Choosing Your A Levels

Are you trying to decide which A levels to take in sixth form or at college?

What A levels you take is important to make sure you set yourself on the right career path (if you have one in mind), or leaving your options open if you're not sure what you want to do once you've left school/college.

Studential is here with a handy guide to help you select the best A levels for your future, so you don't regret your choices later on.

First of all, though...

What are A levels?

In the UK A levels are a qualification usually started straight after your GCSEs, although you can study for them at any age. Most secondary schools in the UK have a sixth form that will offer A levels to pupils who wish to continue their education.

The minimum entry requirement for studying your A levels in sixth form is normally 5 grade C's at GCSE. However, if you choose to do your A levels at a college, the entry requirements are generally much lower.

A levels are taken over 2 years: the first year is called an AS, or advanced subsidiary, level. This is equal to half an A level. The second year is called an A, or advanced, level. It's also sometimes referred to as an A2, and is equal to a full A level qualification.

Whether you will be taking your A levels in sixth form or at a college, the subjects you can choose to study varies between places, so it's worth checking exactly what subjects are available at your place of study before thinking about subjects you would like to do.

You may also wish to find out which exam boards' papers you will be sitting for each subject, as these also tend to vary between schools, and the content for a particular A level is slightly different for each exam board. The 3 main examining boards for A levels in the UK are AQA, Edexcel and OCR.

Don't feel you have to take more than 3 A levels - many students will only do 3, or 4 at the most, and universities will never ask for more than 3 A levels as minimum entry requirements for their courses anyway.

If you are thinking of applying to university, then it's better to do 3 or 4 A levels, achieve better grades and get into your chosen institution(s), rather than stretch yourself doing 5 and miss out on your place because you got lower grades.

How do I decide what A levels to take?

If you are sure that continuing your education with A levels is the right option for you, and you know where you are going to take them, there are a number of things to take into consideration when choosing which subjects to do.

Here are some factors you should NOT consider when choosing A level subjects

Parents - listen to their advice on which subjects to do, but don't let them make your choices for you. They may have a particular subject(s) they want you to do, though if you already have your heart set on certain subjects and/or a career in mind, then this is what you should do.

It's important you do what you think is best for you, and if your parents happen to disagree with your choices, tell them you accept responsibility for your decisions, whether the outcome is good or bad.

Friends - although you may not want to be on your own in a classroom with a group of students you don't know, it's important to realise that choosing subjects just because your friends are doing them is not a way of deciding what to do.

You will either end up bored because you have no interest in the subject, or lessons will just become another time to socialise with your mates, and you'll fall behind with the work.

Most of the time you will find there is at least one person you will be able to talk to and get along with, and you will be able to concentrate and do well in lessons without the disruption of your friends.

Teachers - don't choose a subject just because your favourite teacher teaches it. Chances are they might not teach it to your particular class in sixth form, or they could choose not to teach that subject anymore, and maybe even leave to find another job at a different school.

Furthermore, don't pick a subject because your subject teacher expects you to take it and you feel you should to please them. They may be disappointed when you tell them you're not doing their subject, but it's more important you pick the right combination of subjects than trying to avoid hurting the feelings of your teachers.

Here are some factors you SHOULD consider when choosing A level subjects

Careers advice - speak to your head of sixth form or college tutors, especially if you already have an idea of what career you'd like to pursue.

This is very important, as some students reach the end of their A levels only to discover they haven't done the correct subjects for what they want to study at university.

Sort this out and make sure you're doing the right subjects from the start so it doesn't become a major problem later on. If you don't have a career in mind, do some research at your local library to give yourself some ideas of what you might want to do.

Enjoyment - it's important to choose subjects you enjoy doing. Even if you are good at a certain subject, you might not actually enjoy it all that much.

There's no point going through sixth form or college and never looking forward to lessons because you don't like them. This in turn may make you feel you can't cope with the work and make you feel stressed in the long-term.

If you look forward to lessons, chances are you will approach them confidently and do well in them.

Research - look carefully at the syllabuses for new subjects your sixth form or college are offering that were not available at GCSE, e.g. sociology, media studies.

Some students find that they take these courses without looking into them properly first, and are then disappointed when it's not what they were expecting.

Find out what exam board your school/college does for these subjects, and download the syllabus from their website to read more about what it involves. Try to talk to students who are already on the course, and the teacher(s) that runs it.

Strengths - read through the syllabuses for subjects you are considering doing to see whether they play to your strengths. For example, if you excel at creative writing, then an English Language A level would be a better option than English Literature.

Talk to your subject teachers about your strengths and weaknesses to assess your potential, allowing you to make more informed decisions about which A levels you choose.

Traditional versus Non-traditional subjects
– some top universities have recently started blacklisting certain A level subjects they deem too "soft". These include Dance, Sports Studies, Photography and Accounting.

Both Cambridge university and the London School of Economics have published lists of these subjects on their websites, as they believe they are "less effective" preparation for degrees.

Therefore, if you are planning to apply to top universities such as Cambridge, St Andrews, Imperial College or UCL, it is worth investigating whether your chances of being accepted into these institutions is reduced if you take one or more of these "soft" subjects.

Workload – another good reason to read through the syllabuses of each subject you are considering is to check how they are assessed.

How much coursework is there? How many tests/exams are there? Are there any practical assessments? It’s probably wise not to take 3 subjects where the main bulk of assessment is coursework, but also not to take 3 subjects where most of the assessment rests on exams at the end of the year.

If possible, try to balance your subject combinations so your work will be spread over equal amounts of coursework, exams and practical tests.