Choosing your A-levels can be a daunting experience. Here are a few pointers to help you along the way.
What can I choose from?
There are over 40 subjects to choose from at A-level, and although your sixth form or college may have some restrictions on what they can offer you’ll still have a lot of choice. They’ll range from subjects you’ve already taken at GCSE to new ones that sound interesting and exciting, such as business studies, sports science, economics, psychology and sociology.
The college you are looking at attending may require you to obtain certain grades at GCSEs for A-level subjects, so look into these before applying to confirm than you can achieve them. For example, if you want to study Physics at A-level it’s likely that you’ll need to have achieved a B or above in Physics in GCSE.
How many subjects should I take?
The majority of universities ask for three A-levels, so if you are looking at attending university in the future then three subjects would be your minimum. Until this September (2015), it was common for students to study four AS-levels in their first year of college, and ‘drop’ one before continuing on with three A-levels in their second year. However, A-levels are set to change and AS levels are being scrapped from 2015 onwards - some colleges and sixth forms are continuing with AS levels while others are only letting their pupils take exams at the end of the second year culminating in full A-level qualifications.
If you’re unsure whether you should take three or four subjects at A-level (as a minimum), want to go to university and have some idea of the universities you are looking at, one option would be to phone them and ask them what their requirements would be. Don't ever hesitate to contact them and stick your neck out a little bit to get the information you want, as they'll be more than happy to help you.
As examples of what universities want, Bristol states “we will continue to expect applicants to take three A-levels... and additional qualifications will not confer any advantage. While we value the breadth which comes with studying 4 subjects at AS-level, we do not expect to introduce a requirement for AS-levels to be taken and do not plan to use them as part of the process to select applicants.” While Exeter states “ The University of Exeter will consider a mixture of reformed and unreformed A ‘Levels and continue to make offers based over three A Levels, or equivalent. Whilst the University recognises the benefits for learners in studying for AS levels, we understand that some schools and Colleges will be unable to offer AS Levels. We can confirm that applicants will not be disadvantaged if applying without AS Level results.”
Also remember that doing four A-levels is tougher than doing three and obtaining three brilliant grades is better than four less than brilliant grades. Don’t take on more than you can handle; if you do want to gain more qualifications alongside your A-levels, consider the Extended Project Qualification (if they offer it in your sixth form or college) as it offers you the ability to embark on a self-directed and self-motivated project and is worth half an A-level.
How do I find out about A-level subjects?
Your prospective college or sixth form will have a number of open days you can attend. You can talk to the teachers there to ask them about what is involved in the course and also to current students to find out whether they enjoy it, what aspects they enjoy and what aspects they find challenging. You’ll also want to know how it’s assessed and the curriculum so you can see whether it suits your strengths.
The careers advisor in your current school will also be able to help you understand what subjects might be suitable for you to take or make you think about options that hadn’t crossed your mind.
The college library or your local library will have some of the text books required for your A-level subject, so if you’re not sure about the subject, especially if it’s one you’ve not learnt before, text books will help you get a feel for what the subject is like, what sort of things you’ll learn, and whether you find it appealing.
Especially if you are looking at subjects you haven’t studied before, you can also download the syllabus from the exam board’s website (check with your school or college what exam board they use) to read more about what is involved.
Your current teachers will know your intellectual strengths and weaknesses, so it's also worth asking their opinion on the subjects you are thinking about taking for A-level.
What subjects should I take?
If you are looking to go onto university or look for an apprenticeship or job you need to make sure that your A-levels are suitable for you to be able to go further. If you have a specific career in mind, the National Careers Service have job profiles which give you entry requirements, and you can work out from these what A-levels you’ll need.
If you know that you want to go to university and want to study a particular course, check whether that course has certain restrictions on what you can study - for example, if you want to study medicine you’ll need to study Chemistry and Maths at A-Level, Pharmacy at university requires Chemistry, while Economics will generally require you to study Maths. Many subjects also require you to study it at A-level to continue with it at university, for example Maths, English (literature or language), the Sciences etc.
However, at this point, you may will have no idea what you want to do at university. If you’re one of these people (and don’t worry, there are plenty of you out there!), keep your options open and take a broad range of subjects. Some universities openly discourage you from taking subjects that are too similar where the curriculum might overlap, for example Business Studies and Economics; Psychology and Sociology; or Biology and Human Biology. However you might find you are sciency or better at languages or better at the humanities and want to focus primarily on these.
Plenty of subjects at university do not have specific subject requirements, including anthropology, archaeology, business studies, hospitality, information science, law, management, media studies, philosophy, politics, psychology, public relations, religious studies/theology, retail management, sociology, surveying, and travel and tourism.
If you are looking to go to a top university, such as one in the Russell Group - the leading 24 research universities - or you want to be best placed at keeping your options open, they suggest a number of "facilitating subjects". These are the most commonly asked-for subjects in university entry requirements, and generally seen as “harder” because they demonstrate the broad range of academic and scholarly skills needed to succeed at undergraduate level. The facilitating subjects are Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Maths, Further Maths, English Literature, Geography, History and Modern and Classical Languages. If you are thinking of attending a top university, it’s advisable to have two of these subjects at A-level or more.
Furthermore, some universities have published lists of subjects on their website that they believe they are "less effective" preparation for degrees - these subjects that are “too soft” and will not be accepted as an A-level at all. Cambridge University, the LSE and Sheffield University all state such subjects.
If you are particularly talented in an area, for example art or music, don't let this guidance put you off studying these subjects along with facilitating subjects. Some university courses will require "soft subjects" for example if you are looking to study Architecture at university you should study art at A-level, along with the sciences, while if you are looking at studying the arts or performing arts at university you will obviously want to concentrate on these subjects at A-level.
However, try not to let your A-levels dictate that you are either too creative or too practical - if this is the case, you’re likely to want to go to university studying one of these types of subjects, for example, photography, but throwing in a facilitating subject can increase your chances of a place. If you want a vocational/academic or a vocational mix you have to be more sure about what you want to do, where you want to study and what degree you want to take. You can take BTECs along with your A-levels - if you are unsure whether your university will accept these subjects don’t hesitate to contact them.
As a final point, the subjects you choose have to be balanced and coherent - you have to have a reason for picking them, whether they will further your career, they are your passion, or they look interesting and complement your other choices - and be able to talk about this in your UCAS form or any interviews you might have.
What about new subjects?
Your sixth form or college may offer A-levels in subjects you’ve not studied before. If any new subject looks interesting, investigate them by looking through the syllabus, textbooks in your local library, or asking someone who teaches them. You might find that these new subjects play to your strengths more than the traditional ones you were offered at GCSE. However, remember that there is a big jump between GCSEs and A-levels so taking all completely new subjects might be a bit too overwhelming.
What about general studies?
Most universities, especially those hard to get into don’t accept General Studies as an A-level. You can do it on top of three A-levels, with some universities noting that this can be a positive added extra in a UCAS application, especially if you perform well in it. This is due to the fact that it’s a broad mix of politics, current affairs, culture, technology and science, and develops your essay writing, problem-solving skills, and analytical thinking, which is especially important if your other subjects are quite closely related.
How should I choose my subjects?
When picking each individual subject, some considerations include:
- ability and enjoyment - the main reason you want to choose a subject is because you enjoy it and are good at it. This means that you’ll look forward to lessons and will be motivated to learn, you’ll find the work easier and will gain better grades in the long run. However, as previously noted, remember that there is a leap between GCSEs and A-levels, so if you find it easy at GCSE you might not find it easy at A-level.
- strengths - you may know that you are good at writing, or good at problem solving, so choose subjects that play to these. If you are unsure, talk to your subject teachers about your strengths and weaknesses to assess your potential, allowing you to make more informed decisions your A-level choices. However, you might want to take a subject if you feel you can develop the skills the subject requires and feel it would be an enjoyable challenge.
- workload - check how much homework and coursework you'll have to do for each subject. Once subject might require a lot of learning detail, another might require a lot of independent reading, while another might involve a lot of essay writing. Look at choosing subjects with varying amounts of reading, so you don't get too bogged down half way through the year.