A-Level Chemistry Revision And Exam Tips

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

Hi! I’m Joe, and I’m in my third year studying Chemistry at Oxford. I did A-Levels in Chemistry, Biology, and Maths some three years ago now – it took me a while to settle on a good revision strategy, and I’ve had three years now at university to hone this.

I’m writing this article so that you don’t have to go through the trial-and-error process that I did – instead you can crack straight on with your revision and get that A*!

Understanding A-Level Chemistry Revision

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Planning and Preparation

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).

When I used to use revision timetables, I found that sometimes I would simply not be able to work at the scheduled time, and would need to go for a walk to clear my head. I’d then be behind on my schedule, so stressed while I was doing the next block of work, which would then delay the subsequent block of work, which would make me more stressed.

Having a list of things to achieve, rather than a timetable, allowed me some flexibility, so if I hit a wall I could stop, and perhaps make up for it in the evening.

A-Level Chemistry Revision Plan

It’s useful that there are four main areas of Chemistry (Organic, Inorganic, Physical and Practical/General) – try to plan so that you’re mixing it up a bit each day, so you don’t get tired of doing one particular branch.

There is really rather a lot of content at Chemistry A-Level, so it’s important to have a good plan, whatever form it takes, to make sure you’re able to tackle everything in time.

At the moment (for my third-year exams), I have an excel spreadsheet, with all the different topics in one column, then columns for each review of that topic. Here’s a snippet of my one for Organic Chemistry:

joe-young-revision-plan

Revision Strategies for a-level chemistry

Chemistry is a great mix of learning, and understanding. For example, there’s no way to understand the flame test colours (though I still know potassium is lilac…), or the names and angles of the different shapes that different inorganic compounds take on (VSEPR), you just have to learn them.

Conversely, there’s no way to just learn all the possible dot-and-cross diagrams (you could get asked any compound) – you need to understand how to do them. As such, different techniques are required for different topics.

Mind Maps

Love them or hate them, there’s a place for them in any revision strategy. They work really well for Chemistry, as they help you understand how a topic links together, and why each individual bit is important – this makes it more likely that you’ll understand rather than just learn the topic, and so helps you remember it much better, for much longer. Understanding how the topic fits together really helps with your motivation too, as you realise why you’re revising a particular topic.

mind-mapping

Example Of Where Mind Maps Are Useful In Chemistry

An example of this is in the electrochemistry topic – you spend a long time learning all about the hydrogen half-cell and how it works – seemingly a bit unimpressive until you then realize that it’s used in defining the standard electrode potential of any other half cell, which in turn lets you find ΔG for a reaction, which in turn lets you find the equilibrium constant and so how far that reaction proceeds. Finding these links that tie each little bit of a topic together make the little bits of the topic easier to learn, because you’re not just remembering a fact, you’re understanding it – that makes it stick in your brain for much longer.

Flashcards

Good for rote learning, like the flame test colours, or definitions (think relative atomic mass, relative isotopic mass, empirical formula, molecular formula, etc.). Make sure you’re disciplined about thinking about the answer before turning it over! If you’re just looking at a list of terms and definitions, or metal ions and flame test colours, you don’t know whether you actually know them, or whether you’re just convincing yourself you do. Covering the answers, or using flashcards, means you get an accurate assessment of how well you know the answers. It also forces you to think, and actively recall the answer, making it stick in your head for longer. Another example might be for the kinetics topic – rate graph on one side, order of reaction on the other, then keep going through them until you can tell whether a rate graph is 0th, 1st or 2nd order in your sleep… Make sure you understand why they look the way they do as well!

Big Reaction Scheme

For organic reaction mechanisms (SN1/2, aromatic electrophilic substitution, etc.), this is a great way to get an overview of all of synthesis (which tends to account for a big-mark question towards the end of your organic paper). Start with (for example) ethanal in the middle, and branch off with all the different reactions you could do to it (e.g. oxidize with acidified potassium dichromate to form ethanoic acid). Then for each of these products, do the same (e.g. esterify ethanoic acid to ethyl ethanoate by heating with ethanol and conc. sulfuric acid). And so on until you run out of reactions!

Come Up With Your Own Exam-Style Questions

It’s easy to read through your notes thinking that you’re learning, but sometimes you’re actually just skimming through and not paying any attention. Coming up with exam questions as you go will 1) make sure you’re paying attention as you read, because how would you make up an exam question otherwise, and 2) definitely make you think and pay attention when you come to answering the question. Try reading through your notes and making questions, then going away and doing another topic (or even another subject), then coming back to the questions you’ve written yourself. Then come back to them in a week, then a month. This would work especially well for topics connected to the periodic table, for instance transition metal chemistry, halogen chemistry, and trends in the periodic table, e.g. first ionisation energies. Another technique for this kind of content, and incidentally my favourite Chemistry revision technique, is to pretend you are teaching a class! Prop a periodic table up on your desk and talk (out loud) your class through it!

To take the ‘making up your own exam-style questions’ a step further, one thing I did at A-level was to get together with a friend who was also doing Chemistry, and write ‘synthesis’ questions for each other. For example, “devise a synthesis, including reagents and conditions, of benzoyl chloride from benzene”*. You get good (pretend) exam question practice, and all the benefits of coming up with your own question – you learn to think like an examiner!

*Hint – use a Grignard!

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A-Level Chemistry Past Papers

Past papers are super important for science subjects. Knowing the material is most of the battle with Chemistry, but you’re not going to get your A* if you don’t know how the examiner wants you to tell them the material.

The more past papers you read, the more you start to think like an examiner, and the easier it is then for the examiner to give you marks!

Example A-Level Chemistry Exam Question

For example, a question might ask “Describe the bonding in the element chromium and use your answer to justify why it has such a high melting temperature” [4 marks]. You might not necessarily get all four marks if you don’t know exactly what the examiner is looking for, even if you’d read the section in the textbook 100 times.

*Edexcel Paper 1 2020 Q3a. The points you needed were 1. lattice of positive ions 2. in sea of delocalised electrons 3. strong attractive forces between ions and electrons 4. lots of heat energy required to break this attraction to melt the metal.

Staying Motivated During A-Level Chemistry Revision

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. Some things to bear in mind:

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.

In fact, to stop you faffing around with your timetable, here’s one I made earlier, that you’re welcome to steal! It’s made with two other A-Level subjects in mind.

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.

If things are going badly, call it quits and take a break. Don’t push on just because you’re scheduled to do this topic at this time. You’ll get 1) annoyed 2) nothing done 3) burnt out.

Concluding Thoughts

The A-Level revision period can be tough – you’ve just got to get your head down and get through it.

Be honest with yourself as to whether your revision techniques are actually working – favour active techniques (flashcards, making and doing questions, making mind maps) over passive ones (reading through your notes).

Try to recognise whether the topic you’re revising is a ‘learn’ or ‘understand’ topic, and adjust your revision technique accordingly. And the most important thing to remember – be kind to yourself and take time off when you need it.

To end with a cliché – A-Levels are a marathon not a sprint – be careful you don’t burn yourself out.

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