Sitting A-level or equivalent exams can be a stressful time for many students, and not everybody achieves the grades they would have hoped for. If you’re in this situation you may be wondering what to do next, whether you should retake any exams, and how to go about it. In this blog we’ll tell you everything you need to know about retakes, including how sitting your exams again will affect your university application.

Where can I retake my exams?

Not all schools offer the option of retaking exams, so make sure to check with your school or college. If this option is not available to you, you should make enquiries in other local colleges or consider enrolling in an independent college with more focused teaching such as the Oxford Tutorial College. A-levels are now sat only once per year in the summer, so be sure to enroll in time for this deadline.

If you think you can study the course on your own and don’t want external teaching, you can also apply as an external candidate. This gives you more independence but can be more expensive, so research the costs in advance if you’re interested in this option. Self-taught students will of course have less support than students choosing to study the course with a teacher or tutor, so you must be confident that you can identify what went wrong the first time round and be disciplined enough to stick to a programme of study. 

How many times can I retake?

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Under the current system, you can only retake each exam once. In 2012 Britain’s biggest exam board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, found that the number of A grades achieved had risen significantly after retakes. One student was even permitted to sit the same module 29 times. Due in part to this issue, the government decided to move away from the module system so that A-levels were not broken up into sections that could be resat multiple times. Hence, students are no longer allowed to resit an exam more than once. This linear system also means that in most cases you will be required to retake the entire A-level, even if you only wish to resit one exam. It is definitely more challenging to retake A-levels in the current system, so  think carefully about whether it is the best option for you. 

Students taking the International Baccalaureate: 

As with A-levels, you can retake any and all of your IB subjects if you wish. Exams are taken in November and May, and each exam can be taken a maximum of 3 times. This means that for a candidate who originally sat an exam in May, they can resit the exam the same November and the following May. Be sure to speak to your IB programme coordinator before you make a decision about resits, as they can advise you on your specific situation.

Can I still get into a top university?

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Almost all universities (including Oxford and Cambridge) officially accept exam resits, meaning that you won’t be barred from applying. However, resits will be taken into account and may affect your chances of receiving an offer. Universities may require you to explain the reason for your resit and give extenuating circumstances for why you didn’t achieve the required grades the first time round. For example, Oxford Undergraduate Admissions ask candidates to make a clear note in their UCAS personal statement or school reference of why the resit was necessary so that the reason can be evaluated. Examples of legitimate extenuating circumstances may include:

  • significant disruption caused by change of school

  • severe discontinuity of teachers

  • bereavement

  • serious illness

Likewise, Cambridge states,

there would be concern about an applicant’s potential to be successful at Cambridge if their application had indicated a need to resit numerous exams.

Remember that the best universities want the most promising students, so it is in their interest to be understanding if a strong candidate’s grades have been affected by circumstances outside of their control. However, if there are no such extenuating circumstances, retakes may well be taken into account when assessing an applicant. 

Don’t Forget!

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Before you rush into a retake, remember that having your paper remarked is also a good option for many students who do not attain their desired grade. You should consider getting your paper remarked particularly if:

  • you are very close to a grade boundary; for example, if just a few points would take you from a B to an A. In such cases many students choose to ask for a remark, and many are successful in achieving their desired grade. 

  •  if you feel that the examiner has made a mistake. There have been many cases of examiners making significant errors, resulting in huge grade jumps following a remark. If you’re genuinely confused about why you’ve been given a certain grade, it’s vital to speak to your teacher about whether you should request a remark.