Girl working out her A levels subjects.

We have come to the time of year where certain students are struggling with difficult A Level choices that will affect their university career and therefore later life. Often the problem of choosing A Levels is complicated, rather than helped, by advice coming from a range of sources including parents, friends, school careers advisors or teachers. With friends keen for you to join them in their class, teachers wanting you to carry on their subject for A Level, parents with their own ideas about what you should study, and careers advisors probably giving advice that contradicts the other three parties it is no wonder that students despair! Furthermore when students try and seek impartial advice from online sources the information is there but can often be unclear and confusing. In short, choosing A Levels is difficult, and one would expect it to be as it is making decisions at a young age that will affect the rest of your life.  However, encouragingly the Russell Group of 24 leading UK universities is aware of this difficulty facing students, and has therefore published a guide which is a great first port of call for struggling students. Informed Choices states in a clear way what the top universities want in applicants of specific courses and offers advice for those who are not sure what they want to study. It gives helpful information for those not taking A Levels, but other higher education exams such as the IB or Scottish Highers, and shows the GCSE requirements for certain courses. However, if you really want one to one advice from someone outside your close home or school circle then the best thing to do is simply contact a university admissions office, relay where you are in your decision making process and ask for advice.  

Of course this decision making process is made much easier if you are in the fortunate situation where you know what you want to study at university and simply need to know what A Levels to take to give you the best shot at achieving this. Students in this situation can look at a university website to see what A Levels their course requires and look at similar courses from different universities to see if there is any difference in requirements. Students can also search their course on the UCAS website, and the ‘Informed Choices’ guide has a full list of courses with essential and helpful A Levels to take. 

However, if you are like me four years ago and the majority of students who have just finished their GCSEs, then you will have no idea what you want to study at university and choosing A Levels is made much harder. If you are in this situation then the important thing to do is to choose a set of A Levels that will keep your options open so that you can continue to learn about a range of subjects and come to realize where you want to specialize at a later date. The Russell Group advises students in this situation to take at least two 'facilitating subjects' at A Level. Facilitating subjects are those which increase your opportunities at university as they are required more often than others and include Maths, Further Maths, English (Literature), Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Geography, History and Languages (Modern & Classical). Some may call these ‘hard’ subjects and therefore ‘soft’ subjects such as Media Studies, Business Studies, Art and Design or Photography should be avoided because they limit the number of degree courses open to you at university. The ‘Informed Choices’ guide states some popular degrees will normally be open to those students who have taken a number of these facilitating subjects without any specific subject background. These include Anthropology, Archaeology, Business Studies, Law, Management Studies, Philosophy, Politics, Psychology or Sociology. However, the guide adds that this may not be the case for all universities with some being more prescriptive and some having a preference on certain facilitating subjects over others. 

For some the decision is made easier by a clear preference for either sciences or arts subjects. A student who has a clear preference for science often chooses Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Maths for AS Level meaning that all science based degrees will be open to them at university even though they may not yet know where their preference and strength lies. A popular choice is to choose three of the above stated along with a humanities or an arts subject in order to maintain a broader outlook on life, but the obvious implication of this is that it will take away the option of certain science degrees at university. Others still will know that they do not want to study sciences and they therefore must decide on a combination of arts, humanities and social science subjects that will give them the best opportunities at university. You may be someone who enjoys, and is strong at, both sciences and arts, and perhaps therefore the International Baccalaureate may be the best option. If this option is not open to you then you can try and take a wide range of subjects to cover all bases and interests with a science, humanities, arts and social science. However, if this is your approach then it is important to research your possible interests after school and make sure no academic doors are being closed to you without your knowledge.  

Further problems arise when the results come out of the summer, you open the envelope containing your GCSE results and all you’re A Level plans are thrown into disarray by a set of unexpected results. This brings up the question of whether you need to be strong at a subject to study it at A Level. Of course there is a jump in difficulty from GCSEs to AS Levels, and it would be unwise to pursue a subject that is beyond your capabilities. If you simply do not know whether you are strong enough at a subject then it is best to ask that subject teacher. Also to some extent you should be able to judge for yourself your suitability to a subject. For example, you obviously need to have a strong maths grade at GCSE to go on to do Maths and Further Maths at A Level. However, although it is important to a certain degree of suitability to a subject, what is vital is a genuine interest and thirst for knowledge in that subject. Even if you did particularly well in a certain subject but have no genuine enthusiasm for it then there is no point in pursuing it further as you will not motivated to put in the hours of extra reading and study that will be required. 

Another problem facing students at this already difficult time is the question of what universities actually want. Usually students take 4 AS Levels and drop one to take 3 A Levels and this is all university entry requirements will ever demand. However, if you are particularly keen to take more than this then important to talk to your teacher to see if they think you can cope. Furthermore, it is important to contact the admissions office of a particular university you have in mind to find out if an extra A Level will be valued in any way. Some universities may take this into account when making you an offer whereas some may ignore it completely. If you are someone who wants a place at the top universities in the country then it is best not to take subjects that are not highly regarded by these institutions. The ‘Informed Choices’ guide has a list of facilitating subjects which is a great place to start looking for these regarded subjects. There has been a recent drop in numbers of students choosing to carry on languages at A Level, but taking a language, even if you don’t plan to do it at university, shows commitment and discipline and would be respected by universities. Maths is also a subject that university admissions staff like to see. Subjects with overlapping curriculums, like Economics and Business Studies, should be avoided and Critical Thinking or General Studies are usually better taken only as an extra A Level.

In conclusion, choosing A Levels is no easy task but take comfort from the fact that the top universities in the country have recognised the immensity of the challenge, and are there to guide and help. What is most important is that the choice is made by you because it is you that will have to carry out the studies, do the extra reading, pass the exams and pursue those interests into later life.