A-Levels vs first year at uni

What is the difference between studying for A-Levels compared to first year at University? This is something that I wanted to know before starting my degree- this blog will tell you all you need to know!

Study spelt using dice.

The Academic Year

As probably already know, your School or Sixth Form academic year is normally based on three terms: Autumn, Spring and Summer. Most students sit their A-Level exams in the Summer term. At University, the academic year works slightly differently.

However, before we get into this there are a couple of things to note:

  1. Academic year structure (including modules and exams) and dates can vary between Universities.
  2. Academic year structure (including modules and exams) and dates can vary within the University of Surrey for a few courses (e.g. nursing). Click here to find out the structure of the course you’re interested in.
Academic Year Flow Chart.

As you can see, within one semester we study four modules, have a vacation/holiday, revision week and exams. Between Semester 1 and 2, we have a reading week, allowing students to prepare for the semester ahead. At the University of Surrey we sit our exams for the modules we have studied within the same semester- this means we don’t have to revise all the content from October for exams in the summer!


A-Level classes consist of a combination of subject content, group work and activities. At University, classes can be divided into three. Below are general definitions of a lecture, tutorial and seminar- but they can vary.

  1. Lecture: a formal class where lecturers deliver subject content. Students take notes and ask any questions.
  2. Tutorial: small classes where lecture content can be discussed.
  3. Seminar: combination of a lecture and tutorial (similar to A-Level classes).


Group Study.

At University we don’t just have exams to assess our understanding. Assessment methods vary across courses, but can include a combination exams and coursework. For example:

  • Group presentations
  • Multiple choice questions
  • Leaflets
  • Poster presentations
  • Essay based exams
  • Short answer exams
  • Lab reports
  • Practicals


A-Levels are typically graded from A* to U, with the grade boundaries varying between years. However, at University we are not graded using A* to U, and the grade boundaries are set. The highest grade received is a First.

  • First (1st) = 70% upwards
  • Upper second (2:1) = 60-69%
  • Lower second (2:2) = 50-59%
  • Third (3rd) = 40-49%
  • Anything below 40% would be considered a fail.

Free Time

Notebook with laptop and mug.

During A-Levels, most students have free periods where you’re required to complete work set by your teachers. At University, this is a lot more flexible as you are required to complete more independent work rather than doing homework. Independent work includes: going over lecture notes, additional reading, coursework and preparation for seminars/tutorials.


When studying for A-Levels, most students rely on a text book or revision guide which contains everything you need to know. At University, we don’t have one set text book to use. We use a combination different text books and journals to find out the information. As students progress into their degree, there is a greater emphasis on reading around the topic and learning more than what is delivered in lectures.

I hope this blog has given you a summary on the key differences between A-Levels and first year at University. For more information on how to prepare for your first semester, take a look at James’ blog!