Subjects You Are Ruling Out with your GCSE and A-level Options

Image shows a young woman in a white dress trying to catch flying books with a butterfly net. Making the right choice of GCSEs and A-levels is essential, but it’s rarely an easy decision.

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To make your decision even harder, you ideally need to be thinking years ahead to what you want to study at university. Some subjects open doors, and by not taking them, you could be limiting your options. If you’re not sure what it is that you want to do in future, ruling out possible options is best avoided. That’s why we’ve put together a guide to help you know which subjects you’ll be ruling out by not taking certain subjects at GCSE and A-level.

GCSEs

Image shows a book of Japanese grammar.
Taking a language at GCSE is highly recommended.

Your subject choices at GCSE will have a bearing on what A-levels are open to you, and this usually means that you need the GCSE in a particular subject to carry it on to A-level (this isn’t always the case, though, as there are some A-levels you can do without having the GCSE, such as Psychology or Law). But GCSE choice can occasionally also have a bearing on what universities are open to you, even though offers are based on A-levels. Modern languages are tremendously helpful in the real world, as well as developing certain academic skills that you won’t pick up from other subjects. This is reflected in the fact that if you don’t take a language at GCSE, certain doors may close for you, or at least be made more difficult. For instance, UCL has a language GCSE requirement for all its degrees; applicants for any of its degrees are required to hold a language GCSE or to take extra classes while alongside their degrees. It’s worth checking the university’s general entrance requirements in addition to those for specific courses, to see whether or not you’re required to have a language GCSE for admission. To make life easier, it’s strongly recommended to take a language at GCSE.

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Your choice of A-levels is much more important than your choice of GCSEs, because these are the subjects with which you’ll apply to university. For many subjects – particularly the sciences – most universities have strict entrance requirements when it comes to the A-level subjects they require you to have studied before they’ll accept you onto a particular course.

A general note about science subjects

Image shows a nebula.
Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Maths are all good science subjects; Psychology is interesting, but less well-regarded.

Scientific degrees will usually require at least two science subjects at A-level, often the same subject as the degree plus at least one other science subject. While you’ll need the specific knowledge from studying the subject at A-level that you’re aiming to do at university, the scientific skills and mindset you’ll develop from additional science subjects will stand you in good stead. This doesn’t mean, however, that you necessarily have to do all science subjects at A-level if you want to study a science at university; a humanities subject as one of your options would add balance, as it’s an essay-based subject that develops different skills, demonstrating that you’re talented in many areas of academia.

Chemistry

If you don’t take Chemistry at A-level, it’s not just Chemistry degree courses that you’ll probably not be able to get onto. Without A-level Chemistry, you’re also going to find it much harder (if not impossible) to get onto a Medicine or Medicine-related course (such as Dentistry or Biomedical Sciences), for which you’re probably going to need to pair Chemistry with Biology at A-level. A-level Chemistry is also essential if you want to study Biochemistry or Chemical Engineering, and many universities may require it in order for you to study Biology. Some Geography, Geology or Earth Sciences degree courses may require a mix of science subjects, and Chemistry can be one of them.

Mathematics and Further Mathematics

Image shows a close-up of a scientific calculator.
Maths will stand you in good stead for any degree, including superficially unrelated ones like Law.

As well as being vital for studying a Mathematics degree (or variations thereupon), Mathematics is frequently considered highly desirable if not essential for virtually all science subjects, including Chemistry, Medicine, Dentistry, Biochemistry, Biomedical Sciences, Computing, Geology, Earth Sciences and Engineering. It’s also often essential for Economics, or Business-related degrees, while some science degrees, such as Geography or Psychology, may require additional science subjects, and Mathematics can be one of them.
Further Mathematics is, to all intents and purposes, essential for Physics, Mathematics and sometimes Chemistry degrees, and if you don’t have it, you’d likely struggle doing these subjects at university and may end up having to take additional maths classes while you’re there (if you manage to get a place without it). It’s also highly recommended for many Engineering and Computing degrees.

Physics

By not taking Physics at A-level, it goes without saying that you’re not going to be able to take this subject at degree level. You’re also effectively ruling out Engineering, and Materials Science. Furthermore, Physics is very useful for Earth Sciences and Mathematics degree courses. Some courses ask for additional science subjects, such as Geography, Biomedical Sciences, Medicine, Dentistry and so on; Physics is an acceptable A-level to take to prove your scientific credentials for these subjects.

Biology (and Human Biology)

Image shows a cactus flower.
Biology is sometimes seen as an easier option for A-level science, but this view is incorrect – the course is in fact rigorous and well-respected.

As a science, A-level Biology is a good qualification to have as one of a range of science subjects for scientific degree courses. As well as being essential for Biology degrees (which will likely accept either Biology or Human Biology A-levels), it’s highly desirable for Medicine, Dentistry and all Biology-related subjects (such as Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences). Its ideal partner is Chemistry, and many universities are likely to require both for the aforementioned courses. Other science-based degree courses, such as Geography, may require additional science subjects, and this can be one of them; Psychology degrees also have a Biology component, for which Biology at A-level would be useful (it’s unlikely to be a requirement, though).

Geography

Most Geography degree courses require A-level Geography, but surprisingly, it’s not always essential. It’s also very useful for Geology and Earth Sciences degree courses, as A-level Geology isn’t usually taught in schools and the Geography course teaches you about the earth processes you’ll learn about at university.

A general note about humanities subjects

Image shows someone writing in a notebook, surrounded by books.
Honing your essay-writing skills is valuable for most subjects.

Beyond the fact that universities often require you to have studied the degree subject at A-level (for instance, A-level History for a history degree), the entrance requirements are generally less stringent when it comes to the A-level subjects required for humanities degrees. If you’re aiming to do a humanities subject at university, you’ll need a range of such subjects at A-level. The humanities subjects are generally more essay-based, cultivating a particular set of skills without which you’re not likely to succeed in applying for a university course in one of these subjects. Let’s take a look at the main humanities subjects individually to see what degree courses they’ll particularly help you with.

English Literature, English Language and English Language and Literature

These are three different A-levels, and it’s worth noting that for an English Literature degree, it’ll almost certainly be necessary to have A-level English Literature or A-level English Language and Literature rather than A-level English Language. While essential for English degrees, any of these A-levels will come in useful for other essay-based humanities subjects that involve analysis and interpretation, such as History, Classics and Classics-related subjects and Religious Studies. Any of these English A-levels will also be useful for Foreign Languages, as they all require the analysis of language.

History

Image shows a painting of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
A-level History is much more interesting and in-depth than its GCSE equivalent.

Most History degree courses require History at A-level, but not all of them (Oxford University, for example, lists it as “Recommended” rather than “Essential”), so if you don’t take History at A-level, you’re not necessarily completely ruling it out as a degree option. It’s also useful – but not always essential – for other history-related subjects, such as Archaeology, Classical Studies, Music (for the History of Music element of this subject) and History of Art. History is an essay-based subject, so it’s also useful for any other essay-based degrees, such as English.

Foreign Languages

It’s essential to have at least one language at A-level if you want to study any foreign language at university, but they come in useful for other subjects even if they’re not required. If you’re looking to study part of your course abroad, you may also be required to have an A-level in the language spoken in that country. Modern Languages are also helpful for English Language and/or Literature degrees, and, though not a requirement, they can come in useful for a number of other degrees simply because they give you access to scholarship in other languages, which often isn’t available in translation.

Classical Civilisations

Image shows Roman ruins.
Classical Civilisations is a niche subject, but a fascinating one.

Not many schools offer this subject, so you’re not required to have studied it in order to get onto a course in a related subject, such as Ancient and Modern History, Classics or Classical Archaeology. However, if your school does offer it, and you’re thinking of doing one of these subjects, it would certainly provide a useful foundation upon which to build at university. It would also be a relevant A-level to have if you want to study any History degree, though it wouldn’t be essential. As an essay-based subject, it will stand you in good stead for any humanities degree.

Latin and/or Greek

Again, not all schools offer these subjects, so they probably won’t be essential to get onto a Classics course of some kind at university; most will offer ab initio courses for those without them. However, if you don’t have either of these subjects and you intend to pursue one or other of these languages as part of a Classics course at university, you might have to attend a Latin or Greek summer school the summer before you go to university to get you up to speed. Latin or Greek would also be a useful additional language for those wishing to study English or Modern Languages, and it may also prove useful background to History or Ancient History degrees.

Art

Image shows a painter at an easel.
A-level Art is a notoriously time-consuming course, so you’ll need good time management skills.

A-level art is either essential or highly recommended for studying an Art-based degree, such as Fine Art, History of Art or Art and Design. It’s a subject that involves making use of your creativity, so you may also find the skills you learn in A-level Art useful for other creative degree subjects, such as Music or Drama.

Music

A-level Music is essential if you want to do a Music degree, and you’ll also need to be proficient in at least one musical instrument. Grade VII would be an absolute minimum, but you’re likely to be competing with students who play at Grade VIII level and above. If piano isn’t your main instrument, it will also be very useful to have Grade V or above in piano in addition to your other instrument.

If you’re not sure what you want to study at university yet

Image shows Bristol university.
Facilitating subjects are important for Russell Group universities like Bristol.

Up to now, this article has more or less assumed that you have a rough idea of what you’re going to be studying in the long term. We’ll end with a few words of advice for those of you who currently have no idea what you might want to study at university, so that you can ensure you don’t rule out too many potential choices. In cases like these, your best bet is to keep your options open by taking a mix of humanities and science A-level subjects. If possible, choose at least two ‘facilitating subjects’, as these are the subjects most often required, and are the most widely respected. They’re summarised here as:

  • Mathematics and Further Mathematics
  • English Literature
  • Physics
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Geography
  • History
  • Languages (Classical and Modern)

To demonstrate as many skills as possible, and keep as many possible course options available to you as you can, try to choose A-levels that each demonstrate different talents rather than choosing two or more that are closely related, such as Maths and Physics. To give you an example, you could choose English Literature, a Foreign Language and Chemistry at A-level with an AS-level in Mathematics. This would demonstrate your essay-writing and linguistic abilities as well as giving you strong scientific skills with two subjects that are frequently required for science degrees. It’s also advisable to pick subjects towards which you feel a natural interest, as you’ll find it easier to succeed in subjects you’re genuinely curious about.








 

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Image credits: banner; dictionary; nebula; calculator; cactus flower; essay; Spanish Armada; ruins; artist; Bristol