Am I destined to fail my 'A' Levels?

This query comes from a student:

Hello, I am a J2 student sitting for my A levels this year. I am taking the PCME combination (H1 econs), and for the past 7 months I have been faring very badly for my maths and physics BTs and stuff despite attending lots of tuition classes. To be fair, my tutors are helpful.I have tried very hard and still nothing works. Am I a hopeless case, destined to fail my As? Is there no way to salvage my grades? :(

The Response:


This is Eric. I’m a Math and Physics tutor. I’ve seen many students panicking at this juncture and I hope my last minute tips can help you.

There’s a good 3 months or so until the A levels, so you still have time to get a good grade, provided that you maximize your returns on your (limited) time.

In general, I feel that students are often too hung up on doing lots and lots of questions, without really understanding the concepts and knowing exactly what they’re doing.

Thus, their hours of hard work often translates into mediocre grades, because questions can often be twisted in many ways. “Mugging” really only gets you so far; at this point you need to study smart.

I would generally recommend this last-minute study approach for Physics:

- Make a list of the topics that you’re really weak in, and focus on them. Not sure if you have heard of the Pareto principle: 20% effort to get 80% of the results. We want to exploit that here. It does not make sense to give up on any topic since you can expect questions on almost every single topic. And bear this in mind: Solutions to Physics problems typically only involve a core concept or two; you don’t have to learn a multitude of techniques to master a topic. This is especially true for topics like Forces, where problems range from Inclined Planes to Pulleys and Lift Problems and so on. Many types of questions here, yet a single approach is sufficient to solve all of them. (Yes, the basic Net Force = Vector Sum of Forces works just fine in the vast majority of the problems).

- For those topics above, read the lecture notes thoroughly and really understand the concepts presented (do not just memorize the formulae, they won’t get you very far in the exams), BEFORE attempting more papers (which I’m sure you have done quite a few by now). If there’s any concept that you’re unclear of, ask your tutor immediately as there’s no time to waste. If you have a good tutor, he/she should be able to pick out the most crucial concepts for you and test your understanding of those concepts with well-placed questions.

- Once you are clear with the concepts, start doing Prelim questions on those topics. Remember, you don’t need to do a lot of questions to succeed (not that you have the luxury of time to do so); just make sure that you understand fully how a question is solved, before moving on to the next one. As a guideline, 10 Prelim-level Paper 3 questions per topic is more than sufficient for you to become proficient at a topic, provided you really understand how to solve those questions and make lots of notes while solving them.

- Squeeze in some time to do some A level questions, which are significantly easier than the Prelim questions, but essential for you to get a feel of the question style in the actual A levels.

And the following approach for Math:

- I’m sure you know that Math involves a lot of practice, so I’m not going to repeat that here. Start taking out those past year prelim papers and work on them. Keep all your work neat and in one place for easy reference (I can’t stress enough the importance of this).

- As with Physics, make a list of the topics that you’re really weak in, and focus on them. Make lots of notes while solving difficult problems (it’s okay to refer to the solutions if you’re stuck); you can copy the relevant formulae/concept from your notes and write it beside your solution just to remind yourself that nothing in the question is new to you (it’s in your notes!). This really helps to boost your confidence.

- It definitely helps if you’re familiar with the common exam question types, including some that you may not have expected especially if you haven’t been doing a lot of practice on exam questions. As an example, you can expect to see Probability questions requiring Infinite Series methods to solve. For the uninitiated, this may come as a small surprise since many students assume that the two topics are separate. Unfortunately, melding two topics into one question is a favourite way for examiners to add variety to their questions.

- Some questions require certain “tricks” to solve, e.g. multiplying by e^(-iθ/2) or its variants when simplifying complex numbers. Make sure you highlight those tricks and include them in your list of problem-solving strategies for that topic. They will go a long way in helping you to gain confidence and solve otherwise-tricky questions more easily.

I hope this helps. If you’re diligent in applying the above tips and staying really focused, I’m sure you’ll do well.

Eric Chng

(Councilor: May 2013-Present)

Answered On 22 July 2013