Before you choose to retake your A-levels as a private candidate, consider your choices carefully. The fear that you won’t do better the second time may not be entirely unfounded—many people fail to see significant improvement even after retaking them.
Retaking the A levels without the support of a school is also difficult—you’ll find yourself with way less access to resources and less pressure to get your work done. If you’re on your own and without an end goal in mind, it’s easy to fall into complacency and you might find yourself in the same place again next year, or worse. There are many alternative options that may be more suitable for you.
That said, if you’re determined to do better on your next attempt, retaking can be a deeply rewarding experience. No doubt there will be sacrifices that must be made, but this experience can help you grow. Believe that you’ll overcome the odds, and you will. You’ll become more mature, resilient and independent, developing important life skills and values that will follow you for life.
There are no hard or fast rules on how to prepare for A-levels as a private candidate, but there are some ways to make the experience easier.
So, without further ado, here are some tips to survive the A-levels (again!)
Set up a conducive study environment
1) Set up an exclusive study space to get in the zone and minimise distractions. A specialised study space also helps to calm down anxiety and gets you in the mood to be productive. Simply entering the study room brought me a sense of calm and quelled my anxiety. Make sure that you don’t disrupt this association by playing or using your phone here. (Yes, even outside of study time)
2) Try listening to calming music (NOT the kind you would jam to!) while studying. Consider listening to white background noises or classical music. I personally liked listening to background alpha waves music, which supposedly improves focus. The music helped me to concentrate better and drown out background noises. Whether or not it was merely a placebo effect, I’ll never know. But hey, it helped, and that’s all that matters!
3) If you’re retaking your A-levels, chances are that you’re a master procrastinator. Starting work can seem very daunting and overwhelming. If you have trouble starting work, try the Pomodoro technique. Do focused work in 25-minute intervals, followed by a 5-minute break. Doesn’t seem as daunting, right? You’ll find that once you’ve gotten started, it gets much easier.
4) Minimise distractions. You can do so by putting your phone away or using productivity apps that lock away non-essential apps such as social media. For example, I used the forest app to lock away my social media with the incentive of growing virtual trees at the same time.
5) You know one thing that’s great about being a private candidate? Flexibility. This includes the way you organise your notes, and the types of notes you rely on. If you’re anything like me, you might find that elusive note or paper missing when it’s time to review but guess what? You won’t have that issue when you upload all your notes online. Organise your notes and essays on your Google drive by subjects and topics for easy access—no more missing notes!
6) Look through the syllabus/notes and allocate time to finish reviewing them. Depending on the amount of time you have, either look through notes to familiarise yourself with content or look through model answers. (In a crunch? Model essays > content!).
7) Do practice. This is important as we tend to overestimate our own ability (it’s human nature, really) by simply reading notes. Passive learning is unlikely to stay in your long term memory. Do timed practices. This is very, very important. You need to be extremely familiar with not only the material but the format and time allocation during the exams— you won’t have the luxury of time in the exam room.
8) Get competent tutors for help. Get tuition from established tuition centres or MOE teachers who are familiar with the syllabus. Tutors can help to correct mistakes that are overlooked and avoid the pitfalls of your own cognitive biases in self-marking. You could also reach out to friends or former school tutors for help, especially for elusive subjects like ELL/Lit, as they may be more familiar with your texts and learning needs. As a private candidate, you have the freedom to switch tutors so if there is a mismatch in your learning needs and teaching style and learning needs, you can easily change. Remember—you are paying the teachers in exchange for their services—if they don’t add value to your work, you owe them nothing.
9) Get notes from friends/ex-classmates. Many friends/ ex-classmates are more than happy to share their notes to help out, rather than seeing them go to waste at the end of their JC journey. For the humanities, their notes can help broaden your understanding and expose you to other points of views. Have discussions with them on how to analyse poems/ break down requirements
10) Get a hobby/go out. It’s easy to lose track of time and life in general when isolated from the outside world, which can easily lead to burnouts. Being focused on your goals is great, but not at the expense of your mental health! Sacrificing your mental health can also be very detrimental to your focus and motivation. Make time for yourself, join interest groups if possible, and meet up with friends. That new instrument you’ve always wanted to learn? Now’s the time to do it. How about learning those sick K-pop dance moves, or joining a dance club? Go ahead, go wild!
11) As a private candidate you may experience a lot of anxiety especially nearing exams from the burden of previous failure weighing on your mind—invest some time to exercise and meditate. The anxiety can manifest in many different forms such as nausea, stress or even blanking out during exams. Minimise anxiety by being prepared at least two months before exams and spam mock exams toward the last two months.
12) Reward yourself for personal improvements or a job well done. We work best when we’re rewarded for our efforts. Need a little motivation? Create motivation. The pizza that you really, really want to eat? Go ahead and splurge, but only when you’ve met your goals. Earning that reward also makes it so much more satisfying.
13) Make a do to list—list out the things that you want to cover for the week, allocate them accordingly, and cross them out once you’re done. You can start out by listing out all the topics you want to cover, and spreading them out over time. This gives you peace of mind. Give yourself incentives to complete them.
14) Get a study buddy. Retaking A-levels can get very lonely. If you work better with peers, consider reaching out to other people like you through platforms like Reddit, where many other retakers often form support groups. You can study together, share notes or simply befriend someone who understands what you’re going through.
15) Retaking A-levels, especially alone, is not easy. It’s easy to fall into isolation and a sense of loneliness given how disconnected from the world you are. Nearing the A-level period, watching “study with me” videos can help ease this sense of loneliness. Other than watching “study with me” videos, I’ve also made use of Focusmate to find an accountability partner to accompany me while studying.
16) Sometimes, watching your friends move on can be difficult. You may feel like you’re falling behind, or feel jealous of their newfound freedom. And that’s okay! Consider going on a social media detox to avoid mental comparisons. Remember, your mental health is your priority. Focus on your present, not (social media) presence!
Last year, I found myself at a crossroads. Which path should I take? Despite having most people around me advising me to move on to other more structured options, I was determined to overwrite the results that brought me nowhere. No matter how I thought about it, my heart brought me back to the same thing. This year, I found myself literally jumping for joy as I opened up my results upon exceeding my expectations. It might not be the best, but I’m really proud of myself!
Above all else, I learned to pursue what I wanted for myself rather than other people’s expectations. My desire to do better helped me to get through some of the most emotionally turbulent days of my life. And so will yours!
Retaking the A-levels may seem daunting, but it’s not impossible. Many people don’t do significantly better, but so what? No matter what the statistics or naysayers may say, your experience is what you make of it. If you are focused and equipped with the right tools and attitude, the odds will be in your favour.