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How to choose your A level subjects

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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 relish 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.

The Russell Group has published a guide to A Level choices, which has been widely misunderstood and misquoted. The guide (http://www.russellgroup.ac.uk/informed-choices/) describes 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. 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. A useful website is this one: http://university.which.co.uk/advice/what-a-levels-do-you-need-for-the-degree-you-want-to-study and another good place to start researching university entrance requirements is http://search.ucas.com/

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 your school has that facility. 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. And don’t opt to do four A levels unless you are very strong academically (averaging better than A grade 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:

University A Level
Architecture Many require A level Art; some require some sciences or maths. There are different types of course – do some research!
Computing Maths. Further Maths useful for Cambridge.
Economics Maths. Further Maths advised for Cambridge/LSE
Engineering Maths and Physics usually required. Chemistry essential for Chemical Engineering. Further Maths advised for some top universities.
English Literature English Lit needed. There are increasing varieties of English courses, not just Eng Lit, many of which accept English Language.
Law Advised to do at least one essay based subject. At least two ‘traditional’ subjects are recommended.
Maths Further Maths advised (essential for the very top universities)
Medicine/Dentistry/ Veterinary Biology and Chemistry. Don’t require Maths or Physics. Some medical schools like at least one non-science/maths subject. Mainly A/A* grades required at GCSE.
Natural Science Should do Maths, Chemistry and either Biology or Physics. Further Maths useful for Cambridge.
Pharmacy Chemistry, plus at least one from Biology, Maths and Physics
Physics Further Maths advised (essential for the very top universities)
Physiotherapy Most universities want Biology or PE. Some specify Biology. Some want two sciences (counting PE as a science).
Psychology At least one science/maths course advised. There are a few BA Psychology degrees which don’t require a science.


  1. Belgu Demirtas says:

    Will I be able to reapply with my GCSE results if I am not invited or do not get a direct offer?

    • Yes, you will. We accept a few students each year who come to us with their results in August even if they were not offered a place earlier in the year – perhaps their actual GCSE results tutn out better than the school’s prediction, for example.

      • Belgu Demirtas says:

        That helped a lot, thank you.

      • Sabrina says:

        Would I be able to come to Woodhouse college, In my mocks I got 1 A 4 B’S AND 3 C ‘S and I have the grades needed for the subjects I want to do at A Level.

  2. Matilda says:

    Do you look at a student’s predicted grades or mock results when they apply?

  3. emily says:

    i do double science and my first GCSE grade is a B. Im thinking to do biology but my maths grade is a C and college requires a B in order for me to do bio, would i stil have a chance of getting accepted to do it?

  4. Jasmine says:

    What about if I am not doing GCSES? I am currently in an international school doing the Middle Years Program, what are the requirements needed to be accepted?

  5. Roopam says:

    Will I be able to change my AS level at the start of the year if my GCSE grades are to the required entry? I wanted to choose physics, but I couldn’t as I needed the additional science GCSE which I’ll be sitting this summer.

  6. Rufat says:

    Do you do courses for A-Level courses for biology, chemistry, geography and lastly French? I am not completely satisfied with my selection [Geography and French] because they the subject that is not necessarily the A levels that i need for my dream job [Dentistry] but would help because i believe i am outstanding at these subjects. Finally for my last questions what type of A-Level subjects is recommended, in Woodhouse college, to take the dental path?


    • Yes we do all those courses. For the majority of dentistry course the key is to take biology and chemistry. A few like maths or physics too but for most, biology and chemistry is all you need. So french and geography, if you enjoy them and are really good at them, are very good options.

  7. Misan B says:

    Can i do A level history even though I have a B in Geography

  8. Sabrina says:

    Would I be able to come to Woodhouse college, In my mocks I got 1 A 4 B’S AND 3 C ‘S and I have the grades needed for the subjects I want to do at A Level.

  9. Alex Jensen says:

    I am currently attend high school in New York, and I’ll finish 12th grade in June 2016. Because I am young in my year (I was born in August of 1998) and because I would like to go to university in Britain (I have a British passport, and spent two of my primary school years in Cornwall), I have been thinking about attending a British sixth form college after I graduate from high school here. I have looked over your website and am very excited about what you offer. With advance notice, my mum (a British citizen) could negotiate with her employer to do her job in London in 2016-17, and to be close to that we would most likely live in the Clerkenwell/Islington area. My questions are these: would someone like me be eligible for admission to Woodhouse, and would it be possible for me to do three full A levels in just one year? If you have the time to reply, I would be very grateful!

    • Thanks for your question, Alex. You would certainly be eligible to come to this college, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t be possible to do A-levels in one year: A-levels are a two year course. There may be some further education colleges which offer them in a year, but not schools or sixth form colleges.

      • Alex Jensen says:

        Many thanks for your speedy reply! But wouldn’t I be too old to be at Woodhouse for two years? (because I would be 19 at the beginning of my second year of studies)


  10. Ah, sorry, didn’t realise that. So you would be 18 at the beginning of your first year? Then I’m afraid you couldn’t study here we are only fully funded to accept 16 year olds into our first year. Try City & Islington Sixth Form Centre – they have more flexibility than us because they are part of on of the biggest further education colleges in the country.

  11. Sarah says:

    Where can i get your application form from.

  12. Caroline says:

    Hello, I live in East London and I am thinking of applying to Wood house would my distance be a barrier?

  13. Demahom says:

    I didn’t apply to any other schools this year due to my disappointing predicted grades. I’m pretty sure that my actual GCSE results are much better. Is it too late for me to apply to Woodhouse?

  14. Clare Savage says:

    Do you offer the course of citizenship at AS and A2 level? If not do you know of any other sixth form in the barnet area that does?

  15. If taking Double Science and wanting to do Psychology at A level do you need one B or two Bs? Asking for my daughter but I don’t understand the new system and she really wants to attend Woodhouse for 2016/17 entry (although A level system changing again at the moment!). Thank you.

    • Just one B at present (for entry in September 2015). We will formalise our entry requirments for September 16 shortly, but the criteria for individual subjects like Psychology are likely to remain the same. There may be some other changes (because A levels are changing, as you say) but those will relate to whether students do 3 or 4 subjects and whether they do AS exams. We hope to have all those decisions made before the Autumn.

  16. Prudence says:

    I am very interested in attending Woodhouse College in September but unfortunately my application wasn’t fully completed. Is it possible for me to complete a late application or appeal as soon as I get my GCSE results in August? (All of my predicted grades are A’s and B’s)

  17. Laura says:

    Do you offer Italian A levels?

    • We do at the moment. It is not definite whether we will next year; depends on numbers of applications and – frankly – whether the government cuts our funding rate after the impending spending review.

  18. june says:

    My daughter is considering an acting career having already performed in the West End via her full time stage school. She is thinking of applying to study Drama, English Literature and Music at your college. Can you tell me whether there are opportunities to have an agent and do external acting/performing jobs whilst studying her A Levels at your college.

    • We have had students before in that situation. In fact, Daisy Edgar-Jones (who finished her A levels last summer) was in a number of productions including Cold Feet during her upper sixth year. We would prefer your daughter not to miss too many lessons, but we try to be flexible.

  19. Iga says:

    Do you accept 17 year olds into your first year?

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