How to choose your A level subjects
You will find that everyone is very free with their advice; there will be no shortage of people telling you to take this or that subject, often contradicting each other and themselves, leaving you more confused and conflicted. There are all sorts of reasons to take particular subjects, but they need to be YOUR reasons and not somebody else’s.
First of all, you need to take subjects that you enjoy and are good at. You will be studying them intensely for two years, and you will not do well unless you enjoy the subject and feel confident with it. At A Level, all subjects require extra reading, additional work outside the classroom, and you are much more likely to do this and do it well if you have a natural enthusiasm and interest in the subject. For example, if you are thinking about English Literature, do you actually like reading? Do you read a lot in your spare time? Do you enjoy a range of texts and not just books written for a modern day teenage audience? For another example, in maths, do you enjoy the challenge of a harder question? Do you hate to be told the answer before you have tried a problem every which way? Do you feel confident and in control?
Nationally, results vary hugely at A Level. For example, the pass rate amongst all schools and colleges in the UK for English Literature and History are far higher than for Maths and Chemistry. Is this because maths and the sciences are harder? No, it’s because some students choose maths or a science when they are not really suited to them; they lack enthusiasm and confidence, don’t do enough work and slip into underachievement or failure. Don’t do maths and science, is my advice, unless you are really strong in them, top set. Doing maths because you have heard it is ‘well regarded’ by employers and universities is not sufficient reason to study it.
The Russell Group has published a guide to A Level choices, which has been widely misunderstood and misquoted, and recently they revised it. The guide described some A Level subjects as facilitating subjects. Facilitating subjects are carefully defined as those which provide good progression opportunities to a range of degree subjects. They make the point that Economics, for example, is a good and well regarded subject but is not a so-called facilitating subject because it is not actually a required subject for many degree courses. The Russell Group suggest that students take two facilitating subjects. This is good general advice for those who want to keep their options open, but remember that it will not apply in all individual circumstances. It’s not that anyone actually asks for facilitating subjects at A level. We have had students get into top universities including Oxbridge with no facilitating subjects at all. The most important factor will be the grades that you get rather than the subjects you study.
If you are clear on your future career and on the degree you want to take, then congratulations. It is much easier to pursue a goal when you know what the goal is! If you are in this situation, then you are better placed to get good advice. Check out some university websites (make sure you check a few and not just one or two) but do take care to avoid the ‘received wisdom’ and rumours that you may have heard from friends or which were true in your parents day but not anymore. For example, we get a lot of students doing maths because they want to go to medical school. But you don’t need maths to go to medical school.
A word of warning. It is easy to get an idea in your head that you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or whatever it is, but you haven’t really thought about it seriously; you haven’t really researched what it’s like; and you may not really have the capacity to tackle those A level subjects. We get quite a lot of students on GCSE results day, desperate to do A level science because they want to be a doctor, but they have grade 5s and 6s in science at GCSE and we won’t let them do A level science. And to be honest – with grade 5s and 6s at GCSE science, they are not going to be doctors. So be realistic, be honest.
If you don’t know what you want to take at university, never mind what career, don’t panic, you are in the majority. But do try to get down to some serious thinking. The choices you make now will determine what choices are open to you further down the road. Have a careers interview if you can. Do some research. Think carefully about subjects that you do currently do and find out about A Level subjects that aren’t available at GCSE and whether they might suit you. Take advantage of open days at sixth forms to find out more about subjects, and ask sixth form students for their feedback. Think also about the way your A levels complement and support each other.
My advice is to do the subjects you enjoy and are good at, and think about careers later. But do subjects that go well together, that complement each other. Like history and English, or maths and physics. I was speaking to a girl doing history, art and chemistry. Why are you doing chemistry, I asked. To keep her options open, she said. But she won’t, because there’s nothing you can do with chemistry A level. Not even a chemistry degree. Like there’s no point in doing physics or computing without maths.
And don’t opt to do four A levels unless you are very strong academically (averaging better than a grade 7 over all your subjects) and unless you have a good reason. Universities want three good grades; if you get four slightly less good grades, you will be disadvantaged.
Many degree courses will stipulate the obvious A levels. For example, to do a History degree, you need History A level; to do a Geography degree you need Geography A level. Here are some of the less obvious ones:
|Architecture||Courses vary and you need to do your research. Lots require art, some need maths or physics.|
|Computing||You need maths. Further maths for Cambridge.|
|Economics||You need maths. Further maths for Cambridge.|
|Engineering||Maths and physics usually required. Chemistry useful. Further maths needed for Oxbridge.|
|English Literature||English Literature needed. There are lots of varying courses like linguistics that will accept English Language.|
|Law||At least two tradition subjects often needed. Recommend two research/essay-based subjects (eg English Lit, History, Politics)|
|Maths||Further maths needed for the top universities|
|Medicine||You need Biology and Chemistry. You don’t need Maths.|
|Natural sciences||Should do maths, chemistry and either biology or physics. Further maths useful for Cambridge as a 4th.|
|Pharmacy||Chemistry plus one of maths, physics, biology|
|Psychology||At least one science/maths subject advised. There are a few BA courses that don’t need require a science|
Woodhouse has had a lot of success in getting students into Oxford and Cambridge recently, 22 last year. It doesn’t happen by accident or just because we have academically strong students. They have to prepare well and know what they are doing. In this blog, I have tried to sum up the key elements.
Choose right A level subjects
Choose subjects that you love and which you will do well in. Do not choose a subject (like maths, for example) because you have heard it is well thought of, even though you do not regard yourself as a natural mathematician.
You do not need to choose a specified number of ‘facilitating subjects’ but for Oxbridge, you should choose academic subjects that go well together, like history and politics or maths and economics.
Make sure you check the admissions requirements for your likely university course: a lot of courses require further maths, for example.
You do not need to take four A levels, and you will get no credit or advantage in doing four. On the other hand, if you can’t cope with four A levels, you probably can’t cope with Oxford or Cambridge.
Choose right course to study
Oxford and Cambridge have fewer courses than many universities and they are often quite different. Even subjects like history or engineering are very different at Oxbridge than other universities in terms of their content and assessment. Then there are courses like HSPS and Human sciences that don’t necessarily exist anywhere else. Take the time to read up about them and decide if they are right for you. Go to a taster course if you can and definitely an open day.
Ace your A levels
If you get an offer from Oxford or Cambridge, they could ask you to achieve anything from AAA upwards. This year, Woodhouse had the following offers:
- Seven students asked to get AAA
- Nine students asked to get A*AA
- Nine students asked to get A*A*A
- One was asked for A*A*AA and another for A*A*A*A
Cambridge offers tend to ask for slightly higher grades than Oxford – all the AAA offers were Oxford – because Oxford use their entrance tests to filter offers, whereas Cambridge use A level grades as well.
Do not misunderstand this: most of the students asked to get AAA by Oxford were predicted at least A*A*A. If you are predicted to get AAA, you will almost certainly not get an offer from Oxford or Cambridge. The moral of the story is that you have to ace your A levels!
For most courses (maths is a bit different), you need not only to be doing super well in your A levels but also undertaking extra work/reading beyond the syllabus. The goal is to become a bit of an enthusiast or expert in some area. You might read a book or article on something, and then follow the bibliography or references to become such a specialist that you know more about this even than your teachers. The rule is depth, not breadth.
In maths and sciences, you need to find and spend time on really hard problems that make you think and take days to solve. Your normal work is based on an accessibility to all students; you need to track down questions and problems aimed at A* level students, old STEP or Olympiad questions, for example.
Entrance tests will be the hardest exams you have ever don, because they are aimed only at A/A* students. But there should be a part of you that finds them fun too (otherwise, are you really right for Oxbridge?). They take practice, because they are very different from A level or GCSE. I suggest starting to practise them from around Easter onwards, and sp3ning a lot of time on this over the summer.
There will be some students who can just download a host of past papers and get on with it, but some of you need a bit more help, a bit of structure and guidance. We provide some sessions here at College but they are not very intense of lengthy. Some of our students have subscribed to online (and in-person) support from the likes of https://stepmaths.co.uk/ who, despite their name, provide good quality learning resources for a host of different admissions tests, and some of our students speak very highly of their resources.
Interviews at Oxford and Cambridge are models of their tutorial/supervision sessions. To do well at interview, a student has to enjoy talking about their subject in depth and thinking hard on the spot. This requires a set of skills that takes practice.
One useful thing you can do is to take part in subject-based study groups throughout Year 12, a small group in a particular subject where students can discuss ideas or problems and challenge each other to articulate their understanding. Such groups work well when students take it in turn to bring and present an article, question or problem for discussion.
Another useful way to improve oral skills is to volunteer to work as a subject mentor, perhaps in Year 13 mentoring Year 12s or in Year 12 mentoring Year 11s at one of our partner schools.
We provide quite a lot of support for interviews and mock interviews with a range of internal and external staff. But if you are not used to talking about your subject with insight and precise language, then that’s not enough, so take every opportunity that comes your way to improve those skills.
Take your opportunities
Our Oxbridge Academy provides a lot of opportunities, many of them competitive, some with eligibility criteria, often first come first served. You will need to check your emails regularly and respond quickly if you are to take part in many of these. Opportunities include:
- Oxford Christ Church Horizons Programme – a six session course run by academics from Christ Church.
- Oxbridge Prospects (run by the legendary Gavin)
- Lumina at Harrow Independent School in July
- Chrysalis programme at Highgate School (if they remember to invite us this year)
- Trips to Oxford and Cambridge colleges
- Summer schools (such as Sutton Trust and Uniq)
- Taster days and masterclasses
- The Oxfizz programme
- Target Oxbridge
- The McWhirter Conference at Oxford
- And many other ad hoc events, which I email to members of the academy
I went to a reunion at the weekend. It is 40 years since my peers and I left school and this was our first and only reunion.
I attended school in Beverley, East Yorkshire, at a small boys’ grammar school, a very old school founded in 700AD (supposedly the oldest state school in England). Since I left in 1979, I have remained in contact with only one classmate (who remains my best friend); I saw a couple of others for a while but haven’t seen them since the 80s, and the rest I haven’t seen since that last day of school in 1979.
We had a school song, which we sang quite often in assemblies and official events. We all knew the song off by heart. The first two lines were ‘Forty years on when afar and asunder/Parted are those who are singing today’. So my friend and I thought a ‘40 years on reunion’ was appropriate.
It took us over a year to track down our classmates. Four had died. Several we couldn’t find, but in the end about 70% of those who finished the sixth-form turned up at the school in Beverley on Saturday. We toured the school, seeing how much it had and hadn’t changed, the memories flooding back. And we re-created our old Year 13 school photo in exactly the same positions.
Speeches and refreshments finished off the official event. And then we went to the pub, and then a different pub. I have to tell you: beer in Beverley is £2 a pint, so we took advantage. It turns out old blokes can still drink quite a lot of beer.
There was a lot of banter, a lot of laughs, but also tears and hugs. It turns out that quite a few of the old boys had approached the reunion with some uncertainty and trepidation. But once they arrived, there was so much good will and good humour that everyone relaxed.
Interestingly, at our age (most of us are 58), no one really cared about conventional measures of success, who had the best job or earned the most money, and so there was no sense of competitiveness. We care far more about relationships and family and, most of all, good company.
Some of the old boys looked pretty similar to their 18-year old selves but with exaggerated features, like a caricature. Others looked very different, but you could recognise them through their smile or their walk. And mostly, they seemed the same people as they were back then. You could see the boy in the man.
Some people have remarkable memories. Okay, you might remember that your history teacher drove a Hillman Imp, but to be able to remember the exact licence plate 40 years later is pretty impressive!
Someone asked – how many of us were caned in our time here? Five or six raised a hand. Different times.
I was a bit of a rebel at school. I started a branch of the national union of school students, as I was reminded, got detentions for wearing Anti-Nazi League badges (and also once for attending a demonstration when I was supposedly off sick but my image was spotted on TV). I also campaigned for gay equality at a time when that was very difficult and I remember several fights over the issue. At the time, I felt that everyone else was right wing and conservative and that I didn’t fully fit in. Now, 40 years on, they have all caught up with me: they are pretty inclusive, tolerant, liberal-minded people. Lovely people, actually, witty and smart, with a huge capacity for beer but not much hair.
I wonder what Woodhouse students will remember 40 years on.
A huge piece of research across 20 countries across the globe last autumn polled over 20,000 young people aged 16-21 for their attitudes towards a variety of ethical, personal, community and political issues.
The report is very interesting. Amongst the findings internationally are that:
- 68% of young people say they are happy –with young people in developing economies tending to be happier than developed world counterparts
- But young people are also pessimistic about the future. 37% of young people think the world is becoming worse compared to just 20% who think it is becoming better.
- Young people are shaped more by common threads than they are divided. Teenagers in Nigeria, New Delhi, London and New York share many of same priorities, fears, ambitions and opinions. They have more in common than with older people from the same country.
The happiness score for young people in the UK is well below average. Young people in the UK have the second lowest mental wellbeing out of twenty major countries –with only Japan ranking lower.
This is no surprise to staff in British schools and colleges, who have seen a massive increase in anxiety, depression, mental and emotional health issues, self-harm and stress over the last few years to the point where it is now at epidemic levels.
Providing counselling and mentors and other support staff is important, but these deal with the symptoms and not the causes.
What are the reasons for this rise? Well it’s complex but it’s probably at least partly related to the rise in social media, which paradoxically connects us to the world and at the same time isolates us from it. If you have unhealthy relationship with your phone and with social media, if you find it hard to work or revise with your phone turned off, if you find yourself checking Snapchat or other social media every few minutes, then you should resolve to do something about it, because it’s not doing anything good for your emotional health or self-esteem. See this recent article in the Guardian about the impact of social media on mental health.
And it’s probably also connected to the very high pressure young people are on to succeed. This is a generation which faces a future in which they may struggle to emulate the successes of their parents: to own a home, to have a stable career, to live a financially comfortable life are awfully high aspirations for today’s young people.
The most highly examined generation knows that every exam, every paper, every question matters far more than it used to. When I was at school, BBC constituted a good set of A level grades that would get you into a university like Bristol. Now you need A*AA. Exams in the old days may have been harder but if you were aiming for a B, a good student could afford an off day or a bad paper; but now you can’t afford any slips if you are aiming for an A*. So that’s a lot of pressure. And a dropped grade means you miss that university place, miss out on that dream. No wonder there’s an epidemic of anxiety.
The survey also points out that just 15% of young people in Britain have good physical wellbeing and feel they get enough sleep, exercise regularly and devote enough time to rest and reflection.
Good sixth-forms will provide sporting and other physical activities for students to participate in. But it doesn’t help that it is precisely in those kind of non-core activities that funding has been fiercely cut in recent years. When students go off to university, they will have access to highly subsidised sport facilities, gyms, courts and pools, and classes and activities for them to join. All students off to university should resolve to take part in something.
Finally, here is some good advice from the head teacher at Highgate school: http://www.highgateschool.org.uk/about/five-a-day
I am someone who is sceptical of government initiatives; sceptical of the latest duty that we have to comply with; sceptical whether government policies actually have much impact on the ground other than make work for us to do and provide Ofsted with a stick to beat us.
But I am not sceptical about the rise of fascist and proto-fascist organisations in this country who march and gather on the streets in immigrant communities to promote fear and hatred.
I’m not sceptical when an MP is murdered by a far-right extremist.
And I’m not sceptical about the continued rise in attacks and hostility against Muslims in this country.
I’m not sceptical when I cycle through Hendon in the morning sometimes and I see security guards outside every Jewish infant school and every Jewish primary school and when I hear recently that Jewish cemeteries in Hendon have been vandalised and desecrated.
And I’m not sceptical when I hear students at schools not far from here in London have disappeared and are then seen again taking part in some crazy religious war thousands of miles away.
Or when a place just yards away from the hotel I stayed in Berlin in October was attacked by a mindless zealot with a lorry and no humanity.
And, so, yes, I do think this is something to do with us, and I do think we have a responsibility to educate the young people in our charge to think critically and sceptically themselves, to base their views on evidence and not just faith.
And so, yes, I do think the Prevent agenda is something to do with us and something to take seriously.
I think it would be a good start to remove religion from schools, except comparative studies and private, individual practice. People should be free in my opinion to choose and practise any religion they want in any way they want. But it can’t be right that there is a legal duty on schools to have a daily act of worship of a predominantly Christian nature. And I don’t think it’s right that so many schools are religious: Catholic, C of E, Muslim, Jewish schools all over the place. Let’s separate education, which is a social function, from religion, which is a private and individual choice. Let’s allow students of any religion to attend any school and, in that way, seek to mix them up as much as possible so that they encounter people from different communities.
Sometimes students dismiss mock exam results as unimportant. They say that at GCSE they didn’t do well in mocks but still got good grades in the real thing. They don’t really believe there is anything to worry about, or they do but they push it right down because it is too frightening to contemplate.
A levels are different from GCSEs. I am sorry, but they are: GCSEs lend themselves to cramming, to lots of memorising at the last minute. Some students passed their GCSEs by this strategy, but it doesn’t work at A level.
Here are the grades achieved by my AS maths group a year ago, with their actual AS grades (names redacted):
|Name||C1 Mock||AS Grade|
You will see that 18 out of 21 got the same grade, or one more or less, in the actual AS exams as they got in the mock. Of the other three, two climbed four grades and one climbed two grades. So the vast majority of students failed to get significantly different grades in the summer. I remember very clearly student ‘A’ and student ‘T’. They totally changed their attitude, they were like different people, totally serious and driven; they worked so hard, eating up extra work. I had been convinced after the mocks that student ‘T’ in particular would fail but by the summer, I was disappointed that he missed the A grade by a couple of marks.
Now, my subject is maths, and advice varies by subject, but most under-achievers simply do not do enough work, that’s the fact. And if you think you are working hard, well you have to work harder, because that’s what it takes. Use your free periods better, use evenings and weekends. See your academic work as your priority and do what needs to be done.
But it is also a question of what work you are doing. We know that many students waste their time. They waste it in low level activities (highlighting key points) and avoiding the challenges of hard thinking. And they allow themselves to be constantly interrupted by social media and other online distractions so they never get into a flow. They play music and kid themselves it is helping.
So have a chat with your teacher about what work you should be doing. And put aside all your devices when you’re working.
In my subject, the challenge is often about resilience. Students give up too easily and check the mark schemes/solutions, and they never really learn to think things through for themselves. Crucially, you should never give up: if you are stuck you need to spend time thinking about it, trying one thing and another, checking for errors, doing it again, reading the text book and notes, looking for similar questions, over and over until you gets it right. That is the only route to success.
Challenge yourself with past paper questions. Never give up. If it takes three hours to get a question fully right, that is three hours well spent. Once you conquer a question, find a similar one to test yourself one. There is no short cut to success.
The time is nigh. You have to decide what are you doing here? How much are you willing to invest in your future, in success? Every single Woodhouse student has the ability to achieve high grades. What is in question is not ability: it is mindset.
Welcome to the Woodhouse College Model UN. As the world watches Donald Trump’s inauguration in a few hours time, we gather to debate and consider international relations in an unprecedented time. I have a few reflections before we start.
Forgive me, I am old. I was born in 1961 a few months before the Berlin Wall went up; I was born a child of the sixties. The sixties was an age of contradictions, on the one hand it was called the age of Aquarius, the era of hope; on the other hand, it was a time of fear with the threat of world war 3 and nuclear annihilation hanging over us.
After the Berlin Wall went up, the Cold War dominated international relations for the first 30 odd years of my life, with many proxy wars and confrontations taking place around the globe.
As a toddler, the Cuban missile crisis caused people to fear war breaking out between the US and the Soviet Union. It was close, a few minutes to midnight, people said. My parents left me at home with a babysitter and demonstrated in Grovesnor Square outside the US embassy against the Vietnam war. I was pushed in a buggy on the Aldermaston march against nuclear weapons, a movement that grew and became the campaign for nuclear disarmament, CND.
I remember my RE teacher at school telling us at school that nuclear war was likely in our lifetime, and the government issued a leaflet to all households called ‘Protect and Survive’ – what to do in the event of nuclear war. It had advice on how to hide under the kitchen table. Meanwhile the growth of CND culminated in a huge march against nuclear weapons over a million people with slogan ‘protest and survive’.
War after war took place around the world, most with USA and Russia backing different sides. The Iran Iraq war, which you may not know much about, lasted 8 years with a million dead and many more injured, Saddam Hussein backed, incidentally, by the west, who supplied him with those same weapons of mass destruction that later triggered their own invasion.
The Israel Palestine conflict goes on to this day, with Israeli expansion and settlements condemned across the world but underwritten and supported by USA.
And terrorism is not a new phenomenon and featured throughout my life, from the red brigade and the PLO and IRA in the 70s to and Al Qaeda and Isis today.
When the Wall came down, some declared ‘the end of history’, but it all continued, repeated invasions of Afghanistan and the Middle East. Russia and the west playing out their games.
And all this time, who did reasonable liberal people look to save the day? Who did they call upon to reduce the danger from nuclear arsenals, from proxy wars? Who did they ask to stop and prevent wars, from Vietnam to Cambodia, from Yugoslavia to Iran and Iraq, and now Syria? The united nations. And when 2 million marched in London against Tony Blair’s war in Iraq, their demand was no war without UN resolution. They saw the UN as a white horse, part of the solution, part of the way forward to peace.
But the UN let us down every single time. The UN has been repeatedly ineffectual and weak. The big powers block anything that is against their interests. The Israel Palestine sore remains an open wound, oozing poison into the region and into the world, and what has the UN ever achieved there? What has the UN achieved in Syria?
Lenin called the UN’s predecessor the League of Nations a Thieves’ Kitchen, a “piece of fakery from beginning to end; it is a deception from beginning to end; it is a lie from beginning to end”. Is the UN any different?
So we now live in bleak times. The mantra of the Blair years “things can only get better” seems unbearably innocent and naive. With Brexit at home, the rise of proto-fascism across Europe and Donald Trump in the Whitehouse, it is hard to locate hope for the future. I feel doubly affected: I am both a British citizen and an American citizen – I hold two passports. I am equally depressed by Brexit and Trump, both of which could end as appalling disasters – not for the rich and privileged, but for ordinary people.
In this context, what advice can I offer? What optimism can I put forward for you? I am at a loss. I am of the generation that has failed to solve the problems of the world and has handed to our children a world with fewer opportunities and greater challenges than my parents handed to me.
So I have just one thought for you. Voltaire, that great figure of the enlightenment, who was part of a movement that changed Europe and brought in rationalism and tolerance and ideas of equality and human rights; Voltaire write a book Candide. He wrote it in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake that killed up to a hundred thousand people. There were many who tried to understand such a disaster, tried to work out what it meant that their God had allowed so many to die. Some said that ‘all is for the best in this best of all worlds’, but Voltaire couldn’t believe that to be true, and he tried to find hope in a seemingly hopeless world.
His famous conclusion to the book is this: ‘il fault cultiver notre jardin’. We need to work our garden, a metaphor which I remembering originally struggling with in my French A level at sixth form. President Obama put it more plainly yesterday in his final press conference in advice to his daughters: “we have tried to raise them”, he said, “to understand that when you get knocked down, you pick yourself up and get back to work.”
So my advice, for what it’s worth, is to get on with your lives, to do the right thing for the right reasons. As you work through this weekend, remember that politics is not a game. Politics is not about one-upmanship, winning a debate through procedural manipulation or sophistry. Politics actually affects people’s lives. Have principles, live by them and make the world a better place.