5 key factors to consider when choosing A level subjects

Why choosing the right A level subjects is crucial

Choosing your A levels is a daunting task. Your choices will commit you to certain directions at university; they might even affect which careers you can consider in the future. It is important, therefore, to get your choices right and there are many factors to consider when you are deciding upon which subjects to take. In this article, we will aim to explore these key areas, providing guidance to help students with their decision-making. We will look at:

Personal preference and skills

A levels are hard work and two years is a long time, so make sure that you choose subjects that you will enjoy studying. To an extent, students will naturally gravitate towards their favourite subjects but some will also force themselves into what they think they should be studying rather than what they would like to study. Although there might be some merit to this, it is important to recognise that A levels are much more in-depth than GCSE and the time spent on each subject will increase from around two hours a week to around six hours per week (not including any work outside of the classroom) so students must be willing to commit to this level of study in any of the subjects they choose.

Finding a subject interesting is the key to success because students who enjoy their learning are likely to pay close attention to lessons and also spend a lot of time working on that subject outside of the classroom. If you find topics genuinely interesting it is easy to dedicate time to studying them and develop your knowledge through wider reading. It is likely that you will also spend longer on assignments relating to areas of personal interest, which means you are likely to do better in them than topics you are less keen on. This will also contribute to higher grade prospects.

When selecting your A levels, it is important that you play to your strengths. If you are excellent at problem solving and applied skills, then you are likely to succeed at subjects such as Mathematics or Chemistry whereas if essay writing is your forte, humanities and arts subjects such as English or History might suit you better. It is worth speaking to teachers to ensure that you have a complete understanding of what will be asked of you at A level in each subject. Psychology, for example, has essay-based examinations which might appeal to certain students. Having said this, part of the A level specification does cover biopsychology (topic areas such as localisation of brain function or the divisions of the nervous system); to understand these students will need to be able to think like a scientist.

University entry requirements

Many degree courses require students to have studied to A level (or equivalent) in specific subjects in order to be accepted onto further study. Students who have decided what they would like to study after school, or who have an idea of what this might be, should check university admissions pages to ensure that their choice of A level subjects will meet entry criteria when they come to apply.  The UCAS search tool summarises courses and entry requirements in one place. Sometimes meeting entry criteria is reasonably straightforward. Undergraduate level Biology, for example, builds on the foundations of A level Biology and therefore this is a prerequisite. Other subject requirements might surprise you. For example, to study Medicine, all medical schools require Chemistry but not all will ask for Biology. Applicants for Computer Science do not need Computing or ICT but will nearly always be asked for an A level in Mathematics. Prospective engineers will often need both Mathematics and Physics and future economists will often need Maths but not Economics. Since entry requirements for specific courses may not always be obvious, it is imperative that students who know what they want to study at university do adequate research ahead of choosing their A levels to ensure that they pick subjects that align with their future university choices. 

Click below for a list of popular degree courses and their A level subject requirements:

Course

A levels

Essential

Useful

Architecture

Art
Mathematics

 
Biochemistry

Chemistry
Often one from Biology, Maths or
Physics also required

 

Business Studies

None

Economics
Mathematics

Classical Civilisation

None

Classics
Classical Greek

Computer Science

Mathematics

Computing
Physics
Philosophy

Dentistry

Chemistry
Biology (often but not always)

Mathematics
Physics

Economics

Mathematics (often but not always)

Economics
History
Politics

Engineering

Mathematics
Physics (often but not always)

 

English

English Literature or
English Language and
Literature

 

Geography

None

Geography
Biology
Chemistry
Mathematics
Physics

History

History

 

History of Art

None

History
Art

Law

None

English Literature
History 
Modern Languages

Medicine

Chemistry
Biology (often but not always)

Mathematics
Physics

Modern Languages

A level in a modern language
(not always necessarily in the
language applied for)

 

Philosophy

None

Mathematics
Philosophy
Religious Studies

Physics

Physics
Mathematics

 

Physiotheraphy

Biology

 

Politics

None

A combination of humanities and sciences

Psychology

None

Biology
Chemistry
Mathematics
Physics

Religious Studies

None

Religious Studies
Philosophy
History

Sociology

None

Sociology
Psychology
Geography

Veterinary Medicine

Chemistry
Biology (often but not always)

Mathematics
Physics

Most universities will base their offers to students on three A level grades, sometimes including a prerequisite subject. Some universities, particularly top tier or Russell Group institutions, will also have an admissions policy to exclude specific A level subjects from this offer. Citizenship Studies, Critical Thinking and General Studies tend to be accepted by these universities as a fourth A level but will not form part of their offer. If you are planning to take one of these subjects, it is therefore a good idea to find out whether this will be accepted by the institutions you are likely to apply to.

It is normal to be undecided at age 16 about what degree course (if any) you would like to pursue post-A level. It is also normal to change your mind between age 16 and 18 about this decision. This is not a cause for concern as there are a huge range of degree courses that usually do not specify any essential A levels from applicants. These include Archaeology, Business Studies, Classics, Law, Marketing, Philosophy, Politics, Social Work, Theology and hundreds more. Students who do not yet know which direction they would like to progress in are best advised to choose a range of subjects, which will allow them more choice in the future. For example, Maths, Chemistry and Philosophy will allow a student more future flexibility than Maths, Further Maths and Physics. 

Facilitating subjects

Outside of particular degree subject requirements, many universities favour some A level subjects over others. This is particularly true of the Russell Group, which is an organisation comprising of 24 top UK universities. The subjects they prefer are known as “facilitating subjects” and are the more traditional subjects, such as Maths, English, the Sciences and Modern Languages. Russell Group universities prefer applicants to have studied at least two of these subjects over non-facilitating subjects so unless you are certain that you do not want to apply to the Russell Group then it is worth making sure you select at least some of your A levels from this group of subjects. 

By choosing facilitating subjects at advanced level, you will have a much wider range of options open to you at university. An advanced level qualification in any facilitating subject will keep open to you a number of degree courses. At some universities, a qualification in the subject is a requirement for entry to the course. At other universities, it may not be a requirement for the course, but will still be useful to gain entry.

 



Advice from the Russell Group Informed Choices brochure

The Russell Group have stated the following subjects as their preferred facilitating subjects:

  • Biology
  • English Literature
  • History    
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Geography
  • Languages (Classical and Modern)
  • Further Mathematics

 

 

 

To help students, the Russell Group have published a booklet called Informed Choices which explains in detail the different options to students post-16 and the sort of subjects and grades that will be required for university entry.

Universities will always publish their preferences online if there is anything in particular they require from an applicant. If you are not sure whether a university you are considering will ask for facilitating subjects then have a look at their website. At Clare College, Cambridge, for example, the admissions tutors explain their inclination towards particular subjects and go on to provide information about the subjects that previous successful applicants have taken.   

Complementary subjects

Once you have shortlisted the A level subjects you are most interested in taking, it is a good idea to consider how they might work together. The skills that you learn in Maths are likely to support a lot of the work you do in Physics and vice versa, so those subjects would work well collectively, as would History of Art and History or Classics. If you have your heart set on a more eclectic combination, such as French, Geography, Mathematics and Photography, then do by all means go ahead and do not feel obliged to exchange any for more similar subjects. If you have a wide range of interests and are unwilling to commit to a particular route after GCSE then a selection of subjects like this will certainly demonstrate considerable skill and many degree courses will be open to you.

However, if you are unsure of which subjects to take and are struggling to finalise your options from five or six choices, then choosing complementary subjects is probably a good idea. Subjects that work well together and incorporate similar skills are likely to make for a more cohesive A level experience. 

Transferrable skills

In addition to studying specific subjects, students in years 12 and 13 will also considerably develop their higher level study skills during their A level courses. Analytical ability, essay writing, note-taking, reasoning, debating, researching and organisation are several of the skills that will have improved by the time you leave school. Each A level subject will help you develop these in a different way.

Transferrable skills are something that many universities will look for from applicants as these are a useful predictor of likely proficiency on a degree course. While specific subjects are often not required, specific skills are required for every degree. To read Classics at Durham University, an A level in Latin, Ancient Greek or Classics is not necessarily required but students will need to show “evidence of linguistic ability”. A student could demonstrate this through by attaining a strong grade in A level English Literature or through an essay they produced as part of an Extended Project Qualification.

When choosing A level options, it is worth considering the transferrable skills that these will furnish you with for the future. Latin, French and German would be a strong combination of subjects and students leaving school with qualifications in these three subjects would certainly demonstrate an impressive linguistic ability should they wish to study languages at university. They might struggle, however, to provide evidence of their full essay writing ability, having been always limited by writing in a second language, or to show that they are able to analyse data to a high level. A combination such as History, Latin and a modern language might provide more breadth and allow students to develop a more rounded skill set: something that will serve them well both in university applications and in later life.

The following is not an exhaustive list but it might help you to identify which skills you are likely to develop from each of the facilitating subjects: 

Subject

Develop ability to:

Biology

 

  • Analyse data, find patterns and draw conclusions from those
  • Conduct own research
  • Solve complex problems
Chemistry

 

  • Analyse data, find patterns and draw conclusions from those
  • Follow complex reasoning
  • Construct logical arguments
  • Conduct own research
  • Solve complex problems
English Literature

 

  • Examine texts with a view to gaining a deep understanding of them
  • Present opinions and arguments clearly in writing
  • Work independently to direct own learning and research
Geography

 

  • Work independently to direct own learning and research
  • Conduct fieldwork
  • Write reports and essays
History

 

  • Precise writing
  • Critically analyse of the significance and utility of source material, finding patterns and drawing conclusions
  • Present opinions and arguments clearly in writing
  • Work independently to direct own learning and research
Languages (Classical & Modern)

 

  • Appreciate other cultures and diversity
  • Communicate with others
  • Organise and present ideas and arguments
Mathematics & Further Mathematics

 

  • Deal with highly abstract concepts
  • Analyse data, find patterns and draw conclusions from those
  • Follow complex reasoning
  • Construct logical arguments
  • Formulate answers to problems using reasoning and work towards solutions, even if they are not obvious
Physics

 

  • Deal with highly abstract concepts
  • Analyse data, find patterns and draw conclusions from those
  • Conduct own research
  • Solve complex problems

A level study is exciting. Narrowing the number of subjects you take allows you to learn topics in great detail, developing a much deeper understanding and appreciation of each discipline. Students will start to access additional study materials such as journals articles and reports by academics, many of which are too complex to be explored at GCSE. Over the next two years, you will learn more about yourself and which subjects you enjoy, starting to consider in which area you would like to narrow your specialism still further when it comes to degree applications. Getting your A level choices right is fundamental to this and is likely to affect the course of your life post-18 as well. We wish you the best of luck in your decision making and your future. 

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