“Facilitating” A-Levels: Pick These Subjects if You Want A Place at a Top University

     Image shows Jesus College, Oxford.   

When it comes to applying for university, there’s no getting away from the fact that some A-level choices are more desirable than others for admissions tutors.

You should also read…

So-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses – such as Media Studies – are fairly well-publicised, but you may not have heard of the existence of a defined list of subjects that universities hold in high regard. These subjects have been defined by the prestigious Russell Group of universities as “facilitating subjects”, because they open more doors for you and are better respected – though it’s worth noting that it isn’t just Russell Group universities that will be impressed to see these subjects on your UCAS form! To quote Wendy Platt, Director of the Russell Group:
“Our consistent advice is that taking two facilitating subjects will keep a wide range of degree courses and career options open to you. This is because these are the subjects most commonly required by our universities and hundreds of courses require one or more facilitating subjects.”
Because there are quite a few facilitating subjects, we thought you might need a little help picking them, so to give you some idea of what to expect, this article takes you through the basics of what’s covered in each of them, what skills are required, how each subject is assessed and why you might want to consider choosing it. NB: the exact content of your A-level courses will vary according to what exam board your school uses, and, for some courses, which specific subjects your school chooses from a prescribed list to meet the requirements for certain modules. This article is intended as a rough guideline only.

1. Mathematics and Further Mathematics

Image shows a notebook with mathematical formulae written in it.
Over the past two years, 60% of successful applicants at Clare College, Cambridge, have had A-level Maths.

Mathematics is an A-level that will open many doors for more sciency types, and it’s not just useful but often essential for many scientific university courses, such as Physics, Engineering, Economics and Computer Sciences. You can expect to develop your skills in algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus, and to study areas of maths such as mechanics, statistics and algorithms. It’s a subject that will help grow your logic and reasoning skills, requiring an analytical mind with an ability to work through complex problems. If you want to challenge yourself even further, there’s a more advanced A-level in maths that you could choose. If you got A* or possibly A at GCSE Maths, and you’re keen to apply for a scientific subject at university, you could also do Further Maths, which is slightly more challenging than A-level Maths. Taking on Further Maths teaches you about other areas of maths and is another good A-level to have if you want to study a maths-based degree such as Physics or Engineering (or, indeed, Maths). Maths is assessed through exams and sometimes optional coursework, and you’re usually allowed a calculator for most of the papers.

2. English Literature

Image shows stacks of books and a open book and a kindle in the foreground.
72% of students studying English were girls, though a slightly higher percentage of boys gained A*s in the subject. The reverse is true for Physics.

English Literature is the term given to the critical study of prose fiction, poetry and drama. A key focus is on interpreting what the writer meant and seeing levels of meaning beyond the obvious, including identifying cultural influences and literary techniques such as imagery. You’ll also focus on the contexts in which works were written; for example, the Industrial Revolution for the background to many of William Blake’s poems. You’ll study several novels spanning a number of genres and literary periods, and although the specific set texts will be chosen by your school from a list provided by the exam board, they could include texts as diverse as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. You’re likely to be looking at different narrative techniques in these works and you’ll develop techniques in literary criticism. You’ll almost certainly study several Elizabethan plays – often by Shakespeare, but not necessarily; I studied Shakespeare’s The Tempest as well as two more plays by other Elizabethan playwrights (namely Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster). You might be taken to a performance of a play you’re studying to help you appreciate it more deeply. Finally, you’ll study poetry. The poetry of the First World War is a likely candidate, and poets such as William Blake, Philip Larkin and William Wordsworth are all popular A-level set text poets. Strong essay-writing skills are a must for this course, and you’ll develop good analytical skills as you go along. A-level English Literature is assessed through a mixture of coursework and exams, with some exams ‘closed book’ (meaning you can’t take the text in with you) and some ‘open book’ (meaning you can).

3. Physics

Image shows a large pendulum.
The number of students taking Physics is growing year-on-year.

As you’ll doubtless already know, physics is the study of matter and energy, in which you might learn about such things as light, heat, energy, sound, electricity, magnetism, mechanics, particles and so on. A-level Physics requires more maths than was expected of you at GCSE, so your maths will definitely have to be up to scratch to do well in this subject (that’s why many students choose to take it in conjunction with A-level Maths and/or Further Maths). If you don’t, your school may offer extra maths tuition to support you (if they don’t, you’ll have to rely on books to keep you up to speed). You won’t have to write many essays, if any, with work more likely to concentrate on problems sheets and practicals, the latter of which might include things like using wave tanks, or measuring the conductivity of different materials. You’ll need to be good at working out problems and drawing graphs; if you’re not already strong on these things, you will be by the time you complete this course! Physics is usually assessed by exams, and sometimes also via practical assignment, which tests your investigative abilities through carrying out experiments and writing scientific reports.

4. Biology

Image shows red, bell-shaped flowers.
Pass rates are relatively low in Biology, with 10% of students in 2013 getting an E or a U.

Being the study of living things, biology is a hugely diverse field of academia, covering everything from biodiversity to cells, and genomes to disease. Biology is popular with students who are also doing arts subjects, as there are a few areas of biology that are socially relevant and so overlap, to an extent, with the humanities. At the same time, you develop problem solving and practical scientific skills, and essay-writing combines with practical assignments to give you an excellent set of abilities. As well as exams, you’ll be assessed via a practical exam for boards except Edexcel; for AQA, there are two each year, and they’re called the Investigative Skills Assessment and the Practical Skills Assessment. You’re required to do things like posing scientific questions, testing hypotheses, and so on; these tests are likely to feature tasks such as collecting and analysing raw data, making appropriate deductions whilst considering the limitations of the method you use, conducting microscope work, or collecting data from a particular habitat out in the field. This may sound daunting, but it’s one of the things that makes biology one of the more fun A-level subjects.

5. Chemistry

Image shows lab equipment in a chemistry lab.
Chemistry has seen a greater than 5% increase in popularity between 2012 and 2013.

You’ll only realise how hugely simplified GCSE Chemistry was when you take this subject to A-level. Regarded as one of the hardest A-levels, it covers challenging topics such as kinetics, atomic structure, polymers, bonding, organic chemistry, thermodynamics and much, much more. Though this sounds quite specialised, the skills it develops are applicable to other scientific disciplines, including problem-solving, numeracy and practical skills. For those studying A-level Biology, Chemistry is a good complementary subject, particularly if you’re planning on studying Biology at university. What’s more, your ability to get to grips with this tricky subject will make you better able to overcome other academic challenges you might face. You can expect to be tested via both exams and practical assessments; like Biology, the AQA course is also assessed by an Investigative Skills Assessment and a Practical Skills Assessment, during which you’ll be required to complete a couple of tasks from a list given to you. This could include things like carrying out inorganic tests, making up a volumetric solution and measuring an enthalpy change. Don’t worry if you don’t know that those mean just yet – you will do!

6. Geography

Image shows a volcano erupting.
Only 0.8% of applicants taking Geography in 2013 got a U.

In Geography, you’ll learn about physical and human environments and environmental interactions. On the physical side, you’ll learn about Earth processes such as glaciers, rivers, weather and coasts, while on the human side, you’ll look at things like urban and rural change, populations, and energy (such as sources of renewable energy). Geography has lots of scope for good field trips, making it quite an enjoyable subject; my A-level Geography course included trips to look at the coastal features of Lyme Regis, a walk in the Quantock Hills to measure riverbeds, and a trip to a shopping mall to pose questions of shoppers regarding the urban environment. As well as being fun, Geography also teaches some useful life skills, which is why it’s on the ‘facilitating subjects’ list. For example, it often requires you to work in groups, strengthening your teamwork skills (essential for the world of work). It also develops your analytical and mathematical skills, and makes you more knowledgeable about the world around you, including environmental issues. Assessment is primarily exam-based, though some boards may require you to complete coursework.

7. History

Image shows a painting of the Battle of Agincourt.
History is a popular subject choice in a variety of different fields, being taken by more than 20% of Psychology students, 21% of Economics students and 40% of English students.

History A-level involves studying the history of more than one country, and/or more than one period. You’ll learn about societies, events, people and issues that have had a significant impact on the world, addressing them from different perspectives and contexts, such as cultural viewpoints or economic problems. An example of a topic looking at cultural change over time might be the changing role of women. Modern History covers the 20th century, with possible topic areas including the First and Second World Wars, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War and the Vietnam War. So-called Early Modern History covers the centuries before this, with possible subjects including things like the Black Death, the Norman Conquest, the Crusades and the Tudors. History is a very well-respected A-level because it develops strong critical thinking skills through forcing you to adopt a critical approach towards sources of information. It also develops strong essay technique. There’s the potential for some interesting history field trips, such as to museums or even further afield (if you’re lucky), such as the World War One battlefields in Northern France and Belgium. Assessment is via essay-based exams and coursework, which might have the theme of requiring you to conduct some kind of historical enquiry.

8. Languages (Classical and Modern)

Image shows the Tower of Babel.
Spanish and Irish have grown in popularity between 2012 and 2013, whereas French, German and Welsh have seen 9 – 12% drops in the number of candidates taking them.

Languages are always a valuable thing to have on your CV, as employers love them just as much as university admissions tutors do. Modern languages such as French, Spanish or Italian arguably have more useful applications, but Classical languages – Latin and Ancient Greek – are surprisingly helpful too, because many modern words have their roots in these languages. That means that, faced with a word you don’t understand, you’ll have a better chance of figuring out what it means! As well as learning the language itself, you’ll also learn about its cultural context, with a look at the country it comes from. If you’re lucky, there might even be a trip abroad to the country where the language is spoken so that you can put your skills to the test in a real situation. Whatever language you choose, ancient or modern, you’ll develop superior linguistic and communication skills, enhance your memory, and it’ll improve your English skills too. Assessment is typically split into Listening, Reading and Writing papers and an oral exam.
This list should have given you a reasonable introduction to what each of the ‘facilitating’ subjects is all about, and you can be confident that any of these will look good on your university application form. It’s highly recommended to choose at least two subjects from the above list when you’re making your selection. If you like the sound of all of them and can’t make up your mind which to pick, you might find it useful to refer to our previous article on how to choose the right A-levels for you, which goes into more detail about which A-level subject choices are best for which university degrees. It also covers A-levels that are best avoided – just in case you were considering any that aren’t covered in this article!

Image credits: banner; Maths; books; pendulum; flowers; Chemistry