From A Levels to undergraduate study, how hard is the transition…really?

This post is based on my experiences at Newcastle University so the links at the bottom are only applicable to prospective students there. However, in my experience I’ve found that most universities have similar provisions for their first-year students, go on their websites to find out more!


From A Levels to undergraduate study, how hard is the transition…really?

At Newcastle’s undergraduate visit day this year, I was asked half a dozen times about how hard being a university student is compared to studying for your A levels. Google this question and you’ll find yourself in a sea of internet forums with complacent or panicked students bragging about how much easier it is or students stressing over how difficult the transition is.

The truth?

It’s incredibly subjective. University is going to be as difficult as you want to make it for yourself but you also have a lot to gain from putting in the extra effort. So essentially, the difficulty of the transition is, like most things at university, largely up to you. The hardest bit about coming to university (in my humble opinion) is how to live with your newfound independence but chances are, you’re going to have that challenge around this time in your life regardless of whether you choose to come to university or not.

But back to the studying.

I’m going to unashamedly hold my hands up here and admit that I’m a nerd – I love to learn. So imagine my surprise when I went from working hard and getting awesome grades in college to working hard and getting low-average grades in university. It was a shocker, for sure.

This wasn’t because the transition was too difficult or because I’d lost smart points over my blissfully long and wonderful gap year, this is because of a simple truth that will be repeated to you time and time again by your lecturers: you have to learn to work differently.

A brilliant thing about first stage (your first year) when you come to university is that it doesn’t count at all in your marks, you just have to pass it. One big important reason for this is that your lecturers want you to adapt your college habits to suit university – now, instead of writing to pass an exam, you’re writing to show that you really understand and can analyse the material and, most importantly, you can think for yourself. Weirdly, A levels don’t encourage this practice too much and instead, they opt for wanting you to say specific things (I remember spending far too much time memorising legislation dates on flashcards and looking at mark schemes), rather than your own ideas. You might already be doing this sort of thing, if that’s the case then great! Keep practising! But for those of you who aren’t – don’t worry. You’ll figure out how to express your thoughts and argue your point wonderfully soon enough and once you do, you’ll wonder how you ever did it differently.


It’s well worth mentioning that there’s loads of support available to you to help with the academic transition into university (the non-academic side is worth a whole other post of its own!). Here are a couple of pointers to give you an idea of the amount of people you can turn to:


  • Your lecturer
    Obvious, I know, but your first port of call if you get stuck about something specific to your module should be the person who’s leading it or who’s heading up your seminars
  • Your peer mentor
    Most first years will have a peer mentor who is a student in their 2nd or 3rd year who has been trained to point you in the right direction for help and to share their own experiences of university
  • Your personal tutor
    You’ll be allocated a personal tutor that you meet up with at least once a semester, you can talk to them about all things university – including how to make the transition from A level to university as smooth as possible
  • Your peers
    There’s a very good chance your degree has its own university society or at very least, a Facebook group for your course and/or year. Talk to other people and see how they’re getting on, quiz the 2nd and 3rd year students over what modules they picked and how they make referencing less boring (everyone has a tactic!)


There’s also university-wide support you can use too such as:


The transition from A Level to university can be really daunting and challenging but there’s loads of support you can access if you need a hand – plus you have all of your first year to figure it out before you really have to knuckle down when your grades start ‘counting’.

So try new things and have fun!