students. As a comparison, people estimate that A-Level Biology is at least 2-3 times more difficult than its GCSE counterpart. And this number doesn’t even include the amount of independent work you are required to do to pass the course.
Perhaps this is what makes it so difficult for so many. Although A-Levels are a step up in terms of the level of the independence you have with your learning, Biology seems to require an additional level of effort, because of its theory laying foundations for so many other subjects.
However, if you enjoy the subject and look forward to the challenge, then A-Level Biology is a great subject to have your CV. As we mentioned, it has foundations in so many areas of life, that it will equip you with knowledge that will be used throughout your career.
Ranked in the top 3 hardest A-level subjects, Chemistry is considered one of the most difficult. From GCSE to A-Level, it is a huge leap in terms of both content difficulty and the time needed to study independently. However, with pass rates sitting at 96.1%, most students will pass if they are aware of the commitment required prior to choosing the subject.
Regardless of your exam board, A-Level Chemistry requires a lot more independent study than at GCSE, especially if you want to achieve the top grades. You are responsible for doing all the preparatory reading and work before your classes, especially practical sessions, where you may need to come to class with theories in place and ready to test.
In terms of content, you’ll continue the main framework you studied at GCSE, but just in more detail. For example, you will cover topics such as: organic chemistry, periodic table trends, and electrolysis. But, there are also a range of new topics which you could end up studying – though these will depend on your exam board – including: enthalpy, ionisation engines, and electron structure.
2. Further Maths
Closely connected to the single Mathematics A-Level, Further Mathematics is also considered one of the hardest A-Levels because it counts as two subjects.
When you study Further Maths, you’ll be earning both your general Mathematics A-Level, as well as a qualification in Further Maths. This alone can make it one of the hardest subjects, especially when so much of your study time is spent focusing around the subject.
As the name suggests, the content in a Further Maths A-Level is definitely a step-up from a pure Mathematics A-Level and is designed to delve deeper into your understanding of the content you cover in your general Maths A-Level classes. Topics will include advances of the three core modules: Pure Theory, Mechanics, and Statistics, as well as Discrete Mathematics – an elective module.
Further Maths is one of the most commonly required subjects listed on entry requirements for Mathematics degrees, so if you choose this subject at A-Level, you can guarantee that it’s going to be gearing you towards more difficult subject matter to prepare you for university.
What is the hardest A-Level?
According to most students, Physics is! Recent surveys have found that Physics remains one of the least popular subjects for students to choose at A-Level, with only 35,000 students having studied it in 2016 – which is apparently not enough to keep up with the demand of skills needed for the current job market.
Theoretically, Physics contains lots of complex concepts and formulas, which is why it is so often studied with logic-focused subjects like Mathematics and Chemistry. Your topics will cover some of the most difficult aspects of the subject, including Nuclear and Particle Physics, Thermodynamics, and Oscillations. Lots of these topics do draw parallels from Further Maths A-Level, so if you struggled with this subject at GCSE, you may find this a particularly tricky A-Level subject.
However, if you are interested in learning more about the mechanics behind how some of the most incredible things happen in the world, such as, for example, how medical imaging works, or, the study of Cosmology, aka. what the future of the Universe could look like, then you’re certainly in for an exhilarating few years of study.
Students who enjoy dissecting formulas and using logic to analyse and predict future matters – as well as taking part in some great practical sessions – will thoroughly enjoy the subject. The whole idea around Physics is to predict, test and analyse. Expect fascinating real-world questions, hands-on learning, and lots of analysis. It’s a subject that’s full of discovery!
So there you have it: the hardest A-levels ranked in order of easiest to the most challenging.
Remember, before making any final decisions, you should always consult the exam board’s syllabus and content list, so you can make a fully informed decision about what subjects you end up choosing.
It’s also worth speaking to teachers and guidance counsellors to learn more about the subjects and their influence over your future education. If possible, you should also look to sample the subject ahead of making a final decision – whether it be via a summer school or by signing up for online tutoring.
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