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Choosing Your A-levels

Are you trying to choose 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.

With many subjects now available at A-level, it can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to making your decisions.

Our guide will help 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 and how many do I have to take?

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 entry requirements for studying your A levels vary.  A minimum requirement is sometimes 5 grade C's/4's at GCSE.  However, often schools and colleges will require more GCSEs with grade C/4 or above (including grade C/4 in English and Maths) and grade B/5 or above in subjects you wish to pursue, so as to be sure you can cope with the rigours of advanced study.  You will need to check the entry requirements of the sixth forms or colleges that you are interested in.

A levels are taken over 2 years: with the option to sometimes also take AS, or advanced subsidiary, level, after the first year. This is equal to half an A level. The second year forms the full A, or advanced, 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 which 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. These include:

1. Career plans

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. If you're still not certain, try to pick subjects that will help keep your options open later on, e.g. Biology, Chemistry, English, Geography, Maths, etc.

2. 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.

A-levels are much more difficult than GCSEs, so it's important you actually enjoying learning the material, otherwise you will almost certainly struggle!

3. Course content

Research the syllabuses carefully 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.

4. Strengths and weaknesses

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.

5. 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.

6. Workload

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

The new A Level qualifications have exams as the main form of assessment, however there are still a few subjects where practical assessment is still used to test essential skills for the subject.

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

Is there anything I shouldn't consider?

This may sounds conter-intutitive, but there are several factors you should ignore when choosing A level subjects (even though it may seem like they are trying to help you!).

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

When making your decisions, remember that it is YOUR decision in the end, and not anybody else's. You are the one that will be studying the subjects and preparing for the exams at the end, so make sure that whichever subjects you pick, you will be comfortable learning them for the next two years.

Where can I find more information about choosing the right A-levels?

There are many places you can find out more about individual subjects to help inform your decisions. These include:

1. A-level subject guides

Your chosen sixth-form should have a subject guide describing the subjects on offer, and providing an outline of the content and skills needed, as well as details of how the subject is assessed etc.

The guide should also tell you whether there are any restrictions on subject combinations that you need to bear in mind (most sixth forms don’t allow you to choose whatever combination you want)

2. Tutors

Your teachers will know your academic strengths and weaknesses, so it is worth asking their opinion on the subjects you are thinking about.

Of course you need to balance their opinions with the other information you acquire, but if they advise against taking a particular subject, then it's probably best to heed their warning.

3. Syllabus specifications

The exam board specifications, or syllabus, describe the topics to be covered, often in considerable detail.

You can find exam board specifications for each A level subject online. AQA, Pearson and OCR are the ‘big three’ exam boards.

Many A level subjects are offered by all three boards so you will need to find out which board your sixth form uses.

4. Other students

Talk to sixth-formers who are currently studying the subjects you are considering.

Ask them what they like best about their subjects (and what they don’t like). They can give you an insight into the day-to-day rewards and challenges of the subject that no other source can.

5. Text books

Skimming through a book on the subject can give a good idea of the type of work you would be doing. This is particularly useful when you are considering an A level subject you have not studied before.

Choosing the right A-levels for your degree

If you already have a particular degree subject in mind, here are the essential A-levels you will have to take if you want universities to consider you.

  • Chemistry - useful for Medicine, Veterinary Science, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Biology.
  • Medicine - Chemistry is essential, plus 2 other A levels, one of which should be a Science subject. Biology is not essential, but is very useful.
  • Business Studies - no essential A level subjects, though Maths is useful and you will need a decent result at GCSE. Business Studies or Economics A levels are helpful. Reputable universities do not like you to do both. The same is true for degrees like Accounting and Management.
  • European Business Studies usually requires a European Language, e.g. French, German, Spanish, etc.
  • Law - no essential subjects, though they like you to have subjects which show logical ability and the ability to write (eg: a combination of Arts and Science subjects).
  • Psychology - no essential subjects (again, a mix of Arts and Science subjects is good.) You will need GCSE Maths.
  • Computing - no essential subjects for most courses, although Maths might be required for a handful of universities.
  • Engineering - Maths and Physics are generally essential (though you can apply without them and do an extra Foundation year). You will need Chemistry for most Chemical Engineering degrees.
  • Most other degree courses either have no essential A level subjects, or just require an A level in the subject concerned plus any two others. These include Accountancy, IT, Marketing, and Politics. Do check each university's website first though.
  • Remember that the top academic degree courses will normally expect three ‘academic’ A levels, so make sure you select the right subjects.

Best of luck with your A-level subjects, whichever ones you end up choosing - and remember, it's YOUR choice, not anybody else's!