How to survive your A Levels… with a long-term health condition | disability and education

This is a part two to my previous blog post of tips about how to survive your A Levels, more specifically about surviving them with a long-term illness. Disclaimer: this is all from my own personal experience and I can’t claim that any of these tips will definitely work for you. For context, my main issues/symptoms include chronic pain, chronic fatigue/”brain fog”, sensory issues, co-ordination issues, anxiety and concentration and memory issues. I’m also aware of things that I was privileged to have at my school because it was a good school, as well as being able to afford a laptop, though I’ve tried to recognise that throughout.

Tell your school!!

Some of you reading might think this is a given or you might have little choice in the matter, but for others, this isn’t something that comes naturally particularly if you have something that is invisible and/or misunderstood. I honestly think that this is so important – so your teachers know how to support you (and potentially cut you some slack every now and then!) and so your school don’t take issue (or less issue) with you for taking any time off you need, whether it be to rest at home or for appointments, as well as getting any separate exam arrangements (I had a separate room, used a laptop in extended writing subjects, had rest breaks and had my exams on yellow paper).

I’ve always been very vocal with my teachers, but I know others prefer to go through the disability or pastoral team, and that’s fine too! The problem comes when no-one knows. If your school have issues with what you’re telling them, take in as many letters as you have (if you’re currently undiagnosed and/or awaiting specialist appointments, I’d recommend getting your GP to write you something, which I used to have to do).

Get your textbooks in a format that suits you, and/or make them suit you

For me, this was two-fold. My chronic pain meant that I couldn’t really carry textbooks, so in Year 12 I had my philosophy textbook on my laptop but borrowed one if there was one available (as I do struggle to read off a computer for that amount of text), and in Year 13 always borrowed one as there were a few more in the room. I did carry my history textbooks as they were much less heavy, but in Year 13 when I had both topics on the same day, I got a second copy of one of them through my school’s bursary to keep in the room (if your sixth form doesn’t have a general bursary, ask the disability team – you should be given one). If you have one, getting the Kindle version on an iPad/tablet might be a good alternative, or even on your phone.

The second part was making sure the textbooks worked for me. This meant highlighting in my history ones a LOT and scribbling in them, and in all of them, putting in a lot of post-its indicating topics/chapters/different types of information, and using a yellow overlay.

If you have a hospital admission…

I had two hospital admissions during my A Levels, although they were both planned and not at the conventional type of hospital – I had two inpatient pain management programmes. The first was at the end of Year 12 so it didn’t matter as much, but the second was in January of Year 13 so, a pretty big time of year. I co-ordinated my schoolwork through the pastoral Sixth Form team – two absolute gems – who emailed my teachers and had them send me powerpoints, worksheets, exam questions and anything else I needed. It was decided there was no pressure for me to get through any of it, but I would have it if I could, and then it’d already be there for when I got back. I personally think this is a good way to do it – everything is in one place and all teachers are aware of the situation.

It does make life a bit difficult, and I do think it might have affected my grades a little bit, but it’s not something you can change nor is it your fault. If you have an admission, it’s easier said than done, but try not to think about it too much – worrying won’t do anything and will likely make your recovery more difficult. Do some school work where you can – I only managed to do a little bit of my EPQ and a couple of lesson powerpoints – but don’t let it harm your recovery.

Managing therapies/medication alongside your studies

I had a lot of physio to be doing when I came out of my pain programme in January, and I found it really hard to keep up with it when I felt like I should be studying all the time. The way I eventually managed it was by slotting it into a certain time – for a while this was straight after school, as I often didn’t work straight away anyway, and later I used it as a study break. Experiment in the first few weeks with this and find what makes you the least tired and works best. I also ended up dropping down to only every 3 or so days during exams. If you have talking therapy or physio appointments which are more regular than other hospital appointments, I would recommend you trying to get them at the start or end of the school day (I used to miss form and PSHE quite often as that gave enough time to not miss a lesson) or during a free so you’re less likely to miss something. It’s not always possible, but every little helps.

In terms of medication, I used to have a midday dose of one of my painkillers so it would be in the school day. I ended up finding a rhythm where I would have it at lunch which just meant I had to shift my evening dose slightly. Set reminders or even alarms on your phone to make sure you take it – if you’re going to take it at lunch you could even put a note in your lunchbox, whatever works.

Learn how you catch up and revise best (How do you learn?)

Everyone has heard of the “different learning styles” of visual, audio and kinaesthetic, and that’s a good place to start – can you catch up by reading the textbook, or watching a youtube video, or from the powerpoint your class did? Or do you need the teacher to teach it to you? This can also partly come down to the subject, your ability and the teacher – do they put everything on the powerpoint or do they talk in more depth? And do you feel confident in your ability or need to ask a lot of questions? For me, I would generally catch up with history or philosophy by myself with the materials, but I couldn’t cope on my own with chemistry both due to my ability, my need to understand everything in depth and my endless questions, so I would have after-school sessions.

In terms of revision, it’s probably going to be trial and error for at least your first term, if not all of year 12. Don’t be worried if you revise for a test and it all goes wrong – that’s partly what year 12 is for, and to be honest, that happens for nearly everyone, illness or not. But it might be that everyone uses mindmaps, and you prefer simple sets of notes, or recording yourself speaking them.

If you like flashcards, or want to give them a go, I highly recommend Anki – you type the flashcards however you want (so you could do question and answer, or subtitle on one side and the content on another) and then when you revise it, you rate how you found the card, and it will use it’s algorithm to decide when you should next review each one. It also has a text to speech function, so you can have it read back to you if you prefer. It’s free on PC, but it costs a bit for you to get it on your phone.

I also recommend websites like GetRevising and TES, which have thousands of resources ready to go. I wouldn’t recommend never making your own resources, but if you’re having a bad time of it with your illnesses it can be really helpful, or if you fancy giving another type of resource a go. TES and Prezi are highly likely to have powerpoints for most topics, if you want a bit of an alternative from your teacher’s or if you haven’t got one.


Every long-term illness/condition and every person’s symptoms with each of them is different, so it’s impossible to generalise, but I hope these tips are somewhat helpful, and I wish you all so much luck for your A Levels! You’ve got this.

How to survive your A Levels, by a disabled student | disability and education

As of a few weeks ago, I can officially say that I finished my A Levels but it was definitely not without struggle. Throughout my two years I’ve been dealing with my hypermobility spectrum disorder and chronic pain/fatigue, as well as several mental illness/learning difficulties, and with this came absences for countless medical appointments and I spent chunks of time away on 2 pain programmes. Nonetheless, I made it! So, here is my slightly cynical advice on how to survive your A Levels, whether you have a disability or not.

Take the right subjects for you

This one doesn’t help if you’re going into year 13, but for new year 12s, this step is the starting block that will honestly set up your two years – there’s a fine balance to strike at A Level between taking subjects you like and the ones you’ll do well in. If those go hand in hand, great! But if they don’t, you need to be very prepared to work extremely hard if you’re not as naturally inclined towards a subject. I took chemistry, which I love – even if I complained about it all the time and wouldn’t admit it to my teacher – but I had to accept early on that I wasn’t going to walk away with an A* and I probably worked twice as hard for it as my other two for a much lesser reward.

Get a good planner and always be prepared for setbacks

Regardless of if you’re a disabled student or not, A Levels will provide challenge after challenge. There’s coursework you think you’re done with that comes back, there’s random tests you get two days to revise for, essays due when you have mocks, I could go on. The best way I can tell you to manage it is to get a good planner – I recommend a Personal Planner (not spon, they’re just great as you personalise every element) but definitely get something with a good amount of space for each day. Plan what you’ll do in your frees, give yourself mini deadlines, plan your evenings, and plan when you will rest, which I will controversially say is possibly the most important.

If you then have to schedule in your medical appointments or a hospital stay, it becomes much easier to look at your week and work out when you will catch up. Personally I liked to schedule in after-school sessions with teachers because I prefer to have concepts explained to me when I first learn them, but you can also just work from your textbooks.

I honestly had 2 planners and 3 to-do lists going at any one time to manage things – you really don’t need to go that far but try and find what works for you early on!

Build rapport with your teachers

I definitely recommend that you get to know your teachers and let them know how they can help you. After the first lesson I had with every new teacher during my GCSEs and A Levels, I would stay behind and give them a quick run-down of my conditions and my needs even though they were emailed about me – it puts a face to a name . If you’re not a disabled student, still have a chat with them at some point and just show interest and let them get to know your learning style; it just doesn’t necessarily need to be so urgent.

My teachers have probably breathed sighs of relief now that I’ve finished because I spent a lot of time with most of them, after-school or by email or bothering them in their frees. I would not have wanted to be one of my teachers, put it that way, but I think they mostly got used to it after three years of me tipping up in their classrooms often in tears. I don’t think I would have gotten through my A Levels without a few of my teachers and the sixth form team, so I’d honestly recommend that even if you’re not fussed about knowing your teachers well, you still go to them if you find yourself needing some help, academically or otherwise.

Take as many opportunities as possible in Year 12

Most sixth forms (and I imagine colleges as well) offer a lot of opportunities to their students to help you with your upcoming UCAS/apprenticeship applications, and a lot of universities offer stuff too. I did 2 summer schools at Durham and Bath, as well as going to a seminar on Brexit, me and my best friend went to Manchester for another EU based event, our school took us to Bristol which included a taster lecture, I was a progress mentor and the leader of the mental health advocate team, I did a Cambridge essay competition, and there was plenty of stuff that I didn’t take part in too. Do as much as you can (without sacrificing your work or health) and I guarantee it will help you find your passion and confirm what you want to do at uni, as well as supporting your application in Year 13.

I also did an EPQ, though at my school we did it in Year 13 unlike most, which I would highly recommend if you have a topic you’d like to research more in depth that you won’t be able to in your subjects. It’s a lot of work but if you love your topic it’s so worth it. I really enjoyed researching it, writing it, being slightly (very) argumentative about my points with my supervisor and presenting it at the end. It’s funny how much confidence I gained from having to do a 10 minute presentation about the pill in front of a room 90% made up of men, but here we are.

Remember that you know yourself and your body best

This is slightly controversial, and I’m not sure schools will like this particular tip, but if you can sit there and say you know that a day off will benefit you, take one. I’m not saying take one every week because you feel like it, but if you’re at breaking point, just do it. For me, that was sometimes the difference between getting through to the end of term vs me suffering burn-out and being off for days on end later on. You might not need a day off, but maybe you might need a free period of just relaxing with your friends instead of working hard, and that’s okay too – as long as it’s rare, and because you actually need it.

Just stay out of drama

It isn’t worth it. I promise. Shove in some earphones if it’s around you, block them if it’s about you, get your work done and move on.

…But keep a social life!

I didn’t really have a social life in year 12 between my disabilities and my work, and although I couldn’t really have prevented that, I do wish it had been different. I adore my group of friends and I’ve been very lucky to have them, but I wish I’d spent more time with them. Let yourself have time off every now and then, I promise you won’t drop by 2 grades for every hour you’re out.

On a slightly different note, but it fits here – I’d really recommend picking up some volunteering. I’ve been a Cub Scout leader for 3 years now and not only have I gained skills and qualifications from it, but I’ve gained a family who I absolutely adore. I also did an hour a week in one of the GCSE Science classes through all of sixth form, which… well, it built my resilience, we’ll put it that way.

Don’t let anyone tell you how to note-take or revise

I typed all my history and philosophy notes in both years because of the pain in my hands, but to be honest I think I would have regardless because there’s so much information to get down! But in the bigger picture, I only ever took notes that I thought necessary and I put them informally if I needed to even if it caused confusion during folder checks. Whether you’re a disabled student or not, just get in the habit of working how you need to – you know yourself best. When we were really close to exams, one of my teachers kept telling me I needed to be exclusively doing essay plans, but I knew I needed to drill the content more – so that’s what I did, and it worked.

Don’t procrastinate on your coursework

NOTHING makes me wince more looking back at my A Levels more than my history coursework. I absolutely hated it, to the point that I think my chemistry teachers heard more about that than me moaning about their subject for a few months. But, I really wish I’d just got on with more of it over the year 12 summer and the first couple of months of the year. I came out with a high grade in it in the end, but it was such a slog and it took up time I needed for other things.

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To be honest, I could probably continue for quite a while with this, but I think those are are the main things – and that’s probably enough sarcasm for one post. I hope that was vaguely useful (or entertaining), and I wish you so much luck for your A Levels!

On leaving school, change and recovery | mental health

Change has never sat well with me. I dislike uncertainty, I hate my life being in other people’s hands; even if it’s in my own, I hate the choices and the need to put trust in myself, something I’ve never quite had.

I always knew I was going to be somewhat emotional about leaving my school, with so many of my teachers having been such a solid support system, some for three or four years – but I wasn’t ready for how much reflection it would cause on how much has changed in the last few years for me. I didn’t realise how much it would truly, honestly hurt – a cause for celebration, but also of confusion and sadness; beginning a new period of having to be truly honest with myself.

It’s caused flashbacks of my time in the unit, and at my first secondary school where my mental health deteriorated so significantly; a whirlwind of shouting and alarms, being left alone in medical rooms at my worst and being told I was faking it. It’s hard to cope with when such negative memories pop up almost insidiously at random. I remember parts of those times in such a vivid way that it’s made me stop a little bit dead in my tracks, at the strangest of times.

Simultaneously, I look at more recent times. I remember my GCSE results day surrounded by some of my favourite people; the after-school sessions where I would finally grasp a concept. I can look over the memories from this year, of the support when I came back from my pain programme, the meetings with the two teachers who I worked on my EPQ with – me being slightly (very) forceful with my debates and them playing devil’s advocate, slightly teasingly so. I am not the girl who cowered away with one small poke anymore.

It’s interesting to see what change does my state of mind even if I’m at the strongest I’ve been in the longest time. I wonder if it is out of sadness, or vulnerability, or a weird bittersweet nostalgia. Maybe it is more about how much support the school I have just left gave me in comparison, and less about the nastier set of memories which are popping up. Maybe it is the people I have left behind, or I will leave behind in September. Whichever way, it hurts.

I’m letting myself take some time, I’m allowing myself to feel this way, even if it might not be quite right. I’m letting myself bask slightly in pride, something I have never, ever let myself do.

I’ve gone from the girl who started having panic attacks and had them at one point twice daily, to the one who had to spend time in an inpatient unit, to now having only had one panic attack in 6 months and having been out of therapy for 2 years in August. There were weeks at a time where I told my sixth form team I was going to drop out every single day, but now I’ve finished. I did it. Regardless of the piece of paper I pick up in a month, I did it.

I’ve told myself this is an overdramatic reaction, because in the grand scheme of my life this is nothing. But regardless of if it doesn’t matter to me when I hit 70, at the moment it’s been a huge percentage of my life – especially when I have had so much happen to me in the last 5 years. I saw someone I haven’t seen since I was 13 a few days ago, and when they said “well, fill me in then!”, I realised just how much has happened, how long these few years have felt.

And in that, it makes me laugh because apart from my family, barely anyone who was in my life back when I started to have be that girl I said before – the girl who had her first panic attack in her form room and thought that’d be the end of it – is still in it now. I doubt those people would even recognise me. I think I’m glad of that.

So maybe I am being melodramatic. I’m sure I am, and I’m sure at some point I’ll be annoyed at myself for writing such a over the top blog post that’s less factual or cynical than I was aiming for this newer blog. But for now, I’m letting myself have this one. I think fifteen year old Charli deserves it.