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How to score an A in the A-Level Biology exam

Achieving success with the A-Level Biology exams can be challenging, and the team at CGA is here to share some tips for those wanting to succeed!

In this article, Crimson tutor, Ben Zhang - a 3rd-year student at Harvard University, studying Molecular and Cellular Biology with a minor in Statistics and holder of the November 2017 title for 'Top in the World' for the CIE A-level Biology exam - has generously disclosed and co-written some valuable tips below for ambitious students who wish to score an A in the A-level Biology exam.

Tip 1: Identify and maintain your motivation

Ben shares that he was always passionate about biology but was not always the most hardworking or ambitious student until he felt motivated to be one. He shares that identifying your motivation so you can maintain it is key to achieving any goal.

Ben’s personal motivation for learning biology

Although Ben enjoys all the sciences as it has a logical way of thinking where empirical evidence backs any claims, biology had especially captured his interest as it directly applied to life and living things. He had also been interested in medicine, and he is, in fact, a pre-med.

Biology is like the background of life; it helps you understand living organisms which are a lot more complicated. There are fewer rules and a lot more interesting phenomena. It's always really interesting to see how nature and biology solve problems and in unique and interesting ways.

Learn more about CGA’s Medical Pathway here.

Ben’s tips on how to identify and maintain motivation

Motivations can be extrinsic and intrinsic and come in many different forms. Ben notes that intrinsic motivation is arguably more effective than extrinsic motivation during moments when you feel like giving up.

'It comes down to internal motivation to succeed rather than external motivation. That's why you see that some people in adverse situations can outperform others.'

For Ben, his parents were 'hands-off' with his studies, which allowed him to develop his intrinsic motivation for the subject.

Find motivation in value and challenge of taking the A-level Biology exam.

Ben states that the curriculum in general is a valuable opportunity for all and notes how helpful preparing and sitting the A-level biology exam was for his academic career at Harvard.

'The CIE system is excellent. It is internationally adjudicated. It covers essentially what you need to know at any formal study of biology. It prepares you in a way that other nationalised curriculums might not. When I went to university, it was just a review (of what I had learnt in the A-levels). A lot of it was getting me to think about concepts in a specific way that biologists think about, which is really valuable in learning new things. At the undergraduate level, there is like this bastion of knowledge that is set, and you are just tackling it at varying levels of depth. If you have seen it before, you have a much more significant advantage than people who have not already seen it.'

Learn more about the Edexcel curriculum here.

Ben recalls that he was not always the most studious during his studies for the CIE exams. In fact, during earlier years in high school, he was disruptive in classes. Ben only found himself more studious when the material became more challenging but more engaging with the more mental effort needed to learn. He noted that if learning the A-level biology content was completely easy, he would have instead just talked to his friends than paid attention in class and dedicated time to learning the materials. Embracing the challenge of the A-levels made Ben motivated to do better.

'(Motivation) comes down to psychology where you need some intermediate stimulation to achieve your maximum potential. If you are unchallenged or feel like everything will be fine, you will not perform at a high level. However, suppose you are constantly under stress, like a soldier on the battlefield. In that case, you will not learn biology effectively because you are under so much pressure all the time, and that is the environment that some parents can create. It would be best if you had that stress level somewhere in between to have the best performance as best as possible.'

Identify your motivations by having an honest conversation with yourself and your parents.

Ben notes that when some students are asked why they want to achieve an A in biology, they may pinpoint extrinsic motivations given by their parents. For instance, some students may only feel motivated to please their parents and may not know any other reasons to get an A. Students and parents must find a way to transfer extrinsic motivation to one that is intrinsic.

'The process of transferring extrinsic to intrinsic motivation is challenging because again it comes down to habit. Good habits are hard to break, and bad habits are hard to break. If you are in a cycle of not putting effort into schoolwork, then that's your habit. There needs to be an internal shock-like a quarter-life existential crisis. I have some friends that had that, and they shot at the top of the class.'

Students who do not have intrinsic motivation to succeed may find it beneficial to sit down and have a very transparent conversation with their parents about the value of education and why scoring well in the A-level exams is valuable for the student. Ben shares some advice for guardians that want to engage their students in such conversations.


'(For guardians) it's a matter of sitting the kid down and talking and being very open about what it is they want to get out of an education because there's nothing to say that one avenue of education is better than the other. It is a perfectly valid goal to pass school and go into a trade and be a plumber. I don't see how that is anything less worthwhile than going to university and getting a PhD and being a rocket scientist. Parents may have different expectations from their children about their children's education, and it is just making sure you realign your goals to make sure this is what you both want. One of the benefits of being a parent is having hindsight, and so using that during these conversations and being honest about the facts would be good. For instance, you might say, 'I also thought the way you did and look at me now. I wish I had studied computer science at your age, but you want to do art and music. Is this something you want to pursue? Are these going to be your goals in respect to education?'.'

Tip 2: Be proactive with understanding the content before doing any practice

'If you start doing questions ( from the past years' exam papers) without knowing the content, that you are going to be playing a catch-up game that you will never catch up to.'

After or while you find your motivation, an excellent place to start on your academic preparation for the CIE A-level Biology exams, would be to pay careful attention to the content in your biology classes and ask your teachers for help when you need it. Additionally, Ben notes that it would be valuable to read the Cambridge biology textbooks and syllabus before and after lessons to understand the concepts taught in classes. The Cambridge biology textbook and syllabus are significant resources for your success as they outline all the essential concepts you would need to know for the exams. Further, teachers may miss certain concepts that will come up in the exam, so paying close attention to the textbook and the syllabus means that you will likely cover everything you need to know.

Ben also shares that preparing for and participating in the International Biology Olympiad during Year 13 allowed him to gain a much deeper understanding of the biological concepts and contents in the A-levels as he studied for the competition using a University textbook, among other resources. Ben notes that many of the A-level biology concepts were very familiar and intuitive to him by the end of the competition. So, he was able to see background connections that other students may not have seen.

'I would make sure I got those (learning objectives) covered, and I would go to teachers when I need help clarifying. That's why I like models that universities have; they throw you a whole bunch of content, basically a month's worth of content in a single lesson, and what you have to do is go to office hours, go to tutorials, and go to sessions to sort of make sense of that. If you already understand the concepts, then you derive less from those ways of preparing, but if you need the help, you can seek it out yourself, and I think that is better balanced.'

When you face any questions or uncertainties with the content that you can't answer yourself, Ben recommends that you first reach out to your teachers and tutors before consulting with other online resources.

Teachers are really helpful. You should always reach out to them first by email or google classroom in zoom. Teachers will be more helpful (than online resources) because they understand the context you are coming from. Other resources like Stack Exchange, YouTube videos like Khan Academy, Crash Course, those kinds of things can help with understanding broad concepts. There are many specific A-level resources out there because so many people take it that you can find something out there, and it would be great unless it is someone's random blog. Many high school teachers will publish their resources that anyone can have access to, and those are helpful.'

Having a tutor who cares about your learning and is effective at teaching, such as Ben, will likely aid you with achieving an A in the biology A-level exam.

*'*I genuinely enjoy teaching people. It is very rewarding because I can see students having the same journey I did either in learning or developing and going through Harvard or University or whatever. It is rewarding to see them succeed in their goals, get a good grade, or achieve something that they thought they could not achieve right at some point. That sense of satisfaction is really rewarding, and it's just part of being a teacher. I also really enjoy that aspect of working with others.'

When asked to describe when and how he achieves 'lightbulb moments' for his students at Crimson, Ben shares these moments constantly happen and attributes his success to the core aspects of his teaching method:

  • in-depth knowledge of the concepts;
  • providing his students' with necessary tools to reach the answers themselves;
  • and empathy.

'It happens all the time. If I were to keep track of every particular moment (when he successfully aids his tutees), then I wouldn't even know I wouldn't be able to think of anything else. There are so many moments like this, even on a day-to-day basis. Part of being a good teacher is being able to understand the concept in-depth. It is most satisfying when I walk them through the logic of all the things they need to solve a problem with them, and they can take all this information and find the solution for themselves. That is a moment of true learning because they are learning to find the answer for themselves; rather than a teacher coming in and being like you are struggling there, I will just give you the answer to this question that you have asked.

Part of my approach, and part of why I enjoy the sciences so much, is that I have a very rational way of thinking, and I will believe something when you give me all the necessary evidence and empirical proof. So I think that is one of the most important people in my teaching. I think back to when I first learned this concept, what some of the things that I found confusing were or what were some of the things that I found helpful. It doesn't have to be about biology or chemistry. It could be about approaching college life. It could be like a freshman, what I find helpful, what would I like my mentors to say when I was a freshman, or realising that nothing could have been said and acknowledge that.

(I teach with) a sense of empathy. Understanding what that student is going through and thinking about the problem to guide them effectively to the correct answer. (Being tutored) is a shortcut! When I had to learn, I had to go through the trial and error process of connecting these concepts through the most logical sense. But now, to be an effective educator, I can ask them and diagnose where they are confused and thread everything together in a way that makes sense to them. Usually, they get to the answer faster and have a more profound impression because they are not making those dead ends.'

Tip 3: After you learn the content, put in the hard work and practice!

'Practice is what gets you familiar with the exam, with writing your answers down, and with test-taking strategies. Again, I think many people are doing past year paper questions without learning all the content, and so they are not extracting the absolute amount of value from past papers. There is only a fixed amount of past papers, and if you do half of them while you do not know the content, then they are not contributing to their full potential pedagogical value.'

Past year papers, when used effectively, are a vital resource for your preparation and practice for the A-level Biology exam. Ben strongly recommends using them after learning the content and timing yourself to get used to answering under exam conditions. After finishing the paper, Ben notes that it is essential to mark your answers using the mark scheme. You must give close attention to this step as the mark scheme can help you identify the specific keywords and approaches to questions that the A-level Biology exam requires.

*'*For example, if the exam says to explain the form and function of something, you might not want to give just the form and function of something but also wherein the body is this from, and that might give you a mark there that you wouldn't otherwise know without practice.'

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Putting in the hard work to do every single past exam paper after learning the content is one of the main factors that Ben credits his success with achieving the 'Top in the World' title for the A level Biology exam.

I don't think I was doing anything different. The most important thing was that I was more persistent than people who didn't do so well. I think the difference between a 'B', an 'A', and an ''A star' is just a function of how many practice exams you do. I did literally every single possible practice exam before every single exam. And once I did that, when I opened the exam, I read it, and I'm like I already know exactly that I see a 3 point question and what the 3 points are for because I've seen a similar type of question before or see a concept come up in a practice exam somewhere.

If you want to get Top in New Zealand or Top in the World, you essentially have to be getting everything right in your practice exams. Then on the exam day, it is just a function of a random distribution of how many questions are randomly going to get wrong and how many questions other people are randomly going to get wrong. By luck or by some cognition you might get the highest.

Ben states that hard work is also the most significant predictor of success with the A-level Biology exam from his experience tutoring at Crimson Education.

'In my Crimson experience as a tutor, unexpected failures are rare. Many of these exams, like the A-levels, are so predictable that from the amount of effort and the amount of revision they are putting in, I can see six months, twelve months in advance that if you continue at this rate, this will be what your grade will be. It is very glaringly obvious. There is hardly any time I am surprised.'

Tip 4: Be honest with yourself. Are you working smart?

Besides working hard, students must be able to work smart as well. Two students can start at the same level and put in the same 20 hours, and achieve two very different grades depending on how they used their time. Ben urges you to be honest with yourself with how effective you are with your studying so you can correct it. Some questions that can aid you in identifying areas where you can work smarter are: how many hours you say you are studying are used on your phone/procrastinating/zoning out? What is causing you to lose focus or be less efficient? How can you overcome them?

'(Working smart) is being able to divide your time up to minimise the time you are trying to do work and maximising the time you are doing the work itself.'

Paying attention, being mindful and honest with yourself when studying is the core to understanding which strategies work for you and when you need to try a different approach to be more effective.

Tip 5: Schedule your time to maximise good habits and build your stamina.

Additionally, Ben highlights the importance of scheduling your time effectively to set good habits and build stamina not only for achieving success in the A-level biology exams but for achieving any goal.

Time management is crucial for you to be able to do so much revision and be able to do all the practice exams, and it is an essential skill to develop just in general. I think I developed that early on just by having a lot of stuff on my plate. I had extracurriculars- I was playing tennis and volleyball, and soccer during the wintertime. I was swimming every week. I was also doing a whole bunch of extracurricular activities- I was volunteering at Kidsline. All of these things mean that study, homework, revision needs to sort of fit around all of that and being able to maintain a relatively high intensity and high stamina.'

Read about how CGA students schedule their time to maximise the potential of each hour here.

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Ben maintains that building up and keeping up your stamina is essential for switching quickly between one activity to another. He notes building stamina and good habits is really about finding the time and squeezing extra time into your schedule to action and keep active on your goals.

Something that I learned now, and I might sound like an old man, is that stamina is really important, and that is something that you train up. If I sit around all day, I notice that I get a lot less work done than if I stay active. I really make an effort to maintain my stamina at a high level because studying and doing practice problems and being a high school student is a really energy-intensive process, and if you are sort of tired all the time and you don't have that level of stamina than you are not going to be able to do the amount of revision or past paper that you would be able to do than if you had a lot more stamina.'

Further, Ben says making time for even an extra one or two hours of studying is likely to give you a significant advantage over other students.

If everyone is awake, let's assume, for 16 hours a day, being able to make use of an extra one or two hours makes you like 8 to 10 per cent more productive than the person that didn't have those extra one or two hours.'

Ben also advises that you must schedule for your own needs. For Ben, effective scheduling looked like keeping on top of content learning during his school year and at the end of the year, he dedicated his time to practising the content and taking mindful breaks to prepare for the A-level Biology exam.

(about how people should schedule their studying) it depends on how much time an individual has in a year. If you are an athlete and are practising 8 hours a day, you will not have time in the middle of the year. I do all of my content work during the year the way we are doing it in class. That way, by the end of the year, I essentially know all the content, or I just need to do a little bit of revision on the content as opposed to learning anything new at the end of the year. So that during exam leave, that most schools have, are just going to be dedicated to practise exams and getting all those breaks and rest and drinking lots of water-all of those good things that keep you sane during exams. Getting 8 hours of sleep, all of that contributes to lowering the activation energy of a task. If I don't sleep well for a week, I am more likely to nap instead of spending half an hour before dinner on my homework or my revision for my exam.'

Tip 6: Deal with your failures effectively

For students that find themselves defeated by one bad grade or a few setbacks during their academic journey in the CIE, it is crucial to put things into context or have someone that can do it for you.

If you get one bad grade, that is not the end of the world. That's what university teaches you, you get one bad grade, and you may not be used to getting bad grades from high school. Professors and Teaching Assistants will tell you that it is not the end of the world, and a lot of the time, you will just have to trust that. Right now, I am putting a lot of trust in that, and I see it in hindsight that it is the way it works out, but obviously, at that time, it's hard to internalise and to put things into context. I once had a Procter, and she lived on our floor in my first year. She was a PhD student and was about to graduate with her PhD in physics from MIT. She was telling us that when she was an undergrad in her first year, she took a statistical mechanics class, which is traditionally something that is very, very difficult. She got a C at the end of the semester, and she was like, "I don't even know if I want to study physics anymore. It was just so hard and so incomprehensible that I am not sure that I can even study physics." Her advisor told her it was just one grade in a long journey of things.

Something that my house leader at Macleans College keeps going on and on about during each exam period is that this too shall pass. This is just only one set of examinations in your infinite journey- if you choose to go to university or post-grad-of exams, you will face. Even in life, you can have professional licensing exams, and you have other types of exams like job interviews. To put things into perspective, one setback is unlikely to change much in the grand complex of things. Again, it just comes back to not being deflated and being able to just use this as a sort of positive motivation to work harder and analyse your failures.'

Ben recognises that failing is difficult, but he insists that failing is valuable to growing and learning from mistakes.

Failing is not bad. The only thing bad about it is if you learn nothing from it. So being able to learn something about it and use it as fuel to move on is much more powerful than just straight up succeeding.

Failure is always tough, and in university, there is a lot more of that because there are more general education requirements, and you may not be taking a class that is your particular strength. Obviously, at the moment, you are like, how did I fail? Maybe I should have just tried harder, went to more office hours, did a better job, put more effort into it instead of doing this other thing, and then a lot of it right, circles back to it is just one setback. It is not the end of the world. Hardly anything is the end of the world. This one thing is likely not going to change much in the grand scheme of things. The only way it could is to let this one setback snowball and change your habits or the way you approach problems in a worse way. Use (failure) as a learning opportunity and as a positive motivation to put in more effort next time.'

Ben's concluding thoughts on how to get an A in Biology.

Hard work and practice, if it doesn't work, someone by now would have figured it out. Why do people keep telling you to work hard and study hard? Because it actually works. No one is trying to trick you. It is not a grand conspiracy to trick you. If you put the work in, you will be able to achieve something most of the time. That is not to say there are not educational inequities people start at different places. The sad thing is if you start at a lower place, you just have to work harder to catch up.'

When Ben received the 'Top in the World' title for the A-level Biology exam, he saw it as a testament to his hard work and dedication and his reception to learning more about the concepts and thinking about them more deeply. Ben believes that he did not do anything incredibly profound or unique to achieve his success. He just did what he has advised you all to do: (1) identify and maintain your motivation; (2) learn the material by going through the syllabus and textbook and be proactive when you need help; (3) then dedicate time to practise while (4) being honest with yourself about how effective you are and what you need to correct; (5) schedule your time well to maximise good habits and build your stamina; and (6) to use your failures effectively.

Ben maintains that doing well in the A-level Biology exam is a function of how much time and effort you put into it instead of some innate understanding of the world or biology around you. It is mostly in your control and through these tips, getting an A in the A-level Biology exam is achievable for those ambitious and willing enough!


Ben Zhang

Ben Zhang is a fourth-year student at Harvard University studying Molecular and Cellular Biology and Statistics. While in high school, Ben represented New Zealand in both the International Biology and then International Chemistry Olympiads, winning a gold and bronze medal respectively. Ben was also awarded the NZQA Premier Scholarship in both Year 12 and 13, the top academic award in the country, attaining Top Scholar in the subjects of chemistry and physics. He took the Cambridge International A Level Examinations, receiving top in the world in Biology and top in New Zealand in chemistry and english literature. In his spare time, Ben likes to play tennis, volleyball and hike.