As of a few weeks ago, I can officially say that I finished my A Levels but it was definitely not without struggle. Throughout my two years I’ve been dealing with my hypermobility spectrum disorder and chronic pain/fatigue, as well as several mental illness/learning difficulties, and with this came absences for countless medical appointments and I spent chunks of time away on 2 pain programmes. Nonetheless, I made it! So, here is my slightly cynical advice on how to survive your A Levels, whether you have a disability or not.
Take the right subjects for you
This one doesn’t help if you’re going into year 13, but for new year 12s, this step is the starting block that will honestly set up your two years – there’s a fine balance to strike at A Level between taking subjects you like and the ones you’ll do well in. If those go hand in hand, great! But if they don’t, you need to be very prepared to work extremely hard if you’re not as naturally inclined towards a subject. I took chemistry, which I love – even if I complained about it all the time and wouldn’t admit it to my teacher – but I had to accept early on that I wasn’t going to walk away with an A* and I probably worked twice as hard for it as my other two for a much lesser reward.
Get a good planner and always be prepared for setbacks
Regardless of if you’re a disabled student or not, A Levels will provide challenge after challenge. There’s coursework you think you’re done with that comes back, there’s random tests you get two days to revise for, essays due when you have mocks, I could go on. The best way I can tell you to manage it is to get a good planner – I recommend a Personal Planner (not spon, they’re just great as you personalise every element) but definitely get something with a good amount of space for each day. Plan what you’ll do in your frees, give yourself mini deadlines, plan your evenings, and plan when you will rest, which I will controversially say is possibly the most important.
If you then have to schedule in your medical appointments or a hospital stay, it becomes much easier to look at your week and work out when you will catch up. Personally I liked to schedule in after-school sessions with teachers because I prefer to have concepts explained to me when I first learn them, but you can also just work from your textbooks.
I honestly had 2 planners and 3 to-do lists going at any one time to manage things – you really don’t need to go that far but try and find what works for you early on!
Build rapport with your teachers
I definitely recommend that you get to know your teachers and let them know how they can help you. After the first lesson I had with every new teacher during my GCSEs and A Levels, I would stay behind and give them a quick run-down of my conditions and my needs even though they were emailed about me – it puts a face to a name . If you’re not a disabled student, still have a chat with them at some point and just show interest and let them get to know your learning style; it just doesn’t necessarily need to be so urgent.
My teachers have probably breathed sighs of relief now that I’ve finished because I spent a lot of time with most of them, after-school or by email or bothering them in their frees. I would not have wanted to be one of my teachers, put it that way, but I think they mostly got used to it after three years of me tipping up in their classrooms often in tears. I don’t think I would have gotten through my A Levels without a few of my teachers and the sixth form team, so I’d honestly recommend that even if you’re not fussed about knowing your teachers well, you still go to them if you find yourself needing some help, academically or otherwise.
Take as many opportunities as possible in Year 12
Most sixth forms (and I imagine colleges as well) offer a lot of opportunities to their students to help you with your upcoming UCAS/apprenticeship applications, and a lot of universities offer stuff too. I did 2 summer schools at Durham and Bath, as well as going to a seminar on Brexit, me and my best friend went to Manchester for another EU based event, our school took us to Bristol which included a taster lecture, I was a progress mentor and the leader of the mental health advocate team, I did a Cambridge essay competition, and there was plenty of stuff that I didn’t take part in too. Do as much as you can (without sacrificing your work or health) and I guarantee it will help you find your passion and confirm what you want to do at uni, as well as supporting your application in Year 13.
I also did an EPQ, though at my school we did it in Year 13 unlike most, which I would highly recommend if you have a topic you’d like to research more in depth that you won’t be able to in your subjects. It’s a lot of work but if you love your topic it’s so worth it. I really enjoyed researching it, writing it, being slightly (very) argumentative about my points with my supervisor and presenting it at the end. It’s funny how much confidence I gained from having to do a 10 minute presentation about the pill in front of a room 90% made up of men, but here we are.
Remember that you know yourself and your body best
This is slightly controversial, and I’m not sure schools will like this particular tip, but if you can sit there and say you know that a day off will benefit you, take one. I’m not saying take one every week because you feel like it, but if you’re at breaking point, just do it. For me, that was sometimes the difference between getting through to the end of term vs me suffering burn-out and being off for days on end later on. You might not need a day off, but maybe you might need a free period of just relaxing with your friends instead of working hard, and that’s okay too – as long as it’s rare, and because you actually need it.
Just stay out of drama…
It isn’t worth it. I promise. Shove in some earphones if it’s around you, block them if it’s about you, get your work done and move on.
…But keep a social life!
I didn’t really have a social life in year 12 between my disabilities and my work, and although I couldn’t really have prevented that, I do wish it had been different. I adore my group of friends and I’ve been very lucky to have them, but I wish I’d spent more time with them. Let yourself have time off every now and then, I promise you won’t drop by 2 grades for every hour you’re out.
On a slightly different note, but it fits here – I’d really recommend picking up some volunteering. I’ve been a Cub Scout leader for 3 years now and not only have I gained skills and qualifications from it, but I’ve gained a family who I absolutely adore. I also did an hour a week in one of the GCSE Science classes through all of sixth form, which… well, it built my resilience, we’ll put it that way.
Don’t let anyone tell you how to note-take or revise
I typed all my history and philosophy notes in both years because of the pain in my hands, but to be honest I think I would have regardless because there’s so much information to get down! But in the bigger picture, I only ever took notes that I thought necessary and I put them informally if I needed to even if it caused confusion during folder checks. Whether you’re a disabled student or not, just get in the habit of working how you need to – you know yourself best. When we were really close to exams, one of my teachers kept telling me I needed to be exclusively doing essay plans, but I knew I needed to drill the content more – so that’s what I did, and it worked.
Don’t procrastinate on your coursework
NOTHING makes me wince more looking back at my A Levels more than my history coursework. I absolutely hated it, to the point that I think my chemistry teachers heard more about that than me moaning about their subject for a few months. But, I really wish I’d just got on with more of it over the year 12 summer and the first couple of months of the year. I came out with a high grade in it in the end, but it was such a slog and it took up time I needed for other things.
To be honest, I could probably continue for quite a while with this, but I think those are are the main things – and that’s probably enough sarcasm for one post. I hope that was vaguely useful (or entertaining), and I wish you so much luck for your A Levels!