Two students sat working on a laptop and a tablet.

A-Levels vs. University: the differences and similarities students should know

You might think that A-levels are the most difficult qualification you’ll ever face. But, personally having just graduated from university I have to admit that getting a degree was, for me, much more challenging. So, here are some of the reasons why based on my own experience.


Let’s get this out the way now – from time to time university students skip lectures. Whether it’s because they’re running late, not interested in the topic or they just overslept, plenty of students are familiar with one of uni’s great lies – if you miss the lecture, you can just catch up on the notes later.

This rarely happens at college or sixth form, you might be ten minutes late in the morning because of the bus, or maybe you spend a little too long playing pool at break, but you still made it to class. At uni, your attendance is now your responsibility and missing lectures can easily backfire and leave you without a clue of what’s going on, so it’s best to try and overcome the temptation of another hour in bed.

The workload

Whilst it didn’t always feel like it in first year, overall my workload at uni was higher and harder than it was in sixth form. But, one of the good things about uni is that, after the pressures of A-level, you have a whole year to get used to the way things work. Take essays for example. In Sixth-Form, the essays were always about what we’d just learnt and we were given pretty much all the information we needed for an in-depth answer. At uni, the essays were related to what we were studying and we had to do our own research. For some essays, I was even supposed to interview professionals working in the relevant fields. I’ll admit, a lot more is demanded of you at uni, so find some good research sites fast and cling onto them for dear life – Google Books and JSTOR did wonders for me.

Distractions and motivating yourself

This is one of the biggest tests at university. Not the 9am starts, or the two-hour lectures on unfamiliar topics, but the constant distractions of nights out, junk food and socialising. For the first time in your life, you’re on your own and old enough to do pretty much anything. With the help of student loans and grants, you might even have enough money to briefly spend it how you like. This is liberating and fun, but at the end of the day you’re there to work, not to figure out your go-to drinks order on a night out. Friends and partners can helpfully remind you of work or other commitments, but at uni you really have to push yourself to get the best grade possible, because no one else will. Remember, lectures that don’t inspire you could give you a basis for your next essay or assignment, and even if you’re not interested in everything being said, you might pick up on something to inspire your next project.


For me, this was one of the most striking differences between studying for A-levels and completing my degree. A-level classes were small, we were told everything we needed to know and the teacher usually pandered to us by going through any presentations slowly, or writing down the important parts on a whiteboard. In comparison, university classes are generally split between lectures and seminars, with the occasional tutorial. Lectures consist of an hour or two of your professor talking to you and you writing down everything as you struggle to keep up with what they mentioned ten minutes ago (this is a skill you will learn!).

Seminars are completely different. Here, you’ll find yourself with a dozen or so others and be expected to take part in detailed discussions. My seminars were often in smaller rooms, which again was the complete opposite of the huge theatres the lectures were held in.

Teacher relationships

Unlike at sixth form or college, you won’t see your teachers every day. You might not even see them more than once a week. Some of my lecturers worked part time, so I’d either see them for a few hours in lesson, or I wouldn’t see them at all. You can always email them, but don’t be surprised if they take a day or two (or seven) to reply. However, due to being older, more mature, and more interested in what you’re studying, you should get on with many of your lecturers easier than you did with your sixth form teachers.

To summarise, university will treat you like the adult you technically are, which means you have to take charge of your life. Thankfully, this sounds scarier than it is. Sure, the work is harder, but you chose the degree so it’s more likely to be the sort of thing you’re genuinely interested in. And yes, you’re on your own, but this means you can finally start living your life the way you want it to be. You’ll be tested, but, at the end of your three (or more) years, you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come.

This article is featured on Learning at Lincoln. 

Please note: This content was created prior to Coronavirus, and some things might be different due to current laws and restrictions. Please refer to the University of Lincoln for the latest information.

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