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Starting Sixth Form: How Will it Be Different to GCSEs?

Starting Sixth Form college, whether it’s at the same school you’ve attended since Year 7 or you’ve moved somewhere new, marks the beginning of an exciting new chapter. Most of you Sixth Formers will be able to wave goodbye to most, if not all, compulsory subjects that had to be taken in Year 11 and focus your energy on the small selection of subjects you have chosen. You are likely to have new privileges and responsibilities, new expectations of you, and, even if you are continuing at the same school, quite possibly a new dress code to take into account!

Sixth form students in class

We’ve put together some of the key things you should expect from Sixth Form with some handy advice about how best to prepare and get the most out of Year 12 and 13. Let’s get started!

The Work is Harder but You’re Ready for it

Remember back in Year 9 or 10, when your teacher introduced you to the GCSE textbooks you would be using? No, of course you don’t remember - because it didn’t seem like a big deal! Everyone your age in the whole country was having to do the same thing and because it wasn’t your choice, there wasn’t the same ownership over the decision. And with a sense of ownership comes a degree of pressure. You’ve declared you’re going to pursue these subjects further and you got the GCSE grades to allow you onto the course, so it’s only natural if you feel that there is a certain expectation that you need to be good at this right away. Do NOT panic if for the first few weeks the subject you were always such a natural at seems suddenly far more challenging. Be prepared that for the first assignment or two, you may receive lower grades than you are used to. This is perfectly normal; Key Stage 5 (that’s what the world of education calls Year 12 and 13) is designed to demand more of you. Expect to be asked to push yourself, to develop your analytical skills and critical thought, to extend your answers and to learn more content. It’s supposed to challenge you! But “challenging” doesn’t equal “fear” or “failure”.

Embrace the challenge; you’ve earned your place in that classroom and it’s highly unlikely that experienced teachers would let you take on a course that isn’t within your reach. They believe in you and so do we!

Time Management: It’s Over to You!

You’ve spent the last 12 years having every school day mapped out for you and now you are being trusted to shape some of your week yourself. You’re seen as mature enough to be entrusted with making decisions and planning your time in a way that benefits you - and remember, it all comes down to making the best choices for yourself! Only you stand to lose out if you don’t manage your time wisely.

It’s a perfectly natural reaction to get excited when you see free periods on your timetable for the first time and to work out with your friends when you’ll share frees, where you’ll meet, what you’ll do. But you can really hit the ground running if you bear in mind from the start that you have been given free periods for a reason and that is to build times into your day where you can do the extra reading you need to do, consolidate the lesson you just had by writing up a summary or finding a relevant online quiz.

If you can form good habits early, you’ll set yourself up for a less stressful couple of years. Don’t let free periods become your saving grace when you haven’t finished homework for the next lesson; use them purposefully. Maybe even plan something that you regularly do in that free period every week such as visiting the library or study centre, or always dedicating it to revision even without a test being imminent.

Sixth form student doing homework

Use Your Initiative

Continuing on the theme, as a Sixth Former you are expected to take more responsibility for your own learning. You have chosen the subjects you do which means you have taken ownership over what you do every day. Whilst you will be surrounded by the support of your teachers, ultimately it is down to you to ensure you are your own best motivator and are holding yourself to the highest standards to fulfil your potential. Your teachers will expect you to make time for independent study and to read around topics and to take initiative when you are researching something.

If you are unsure of a deadline, or are finding something particularly difficult, you can check to see if you are entitled to extra time; ask your teachers, the exams officer, Head of Year, Head of Sixth Form or your Form Tutor. Ask them when it’s a good time to talk - email them if necessary. No one expects you to know all the answers and get everything right, but you are expected to try to find out the answers by asking questions and making it known that you need support.

Is There Time for Extracurricular Activities?

It’s a common misconception that once you’re studying for A-Levels, T-Levels or BTECs, that there won’t be any time for extracurricular activities. If you have a very time-consuming, intensive passion - such as a sport you train for or dance - that you love and have poured years of hard work into then you need to consider the following:

  1. If you are that passionate about this activity, is there a way to make it part of your Sixth Form studies? e.g. if you are a champion swimmer or violinist virtuoso why aren’t you taking Sports Science or Music?

  2. If you are certain this activity has a place in your future and/or brings you joy then how best can you make time for it in your new-look Sixth Form schedule?

  3. If you put this on pause now, will you realistically be able to pick it up at a later date? If it’s something like ballet, you would need to speak to your teacher about what skill and ability you stand to lose during that time.

With good organisation and self-discipline, it can even be time to pick up new hobbies and skills or double-down on ones you’ve just been coasting on. If you’ve been doing the bare minimum when it comes to piano practice, get fired up to take your next grade exam. Did you know that Grade 6, 7 and 8 in any instrument or Trinity or LAMDA Speech and Drama exams are actually worth UCAS points?

Believe it or not, universities and employers don’t JUST care about your grades; they will be looking for well-rounded individuals who have a range of interests, who actively seek enrichment opportunities and can contribute to the life of the institution or company.

Student playing football

Get Involved and Relish New Responsibilities

Sixth Form brings with it a whole host of opportunities to get involved in the running of the school or college. There will be roles up for grabs which will not only demonstrate to universities and employers that you are a trusted, proactive and engaged member of the student body but will also enable you to harness and develop a range of skills. This can be diplomacy and leadership skills if you are a senior prefect or school captain, public speaking as a representative of your school at open day events, organisation and teamwork when taking part in fundraising events, or patience with peers or younger students as part of a peer mentoring or tutoring programme.

You don’t need to overstretch yourself; only put yourself forward for positions you have researched, can fully commit to, and crucially, feel would add value to you as an individual.

Keep an Open Mind

You might think that doing 5 A Levels and an EPQ will look amazing on your university applications but it’s difficult to anticipate the challenges and the workload when you are first applying for Sixth Forms. After doing anything from 9 to 12 GCSEs, you might think that sounds very manageable by comparison but, as mentioned above, the depth of study is at the next level. There is absolutely no shame in speaking to your Head of Sixth Form and discussing how to reduce your subjects. They will be in the best position to advise you of your options: which subject you can afford to drop and still get to where you are hoping to go for university; looking at your grades, which subjects you stand to get a better grade in. They have an overview of your progress across all the subjects in a way your subject teachers won’t, plus they don’t have a vested interest in keeping you on their course!

You are going to change and mature so much between the ages of 16 and 18 and while there comes a point during Sixth Form where you are required to pin down your choices, within reason, there is space and time for you to discover what you really want to do with your life and the kind of future you want to build. In fact, many Sixth Forms allow a window in the first term of Year 12 to switch subjects if it turns out you feel like you made a mistake when choosing your options.

Enjoy this time and don’t feel obligated to stick firmly to something if you are struggling or it’s making you unhappy. Sixth form is a time of self-discovery and it’s natural to evolve and change during this time.

Self Care: Your Physical and Mental Wellbeing Comes First

Everything starts with ensuring you are getting enough sleep. The ideal amount is approximately 8 to 10 hours a night for those between 13 and 18 years of age. You are still growing - even if you think you’ve probably reached your full height and shoe size by now, your brain is still developing; the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for decision making and organising won’t be fully mature until you reach your 20s! Sleep is incredibly important to put you in the best possible position in terms of your mood, energy and concentration levels.

Likewise, even making quick and easy swaps in your diet can have a positive impact on your wellbeing. Ditch the energy drinks for a smoothie packed with fruit and veg - and if you’re pushed for time in the morning, at least grab an apple or banana. You can also choose the whole grain options when it comes to bread, rice or pasta at school for slow-release energy that will keep you going for longer.

Healthy breakfast

Hydration is important for all of us - fill up your water bottle throughout the day and keep slurping the H20 even if you have to add a little fruit or squash to enjoy it. You can’t expect to function at your best without fuelling your body with the sleep and nutrition it needs.

Make sure you get some physical activity in your daily routine as well as quiet time to relax and take time for a bit of self-care.

If at any point you feel you are struggling to regulate your emotions and worrying thoughts, don’t hesitate to talk to the trusted adults in your life. Friends can be amazingly supportive but your parents, guardians, teachers, and medical professionals have the means to help you solve any problems and can support you with getting the right help.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: Thinking About the Future

It might come as a surprise just how soon talk of university and other post-18 options starts in Year 12. Don’t worry if you don’t feel like you have a clue about any of this yet - some people have very clear ideas about where they want to get to and the steps they need to take to get there but most students have lots of questions and uncertainties at this point … and that’s okay!

Everyone is in the same boat and you are all going to be learning about how UCAS works, how to research careers, universities and courses. It’s understandable to feel daunted and a bit overwhelmed, but remember that no one expects you to know everything all at once. Just ensure you’re focused, organised and proactive throughout. And if you want to get a head start you can always check out some of the super-helpful blogs written specially for Sixth Formers: Comprehensive Guide to UCAS Applications, Which University Course is Right For You?, How to Write a Stand-out Personal Statement and 10 Tips to Prepare for Your University Interview.

Sixth Form: Let’s Do This!

We hope we’ve left you feeling excited and ready to run towards all the new experiences life as a Sixth Former has to offer. The adventure starts here and we hope you enjoy everything we’ve mentioned - as well as making new friends and making amazing memories with your classes. Have fun!

Sixth form students doing project

And remember, if you ever need any help with the step-up to A Levels... you know where to find us!


Blog Post Crafted by Jenny

Jenny is our Deputy Company Manager, co-managing our Admin Team.

She studied Theatre Studies at Rose Bruford College and got a First Class BA Hons from University of Manchester, before going on to teach Drama in schools.

She loves chilli con carne and a cup of tea, but not together, and is quite confident she could beat you at scrabble.

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