Retakes 2015 - we have the answers

It has never been more worthwhile to improve disappointing exam results. Although the abolition of January AS/A2 exams makes it less easy to retake quickly there are still plenty of options, and the prospects for getting into a top university are better than they have been for years.

The questions and answers below tell you more, and if you want to talk options through just contact CIFE or a CIFE college. We're the experts!

So can I still retake A levels?

Definitely. All AS and A2 unit exams are set in the summer session in 2015, and you're entitled to sit them whether you've taken any of them them before or not. As described below, the rules about what you can retake haven't changed.

What's the point of retaking A levels?

The main reason is to get onto a degree course which requires better grades than the ones you've got. Going to university is expensive and it's important to make sure that money gets you the best possible degree. Students often comment that pride is involved too: "I don't want to compromise my plans and I want to prove that my grade isn't a true reflection of what I can do".

When is retaking a good idea?

Retaking A levels is a serious option if you haven't got the grades for the course of your dreams, and you are confident you can improve on the results you've already got. Our page on retake courses gives a detailed explanation of how to find out whether you should retake.

Do universities accept A-level retakes?

Yes, in almost all cases. A few will increase the standard offer, but most appreciate that students who retake are highly motivated and, because they have overcome disappointment, will work harder on the degree.

Getting an offer as a retaker is tougher for very competitive courses - medicine for example, or law at Russell group universities. CIFE colleges can give you objective advice on what is and isn't possible, and on how to submit an effective re-application.

Changes in the rules let universities admit more students with ABB grades or better. If you can get those grades your prospects of getting a place at a very good university have never been better, and the benefits of retaking become greater.

As a first step, ring up the admissions officers for the degree courses you want, and ask them whether they would consider you with retakes. Be ready to discuss why you missed the grades and why you know you can do better. They should welcome your enquiry and give you an honest answer.

Will I improve my A-level grade?

Most students who retake A levels improve, and it's not uncommon for a student to get several grades higher. If you know why you didn't get the grade you wanted (for example, you were ill, or you didn't work hard enough, or you panicked during the exam) you can make sure that doesn't happen again when you retake. If your teachers tell you you've got the ability to do better, you probably will. Take examples of your work to a CIFE college to get a frank and independent view of its quality and potential.

Do I have to retake all the AS / A2 units?

You can take all the AS and A2 units in June 2015, or you can just retake the units you most need to improve (the big changes to A levels will not affect this until summer 2017). The exam boards will recalculate your grade taking the best marks you have achieved for each unit, no matter when or how often those units were taken (so long as all the units came from the same exam specification). You might think it better to retake all the units anyway, but bear in mind that you'll still have to work hard to improve a unit you have already done well in. CIFE colleges have a lot of experience in helping students work out what to retake and what to leave.

Where can I retake A levels?

Joining a CIFE college course specifically designed for retakers is likely to be a better option that just repeating your last year at school. You can be sure of covering everything you need rather than just working at A2 units, and in a new environment, with different teachers, you will see your work through fresh eyes and feel you are moving forward again. This is what CIFE colleges are all about.

Do I have to spend a whole year studying to retake?

No, it's entirely possible to take time out for a few months and then start studying in 2015. That will cost you less and enable you to enjoy some GAP year benefits, but you'll be short of time to do the thorough overhaul needed for a substantial improvement. You will lose knowledge and study habits during the layoff, and getting back into study-mode will take at least a couple of weeks. Easter 2015 is likely to be too late to get back on track and make the improvements you want.

Each person's case is different, and the pros and cons of retaking can be difficult to work out. CIFE colleges are happy to talk options through to help you map out your best strategy. One thing is really clear: you need to come up with a plan as soon as possible after you get results. As mentioned below, UCAS applications need to be made well before Christmas, even if you're not starting study again until 2015.

What about entering for the exams?

If you join a CIFE college, it will deal with exam entries for you, but if you are studying on your own you will need somewhere to actually take the exams. You can't enter for the exams just by contacting the exam board: you must enter via a ‘recognised centre'. Your old school may be willing to enter you for the exam (but don't just assume they will!), and most CIFE colleges can help by entering you as a ‘private candidate'. Exam entries need to be made early, by mid February for the summer session. You may be able to enter later than this, but it can become very expensive.

What happens to my old A-level result when I retake?

When you have finished taking all the units required by a subject specification, the best marks you got for each unit were 'cashed-in' (or 'aggregated') to give you an overall grade. Your old school will have requested that cash-in for you automatically. When you retake units and want to get a new and improved grade, you simply get the college you retake with to ask for a new cash-in.

When that happens, the exam board will issue you with a new grade based on the best results you've got for all the units taken, irrespective of when you took them. As of July 2014 the rules about your best result counting have not changed. In our opinion it is extremely unlikely that the government will change those rules for the summer 2015 exam. The new A-level grade replaces your old one without you having to do anything specific to decline it.

Is it worth retaking AS exams?

If you've finished A level and have decided to retake, make sure you consider AS units in your thinking, even though that means looking at material you've not studied for a while. AS counts for 50% of your A-level grade, and is meant to be easier than the A2, so it makes sense to get the highest AS marks you can.

If you're half-way through the sixth form, and your AS results could be better, the retake decision is a bit more complicated. Not only do you need to go through the 'should I' process described on our retake courses page, but you need to consider whether retaking AS might hurt your A2 work. You will need to study for the AS retakes alongside the A2, and take the exams in the same summer session. That's an extra load you need to be confident you can cope with, especially if your school doesn't provide AS support for its upper-sixth students.

If your AS results are a real mess you face a real struggle in upper sixth, and you may even find that your school insists you change your programme in ways you're not happy with. In that case you might have to consider restarting the sixth-form, or changing to a college which will provide the extra support you need (see our article on final-year A-level entry to CIFE colleges).

Who will do my UCAS reference?

To be effective your UCAS reference needs to cover your past, to explain why the grades you got were not the best you can do, and it needs to justify better grade predictions for the future. It may be that your old school can do all this for you, but the most effective reference is one in which your old school and your retake college co-operate in writing a new reference with information from them both. CIFE colleges are very experienced in facilitating this, and it's certainly something to ask them about if you visit to discuss retakes.

Obviously your new college can't write a reference if it hasn't taught you. For students who start in September 2014 this should be fine, but it poses a problem for students who want take time out and start retake work sometime in 2015. Putting in a late UCAS form isn't a good idea, so you will still need to apply for university in autumn 2014, using your old school for the reference. It's vital to know that the reference they give will be supportive and that they are happy to predict the grades you need. Do discuss this with a CIFE college if you're worried about it.

Can I study something new at the same time as retaking?

Yes there are quite a few subjects you can study from scratch alongside retakes. It's difficult to do this in less than three terms though. For further details look at our information on one-year courses.

Changing exam board might help too. CIFE colleges can give you detailed advice on how much change you might face, and you may well find that a new exam specification suits you better than the one you studied previously.

What's possible with GCSE retakes?

You can only retake modular GCSEs in Maths, English Language and English Lit in November 2014. January and March GCSE exams have been abolished and of course all GCSE subjects became linear in summer 2014 so you will have to take the whole GCSE exam, not just the bits you need to improve. Re-submitting old coursework is possible, subject to conditions. Check out our page on GCSE courses for more information about GCSE options.