Jonathan Lim completed his Cambridge A-Levels course in Disted College, Penang. He scored three A’s and one B and is currently pursuing his degree in mechanical engineering on a partial scholarship at Monash University. Today, he shares with us his experience with the A-Level programme.
I’ve always thought about A-levels as THE benchmark, the place where you become a MAN. Okay, I may be exaggerating a little but there is no denying that the Cambridge A-levels (the one I took) was no walk in the park.
The course structure works like this:
The course is separated into 2 parts known as the AS and A2 levels respectively. However, I’ll go into detail regarding those two in a moment. First of all, the A-levels is a tough and well known course the world over that is recognized in most if not all private and public universities in the world. However, it’s also immensely rigid in the sense that there is no coursework whatsoever. The weightage in the entire course is based completely on the two exam periods which comprise AS and A2. Some people may like this set-up, I know I did due to coming from a school system where rigidity and exam-based education was the norm.
The disadvantage of this system is its high dependence on exam results. While doing well in exams are commendable, the so called ‘real world’ environment requires a mixture of interpersonal skills, critical thinking and practical experience to be successful and I feel that A-levels are severely lacking in this regard especially when compared to more fluid courses such as SAM or IB. The structure of my course was split into two semesters over the span of a year. This is extraordinarily quick if you compare the length to any similar course conducted in the UK so I guess we were overachievers haha.
So what is it like?
The first semester comprised of AS which is basically high school subjects taken up a few notches, mostly manageable but easy to screw up if you don’t work hard. The real kicker was A2. None of the topics covered there were anywhere close to the difficulty level in AS. I would say that the difficulty gap of AS to A2 was three times bigger (at the very least!) than the jump from high school (or O-levels) to AS. This naturally lead to a few of us getting a shock of sorts, even causing a dropout or two.
Everything was based on the exams at the end of the semester, so we had students who would skip every class in the semester but show up for exams due to there being no weightage in attending classes unlike coursework-based pre-U programs like AUSMAT or ADP. Personally, while a difficult course, the A-levels is by no means the hardest examining system in the world (especially compared to courses like IB). As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t take too well to my lecturer’s teachings in my college years (I’m in uni now) and I just kept doing the past years I found for my subjects over and over without using my notes. Though I didn’t do SPECTACULARLY well (I say this relatively as a few of my friends beg to differ), I managed to do quite well for myself which is strange considering I had little to no help from my college in doing so.
The good and the bad
While it may seem that I’m overly critical of this course, there are a few good points to it. The A-levels are one of the most thorough deep courses compared to its competitors in terms of syllabuses (or syllabi if you prefer). When I first entered my university, I found that I was way more prepared for my engineering course than say, my peers who took SAM or AUSMAT. However, that was only true in terms of knowledge. When it came to coursework or group work, those very same peers outshone me in nearly every regard because they had experience doing the aforementioned work during their pre-U years (still a lil sore about that). The A-levels, while having an extensive syllabus, was a foundation course first and foremost. They covered nearly everything and went into as much detail as possible to prepare us for any eventuality.
Unfortunately, this tends to waste time if we as students know what we want to do in the future. For example, a foundation course in engineering would be more helpful to the degree as it will only cover topics which are integral to the future bachelor’s degree rather than A-levels, which covered nearly everything so you could differentiate into engineering, medicine, science and etc. Long story short, if you know what you want to do, you’d be best served to take a foundation course in the university rather than A-levels as it would waste time.
In conclusion, the A-levels, while undeniably a celebrated and recognized course, has its advantages and disadvantages whether in monetary, educational, or occupational terms. One should exercise extreme caution in picking their course as the time taken in doing this course is a massive investment.