How Many A-Levels Should You Take?
You’ll barely have time to put down your pen from that last GCSE, before it’s time to confirm your A-Level choices for Sixth Form or college. That’s why it’s important to think as early as possible about the degree and career you want to pursue, so you can choose A-Levels which will help you get there.
Deciding how many A-Levels you should take is a big part of choosing your A-Levels and defining your future. While it’s easy to assume that the more A-Levels you take the better, it’s important to think carefully about your workload, and how you can ensure you get the best grades possible.
In the past, Russell Group universities (a group of universities in the UK known for world-class research and academic excellence) had a list of ‘facilitating subjects’, which were A-Level subjects drawn up to help students choose A-Levels that would lead to degrees at the very best universities. While the facilitating subjects list no longer officially applies, many universities still have their own lists of preferred A-Levels when it comes to accepting students. If you already have a university in mind, or you want to take a particular degree course such as medicine or architecture, make sure you check which A-Levels an institution or course requires before deciding your A-Level subjects.
In this article, we’re going to cover everything from how to choose the right A-Level subjects, to how to decide how many A-Levels you should take. We’ll also bust some myths around the number of A-Levels you need to make a competitive application to university, and discuss other ways you can make your university application stand out.
How many A-Levels should you take?
You should take three A-Levels at a minimum, because that is the standard requirement for all universities, even the very best ones, although you can take up to five A-Levels if you choose.
You won’t necessarily get extra credit from universities for taking more than three A-Levels, so unless you’re very sure that you can get excellent grades on more than three subjects, it may be best to invest your time in getting the best grades you can in three A-Level subjects.
Let’s dive right in, and look more closely at how many A-Levels you should take.
How do A-Levels work?
A-Levels (Advanced Level qualifications) are the ticket to the rest of your life. You generally need decent A-Levels (or BTEC Level threes, which are equivalent to A-Levels) to gain a place at university, access other forms of further education, and achieve the career of your dreams.
You also need A-Levels to be accepted onto higher or degree-level apprenticeships. These apprenticeships can lead to either a foundation degree or a bachelor or master’s degree, and most employers will expect you to have at least 2 A-Levels before they accept you onto one of these apprenticeships.
As an A-Level student, you have the option to study up to five A-Levels, but three is the required minimum, and most students will take just three subjects.
Depending on the school or college where you hope to study your A-Levels, you’ll usually have to submit your initial A-Level choices before March of Year 11. Whether you go on to take these A-Level subjects will depend on the grades you get at GCSE. It’s also possible to start studying an A-Level in Year 12 and decide to swap to another, although it’s not recommended to do this too late in the year, as you will have too much extra material to catch up on, which could affect your chance of success in your exams.
In Year 12, alongside your three or more A-Levels, you have the option to take an Advanced Subsidiary (AS) Level for just one year. In Year 13, the final year of your A-Levels, you can choose to either drop your AS Level or take it through to A-Level as well, which means you’ll end up with four A-Levels. It’s not compulsory to take an AS Level on top of your required three A Levels.
It is important to note that AS Levels now no longer count towards your final A Level grades, as they used to before 2015. So, even if you were to take, for example, AS History through to A-Level in Year 13, your AS grade would not contribute towards your final A Level award. As you don’t gain anything towards your final A-Level grades by taking an AS Level, you may just want to take three subjects in both Year 12 and 13, to allow you to focus on getting the best grades possible in those three A-Levels.
On the other hand, AS Level qualifications can be converted to UCAS Tariff points, which can help you get onto degree courses, depending on the institution you want to study at. The UCAS Tariff system converts each grade you receive at AS and A-Level into points. For example, if you receive an A at AS Level Geography, this is equivalent to 20 UCAS Tariff points, whereas an A* at A-Level Geography is equivalent to 56 points.
About a third of universities accept students based on the amount of UCAS points they have, so, for example, if you wanted to study Law at Bournemouth University and you got a B in English Literature at A-Level, but you had taken Business as an extra AS Level and got an A, you’d have 20 extra UCAS points to help you meet the 104 UCAS point requirement to study Law at Bournemouth.
It’s worth pointing out, though, that most universities (including top universities like Oxford and Cambridge) look at grades and not UCAS points when admitting students, so it’s only worth taking an AS Level if you know it won’t affect your other A-Level grades, or if you’re set on a university which accepts UCAS points. If take the same subject for AS and A Level, most universities and higher education institutions won’t count the UCAS Tariff Points from the AS Level, and will just go by the final grade your receive in that A-Level subject in Year 13.
To study most A-Level subjects, you usually need at least five GCSEs at grade 9-4, and you’ll need to have achieved the compulsory GCSEs in Maths and English. Depending on where you study your A-Levels, some Sixth Forms and colleges may recommend that you get at least a grade 6 in certain GCSE subjects before you go on to study them at A-Level, although this doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t accept you to study them.
How should you choose your A-Levels?
How you choose your A-Levels depends very much on what your goals and ambitions are for the future. Don’t panic if you haven’t got your entire future lined up, complete with every career move you’ll ever make, as that isn’t necessary for choosing your A-Levels, or how many A-Levels you want to take.
However, it is important to know what you enjoy studying, what your passions are, and what you see yourself doing in the next three years after your A-Levels, so you can choose the right A-Levels for you. Whether you plan to study a certain subject at university, get into a top art or design school, or qualify for a particular apprenticeship, it’s important to pick subjects which help make these dreams a reality.
If you’re aiming for university
If you’re hoping to study at a top university, the A-Level subjects you choose now will impact how a university receives you, as well as what subjects you’re able to study at university. A degree boosts your lifetime earnings by an average of £115,000 after student loans and taxes, according to research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS)1, so it’s well worth pushing yourself to get the best grades at A-Level so that you can study the degree you want, and reap the financial rewards.
The UK boasts many world-class universities, and although not every top university is in the Russell Group, the Russell Group is known for setting the standard when it comes to excellent universities. If you want to study a particular subject at a Russell Group (or equivalent) university, it’s a good idea to pursue A-Level subjects which the Russell Group suggest. While the Russell Group no longer has its list of ‘facilitating subjects’ but instead offer their Informed Choices website, where you can enter a combination of three A-Level subjects that appeal to you, and see what degree options they open up.
For example, if you were interested in studying Business, Arabic and Environmental Science at A-Level, the website would throw up a range of relevant degrees, from Management Studies to Social Policy. This allows you discover whether the A-Levels you’re considering actually lead to degree that you’d want to pursue, and if the subjects you choose will result in a career that is viable and fulfilling.
Similarly, if you know you want to do a degree in, for example, Aeronautical Engineering because you’ve always dreamed of designing spacecraft, the Informed Choices website can show you what A-Levels you need to get accepted onto a relevant degree course. In the case of an Aeronautical Engineering degree, you’d have to take Physics and Maths at A-Level at least.
Of course, there are degrees which obviously require certain A-Level subjects. If you know you have a vocation as a surgeon or architect, you won’t be able to pursue these careers without Chemistry, Biology and either Maths or Physics if you want to study Medicine, and Maths or Physics and certain subjects like Art or Design if you want to pursue Architecture. If you don’t study Maths at A-Level and you want to do an Architecture degree (particularly at one of the best institutions for architecture, such as the University of Bath), you’ll need to prove a strong level of mathematical ability through another qualification, for example, taking an Access to HE Diploma course with mathematical elements or an EPQ in Maths, seeing as so much of architecture is based on key mathematical principles of logic, ratio and space.
If you’re aiming for a particular career
The A-Levels you choose can have a knock-on effect on your career, as well as your university degree. Specific professions require specific degrees, and if you don’t have the right A-Levels, you can’t access those degrees.
This doesn’t mean that taking one set of A-Levels means you’ll never have access to a career that demands another set of A-Levels. For example, if you graduated in English Literature from Oxford University and realised you were passionate about Medicine, you could go back and take Chemistry, Physics and Biology A-Levels again, and apply for medical school. However, if you already know what career you want to do, make sure you take the right A-Levels now, as not everyone can spend extra years of their life studying.
For example, if you want to qualify as a midwife, you may have to pick certain A-Levels. While each university (or employer who offers a midwifery degree apprenticeship) will have their own entry requirements for midwifery courses, you’ll usually need to have 2 (preferably 3) A-Levels, and in several cases, you’ll need an A-Level in Biology.
Similarly, if you dream of becoming a clinical psychologist, you’ll need the A-Levels to qualify for a psychology degree. Usually, this means at least one science subject (Physics, Biology or Chemistry) or Mathematics), because studying Psychology involves, for example, statistics on mental health and information on the functioning of the human brain, both of which involve science and mathematics.
What are good A-Levels to take together?
If you’re thinking about studying a certain degree or you just want to see where potential A-Level subjects can lead, check out the following A-Level combinations to see where specific subjects can take you.
Business Studies or Economics, and Maths
Degrees in Finance, Business and Economics
Business Studies, Economics and Maths is the perfect combination for the infinite range of business and finance degrees that exist today.
Whether you’re thinking of studying pure Economics at University, or you fancy doing a degree in Accountancy, Finance or Business Enterprise, studying these A-Levels will give you the strong mathematical understanding that underpins all of these degrees.
Any Economics or Business related degree obviously requires the logic and complex calculations skills you pick up as through Maths A-Level, whether you’re assessing the budgets and profit and loss of different companies, or performing calculations for the complex economic modelling you require for the macroeconomics aspect of an Economics degree.
Fascinatingly, Economics links intensely to human emotion and behaviour when assessing the cause and effect of different economic trends, and this understanding of human nature would be really useful to a Business degree, when you’ll have to calculate the risks in different business ventures, which means that Economics is a great A-Level to take if you’re pursuing a Business degree.
It’s not advisable to take both Business Studies and Economics at A-Level as these subjects are considered too similar and some universities won’t accept both. So, if you have an interest in the humanities, you may want to take something like English Literature and Language or History to give yourself some range in your subjects. If not, you can take another mathematics-based A-Level like Statistics.
Chemistry, Biology, Physics (and/or) Maths
Degrees in Medicine and Pharmacy
These A-Levels are the power group when it comes to studying Medicine or Pharmacy at University. Medicine is overwhelmingly competitive (with acceptance rates as low as 5% in some UK medical schools), and no medical school will consider a student who doesn’t have Chemistry, Biology and Physics or Maths (or both) at A-Level.
Pharmacy is also a very competitive, and extremely challenging degree, given that you have to immerse yourself in both the complex chemistry of medicines and their compounds, but also perform many hours in clinical settings, to start your journey as a licensed healthcare professional. All Pharmacy courses will expect students to have Chemistry, Biology and Physics or Maths (or both) at A-Level.
Maths, Physics and Chemistry
Degrees in Engineering
There are a huge range of engineering degrees, from Chemical Engineering, which can lead to careers manipulating the chemical, biochemical and physical state of substances including food and drink or pharmaceuticals, to Aerospace Engineering, which can lead to roles designing and fixing spacecraft. However, all engineering degrees have one thing in common – they require students to have A-Levels in either Physics or Maths or Chemistry or Maths, and it’s very useful to have all three. All engineering involves complex calculations, and degrees like Electrical Engineering require you to have a strong idea of how things processes in theory as you won’t be able to literally see them as you fix them in real time, and therefore the logical and theoretical skills you pick up from Maths A-Level are invaluable. Most Engineering degrees relate directly to Chemistry or Physics (and frequently both), so depending on the type of engineer you hope to be, you’ll need to make sure you have qualifications in one or both of these fields.
English Literature, History and Maths
Degree in Law
English Literature, History and Maths A-Level are an excellent combination for studying Law.
While Law can be very rewarding, there’s no doubt it is a very information-dense degree. You’ll need strong skills in analysis and interpretation to grasp the minutiae of legislature, and an English Literature degree will give you this knowledge in abundance, as you’ll constantly have to analyse literature in its social and critical context.
English is also very useful for Law, because it gives you excellent written and verbal communication skills, which are vital as Law degree (as well as a career as a lawyer) involves a lot of public speaking, whether you’re speaking at litigations, or defending someone in court.
History is also an essential A-Level choice if you’re aiming for a Law degree, because you gain major critical skills and propensity for logical arguments as you consider historical sources and examine the reasoning and probability behind certain historical events.
History A-Level also requires you to look at a particular body of information, which may well be incomplete, and draw a reasonable conclusion, and this is a perfect skill for a Law degree, because much of being a lawyer is assessing a situation in which you weren’t direct witness to all the facts, and applying the law as accurately as possible to it.
Lawyers who can grasp the historical context of Law are also at an advantage, because to apply the law effectively, lawyers need to understand why the law exists and how it came about.
Maths is also a fantastic A-Level for a Law degree, because the logical, analytical and problem solving abilities you gain from this subject are hugely important to drawing correct conclusions as a Law student, and tracing the developments of the legal system.
Maths, Physics and Art
Maths and Physics are a no-brainer when it comes to choosing A-Levels for a degree in Architecture. Architecture involves a huge amount of mathematical planning and a strong spatial ability, as you’ll be planning the areas and spatial capacities of buildings, and mapping out their foundations using very specific calculations, in order to ensure the safety of what you create.
The design aspect of an Architecture degree means that it’s also important to have excellent drawing skills, and the ability to actually realise something you’ve conceptualised. Art is a great A-Level to take for an Architecture degree, as you’ll be able to build up a portfolio of design work for your Architecture course application, as well as develop powerful design processes which will serve you well as an architect.
Reasons to choose more than three A-Levels
While it’s not necessary to take more than three A-Levels in order to make a competitive application to university (universities know that some schools and colleges can’t support their students to take more than three A-Levels or some prospective students have international qualifications, so they don’t put more than three A-Levels in their admissions criteria), you may have good reasons for choosing more than three.
For example, you may be torn between studying two subjects at university, and as a result, want to take more than three A-Levels to keep your options open. Maybe you have a deep passion for French Literature, but you’ve always dreamed of being an Electrical Engineer, so you decide to take Maths, Physics, Chemistry and French A-Level, so that you have the opportunity to study either at university when you make up your mind.
Of course, you can always opt to take one of these subjects as an AS Level in Year 12, and then drop it in Year 13 rather than carrying it through to A-Level, if you decide that, for example, you want to be an Electrical Engineer and not a French student, and you need to save all your studying time for engineering. This is the beauty of the AS Level now – it no longer counts towards your final A-Level grade, meaning that you can drop any subject you like at AS Level, because you know you’ll get a completely fresh start at A-Level.
You may simply want to study more than three A-Levels because you’re interested in more than three subjects, and you just love studying. While this is a commendable attitude, A-Levels are intense, so it’s a good idea to explore all your options for additional study before you bite the bullet and take four or five A-Level subjects, as you need to ensure that you get good grades in all of them.
One option is to take a subject just at AS Level and drop it in Year 13, or you do an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) at the start of Year 13. An EPQ is a research project which allows you to write either a 5,000 word essay on a subject or issue of you choice, or create a product and write a shorter essay explaining it.
This allows you to do independent research into any topic of your choice, stretching your intellectual limits without the risk of overburdening yourself academically, as you might with an extra A-Level.
Will taking more A-levels help me get into a top university?
Taking more than the required amount of A-Levels is not necessary to get into a top university. It is important to note that universities do not give students with four or five A-Levels an advantage over students with three A-Levels when it comes to admissions, and will consider a wide range of factors (including Extended Project Qualifications or the breadth of a candidate’s reading) when it comes to admissions.
Universities know that their prospective students come from a wide range of educational backgrounds, and that some schools can’t support their students to do an EPQ, or extra A-Levels or AS Levels, hence the three A-Levels standard requirement. So, if your school or college can only support you to do three A-Levels, don’t panic, as it won’t be a deciding factor in your application. In fact, top universities like the University of Oxford say that not only are extra A-Levels not relevant to the admissions process (although Oxford does say that they are “one way” of assessing a candidate’s capacity for the intense studying required of an Oxford degree).
“Oxford tutors may prefer a candidate who has read around their subject beyond school and college work, and who shows a great passion for, and engagement with, their subject, over a candidate who may have taken more qualifications or more subjects, but who is unable to discuss their interests with any enthusiasm or in any depth”2.
Not only this, but Oxford does not expect you to take an extra AS Level in Year 12 on top of your three A-Level subjects. It’s important not to stretch yourself too thinly when it comes to demonstrating your academic excellence, which is why it is better to get three stunningly good grades than four mediocre ones. However, Oxford will take into account your AS Level grade if you do take one, so the bottom line is: if you’re convinced you can excel in three A Level subjects and an AS Level, go ahead and take them all, but if you know you’re someone who works better by focusing all their energy on a smaller number of things, it may be better to go for three A Levels throughout Year 12 and 13, and demonstrate your passion for the subject you want to study at university through wide additional reading beyond the A-Level syllabus.
Other top universities have a similar A-Level policy, which should reassure you that you don’t have to take more than three A-Levels (unless you want to), to make a successful application. For example, while the University of Bath says that it has always found AS grades helpful as part of an overall application, they make their offers based on three A Levels and do not ask for an additional AS.3 The University of Manchester states to prospective students that they will only include three A-Levels within their offer (in the region of AAA-ABB)4, and will not count additional A-Level or AS Levels.
Other ways to impress universities, beyond A-Levels
As we’ve established, you don’t have to take as many A-Levels as possible to make the best application to university. Here are some other ways you can prove your skills and impress universities, without the risk of taking extra A-Levels and then not excelling in each one.
- Extra reading. Universities, especially the very top institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, will look for what information you’ve explored beyond the curriculum. If you’re a prospective English Literature student, for example, check out the course outline at the university you want to attend, and start reading some of the books on the course list. Or, just let yourself be led by your personal passion for literature, as this will shine through and impress upon the universities you apply to that you’re a highly original thinker, as well as someone with a deep love for your subject.
- An EPQ. An EPQ is a great way to show initiative and passion for your subject. Taking on a research project in any topic of your choice (it’s a good idea to link it to the university course you want to take, or – if you’re not sure what subject you want to study at university when you start the EPQ – find a way to draw connections between the subject you apply for and the nature of your EPQ when it comes to writing your personal statement), is the perfect way to showcase your intelligence, critical thinking, academic range and grasp of the subject at hand. These are all qualities that universities want to see in their students.
Now that we’ve gone through how many A-Levels you should take and how to choose the right A-Levels for the degree and career you want to pursue, we hope you’ve found this a helpful read. Remember that it’s the quality of your grades, not the quantity of qualifications that you have, that is going to stand out to universities, so only take extra A-Levels if you know you can excel in all your subjects.
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