Sixth form and university – what’s the difference?

If you’re reading this then you’re probably thinking about going to university, or looking forward to going soon. You’ll be wondering what it will be like, and how your life is about to change. Recent graduate Emily Harper shares her insight.


Like most students, I was surprised at the differences between studying at sixth form and at university.

Firstly, the key difference is that higher education isn’t compulsory. Throughout school and sixth form, teachers had always recorded my attendance. At university, in contrast, I rarely had to register for lectures and seminars so it was down to me to attend.

Similarly, it was my responsibility to learn the contents of my course. The key to success at university is self-motivation; so it’s a good idea to practise this as much as you can before you get there.

Teaching style

Teaching is different at university. I enjoyed the variety of teaching styles, compared to the small classroom mentality at sixth form.

At most universities you’ll have one or both of the following:

Lectures: the academic (professor/lecturer) will teach one of the topics in your course to your entire year

Seminars: a member of staff will lead smaller groups of students in discussions. This is often a set of questions or an essay theme, which you will be expected to attempt before the seminar


Another thing that will differ is how you are assessed. Depending on what and where you’re studying, your understanding of the topics or modules will be assessed by exams, coursework or group projects.

Independent thinking

At GCSE and A-level I mostly used a single textbook per subject. At university, I was rewarded for thinking outside the box.

You’ll need to carry out your own research – perhaps information to support an idea, or an answer to a question. A good way to practise this now is to research the topics in your A-levels online and start to read around your subject. It will improve your ability to seek out relevant information and help you succeed in your studies.

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