The 12 Hardest A-Level Subjects (2021)
You hear it all the time – A-Levels are a lot harder than GCSEs. While this doesn’t sound that comforting coming from your teacher or parent just as you’re trying to choose your A-Level options, it’s true. A-Levels are a big jump from GCSE. It’s important to have all the facts, so you don’t end up taking an A-Level subject that’s much harder than you thought.
Below you’ll find a list of the 12 hardest A-Level subjects, whether it’s wise to take them, and links to each subject’s ORA Summer School should you feel that you’d benefit from brushing up on your knowledge ahead of the next academic year.
What are the 12 Hardest A-Level Subjects?
The 12 hardest A-Level subjects are Mathematics, Further Mathematics, History, Chemistry, Biology and Physics. The list also includes English Literature, Art, Psychology, Computer Programming and Music. You might be looking at some of these subjects and thinking, “No way! I could pass those in my sleep”. Well, let’s take a deep dive into why these subjects are the 12 hardest A-Levels.
Maths is renowned as one of the toughest A-Level subjects. You’ll focus on three areas – Pure Maths, Mechanics and Statistics. This can sometimes feel like you’re doing three subjects rather than one, which can be hard to keep up with. You’ll need a minimum grade of 6 in your GCSE Maths to be able to take this subject.
A-Level questions in Maths are particularly hard, because you’ll often just get the question or equation, with no paragraph to explain any context. This means it’s just you and the knowledge you’ve (hopefully!) absorbed up against an exam question – there are no clues or hints like at GCSE.
While the first term is deceptively easy and just covering content you’ll have done at GCSE, around November it gets progressively harder. You’ll start new topics, and be doing Mechanics at the same time, which means you have to get used to doing Physics type work. This means that if you struggled with Physics at GCSE, you might find Maths more difficult.
Find out more about our Mathematics Summer School.
Further Maths is so hard it counts as two A-Levels! When you take Further Maths, you’ll get both a Maths A-Level and a Further Maths A-Level, which means you’re taking on two Maths subjects! That alone makes it one of the most stressful A-Levels, as well as the fact that there is a lot of tough content. Maths A Level is already hard, which pushes Further Maths up to a stratospheric level of toughness.
For Edexcel Further Maths you will do four modules – Core Pure 1 and Core Pure 2, which are both Pure Maths modules. Then, you can choose 2 modules – either more Statistics, more Mechanics, more Pure Maths or Decision Maths. Pure Maths is only for the most able mathematicians. You really have to love Maths and be naturally gifted at the subject to hack it.
History is such a hard A-Level, because not only is there a huge amount of content to master, you have to develop the critical skills to structure that content for an exam. A Level History consists of three papers – Paper 1, Paper 2 and Paper 3 (for A2 only). Edexcel, for example, offers many different routes for A Level History, but one popular option is to study Russia 1918-91 (Lenin to Yeltsin) and then to study communist states for Paper 2 (for example, Mao’s China: 1949 – 76). For paper 3, you’ll have a 20% coursework paper, and choose, for example, Poverty, Public Health and The State in Britain (1780 – 1939). Despite being a Humanities subject, History can be a lot more like a Science than an Arts subject, which can be hard if you’re taking it because you like essay writing, but struggle with critical approaches and methods.
Modern Foreign Languages
Modern Foreign Languages are one of the hardest A-Levels because of the huge variety of different things you’re assessed on. For example, with Spanish A Level, it’s not enough to be able to write in Spanish, you’ll also be assessed on your speaking and pronunciation. You’ll have three papers that you need to master – Paper 1: Listening, Reading and Writing, which is assessed by a 2 hrs 30 minutes written exam and listening paper, Paper 2, which is a 2 hr written exam, and Paper 3 which is a speaking paper. You’ll have to orally present an individual research project one, for example, aspects of Hispanic society. That’s a whole lot of very different skills that you need to succeed, and a huge amount to practice and revise. Grammar learning is also really tough if you don’t have a naturally logical brain, and can really trip you up, even if you’ve got a good memory for learning vocabulary. In fact, Ofqual acknowledged in November 2019 (after ten years of complaints from teachers and research studies) that French, German and Spanish A Levels are ‘above average difficulty’, with ‘severe’ grading.
Physics is truly one of the hardest subjects you can take. It’s theoretically difficult with hard concepts to get your head round. The exams are extremely hard, and there’s a lot more material to get through. However, it can be a mind-blowingly interesting subject if you’re interested in the mechanics of, for example, how the universe works. You’ll have to study difficult topics such as Further Mechanics, Nuclear and Particle Physics, Thermodynamics, Nuclear Radiation and Oscillations at a high level during this A-Level, so if you just scraped your grade at GCSE you might find this subject especially challenging. If you struggled with Maths GCSE, this will be a particularly tough A-Level, as some of the papers include questions that target mathematics at GCSE level or above.
Find out about our Physics Summer School.
Computer Programming is an extremely tough A Level, especially as it introduces you to topics you may not have explored before such as coding. AQA Computer Programming A-Level is split into three parts – Coursework, Paper 1 (coding) and Paper 2 (theory). Getting your head around programming languages can be really challenging, especially if you’ve never come across them before. Theory is the most content-heavy part of the exam, which looks into all the details behind how computer systems operate. You’ll find this particularly challenging, especially if you learn better through more practical activities. 4.9 % of A Level Computer Programming students fail the course, which is one of the highest A Level fail rates.
Find out about our Tech, Coding, and Robotics Summer School.
Psychology A-Level can catch you out, as it can be a lot more science and maths related than it sounds. You might have been expecting to just explore the brain and how different factors influence human behaviour, and find yourself converting data and calculating percentages for observational studies. At least 10% of the marks in assessments for psychology require the use of mathematical skills, which will be at least the standard of higher-tier GCSE mathematics. If you really struggled with mathematics at GCSE, you could find this subject really unexpectedly hard.
Find out about our Psychology Summer School.
English Literature A-Level can be really difficult, because it tests you in ways that you might not be used to. You’ll need to think a lot more deeply than at GCSE, and come up with your own original ideas to impress examiners. This can be tough if you’re used to rote learning and prefer subjects where you can learn formulas to pass. There won’t be a textbook telling you which methods to use, or statistics to learn, and this way of learning doesn’t suit everyone. With English Literature AQA course A, you’ll do two papers, including coursework – Paper 1 and Paper 2. There’s a lot of reading, and the need to come up with your own ideas means you can’t just rely on SparkNotes to summarise novels for you like you might have done at GCSE.
Find out about our English Literature Summer School.
It’s no secret that A-Level Chemistry is extremely hard. If you struggled with GCSE Chemistry, it is highly recommended that you don’t do this subject at A Level, as it is a massive step up from GCSE. With AQA Chemistry, you’ll take two papers. These are split into Physical, Organic and Inorganic chemistry. Physical Chemistry is in both papers, while Organic and Inorganic appear in only one each. Chemistry is so hard because you have three diverse subjects to master, each with their own huge list of topics. This makes it tough, as while you might find one subject easier to grasp, you might also struggle with another, which can significantly bring down your grade.
Find out about our Sciences Summer School.
Like Chemistry, Biology is also a huge jump from GCSE to A Level, which can be a shock to some students. There is a huge amount of content to master at Biology A Level, as well as a whole new vocabulary. For example, you’ll be looking at things such as mycosis, mitosis, glycogen and glycogenesis. If you struggle with language and spelling, this will be a tough aspect of A-Level Biology, especially with how similar some of the words are. It’s really important that if you don’t understand a topic that you go back and work to understand it, because when it comes to revising for your exams you will really struggle if you don’t have that firm bedrock of initial knowledge. You want to be recapping on knowledge right before your exam, not learning it from scratch!
Find out about our Sciences Summer School.
Art is an extremely deceptive subject, in that so many people assume it’s an easy ride at A Level. The way that we talk about Humanities subjects in society can lead to us belittling subjects like Art, as opposed to STEM subjects. If you’re thinking about doing it as a ‘soft’ option, think again! A-Level Art is probably the most time-consuming subject there is, so you should only take it if you are truly passionate about it. If you’re already struggling with another A-Level subject, A-Level Art could be a real killer. For starters, there is a significant amount of essay-style writing and analysis for your Personal Study, so this is difficult if writing isn’t your strong suit. You’ll also have to build an enormous amount of art pieces both inside and outside of your sketchbook to prove to examiners that you deserve a high grade.
Find out about our Arts Summer School.
A Level Music is extremely challenging because of the technical content you need to grasp. You have to be extremely versatile to cope with this subject, as it has three very different aspects . For example, Edexcel Music A-Level has an exam component (i.e. musical appraisal of set works), compositions and a recital on your chosen instrument. It’s not enough to succeed in A level music because you excel as a performer, as the performance aspect of the course only counts for 30% of your grade. You also have to be able to create your own piece of music, with all the technical knowledge that that involves, and excel in a tough exam.
So, we’ve now gone through the 12 hardest A-Levels to take. I hope we’ve set straight some misconceptions about different A-Level subjects, and given some clear insight on whether or not to choose a subject for A-Level.
Related Blog Posts
12 Easiest A-Level Subjects (2021)
A-Levels are the ticket to your future, so it makes sense to study subjects that give you the best chance of getting a high grade.…
February 5, 2021
“Facilitating” A-Levels: Pick These Subjects if You Want A Place at a Top University
When it comes to applying for university, there’s no getting away from the fact that some A-level choices are more desirable than others for admissions…
July 8, 2014
Subjects You Are Ruling Out with your GCSE and A-level Options
Making the right choice of GCSEs and A-levels is essential, but it’s rarely an easy decision. You should also read… How to Choose the Right…
August 16, 2014
Science Revision Tips for GCSE and A-level Students from a Cambridge Graduate
About the author Philippa Logan read Natural Sciences (specialising in Chemistry) at Newnham College, Cambridge. Hermione Granger was essentially doing science A-levels. You should also…
October 30, 2013