With less than 2 months to the A-levels and the less than stellar grades students tend to receive during their JC days for Chemistry, it is no wonder that many are desperate to see their grades for Chemistry improve in the shortest period of time. Many turn to centres offering crash course programmes in a last-ditch attempt to ‘pull up’ their grades; others even somewhat resigned to the status quo at this point. Yet, the silver lining is that even with merely 2 more months, there is still hope for failing students to actually obtain an A for Chem. As unbelievable as it sounds, here are some actionable tips with regards to how you can do so.
Magic is in the practise papers
As mentioned in the post on how students should manage their time for the A-levels, the activity with the highest return of investment of time is doing practise papers. Chemistry is not the exception but perhaps the most applicable to this rule. For such a heady subject, similar to that of Mathematics, all topics would be tested and there is even an exhaustive question type list that covers more than 80% of the paper. By mastering the list of question types that would be tested, one would have mastered more than 80% of the paper. The first step to an A grade would be to spot all these common question types. Take for instance two examples of the most commonly asked questions on Chemical Energetics and Ideal Gases in the examination.
1. What are the two assumptions of Ideal Gas Theory?
2. Account for the discrepancies of the enthalpy change value calculated and those obtained from the data booklet.
While the actual questions may be paraphrased differently in the actual exam, the substance within the questions and the answers to them are still the same. By doing papers continuously and diligently, students are better able to spot these types of questions by being exposed to more forms of the same question. Answering these questions would become as easy as mere regurgitation of a well-prepared answer.
(p.s. If you’re wondering, the answer to the first question is that molecules have negligible volume and negligible intermolecular forces of attraction. Second answer is that values in the data booklet are an average of the bond energies in all the molecules and the assumption is that these molecules are gases.)
The next reason why practise papers are so important for the Chemistry paper is that the time limit given for the Chemistry paper is one of the strictest. Most students can empathize with the feeling of not being able to finish the paper within the accorded time. If you find yourself unable to finish practice papers within the stipulated time today, you are rendering yourself a huge disadvantage in the actual A-levels. And this is perhaps the most pressing issue you need to solve now. To mitigate this, you would need to train yourself to do questions faster without sacrificing the accuracy of answers. The only way to do questions faster, is therefore to attempt more papers. This trains vital muscle memory on skills tested in the exam, such as the ability to spot the main issues in questions; the answering techniques required; and even the speed where one uses the calculator. Students should take practice papers regularly and confine themselves to the time accorded. This helps students to plan and budget their time during the actual exam. For example, in paper 3, students have 2 hours to attempt 4 questions which works out to 30 mins per question. Constantly practising with a time limit of 30 mins per question allows students to get used to the rigor and time pressure required in the actual exam.
The last reason to do practice papers is perhaps less intuitive than the rest. The reason is the presence of an MCQ section in the final exam. The very nature of multiple choice questions values exam skills more than anything else. This MCQ section of the paper tests specific and different skills from the rest of the other papers. It puts heavy emphasis on elimination, guessing and estimating skills. While this may not be obvious to most students, the only way to prepare for paper 1 is actually to do Paper 1 papers. Most students would remember the first time they took a multiple choice exam and how badly they did for that exam. Now, compare that with your current standard and you’ll notice how much you’ve improved. This is attributed to nothing more than the constant MCQ practices you’ve had in school. To get an A for the MCQ Paper 1, it entails nothing really different. Just constant practice.
One of the most often questions students ask is which papers are good for practising. The answer is 90% of the prelim papers out there are good practices. While some schools have ‘better questions’ than others which are closer to the A-level standard, most fall within a reasonable difficulty range for an A-level exam. As a rule of thumb, just avoid papers from HCI and AJC due to the extreme difficulty of questions. All other papers are good practices for the A-levels.
Solutions are key
Another common issue students face is not knowing the right phrases to write during the exam even when they’ve understood the concepts. Fortunately, there is an easy solution to this issue. The answer is literally found in the answers. Most students rarely pick up the answer key or the marking scheme for practice papers. Yet, all the knowledge students need for the exam is found there. In a subject like chemistry where answers are required to be short, precise and accurate, students need to master the art of answering such questions to get a decent grade. To do so, simply look at the answer key to the practice papers to see where the marks are allocated. Most of the time, the examiners are kind enough to underline the key phrases which must be present in an answer to score the marks. Most 2 marks qualitative questions require 4 key phrases of ½ mark each. To prepare for the question type, simply learn the 4 key phrases and replicate it during the A-levels. For calculation questions, most answer keys provides a step by step tutorial on how to get to the final answer. Students merely have to understand the reasoning behind the steps and replicate the steps in the actual exam. While this tip is normally easier said than done (as it takes some time at the start to understand the answer key), it has a huge payoff when students finally ‘gets it’. Getting someone to explain the answer key could be an option at this point in time to speed up the process.
Action speaks louder than words
While Chemistry is a subject that place heavy emphasis on exam skills, it is also a content heavy subject. This implies that a lot of time has to be spent on studying it. At this juncture, some students would be looking for shortcuts for getting an A in Chemistry and most time-efficient methods to do so. Unfortunately, even while this guide has provided some of the best exam tips, time and effort has to be invested into studying Chemistry itself. Topics like inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry do not come naturally to anyone. They still require investments of time into rote memorization. While looking at answer keys can help students to understand what the examiners are looking out for, such answers still has to be committed to memory and it does take some time to remember the entire syllabus. To obtain that A, students have to put in the effort to diligently commit all the important knowledge to memory.
Chemistry is perhaps one of the most difficult and challenging subjects in the A-levels due to its steep bell curve and heavy emphasis on exam skills. Yet, with diligence and the right study methods, you could still score A for Chemistry at the A-levels. Remember, all your peers are facing the same situation as they race toward the A-levels. Yet, only the diligent ones with the right techniques will ultimately inhabit those prime spots across that finish line.