Philosophy at A-Level and Degree – What’s the Difference?

If A-Level is difficult – is a Degree Still for Me?

On the one hand, I loved studying A-Level Philosophy. The chance to explore the ideas of some of history’s best philosophers was a whole new opportunity. So if you’re studying A-Level at the moment, and loving it, you’d have good reason to. Despite this though, I did find aspects of the course difficult, and sometimes doubted if it was for me as a result. Thus, if you’re finding A-Level Philosophy tough, you might be in the same position. Rest assured – university study is very different. In my own experience – having studied Philosophy at A-level under the general umbrella of Religious Studies – and in talking to others, I’ve noticed similarities in how people studying at degree tended to have found A-level difficult. While this is no means true for everyone, I’ve noticed that most current Philosophy undergrads didn’t find the content of their A-Level course that challenging. They absorbed the ideas with ease and were sometimes surprised at the seeming inability of fellow students to do the same. Rather, it was the examination or teaching process that they struggled with.

A-Level Philosophy Exams

Now, very few people enjoy exams. Some people find them easier than others, but I’m yet to meet a person who relished that walk into the exam hall. And in Philosophy, this indifference (dare I say dislike?) to exams can be even more justified. After all, Philosophy is surely about thinking deeply. And trying to do so to a stopwatch can seem to miss the point a little. I for one found answering exam questions rather difficult: I ended up getting a ‘U’ on my mock paper…Hopefully a reassuring thought given that I’m now studying a degree in the subject and doing (dare I say it) quite well! One issue I had with the structure of my exams was that you got marked for both explanation (explaining a particular philosopher’s theory) and criticising it (finding all the ways they may have actually not been as right as they thought they were).

This second part seemed to come quite naturally to me. Some (my Philosophy teacher, for instance) might say it was ‘irritatingly too natural’ as it would lead me to find a hole in a new idea before she’d even got to fully explaining it. I can only apologise. Yet the first part proved trickier. Because grasping the ideas was often intuitive to me, I’d find I would fail to explain them in sufficient detail – assuming the reader would already understand things as well as I did and so little more needed to be said.

If you’re in this situation, don’t worry! While doing well on your Philosophy exams is obviously really important (they are the thing that will partly determine your entry to uni) struggling with them for this reason shouldn’t suggest that you’re not competent enough to study at degree level. If anything, it suggests you’re too competent for A-level. And while it’s never advisable to get cocky about this kind of thing, at least take some solace in the knowledge that, if you do well enough to get yourself to uni, you’ll likely feel refreshed by the freedom to explore these topics more deeply.

How Does Teaching at Uni Compare to Degree?

Another way uni differs from A-Level is the teaching style. One difference is in the level of attention given to each idea or philosopher. A-Level tends to be taught in broad brush-strokes; you get a collage of ideas from across the ages, but you spend relatively little time drilling down on the details. Uni is different. Rather than covering a handful of philosophers and a couple of their ideas in any given week, at university you may spend an entire week, term or course just on one philosopher – perhaps just on one of their ideas. Initially this can seem surprising; however once you do it, you realise just how much depth there is to be uncovered of any given philosopher. I personally can remember seeing that a lot of my ‘criticisms’ of certain philosophers were actually misunderstandings of their ideas, borne of the way they’d been oversimplified in 6th form.

Another way the teaching differs is the level of freedom you get as an undergrad. One aspect of this is that you will be expected to think for yourself. I think this is one of the most valuable parts of the subject and it should be embraced as such! While having less input might be a tad daunting at first, you’ll soon relish the opportunity – particularly if you found A-level a little restrictive (don’t worry, it basically is). What’s more, if you’re struggling, it’s not as though you’re left to fend for yourself. Your lecturers will have email addresses and office hours (times when they’re available to any student who wants to talk) and I highly recommend you make use of both. When and where else are you going to get the chance to talk to the people who’ve spent their lives thinking about the kinds of issues you’ll be grappling with?!


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Hi, I'm George! I'm a second year currently studying philosophy. I enjoy playing guitar and am the current president of meditation soc at York, where I help run weekly sessions teaching people how to meditate. I'm interested in potentially entering a few different fields from counseling to charity work to being on an ethics committee (I'm also considering doing an MA in philosophy to delay making the decision to do any of that!).