How to Keep Your Options Open When Choosing Your A-Levels, and the Advantages and Perils of Doing So
by Emma Bates
Some people know what it is they want to study and pursue as a career from a very early age.
For instance, there are the aspiring medics who get a toy stethoscope aged 6 and from then on are set on a course for life. But there are others who enjoy the diversity of the school curriculum, contentedly drop a couple of minor subjects at GCSE, and then come utterly unstuck when it comes to choosing their A-level options.
After all, in the current UK school system, unless you’re taking an alternative qualification like the IB (and very few people do), at age 16 you abruptly have to make your mind up regarding the direction of your studies, restricting yourself to a maximum of five subjects, more usually four, three of which should be targeted at your future course of study. Medics will want to be studying three sciences, usually Biology, Chemistry and Maths. English students will want at least two essay-based subjects, perhaps with a language for variety. PPE hopefuls might want to balance Maths with an essay subject like History. And those who simply don’t know yet what it is that they might want to commit three or more years of their life to studying – they try to see how they can keep their options open, and that can be very tricky indeed.
How to keep your options open
One straightforward way, as discussed above, is simply not to take A-levels, but to do a different exam that offers more flexibility, such as the IB. But that isn’t available at most schools, so we’ll focus on how to achieve the same effect with your A-level choices.
A-levels can be split into a number of categories. Particularly important are the facilitating subjects, which you can read more about here.
Facilitating sciences: Biology/Human Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Maths, Further Maths
Facilitating humanities: English, History, Geography, Languages
Non-facilitating but worthwhile odds and ends: Economics, Psychology, Religious Studies, Music, Government and Politics, Art, Philosophy
“Mickey Mouse” subjects: Film Studies, Media Studies, Photography
There are a huge range of subjects available at A-level, so this isn’t meant to be a definitive list. Furthermore, the line between what is non-facilitating but worthwhile and what is a Mickey Mouse subject can be a tricky one to draw. All A-levels have some academic merit; Critical Thinking is often dismissed as a Mickey Mouse subject but is in fact rigorous and effective at teaching you to think, well, critically – a vital skill for university. Unfortunately, whether an A-level is rigorous can matter less than whether it is perceived as rigorous – and if you want to keep your options open, choosing A-levels that are perceived well can help a great deal.
Want to keep your options open? Don’t pick any Mickey Mouse subjects. Don’t pick more than one non-facilitating subject. You should definitely pick more than one science if you are seriously considering studying a science at university; there is really little point in only picking one science, unless it’s Maths, which is valuable regardless of your other subjects.
So your options boil down to:
Two facilitating sciences, two facilitating humanities (subjects you can study at university with this combination: either science, either humanities subject, most social sciences, Law), or
Two facilitating sciences, one facilitating humanities subject, one odds-and-ends subject (subjects you can study at university with this combination: either science, the humanities subject, most social sciences, Law, your odds-and-ends subject unless it requires Maths and you didn’t pick Maths), or
Maths, two facilitating humanities, one odds-and-ends subject (subjects you can study at university with this combination: Maths and Maths-based subjects like Economics, either humanities subject, most social sciences, your odds-and-ends subject, Law)
The trap some students fall into is that they’re tired of the subjects they’ve been studying to death at GCSE, so they choose lots of options from the odds-and-ends list, as many of those are only available at A-level. That only leads to a very indecisive-looking set of subjects that isn’t much good to anyone. Similarly, students think they should study one science – frequently Biology, with its ill-deserved ‘softer’ reputation – for some kind of balance, but it will add little to your other subjects and will not satisfy tutors for university science courses.
So that’s how you can keep your options open, but is it a wise move? Here’s a look at the advantages and disadvantages of it as a course of action.
Advantage: You can try out a variety of options before you decide what to study
The following scenario is not so unlikely: you’ve read up on a subject that’s only available at A-level – say, Economics. You love the sound of it. You’re certain you’ll love it at A-level and love it even more at university. You pick subjects to go with it – say, Maths, Further Maths and Computer Science. It’s a strong combination of subjects. Your teachers are pleased to sign off on it. You do half a term of A-level Economics and you realise you hate every moment.
The above scenario is not so awful – the candidate still has reasonable options for studying Maths or Computer Science, after all. But they would certainly be regretting having made a decision before they knew for sure that they would be pleased with how it worked out. A more balanced set of subjects might have given the candidate a great range of options, and then they could ditch Economics at the end of AS knowing their remaining three A-level would still be a solid foundation for their university application.
Disadvantage: You’re not postponing the decision by much and may harm your prospects in the meantime
Keeping your options open at A-level means you don’t have to make any scary commitments to any particular path at the end of GCSE. Instead, you’ll have to make those same commitments at the end of AS at the absolute latest. After all, trying to keep your options open with only three subjects is a much greater challenge. This is also the point at which you will have to start thinking about your university application, for instance by attending open days, or even preparing the first draft of your personal statement. At this point, there’s no way you can continue without making your mind up; writing a personal statement even for joint honours courses is notoriously hard, let alone two (or more!) divergently different courses.
What’s more, the time you carry on putting off your decision is time you could have spent doing the kind of activities that will support a stronger application. UK universities are not so interested in non-course-specific extra-curricular activities, but instead in “super-curricular” activities, which demonstrate and build on your interest in your subject of choice. If you’re genuinely just stuck between two relatively similar courses, this might not be too much of problem – for instance, if you can’t decide between English and History, your trips to the Globe or online course in palaeography will serve equally well for either. But if you continue to have no idea what course you’re going to be applying for, then choosing the right activities to support your eventual application is going to be nigh-on impossible. You can keep your options open as far as your A-level choices are concerned, but it is harder to keep them open across all elements of your application.
Advantage: You will gain extra skills and competences that many people in your field might not have
Have you ever come across an English graduate who has to get out his phone to do simple addition? Or someone whose single-minded pursuit of Chemistry has left her unable to punctuate a sentence? There’s a reason that commercial awareness is such a crucial buzzword for law graduates trying to get a training contract – it’s that law students are often humanities-focused types who know next to nothing about business and economics.
Here is where keeping your options open may prove to have genuine value. You might be that rare journalist with a functional grasp of statistics or the postdoc in the Biology lab who is able to write persuasive grant applications. However, this has its flip side…
Disadvantage: You might have studied the subject you eventually come to choose in insufficient depth
Let’s say you opt for the set of Maths, History, Geography and French – a strong combination of facilitating subjects that rules very little out. By the end of your AS year, you’ve come to the decision that eluded you the year before: you love Maths, particularly the more challenging things that you get to study at A-level. You’re determined you’re going to do it at university, and with a healthy set of grades, you’re all set for it to be one of the top universities in the country as well. After all, with your subject combination, you will be able to take Maths, though the humanities focus might raise an eyebrow or two at interview.
The problem is that the majority – not all, but many – of your fellow students at that top university will have Further Maths. A further sizeable group will have Physics. You may have the breadth that will impress future employers, but before that, you have three years of university in which you’ll be aiming for at least a 2.1 – and you may well find yourself at a disadvantage compared to your peers.
There are ways of addressing this before you get to university, of course. Many schools will allow a pupil to sit an A-level like Further Maths in one year rather than two, so you could pick it up in your A2 year. If you’re feeling sufficiently determined, you could even self-study it privately. If that seems like a recipe for disaster (and it would be phenomenally hard work), there’s always the option of taking a third year of sixth form to pick up the extra subjects you feel you might need. But none of these options seem as desirable or as straightforward as getting the right focused set of options decided on before you start year 12.
Advantage: Switching tack later on might be easier
Universities recognise that students don’t always choose the right course for them first time. Some will allow freshers to change course before a certain deadline, for instance halfway through the first term. Alternatively, it is possible to take one year of one subject, and then restart the next year in the first year of another, though this can feel a lot like a wasted year.
Whichever way you go about it, universities are likely to impose some requirements on changing courses. It’s easier to go from an oversubscribed course into an undersubscribed course, but they will usually require you to meet the standard entry requirements for the course you’re changing into, and that will mean the requirements in terms of subjects as well. If you’ve done a year of Chemistry and realise you hate it, switching into History after a year of not writing any essays will be much easier if you have an essay subject or two at A-level to support your claim that you’ll do well at it. This still applies even if your change of direction occurs much later on, for instance if you decide to take a conversion course after you’ve finished your undergraduate degree.
Disadvantage: Admissions tutors can tell you’re indecisive
Let’s say you’re an admissions tutor and you have one space left on your History course. There are two candidates who both narrowly missed their grades, and you’re minded to take one or the other of them. One has a personal statement that glows with History-related super-curriculars, and she’s studied History, Geography, English and Latin. The other has studied History, Maths, Biology and Music, and has discussed his love of medieval music on their personal statement as evidence of his interest in History – which would be fine but for the general dearth of other evidence that History is what he genuinely wants to study. Which candidate would you accept? The answer is obvious.
A university’s drop-out rate is often factored into league table placement, so universities want to choose students who they think are committed to the course. After all, a student who is clearly enthusiastic about their subject is also one who is more likely to show up to lectures, hand in essays on time and ultimately graduate with a First.
The question of keeping your options open comes down to just how uncertain you’re feeling. Choosing a path and committing to it will strengthen your application, impress admissions tutors and make your life at university easier. Nonetheless, you don’t want to tie yourself to a subject that you’re unsure, deep down, that you’ll truly enjoy. Working out which subjects to take at A-level and what to study at university is not a straightforward decision for most people, so take your time early on in the process and figure out what’s right for you.