Teachers say that there is no substitute for good preparation. But the prize does not always go to the most diligent.
Students who have achieved high scores in the past believe that targeting, exam technique and efficient revision shorten the odds in their favour. Imbibing vast tracks of literature or endless formulae is virtually useless unless relevant to the exam. "I studied like mad but found all the stuff I'd learnt was no good when it came to it," said one student who last year failed an English A-level. "It was great as background, I thought I really knew a lot but I really wish I'd stuck to the syllabus."
The first essential task is to work out what is required. Early on in your course get hold of as many past exam papers as possible, either from your teacher or through your examining board. Read a few papers and you will soon see a pattern of questions emerge. The same topics tend to reappear year after year, often in disguised form. Make sure you are familiar with these: they will help you focus your work.
Another tip is to treat coursework as revision material. A well-researched essay or practical will be of enormous help when you are reviewing the subject. If your course work is shoddy you will waste crucial time scrambling about to get a complete set of notes. Essays and practicals also have an uncanny knack of reappearing as exam questions.
"Students who think of essays as 'a useful piece of work I'm going to do' rather than a chore tend to perform better," said Janet George, a teacher for 25 years. "It's the ones who skip classes who don't write the essays and who think they will pass easily who fail."
But working hard need not mean slaving each night until 2am. Try looking at A-level study as a job, with a timetable and agreed goals. You are studying for yourself now, not to keep a teacher happy.
Do not be thrown from your plan by what your classmates are doing. Resist going to parties every night, until the exams are over. Your friends may resent you in the short term. But you will have the last laugh: there are far better parties at college.
Try not to be intimidated by dogged friends. A person working 12 hours a day to your 5 may not be absorbing as much. Some people study in short frantic bursts others slowly and methodically. As a rough guide to revision, spend one and a half hours outside class for every hour spent in front of the blackboard. "A lot of people will be disappointed this year with their results. The usual reason is that they have not worked hard enough throughout the year," said George Turnbull, spokesman for the Associated Examining Board. "If you don't work hard from the beginning of your course and make sure you understand everything you could come unstuck later on."
It is normal human behaviour to shy away from things that are difficult, but at A-level do not risk it. It could mean the difference between a pass and a fail. Confront your weak points as early as possible and do not feel embarrassed about asking a teacher for help if you are stuck. If several students are puzzled by the same point, ask the teacher to conduct a tutorial. But if you feel you can't approach your teacher, consult a friend you know is good at the subject.
You will have to absorb an enormous amount of information at A-level, as well as mastering theory and analysis. Copying out notes and using cue cards are good memory aids. Cue cards should only contain two or three points or a quotation. If you clutter them with facts they will lose their efficacy. You can carry cue cards around in your pocket to read on the bus. Another memory trick is to record your notes. This is particularly helpful if you are studying a foreign text. Try listening to the tape as you read the text, simultaneously. Many students play study tapes before they go to sleep. This, they say, imprints information on their subconscious mind. But avoid this if it keeps you awake. Sleep is important too!
You should try to be in the best physical shape possible before the exam. Exercise regularly and beware of burnout. Going to a film or watching an hour of TV is not, as parents like to argue, a waste of time. It can help relax and refresh your mind.
When it comes to the exam, stick to the question. Do not try to impress the examiner with your profound knowledge of the subject. This will only cost you points and time. Plan your answers, do not plunge into them, and stick to the time limit.
If you've prepared well, you stand an excellent chance of gaining good A-levels. Examiners do not expect super-human displays of intelligence, but to see that you have understood your subject, have insight into it and can put it in context.
Do not be phased by the exams. If you are terrified, just imagine your teachers sitting A-levels, pencils in hand and the clock ticking. Many of them won't have performed as well as you are about to.
Finally, don't take predictions too seriously. Your rating in class does not necessarily reflect how you will achieve on the day. If you are the brain of the class, you run the danger of becoming so complacent that you won't put in the necessary hours. And if you are a mediocre student, you may be setting your expectations too low. There is no reason why you cannot strive for an A. Students of average ability who have good study skills surprise everyone.
"Expectations should not be shaped by other people's perceptions of your ability. Students learn at different paces. Sometimes the ones who seem very slow in class do very well when it comes to the final exam," said Mojgan Esfahani, a maths tutor at Davies Laing and Dick A-level College. "If your predictions are low, you should not be demoralised. You should not bring yourself down by low expectations."