Life in Sixth Form Compared to Life at University: 13 Key Differences

Image shows a lecture theatre at university.

Although university can be seen in one way as simply a continuation of your education, you’ll encounter many fundamental differences when you take the step from A-level student to undergraduate.

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These changes in your academic and home life naturally take a bit of adjusting to, so to prepare you, we’ve put together a list of the key differences you can expect to come across when the time comes for you to pack your bags and head off to university to start the next chapter of your life. The changes can be quite substantial but there’s nothing that’s too much of a challenge to get used to if you have some idea of what to expect – and that’s where this article comes in. From studying to living circumstances, here’s how life at university compares to life as a sixth former.

Academic differences

The step up from A-levels to undergraduate degree is a considerable one, and you’ll need to adjust to a somewhat different mode of academic life once you get to university. Here are some of the major academic differences between sixth form and university.

One subject

Image shows a chemistry experiment belching smoke, while a woman in a lab coat writes on a chalkboard behind it.
Even if the idea of focusing on one subject sounds limiting at first, you’ll soon discover the surprising depth and breadth of whichever subject you choose.

One of the most fundamental differences between A-levels and university is that at A-level, you’re studying several subjects, while at university, you’re studying just one – for the first time in your academic career. Whether you consider this to be easier or harder depends on your point of view; you may find it easier to concentrate all your thoughts on getting to grip with one subject (and all the different topics that make up that subject), while others may prefer the variety at A-level and may get restless studying the same subject day in, day out. On the plus side, you’ve hopefully chosen your course because it’s something you find genuinely interesting, and for the first time, you can specialise solely in that. Pursuing something that you find interesting should hopefully make it easier to do well. Being able to abandon subjects you didn’t enjoy at A-level will also come as a relief for some – unless those subjects are needed for certain modules of your course, in which case you may find yourself digging out your old A-level notes for some revision (so don’t throw them away just yet)!


It’s difficult to say whether you’ll find the workload bigger or smaller than you did at A-level, because it varies enormously from university to university, and from course to course. For the top universities, however, you can expect your workload to go up, to the point that it’s pretty much always on your mind. The studying you do outside classes and lectures is no longer referred to as ‘homework’ – it’s just ‘work’, and almost certainly a lot of it. You’ll have big reading lists to get through, essays to write, presentations to prepare; as a scientist, add lab reports, problem sheets and so forth into the bargain. Good time management skills will be even more important once you get to university; your revision for A-level exams will have been good practice, but you’ll be needing these organisational skills the entire time you’re at university, not just in the run-up to exams.

Independent thinking

As well as a bigger workload, you’ll not be surprised to hear that you will also find the work itself considerably harder. There’s much less spoon-feeding of facts, and much more independent research. Original thinking is valued even more, as is a spirit of enquiry, and you’ll be expected constantly to question your sources. Your opinions will be challenged, and you’re in for a much more academically rigorous experience at university than at sixth form.

Style of teaching

After the monotony of the sixth form classroom, you’ll be pleased to find that there’s a bit more variety in teaching style once you get to university. You’ll experience some new ways of learning, most notably lectures, for which you’ll need to acquire good note-taking skills. University teaching styles vary from institution to institution, and from course to course, but other methods you may encounter include seminars, classes and tutorials, all of which are likely to demand greater involvement from you than you might be used to. Expect to take part in discussion groups, give presentations to your fellow students and be given reading lists to work from in your own study time.

Research skills

Image shows a student in a library, seen between bookshelves.
Studying at university happens primarily in the library, not in classrooms.

You’ll probably be spending a lot more time in the library than you’re used to, as an undergraduate degree requires you to develop research skills. You’ll be given a reading list, and if you’re lucky, specific chapters or page numbers to read, but after that you’re on your own when it comes to researching essays and finding relevant information – and you’ll still need to filter out the pertinent points from the reading material you’ve been set. This way of doing things can come as a shock after sixth form, when teachers will photocopy relevant passages from books for you, or tell you specifically where to look for information.

Essay requirements

You probably got used to rattling off 500-word essays at sixth form, but your essay-writing skills will need to go up a gear for university, as the requirements are rather different. You’ll be expected to back up everything you say with academic references, usually in the form of carefully formatted footnotes quoting the book from which you got an idea. You’ll need to include a bibliography at the end of your essay with details of the books you’ve used in the writing of the essay. What’s more, university essays are usually longer than the essays you wrote at A-level; 2,000 words is common, giving you more time to develop ideas, cite different arguments and demonstrate your own thoughts.

Motivating yourself

Image shows a school student doing homework.
No one at university will check if you’ve done your work; now is the time to learn to motivate yourself without needing to be nagged.

While at sixth form your teachers will have been there to support and motivate you for much of the time, you’ll be expected to get on with the work of your own accord once you’re at university. You’ll have a lot more free time than you had at sixth form, but if you’re at a top university then you’re unlikely to be able to consider your spare time as really being ‘free’. The time when you’re not with teaching staff should be usefully employed with independent study, although you do of course have the freedom to decide when and how much you study. You’re a lot more responsible for your own studies at university than you are at school, so it’s up to you to motivate yourself to succeed.

Harder exams

At sixth form, you probably encountered plenty of jumping through hoops in terms of knowing the right things to say in order to please examiners; indeed, it’s said that A-level exams test how good you are at passing exams rather than how good you are at the subject. At university, such considerations go out of the window, and the emphasis is much more on demonstrating your academic abilities. If you thought A-level exams were hard, wait until you get to university! Of course, you’ll be given more than enough time and help to prepare for them, but the toughness of university exam questions goes up several notches and A-levels will often seem ridiculously easy in comparison. The wording of the questions will be harder, and it’s much more difficult to get away with doing very little work and still do well in your exams. Multiple choice questions of the sort found on General Studies A-level papers can be consigned to history, and university exam questions often aren’t so much about getting the question ‘right’, but rather intelligently making different arguments and supporting each of them with evidence. Examiners will see straight through you if you try to bluff, so the only way of succeeding is to put in a lot of hard work throughout your time at university.
Your experience in your first year at university may depend to some extent on whether you are assessed by exams at the end of the year. Not all universities require you to sit exams at the end of your first year, but others use exams to determine whether or not you’ll be allowed to continue your course – and that puts a lot of pressure on.

Your relationship with teaching staff

Image shows a mad professor-type with flyaway hair and a colourful bow tie.
Some university professors delight in playing up to the ‘eccentric’ stereotype.

Having grown up addressing teachers as “Mr Smith” or “Mrs Green”, it may come as a surprise to find that there’s usually less formality at university. You’re likely to enjoy a more easy-going relationship with lecturers, whom you’ll usually address by their first name (it’s usually only the older ones who like to be addressed as “Professor” or “Doctor”!). You may find drinks and dinners organised, at which you’ll socialise with your lecturers, and you’ll probably know more about them as people than you did about your teachers at school. What’s more, university teaching staff are generally more free to be themselves than school teachers, with plenty of room for eccentricity!

Lifestyle differences

It goes without saying that the lifestyle differences between sixth form and university life are considerable. Going to university is a significant step towards the world of adulthood, a rite of passage, and it’s a time when you can get used to looking after yourself in preparation for when you leave full-time education and get a job.

Living away from home

Unless you’re going to university in your home town and living at home (not recommended, as you miss out on a great deal of university life if you do this), you’re going to be moving out of your parents’ home for the first time. This won’t be a permanent move, at least in your first year, as you’ll probably be going back at the end of each term, but once you club together with your friends and get a student house, you’ll likely be living there during the holidays as well. Naturally, moving away from home brings with it significant lifestyle changes. There won’t be anyone nagging you to do your homework (you’ll have to take responsibility for that yourself), but there won’t be anyone to cook, clean, or do your washing for you either. Suddenly you’ll have to worry about ‘grown-up’ things, like paying bills, or dealing with landlords, on top of your academic concerns. And you’ll be living with fellow students, which, though fun at times, can also bring with it its own stresses (people stealing your food, for instance, or not doing their fair share of the cleaning).

No real timetable

At school, you’ll have been used to having a carefully planned timetable of lessons, put together by someone else, and all you have to do is turn up to each class at the right time. Once you get to university, all that changes. You’ll be told when lectures and classes are, but it’s up to you to plan your time and make sure you get to everything, and you’ll have to fit independent study and other academic and non-academic commitments around that. You’ll find that you have a lot more free time at university than you did at sixth form, and this has led to the stereotypical image of the student as someone who stays up very late and lies in bed very late. You’ll get to know yourself better and find out when you’re at your most productive.

Your fellow students

There’s a reason why many people make friends for life – or meet their future spouse – when they’re at university. It’s because you’re more likely to meet people with whom you truly feel on a wavelength. At school, people are there because they are required to be by law. University, on the other hand, is optional, and people go to university because they actively want to, not because they’re being forced to. This means that undergraduates are generally more motivated to learn, with a genuine interest in what they’re studying. What’s more, the diversity of university life – its numerous special interest groups and clubs, and the fact that students come from all over the country and beyond – means that it’s easier to meet plenty of intelligent people who share your points of view or interests.


Whichever university you go to, you’re likely to find the atmosphere very different from that at sixth form. For a start, your fellow students are all of a similar age; if you went to the sixth form at school rather than a college, you’ll probably have been used to the lower years tearing around being disruptive. As mentioned above, undergraduates are there because they want to learn, and universities tend to have a more scholarly vibe to them than sixth form – something that should help inspire you to succeed and give you a thirst to acquire ever more knowledge.
University will be very different from what you’re used to, but you’ll soon leave the world of sixth form far behind you and grow to love the challenges of your new life – and the characters you’ll meet along the way.

Image credits: banner; Chemistry; library; homework; professor