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:
|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.|