A-Level Biology Revision And Exam Tips

Preparing for A-Level Biology exams can be stressful at times, but it does not have to be. With effective preparation, you will be able to achieve the highest grades. Third-year Oxford Chemistry student Joseph Young shares his insights with us.

Author: Joseph Young

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Preparing for an A-Level Biology exam does not have to be a stressful and challenging time. With the right preparation, you will achieve the highest grades. 

Hello! I’m Joe, and I’m a third-year Chemistry student at Oxford – I did the classic STEM combination at A-Level – Chemistry, Biology and Maths, so am well placed to throw some top tips your way on how to get through (and dare I say thrive during) your A-Levels. 

Biology has a lot of content to learn, some of it is quite tricky, and it’s often difficult to hit the mark scheme exactly to get top marks. These three things are what tend to hold people back from doing well in A-level Biology, so I’ll look at each in turn, and then finish off with some more general revision tips.

There Is A Lot Of Content In A-Level Biology

I found that I’d get very bored handwriting page after page of notes, but by A2/the second year of A-Level, I’d stumbled on a great way to mix things up – typed notes! It’s a lot quicker than handwriting, so you fly through the content, and you can include much more complicated and comprehensive diagrams and illustrations than you could draw by hand.

Top tip: if it’s a diagram you might have to draw in an exam, make sure to practice doing this. But you’re unlikely to be asked to draw the whole heart, for instance, so pasting that in from google will save time.

Don’t spend too long faffing about with formatting, but do make it look nice! Use headings well – even coming up with the headings you want to use helps with revision – it makes you take a step back and think about the topic as a whole, and how it is divided. The amount of content at A-Level Biology can be quite overwhelming – dividing it up into subheadings yourself can help with this.

Below are some screenshots from my actual A-Level notes to give you some inspiration!

Energy-And-Ecosystems-Revision-Notes
Evolution-Of-Populations-Revision-Notes

You can use characters like → and ↪ to join your ideas together and show how they link up.

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A-Level Biology Is Tricky

One major sticking point in A-Level Biology revision is understanding the content in the first place – there’s a lot of pretty hard science. The most effective way I found of getting past bits I didn’t understand was to seek out lots of different explanations of the topic – they might come at it from a different angle, or explain it slightly differently, or put more emphasis on one part.

The more different explanations you read, a) the more likely one is to click, and b) the better a picture you build up in your head of the concept, which could lead to you creeping towards eventually understanding it.

To be honest, the best way of doing this is to just Google (other search engines are available) the topic it is you’re struggling with, and have a peruse. To help you on your way, here is a list of A-Level Biology websites I still have bookmarked from when I did my A-Levels 500 3 years ago.

Bear in mind, they won’t necessarily be aligned to your exam board/specification, but that may play into your hands! The more different explanations the better. Just make sure that once you understand it, you come back to your textbook, and see how your examiners want you to explain it.

Some of the newer textbooks have been made friendlier – fewer words, more pictures – which is great when you get the material, because it makes it more pleasant to learn and revise. But when you don’t understand a topic, sometimes you just need a more intense, or longer, or meatier explanation – and that’s where older textbooks can come into their own.

Here’s a list of what I do when I get stuck:

  1. Read your textbook, so you know what it is you’re meant to be understanding.
  2. Look elsewhere – on the web, in other textbooks.
  3. Read as many different explanations as you can.
  4. Understand!
  5. Back to your textbook for how you should word it in an exam.

Understand the A-Level Biology Mark Scheme

One frustrating aspect of A-Level Biology is the mark schemes. It’s not as bad as at GCSE, but the examiners can be quite pernickety with how you phrase your answers, and which points exactly you make. To this, some tips:

Seems obvious, but you can often get carried away writing about something you’re comfortable writing about, and completely miss the point of the question (or even just miss a mark – but every mark counts).

Try to form a plan for your answers. Whether this is in your head or jotted down on a scrap piece of paper, it means you will stay on track with your answer and are less likely to stray from the topic. 

Do lots of past papers! And, crucially, mark them yourself and pay close attention to the mark schemes. The more mark schemes you read, the more in the head of the examiner you’ll get, and so the more you’ll know what they want to hear.

Be fair but critical – try not to fall into the trap of “ah yeah, good enough, I’ll give myself the mark”. Be honest, and if you didn’t get the mark, don’t give yourself it – you’ll give yourself a false sense of confidence.

In addition, get your teacher to mark a question or a past paper every now and then. They’ve seen years of papers and mark schemes, marked hundreds of mock papers, and read the specification backwards and forwards. Don’t feel bad about giving them more work – it’s their job!

These are a goldmine when it comes to exam tips.

All the information you need to know and it comes directly from the horses’ mouth, as it were.

As you’ll see from the mark schemes, there’s not actually all that much writing needed to get the marks. Focus on hitting the key points, rather than writing everything you know about the topic. A-Level Biology tends to be quite a time-pressured exam, and running out of time is just throwing away marks – you always get 0 for a question you don’t answer!

General A-Level Biology Tips

Almost everyone who gives you revision advice will tell you to make a revision timetable. This can be a good idea, but it can also be counterproductive. I didn’t use one, because I knew I’d never be able to stick to it.

Instead, I had a list of things I wanted to get done each day. The vital thing is, though, that I stuck to that list. Whether you have a strict minute-by-minute timetable, a loose hour-by-hour timetable, or a simple list of daily topics, you must stick to it (within reason – the odd day where you don’t quite hit everything is fine).

Because there’s so much content for A-Level Biology, it’s important to have a good plan, whatever form it takes, to make sure you’re able to tackle everything in time.

One thing that’s not often mentioned when thinking about revision is how to keep yourself motivated. You can have all the best revision tricks up your sleeve, but if you can’t bring yourself to sit down and actually revise, they won’t be much use.

Learning from my mistakes

I spent a lot of time faffing – doing stuff that felt productive but actually wasn’t – during my revision. For example, I made a lovely colour-coded revision timetable, which went completely out of the window.

It didn’t need to be so beautifully colour-coded, and if I’m honest the different fonts were certainly overboard. It may be important to have a schedule (if that’s the way you’re going to go), but it doesn’t need to be beautiful.

I also spent a day or so copying and pasting the syllabus into a word document, making little tick boxes next to each line so I could keep track of what I had revised. Again, important to keep track of this, but I could have just printed off the syllabus and crossed out each line as I went along, saving a lot of time.

Concluding Thoughts

There’s a lot of material to cover for A-level Biology, and the exams are hard. But, once you get it – both the way to revise, and the way to answer exam questions – it becomes easier.

I’ve outlined above some ways to get closer to ‘getting it’. Once you’re in the groove of revising, using all your fancy new revision techniques, and once you’ve seen enough past paper questions and mark schemes to have a grip on what they’re all about, things get easier.

Make sure you’re doing ‘active’ revision – not just sitting there reading notes, but making mind maps, or doing flashcards, or explaining things out loud to yourself/your friend/your cat.

And most importantly, be kind to yourself – take breaks, carry on doing things you enjoy and seeing people. Summer will come around sooner than you think!

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