10 Ways to Go the Extra Mile While Studying for your GCSEs

Image shows a desk with a variety of books and electronic devices.Conscientious students are always looking for ways to do that little bit extra on top of their normal studies, knowing that doing so means better grades and improved prospects.

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This is particularly important at A-level, because your university application hinges on your academic achievements in these exams. However, if you really want to go the extra mile, your preparation should start even earlier than Year 12. If you can find the time to do a bit extra while you’re studying for your GCSEs, you’ll find that it pays off in the long run when you achieve better GCSE grades and you’re better prepared for A-levels. The result of this extra effort is that more doors open for you: it ultimately boils down to a stronger university application, increased chances of getting into a top university, and therefore better long-term employment prospects. When you see the bigger picture in this way, it immediately becomes obvious that it’s well worth setting aside the time to do some of the suggestions in this article.

1. Discover the learning method that suits you best

Image shows a student working in a library.
Do you work best studying quietly in the library, or do you need a more dynamic learning environment?

We start with something that has the potential to improve your productivity dramatically, standing you in good stead for every stage of your education henceforth. It involves thinking about the way in which you study: the actual methods you use when learning, and the environment in which you do your learning. Everyone’s different, and people respond differently to different learning methods. It’s worth putting in the effort as early as Year 10 to find a study method that suits you and enables you to work to maximum efficiency: you’ll be amazed at how your productivity shoots up when you do, so there’s no sense in delaying this to A-level or even university, when it can help you achieve better performance in your GCSEs as well. There are many ways of learning, and solitarily ploughing your way through a dry textbook and copying out sections into your notebook is by no means necessarily the best or most effective method. Some people learn best from watching videos, for example, or learning in a group with friends; some need absolute silence to stand a chance of concentrating, while others can’t concentrate without music, or the background hum of a busy space such as a coffee shop or common room. We’ve outlined more learning styles for you to try here; experiment with a few until you find one that works for you, and you’ll be rewarded with your studying being made much easier.

2. Develop your exam preparation/revision method

GCSEs are your first set of major exams, and as such, this is the time to develop an effective preparation method. Then, by the time you get to A-level preparation, you already know how to prepare effectively for exams, and all you need to is refine and advance your existing skills rather than trying to start from scratch. Revision can be made easier by continually refreshing your memory as you go along, and by learning things properly in the first place, rather than leaving it all to a big chunk of revision lasting weeks or months right up to the exam. You can also experiment with methods for memorising information; memory aids are one way, notecards another (that is, summarising each topic on a small notecard, committing it to memory and then testing yourself by seeing how much information you can remember). Developing an organised filing system for your notes will help you with this, and so will getting into the habit of managing your time effectively, as this will free up extra time in your daily schedule for refreshing your memory on topics you’ve studied previously.

3. Hone your exam technique

Image shows a student taking an exam.
Exam technique can make a huge amount of difference.

Of course, the run-up to GCSEs is also the time to develop your exam technique for the first time. You’ll have mock GCSE exams to help you do this, but putting in some preparation of your own will help enormously. This means taking some of your spare time to practice different styles of exam question under timed conditions, even if you haven’t been set this as a homework task. Past papers and example questions are readily available on the internet, and it’s well worth practising as many different kinds of question as you can, for all your subjects, before you get to the stage of sitting mock exams. Mock exams are there to highlight areas that you still need to work on before the real thing, but if you can do a good job in them, it’ll be a great confidence boost.

4. See beyond the requirements of the syllabus

At GCSE level, many students focus exclusively on jumping through hoops, as this is what’s needed to pass the exams. They study the requirements of the mark scheme in meticulous detail, and think only of this; it’s not helped by the fact that this is what most teachers concentrate on as well. However, to take this blinkered approach to any subject is to lack foresight: GCSEs are there to lay the foundations for A-level and ultimately undergraduate study, so to see this purely as an exercise in passing exams is a mistake. You should ideally already be starting to develop an academic way of thinking, cultivating your intellectual curiosity by asking questions, conducting extra research around your subject, reading other people’s opinions and forming your own.

5. Grow your vocabulary

Image shows a magnifying glass on a book.
If you have any words where you think you know how to use them, but you’re not 100% sure what they mean – look them up!

A good vocabulary is something to be admired, and it will set you apart from other candidates in exams at every level, not to mention in your university application. Year 10 is a good time to start making a concerted effort to improve it, because you’ll start to feel the benefits by the time you get to your GCSE exams. In the course of your day-to-day schoolwork, a growing vocabulary can help you to achieve better grades in your essays and in your GCSE coursework; a good grasp of words allows you to express yourself clearly and articulately, so that the reader (whether your teacher or an examiner) feels that they’re in safe hands. It’s not something you can fake by using a thesaurus, either; synonyms often have different connotations despite meaning the same thing, so you have to have a clear understanding of the nuances to use words to good effect in an essay. The best way to grow your vocabulary is simply to read voraciously; you’ll pick up new words almost without thinking about it, by working out the meaning from the context. Keeping a dictionary by your side will make it easy to look up words you don’t know or can’t work out the meaning of. You could also subscribe to ‘Word-a-Day’ email mailing lists.

6. Start learning an extra language

It’s hard to overstate the usefulness of being able to speak more than one language. Not only do employers love it, but the challenge of learning a language is such that you pick up transferable skills such as a good memory, discipline, strong communication skills and so on. You may already be learning a language as one of your GCSEs, but studying an additional one in your spare time, starting in Year 10, will give you something extra to talk about on your university application in three years’ time. What’s more, you’ll get better at learning languages in the process, which should benefit the language you’re studying at school, too.

7. Start studying a musical instrument

Image shows a cello.
Don’t put off learning a musical instrument, as it’s easier the younger you are.

Year 10 is a great time to start studying a musical instrument, as it gives you enough time to practise and get to a level sufficient for mentioning in university applications in Year 13. It takes a lot of hard work and determination to get past the tricky first stage and progress to making music that sounds good and that you enjoy, and the self-motivation you develop through doing so is something that you can mention in your personal statement as having equipped you for the challenges of studying for a degree. Learning a musical instrument improves your general knowledge, too, as it teaches you about the history of music and the important composers who’ve written some of the most famous tunes in the western world. Even better, you can eventually join music groups, which teach you how to work effectively in a team.

8. Write for your school newspaper

If your school has a newspaper or newsletter, ask whether you can contribute some articles. This gives you practice at writing for an audience, developing your writing style as well as forcing you to think clearly about your opinions (if you contribute an opinion piece). Through writing for other people, you can become more in tune with adapting your writing style for different audiences, and making your writing more interesting – skills that will stand you in good stead for essays, coursework and exams, as well as any other occasions that call for good writing.

9. Watch more television documentaries

Image shows a film camera pointing over a city.
Television documentaries are a good way to relax while continuing to learn.

Nobody can study all the time: you need regular breaks to allow your mind to switch off from what you’re studying, otherwise your brain becomes saturated and you feel as though you can’t absorb any more information. But you can still use your down time to benefit your studies by watching television documentaries on as many different subjects as you can. This improves your general knowledge, and you never know, you might unexpectedly find something interesting that might end up being what you study at university. For example, a David Attenborough documentary on primates might inspire you to study Anthropology, or a BBC Horizon programme on volcanoes might make you realise that Geology is a subject you want to pursue. Even if you don’t discover your ideal subject this way, a good general knowledge is always an advantage, because you never know when information will come in useful (even if it’s only for pub quizzes when you’re at university!).

10. Start doing some super-curricular activities

“Super-curricular” activities are extra-curricular activities that relate to a specific subject, or that enhance your academic studies in some way. These not only help you learn more and develop your interest in what you’re studying, but they show universities that you’re serious about your studies and genuinely motivated to learn more about it. When you’re doing your GCSEs, you may not yet have a particular subject in mind that you want to study at university, but that doesn’t mean you can’t already start doing some activities to support any of the subjects you’re studying at GCSE. You could start by pursuing your favourite subjects; for example, you could go to the theatre more if you love English (there are usually cheap student tickets available).

Image shows an art gallery.
Visiting art galleries is a good super-curricular activity for Art, History or even Religious Studies.

You don’t necessarily even need to concentrate on the subjects that most interest you; you could do some super-curricular activities to help you get better at the subjects you find difficult, or to help develop more enthusiasm for your least favourite subjects (and thereby increase your chances of a good grade). For example, if you’ve never been a fan of history, you might find that visiting a museum or an archaeological site might bring the subject to life a bit for you. If you’ve always hated maths and thought it pointless, understanding more about its relevance to the real world might help; you could do this, for example, by visiting Bletchley Park to see how maths was applied in decoding German messages during the war, and subsequently in inventing the computer. You’ll find plenty more subject-specific suggestions here, and here are some more generic super-curricular activities for those who haven’t yet decided what they want to study.
It’s never too early to start preparing for university, but for those conscientious enough to do so, the rewards are immediate as well as long term. By going the extra mile when you’re studying for your GCSEs, you pave the way for a bright and prosperous future: hard work translates to better grades, and better grades translate to better university prospects; and better university prospects translate to better career prospects. Putting in a little extra effort now is, as they say, a ‘no-brainer’.


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Image credits: banner; student; exam; magnifying glass; cello; documentary; art gallery.