Should you study three or four AS subjects in year 12?

 Should you study 3 or 4 AS subjects in year 12?

Deciding whether to take three or four AS levels is a big decision and one, which requires careful consideration before year 12. The choice depends on what will work best for each student and there are a number of factors to reflect upon either way. For students at some schools, the decision will be taken out of their hands as they might only be permitted to take three subjects or alternatively they might be required by the school to take four. For those students who do have a choice to make, however, this article will explore the differences between taking three AS levels or taking four AS levels [anchor links] to help students decide which route might suit them best. Once you have decided how many to take, our article about choosing the right A level subjects is a good next stop.

Taking three AS levels

One of the most obvious advantages of taking three AS levels is the reduced workload that students will face in comparison to their peers taking four. This will benefit those students who do not have a lot of time. Students with extensive extra-curricular commitments or those who would like to work towards an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) might find it easier to balance these commitments against three AS levels as opposed to four. Students who have organised work experience alongside their studies in year 12 might welcome the opportunity to conduct this in time that would otherwise be spent studying towards the fourth AS. Some subjects are very time-consuming and have extensive coursework requirements (Art and Photography, for example, will both require students to spend many hours on the practical aspect of the syllabus). Students whose subject choices include these might opt to reduce their choices to three in order to manage their workload effectively. 

“Taking the EPQ was great. It allowed me so much free rein in what I wanted to do and although I had some preconceptions about my topic (animal testing) before I started, I learnt so much about it and gained a new perspective, as well as a lot more confidence in myself and how I work on my own. I wanted to be a vet at one point and I thought an animal-related EPQ would help my application. I’ve switched to Biochemistry instead now but I still think it’s great to be able to put this research on my UCAS form.”

Phoebe, year 12 student

Students who are concerned about their ability to do themselves justice academically may also opt for three AS levels rather than four. Taking three subjects and therefore being able to focus a lot of energy on these might be a welcome option for these students and enable them to leave school with three qualifications they are proud of rather than feeling as though, with their energy spread across more subjects, they did not achieve their potential. It is preferable to have three AS levels with top grades rather than four AS level grades with lower grades. Students who are concerned about their ability to study AS levels, however, should decide how many to take in consultation with a tutor or advisor from their school to ensure that taking A levels is the most appropriate academic path for them; there are many other routes available after GCSEs.

The reduced workload of three AS levels should only be given credit in the decision making process by those students who will genuinely benefit from taking fewer subjects. Although students may be tempted by the term “reduced workload” and see it as an  easier path, taking four AS levels is both common and feasible so simply removing one for the sake of it is not advised. There are significant benefits to taking four subjects so students would do well to consider both sides of the argument and make an informed decision about what would suit them best.

Taking four AS levels

One of the main advantages of taking four AS levels is the flexibility that this affords students. There are big differences between subject specifications at GCSE and A level, so students who have very much enjoyed a subject at GCSE might not continue to feel this level of passion for it at A level. Taking four AS levels allows students to make a decision a year later about which subject to drop and which three to take in full. 

The benefit of the fourth AS level is that it gives students the opportunity to get something wrong. The UK education system forces students to narrow down their options very soon and therefore students cannot be expected to know exactly what they want to do in the future without being allowed to make mistakes along the way. The fourth AS level allows them some time and flexibility to establish what they want to do.

James Barton, Director of Admissions, MPW London

Another reason why flexibility is important is when it comes to meeting university entry requirements. It is normal for students at age 16 to be unsure about what degree (if any) they would like to read. It is also normal for students to have decided on a degree course at age 16 and change their mind about this over the course of the next two years. The entry requirements for many degree courses include specific subjects and so choosing four AS levels will allow students at age 17 to reassess their options and decide which three to carry forward to meet these requirements in the future.

A second point to note in terms of university entry requirements is that some universities do require a fourth AS level as part of their offer. Although this is rare (and usually required only by top tier institutions) it does happen, so students who already have an idea of where they want to go should check this in advance on university websites. Those who are undecided on their future university destination might elect to take four AS levels to give them more choice when they do come to apply, rather than effectively ruling themselves out from applying to some institutions by not meeting entry criteria from the outset. It should be noted that university admissions tutors will take into consideration whether schools and colleges restrict AS level choices. Those students coming from schools where they are not permitted to take a fourth AS level due to timetabling constraints should make this clear as part of their application process to those universities and should not be disadvantaged.

A final reason to take four AS levels is that it allows for some contingency if examinations do not go as planned. Although of course students should enter year 12 expecting to succeed, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, as the saying goes. Taking four subjects will allow for adjustment in light of this and students may decide to drop their weakest subject in favour of continuing with the three they had achieved higher grades in, even if they had planned for a different combination of A levels prior to results day. If students have only taken three AS levels and they underperform in one, then progressing into year 13 might be more difficult, depending on the level of underperformance and the retake/transfer opportunities at their school.

A final note…. taking AS level examinations under the reform

The UK is currently mid-way through a reform of GCSEs and A levels. Under the reform, A levels are returning to their pre-2000 linear format. Students will need to take AS examinations in the same sitting as A2 examinations in order to be awarded an A level, meaning that even if they do take these examinations in year 12, they will need to retake them in year 13 in order for them to count towards an A level grade. For this reason, many students will no longer take AS levels. They will instead take internal examinations at the end of year 12.

The reform is being phased in over three years and in that time many students will study for a mixture of reform and legacy qualifications and therefore may take a combination of AS and internal exams. The advice in this article remains relevant to students in this position and also to those who will only be taking internal examinations as it can be adapted to various different situations. For example, students taking two AS levels and two internal examinations might do really well in one AS and both internal exams and less well in the second AS; at that point they might decide to keep the lower AS grade and continue into year 13 with the remaining subjects.

For more information on choosing your AS levels, see our article 5 key factors to consider when choosing A level subjects