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How to Choose the Right A-levels: a Guide for GCSE Students

However, the decisions you make now will set you on a course that can be difficult to change, so it’s important to make the right subject choices at this early stage. The aim of this guide is to help you see things more clearly and get a good impression of the possible options, whether you have your heart set on a particular career path or not. We’ll consider the best A-levels to take for a variety of popular university subjects, and then give some more general advice if you’re not sure what it is you want to study.

How many A-levels should I take?

The minimum requirement even for the best universities is that you take three A-levels (excluding General Studies); these will be the basis of your offer. Some students choose to take on additional AS or full A-level subjects, giving them a total of four or five A-levels with which to apply to university. With the possible exception of the occasional Oxbridge college, you won’t be at a disadvantage for only taking three; indeed, it’s better to take three and get brilliant results in all three than it is to take on more than you can handle and get worse results because of it. Only take on what you think you can realistically manage, and talk to your teachers about the workload you can expect from the subjects you think you might want to study.

As a minimum, students will usually choose four AS-level subjects, one of which will be dropped at A2. General Studies is a compulsory fifth AS or even A2 subject at many schools, but will not usually count towards university admissions. It doesn’t require much extra study, however.
One general piece of advice is: don’t take courses that are too similar. For instance, Biology is very similar to Human Biology. While it’s good to be fairly focused, it’s better to demonstrate a wider breadth of knowledge and skills by picking complementary but different fields, such as Biology and Chemistry.
It’s also worth remembering that exam boards differ. For instance, OCR is reputed to be harder for Maths than AQA or Edexcel. While you probably won’t have any choice in which exam board you use unless you’re self-studying the subject in question, it’s worth looking up which exam board your school uses so you can be sure the kind of assessment you’ll receive will suit you.

The best A-levels for specific degree subjects

Let’s start by looking in detail at recommended A-level subjects for those who know what subject they want to take a degree in. We’ve covered the most common degree courses below.
Universities typically differentiate between subjects that are essential for studying a particular course and subjects that are merely useful. Therefore in the subject lists that follow, those in bold are generally deemed essential for studying the subject, while those in italics are often seen as useful but not necessarily required. The rest are subjects that complement the course with transferrable skills or useful background knowledge, and are suggestions based on ideas offered by a selection of university admissions pages.

Classics

A-levels in Latin and Classical Greek are highly desirable if you want to study classics. We’ve marked them as essential below, as they are a requirement for many Classics courses. However, not all schools offer these subjects at A-level, and many universities also offer ab initio courses for those who haven’t studied the classical languages before. If you choose this option, you’ll may be required to attend a summer school or get your Latin and Greek up to a minimum standard in some other way during the summer preceding the start of your university course.
– Latin
– Classical Greek
– Foreign Language, e.g. French or Italian
– Classical Civilisations
– Classics courses usually contain some element of studying the history and archaeology of the time, so a grounding in the basics will prove helpful if this option is open to you.
– History
– History of Art

Politics

Politics degree courses don’t usually carry any specific entrance requirements, and a mix of humanities and sciences will provide a solid foundation and good general knowledge.
– History
– Government and Politics
– Geography
– Sociology
– Psychology
– Economics
– English Literature
– Foreign Language
– Law
– Mathematics

Music

Many music degrees have performance, theory, history and composition components. A-level Music, along with a high standard on at least one musical instrument (with practical and theory exam grades to prove it), will be essential or highly desirable. In addition to your main instrument, Grade 5 piano is often considered desirable. If your school doesn’t offer A-level music, some universities will accept ABRSM Grade 8 Music Theory instead (note that A-level Music Technology is unlikely to be considered a suitable alternative to A-level Music). Other than music, it’s up to you what else you study; essay-based subjects are useful, and it’s often said that musicians make good mathematicians (and vice versa)!
– Music
– English Literature
– History
– Mathematics

Philosophy

While there are usually no set requirements for studying Philosophy at university, a mix of arts and science subjects will prove useful – an arts-based subject will give you essay-writing skills, while science subjects help develop your logic and reason. If your school offers Philosophy it would be worth taking it; though it won’t be an advantage in applying (since not many schools offer it, it would put you at an unfair advantage), it will at least give you a feel for the subject and whether it’s something you’d like to pursue.
– Philosophy
– English Literature
– English Language and Literature
– History
– Mathematics
– Physics

Geography

Most universities have no specific entrance requirements for Geography – not even A-level Geography! – instead favouring a mix of humanities and sciences subjects. Geography is quite a wide-ranging subject and can focus on aspects to do with people (populations, demographics and so on) or on Earth processes. Note that even though Geography A-level isn’t usually a requirement, in practice most applicants will have it, and if nothing else, studying it at A-level will at least help you make sure it’s what you want to study at university.
– Geography
– Geology
– Economics
– Sociology
– Environmental Science
– Biology
– Chemistry
– Mathematics
– Physics
– Foreign Language

Engineering

The study of engineering at university typically requires A-levels in Mathematics and at least one other science, usually Physics. Further Mathematics is not usually given as an entrance requirement, but it is definitely highly desirable to at least AS level, as you’re likely to struggle without if you take engineering to degree level. Technology subjects are also seen as desirable by many universities.
– Mathematics
– Physics
– Further Mathematics
– Chemistry
– Biology
– Environmental Science
– Geology
– Geography
– Computer Science
– Design and Technology
– Economics
– Statistics

Economics

Economists deal with a lot of numbers, so you’ll need Mathematics and ideally Further Mathematics to be able to study Economics at university. Economics at A-level is useful preparation, but don’t worry if your school doesn’t offer it; Business Studies is also seen as a good relevant A-level.
– Mathematics
– Further Mathematics
– Economics
– Business Studies
– Government and Politics
– Statistics

Chemistry

With Chemistry and Mathematics generally seen as essential for the study of Chemistry at undergraduate level, it’s advisable to have at least one other science and Further Mathematics. We’ve included the most traditional and respected ones here; some universities will also accept subjects such as Computing, Design and Technology and Psychology as additional science subjects.
– Chemistry
– Mathematics
– Physics
– Biology
– Human Biology
– Further Mathematics

Physics

Further Mathematics, while not usually part of offers, is in reality something that most students will struggle without when it comes to studying physics as an undergraduate. It’s advisable to have at least two science subjects. As above, we’ve included the most well-respected subjects here.
– Physics
– Mathematics
– Further Mathematics
– Chemistry
– Biology
– Human Biology

Biology

As with the other sciences, at least two science subjects at A-level are recommended for studying a Biology degree. If you want to focus on Human Biology in your degree but your school doesn’t offer Human Biology A-level, you shouldn’t be at any disadvantage. Again, only the most well-respected subjects are included here.
– Biology/Human Biology
– Mathematics
– Chemistry
– Physics
– Further Mathematics

Medicine

Chemistry is normally considered essential for medicine, with at least one other science subject (normally Biology or Physics). In practice, the vast majority of applicants will have three or more science subjects, which will put them at an advantage over someone with only two sciences.
– Chemistry
– Biology/Human Biology
– Physics
– Mathematics
– Psychology (note that this is unlikely to be considered for your second science subject; it might make a good AS subject or fourth A-level)

Mathematics

Mathematics is essential. Further Mathematics is also essential at some universities, though most will offer catch-up classes if your school doesn’t offer it. If you can take Further Mathematics, you certainly should; a third science subject will strengthen your skills in related areas. This is the one exception to the rule that you should not take courses that are too similar.
– Maths
– Further Maths
– Physics
– Chemistry
– Biology/Human Biology
– Statistics
– Computing

Psychology

While no specific subjects are required, you’ll usually need a science A-level to study Psychology at university, ideally Biology and/or Mathematics. Social sciences and humanities subjects can provide useful background as well, and if Psychology is offered at your school then it’s worth taking it so that you know whether it’s something you’ll find interesting enough to take to degree level.
– Psychology
– Biology/Human Biology
– Mathematics
– Chemistry
– Sociology

Computer Science

You don’t normally need to know any programming in order to take a Computer Science degree, but Mathematics is essential and Further Mathematics desirable. Taking at least one other science subject would also be useful. Many students think that ICT would be advantageous; in fact, it’s probably better avoided.
– Mathematics
– Further Mathematics
– Physics
– Chemistry
– Computer Science
– Electronics
– Geology

Architecture

Architecture doesn’t necessarily require specific A-levels; what it does require is that you present a portfolio of your work, which is mostly easily achieved by taking an A-level that requires you produce that sort of coursework, such as Art or Art and Design. A minority of Architecture courses also require Maths. Some Architecture courses are more Art-orientated and others are more Maths or Physics-orientated, so bear this in mind when choosing your A-levels if you prefer a particular course or a particular university.
– Mathematics
– Art
– Design and Technology
– Further Mathematics
– Physics
– Chemistry
– History of Art
– Geology

Keeping your options open

Many people have absolutely no idea what they want to do at university or for their career. That’s not a problem at all – it just means you need to keep your options open when it comes to your A-level choices. So what’s the best thing to do if you really have no idea?
Choose subjects you enjoy – you’ll do better in your studies if you have an interest in the subject!
Choose subjects in which you are predicted to get good GCSE grades – chances are you’ll do well in these subjects at A-level, too, earning you better grades and therefore more university options.
Choose a range of subjects – both humanities and science subjects. This will give you the greatest choice when it comes to applying for university. It’s also worth thinking about the transferrable skills demonstrated by different subject choices. For example:
– Essay-based subjects such as English Literature or History demonstrate analytical skills and critical thinking.
– Science subjects such as Physics or Mathematics demonstrate logic and familiarity with scientific principles.
– Practical subjects such as Art or Music demonstrate self-discipline and creative thinking.
If you pick a range of subjects across these fields, you’ll have more than enough to show your capabilities in different areas.

Subjects best avoided for top universities

Taking more traditional A-level subjects such as English, History or the sciences will generally open up more doors for you than some of the newer subjects. The entrance requirements don’t always say it, but there are some subjects that aren’t looked on with much respect by many universities, particularly top ones. This is because some subjects don’t necessarily develop or demonstrate the academic and scholarly skills needed to succeed at undergraduate level. If you’re thinking of applying for a respected university, non-traditional subjects such as those below are best avoided unless they’re a fourth or fifth AS or A-level sitting alongside three solid traditional choices:
General studies – this is compulsory at a lot of schools and colleges. Just bear in mind that it’s very unlikely to count towards your minimum three A-levels required for university admissions.
Critical Thinking Media Studies – unless you’re applying for a degree in media or film studies, of course!
Dance
Home Economics

‘Facilitating’ subjects

Another source you might want to take into account when choosing your A-levels is the Russell Group’s list of so-called ‘facilitating subjects’ – particularly if you’re thinking of applying to a Russell Group university. The subjects are:
– Mathematics and Further Mathematics
– English Literature
– Physics
– Biology
– Chemistry
– Geography
– History
– Languages (Classical and Modern)
These are the subjects that are most often required by top universities. It’s worth being clear it’s not an exhaustive list of ‘hard’ subjects, but instead it’s the case that picking options from this list will keep your options open. For example, taking Business Studies, Economics and Law will leave you well set for an Economics degree at most universities, but taking Mathematics, Geography and a language will be equally good preparation for an Economics degree while leaving a slew of other possibilities open to you, as well as being more respected by top universities.
If you’re aiming for Oxford or Cambridge, choosing subjects from this list is even more important; Clare College in Cambridge says that “most of our successful applicants over the last couple of years have offered facilitating subjects for most or all of their A-levels.”
So what do you do if most or all of your first choices of subject aren’t on this list? First of all, it depends on which degree you’re aiming for. If you’ve got your heart set on something like Music, Drama or Art, those subjects are more likely to form part of your A-level choices, even at top universities. Additionally, universities lower down the league tables will place less importance on your subject choices so long as they remain relevant to your course choice. But if you’re aiming for an academic subject at a Russell Group university – or a non-Russell Group university with a similar position in the league tables – you’ll need to take at least two subjects from the list above to give yourself a good chance of getting in.

Making the final choice

To help make your final decision, talk to your teachers and read the syllabus for each of the courses you’re potentially interested in. You could even pop to the library and take a look at some of the texts and course books you’d be expected to study. This will help you get a feel for what each subject is like, and should aid your decision-making process.
Finally, good luck – you have an exciting time ahead of you and we hope this guide has helped you!

 

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