A-Level Results 2020: what happened?


2020 has been a remarkably unusual year, so it's not surprising that we're seeing a shift in students' behaviour, decision-making and sentiment. To help you make sense of students' reactions to receiving their A-Level Results, we've summarised the most salient daily trends in key areas, such as subject choices, clearing and exams.


The weekend before A-Level Results 2020 (Sat 8 - Sun 9 August 2020)

Sentiment dropped dramatically this year. Students were indecisive about location and course choices, and had concerns about grades and exams:

“I'm not sure if I want to do a History or Architecture degree. I like the idea of Architecture, but I'm not keen on the process of actually becoming qualified ... with History, I love the subject but I'm worried about what I would do after as there is no obvious career path or job."

“I don't have much confidence in the fairness of the system, I am expecting the worst.”

"“If I don't get the grades I need I will probably go into clearing...I don't think it would make a difference doing the autumn exams because I have forgotten everything.”

“The only problem for Medicine or Dentistry students is that summer exams are going to be classed as resits for us, and most unis don't accept resits.”

“WJEC isn’t offering us any autumn exams.”

Students in general were very actively engaged on The Student Room, spending more time onsite, writing more and longer posts, and viewing more pages.

This wordcloud reveals the key themes in students' posts:

wordcloud results week

Year 13 posting on these key forums increased signifcantly: A-Level, Uni + Uni courses, Medicine.

Registrations via Clearing were also up, as students faced increased uncertainty over whether or not they would achieve the grades required for their firm choice.

Many Year 13s were reaching out for support or expert advice from the community:

“I am an offer holder for Biomedical Sciences ...and would like to decline my conditional offer...the admissions office is apparently closed until September...I wanna enter clearing tomorrow... does anyone have any idea how to quickly resolve this?”

“I was wondering if it will be possible to reject a uni offer in a certain course, and then apply to a different course in the same university the following application cycle. Will the university, seeing I have rejected their first offer, decline me the second time round too?”

Start of A-level Results Week (Mon 10 Aug 2020)

The uplift in Medicine forum posts continued on the Monday, while the number of registrations from clearing exceeded 2019 by 170%.

Along with offering support for each other, many students were worried and urgently seeking advice from experts and peers about clearing and what to do when they get their results:

“Hi if I want to change course should I ring the uni first? Or go into clearing but if I go into clearing I will lose my firm and will have nowhere to go as the alternative course is quite competitive and not guaranteed, what should I do??”

"Should I take the risk of being released by my university and go into clearing?"

"due to the current situation with COVID, I was unable to attend any open days, so I selected [University] solely from online research, which is now causing me some anxiety"

Will I be able to change on results day? SOMEONE PLS HELP ASAP”

Onsite activity showed a shift in subject choices:

A global pandemic can certainly make people reassess their life priorities. Whether or not covid was the cause here, there was a shift in the kinds of subjects that were getting attention on The Student Room.

These subject areas saw a huge boost in activity:

  • passion subjects (like art and music)
  • healthcare and related fields that help others
  • STEM and career-focused subjects

Whatever the reason, ultimately we saw that many students simply wanted to change their course. 

We also measured the impact of the lockdown on subject interest trends

Data: 23 March - 2 Aug (vs same period in 2019)

The subject trends across lockdown were consistent with the Results Week trends. The biggest growth areas were subjects like Medicine and the Arts. There is also more interest in subjects that offer good career prospects - perhaps because students are uncertain about the future of the UK economy. Savvy students were also keen to use the pandemic measures to their advantage so that they could secure a better place at university:

“I've been wondering, due to the current circumstances there might be a lot of spaces remaining in unis. So some unis might offer places if you miss the grades by a bit."

"Does anybody have any opinions/knowledge of either university and which would be better for Business Management? I mean like reputation/links with industry/employability."

Day before A-level Results Day (Evening 11 - 12 August 2020)

BTEC results were delayed at the last minute, leaving many students angry

Some students only found out about the delay to BTEC results on the morning. Student sentiment took a downturn and we saw many angry discussion around perceived lack of fairness, transparency and opportunity.

BTEC forum activity on The Student Room (11 Aug 20 vs 13 Aug 19)

  • +534% Year 13 forum posts in: BTEC 
  • +67% All levels/ages forum posts in: BTEC 
  • +30% pageviews by forum title (excl apps): BTEC
  • +29% words written
  • +114% threads created (12am - 7am)
  • +280% mobile device users (mignight - 6am)

Onsite sentiment comparison (Wed 12 Aug 20 12am - 7am vs Wed 14 Aug 19)

  • - 64% Sentiment rating
  • +142% Sad smiles
  • - 62% Happy smiles

Rising google search keywords  (12 Aug 5am - 9am)

  • +170% 'When do Btec results come out?'

It was announced that mock exams would be admissable in A-Level grading. Students were confused and fed up, many were saying the decision was unfair

“well this is confusing…”

"This whole thing is just a mess. There are literally students who have cheated in the recent mocks."

"This government has failed the students...sooo mad at the whole education board and the Ministers who were supposed to find a solution and yet failed to keep upto date. ...the indecisiveness of this government makes it worse for me and all the students. This is an attack on our future and we need to stand up for ourselves.”

English students also reacted quickly to SQA reversing downgrades. Some had a calm and pragmatic outlook, but many were outraged and argued the same grading rules should apply in Scotland and England.

“If everybody has an A, nobody has one. The point of these examinations is to distinguish between able candidates.”

"none of this is fair. But come on, would you rather be given out a grade by a computer that will affect your life forever or your teacher who actually knows you and who uses their professional judgement?”

“I just think that if Scottish students get given this advantage then so should everyone else."

“More Scottish students will get uni places based on teacher grades, while some English, Welsh and NI students will miss their place when they are marked down.Has to be the same rule for everyone or it's totally unfair.”

On A-Level Results Day

"Mock", "mocks" and "appealing" were the most common words found in A-Level Results Day posts.

Students were very proactive on Results Day, resulting in nearly double the posts per poster and a 78% in total posts. Traffic from Instagram was up 567% vs 2019. Our wordclouds showed that many students were onsite talking about appealing their results:

"The system is so messed up, I've gotten so much lower than I was supposed to and probably still won’t get in after appealing because the course is so competitive."

"I missed my [University] offer of A*AA and I got AAA. Got rejected 😭 I thought they were going to be flexible."

"I’m trying to appeal and get my mock grade. I’m so upset. Does this mean another year out?"

Student sentiment on A-Level Results Day was down 27% this year and clearing was delayed for many who did not have final grades. Nearly 40% of results were downgraded by Ofqual's algorithm.

There was upset, anger, celebration, and camaraderie amongst users on The Student Room. We saw a spike in activity in the games forums (midnight to 7am) as students joined together for moral support in a stressful waiting period. In some cases, students who were accepted by their firm offer were talking about appealing because they felt their grades were unrepresentative:

"While I got into my firm of Bristol, I am somewhat disappointed by my B in History. I got an A in my last mock ... should I bother with trying to appeal it up to an A when I don't specifically need to appeal up to get into my uni of choice?”"

"My college is appealing on my behalf as they think I’ve been massively disadvantaged. Got lower than my mocks in all 3 subjects and one of them by 2 grades."

I’m honestly about to cry. I don’t even know what to do as I did NOT want to go back to my college."

Government u-turn (17th August)

The Student Room published an open letter in defence of students

On 17th August the UK government announced that CAGs or teacher assessed A-Level grades would count after all. The Student Room ran a poll to uncover the impact on students - although the majority approved of the change there was also widespread confusion and frustration. Our open letter aimed to amplify the student voice. We implored the government to immediately address these areas:

  • clarity regarding 2020 grading (including BTEC and private candidates)
  • clarity for applicants with/without university places in 2020
  • clarity around ramifications for Year 12s and Year 10s
  • mental health and wellbeing support for students who have been negatively impacted

Read, copy and share the letter >

Key takeaways from A-Level Results Week 2020

Subjects allied with Medicine saw huge growth in engagement

Students felt angered and let down by 'unfair' grading algorithm and lack of transparency/clarity from education leaders

BTEC students felt overlooked

Student sentiment and mental health took a downturn - many were affected by lockdown and grade uncertainty

Millions of students turned to The Student Room for support in difficult times

We can help you with solutions for Clearing this cycle.