To pursue a Motorsport Engineering degree at university, all providers of this course state they require A levels in both Mathematics and Physics. Although Daniel had always known he wanted to follow a career in this industry, at no point during his school studies was he made aware of the impact his subject choices at 16 would make on his higher education later on.

Unfortunately this meant he chose to study Chemistry, Physics, Business Studies and Design Technology at A level, without realising a full A level in Mathematics was a compulsory entry requirement for a Motorsport Engineering degree, assuming at the time a solid science and design foundation would be enough.

 Daniel doesn’t hold his teachers solely responsible for the fact he cannot apply to university for a degree in Motorsport Engineering, but does wish he had been given a nudge to double check the specific entry requirements for this course when making his A level choices last year.

Caught up in the hustle and bustle of GCSE coursework and exams, Daniel did not give much thought to what he hoped to be doing in another two or three years’ time, consequently giving little thought to his A level subject choices. And then there are the many non-Daniel students who don’t know what they want to do at this stage anyway (who does at 16?). This means a significant number of students only discover they are not studying the correct subjects to be accepted on to their chosen university course until it is too late, and it’s time to fill out their UCAS application form.

It’s therefore unsurprising that Daniel’s case is not unusual – every year, a number of students turn to the internet seeking advice for having chosen the wrong A level subjects, realising too late there’s no going back. Some decide to change subjects if it’s early enough in the academic year when the catching up is minimal, whereas others choose to study and take exams for a whole new A level in one year so they’re not delayed in going to university. If you happen to be facing this dilemma at the moment, speak to your sixth form tutors, who should be able to explain what options are available to try and remedy the situation.

As expected, Daniel is cross with himself for not doing his research earlier – if you have a dream, you ought to make sure you put yourself on the right path to be able to fulfil it, right? Therefore, many people would probably say it’s certainly only his own fault for getting himself into the predicament he now faces.

However, this spring the BBC published an article featuring research from Youth Insight, stating that almost around half of university applicants felt informed enough at school about how the subjects they studied could affect their degree and university choices. The research also discovered that:

  • Only 41% of teenagers surveyed were made aware that some degrees require specific A levels of equivalents, and some universities deem certain subjects not challenging enough.
  • 30% complained advice they had received had failed to warn them how their choices at 16 could affect their future prospects.

The result is a significant proportion of students potentially missing out on their desired higher education, and regretting the subjects they are studying at A level when the time comes to fill in the UCAS form.

Understanding university entry requirements

Most universities present their entry requirements for a particular course in at least several different ways. These are usually:

Grades: e.g. A levels (A*AA), Highers (AABB) and BTEC (DDD)
UCAS Tariff Points: e.g. 280
UCAS Tariff Points with a minimum grade requirement in a specific subject: e.g. 300 points with an A in Chemistry.

Not sure what the UCAS Tariff is exactly? It’s basically a points system that helps university admissions staff compare grades and scores from a wide range of qualifications that people are using to apply to their courses with.

Unfortunately, the UCAS Tariff is not used everywhere, and students should be aware that a majority of extremely selective courses only consider grades or scores from a limited number of qualifications, such as A levels and the International Baccalaureate.

For many higher education courses, GCSEs in English, Science and Mathematics are also required at a minimum of grade C. Check the university website for each one you’re interested in applying to carefully, as it’s possible the university may want GCSE grades in additional subjects to these standard three.

You will find that certain degrees, such as Biochemistry and Veterinary Science, will ask for particular A level subjects, to make sure you can cope with the pressures of the course content. This is why Daniel is required to hold a full Mathematics A level for entry to a Motorsport Engineering degree.

Other examples include Medicine, where courses usually demand at least two science subjects. However, some universities say other A levels are obligatory too, such as Mathematics, which again means checking each individual university’s entry requirements that you wish to apply to.

For those not taking A levels, it’s still crucial you check whether the qualifications you are studying are enough to get you on to the course(s) you’re interested in applying to at university. While the International Baccalaureate, BTECs and other vocational qualifications are accepted by a majority of universities, it can sometimes be less clear whether these completely fulfil the entry requirements set for a particular degree.

For example, the University of Bath does not accept students on to their Mathematics programme who are only taking an Access to HE Diploma, but will accept students with a BTEC Level 3, and A levels in Maths and Further Maths at certain grades. Comparing this to the University of Edinburgh, who only accept a BTEC qualification for entry to their Art & Design programme, it’s clear that entry requirements can vary wildly.

Some degrees also state that those applying with BTECs or IBs must have passed or achieved certain grades in specific units or subjects.

It’s no wonder teachers, students and parents alike are often confused.

The grey areas of university admissions

While it could be argued that universities should stick to the information displayed on their website, unfortunately there are times when this might not always be the case:

  • Sometimes they will ask for a particular set of grades for a course, e.g. AAB, and this will always be the absolute minimum they will consider when they receive your exam results
  • Some will be looking for those grades or an equivalent, e.g. A*AC may be enough
  • They might ask for BBB, but be much more flexible once results are out, and let you in with much lower grades such as CCC.

Which? University produce a helpful guide that shows you what previous students on degree courses actually achieved to get on to it. Although you may see some big differences, the entry requirements on the university’s website should form the basis of your decision whether to apply.

There is also the added inconvenience of universities being allowed to change its entry requirements within the UCAS cycle, up until the point you are made a conditional offer.

This means you could apply for a course thinking they only require BBC at A level, but then make you a conditional offer of BBB. You can choose to decline this offer, but if you accept, it will not be changed.
If you’re currently studying for your A levels and worried about what might happen on results day, take a look at our A Level Results Day Guide to make sure you’re fully prepared.

Subject blacklists

Over the years, there has been increasing unrest about subject choices for entry to higher education, with many calling for universities to be more transparent with their requirements. This has been a particular concern since 2010 when news broke of the UK’s top universities secretly blacklisting banned non-traditional subjects, which are usually offered by comprehensives rather than private schools. Aside from the handful of universities that provide a list of non-preferred subjects, it is thought this list includes subjects such as Business Studies, Art and Design, and Drama.

Therefore it seems wise to take note of any such details on a university’s website, and if further research leaves you with any doubts over whether a particular subject would be accepted, then it’s probably best to choose something on their essential or preferred list of subjects instead.

Although Daniel chose to take Business Studies A level, it won’t affect him in this case as he did not study the required Mathematics A level.

Choosing the right A-levels

For the Daniels of this world, who are currently studying for their GCSEs and know what path they want to follow, choosing the right A level subjects is critical. This means looking at university degrees as early as Year 11, and checking their specific entry requirements for the course(s) you’re interested in.

If you’re not sure what you want to study at university after your A levels, or are unsure whether university is even the right step for you, it is recommended you take two “facilitating” subjects, which allow you to keep your options open. These subjects include:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • English Literature
  • Geography
  • History
  • Physics
  • Modern and classical languages
  • Maths and further maths

For information about these facilitating subjects, and how to make the right post-16 choices for studying at a leading university can be found at The Russell Group’s Informed Choices guide. It also includes advice from admissions experts on the best subject combinations for a number of university courses, as well as the best options if you want to keep things open.

Our dedicated section to Choosing Your A Levels at takes you through other factors to consider when making decisions, such as enjoyment, syllabus content, personal strengths, and overall workload.

With demand for undergraduate courses at an all-time high, universities have tightened their admissions policies.

This means GCSE students should also be aware that taking certain “soft” subjects may shut them out from prestigious institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, and Bristol. Some have even chosen to produce a list of preferred and less preferred subjects, including Sheffield, LSE and UCL, with many universities now explicitly stating they do not accept General Studies or Critical Thinking as an entrance subject, and only as a fourth, extra subject.

If you’re already studying for your A levels, or equivalent qualifications, Which? University have produced an Explorer tool that allows you to input your subjects and find out what you can do with them at university

Daniel’s future (and yours)

Daniel knows that a higher education is important for getting ahead in the motorsport industry, but so is gaining lots of experience to become an outstanding applicant in the field. So for now, Daniel has decided to try and enter his chosen career by looking for relevant employment once he has finished his further education studies, rather than spend at least another year trying to complete a Mathematics A level.

He already has a lot of appropriate experience under his belt (which would have looked great on his UCAS personal statement), including marshalling at rally events and volunteering at a local race track. Daniel also hopes that keeping up with the latest motorsport news and developments through magazines and the Motorsport Industry Association’s website will impress potential employers. Daniel sees it as a bonus if he can earn money while learning, and even thinks the experience he will gain from working over the next few years will help put him ahead of his graduate counterparts. However, he hopes his story will serve as a warning to those who have dreams of a specific career.

If you’re like many 16 year olds, and have no idea what you want to do for a career, take steps to ensure your options are left open. As mentioned earlier, a good place to start is the Russell Group’s Informed Choices guide, and their list of facilitating subjects.

Choosing at least two of these will guarantee you being considered by (and hopefully getting offers from) the top universities in the UK (depending on your predicted final exam grades).

If you decide that university isn’t for you, then at least you will have a good grounding in some solid subjects to help you on the way to a career via an alternative route. If you’re struggling to choose which ones to take, then play to your strengths and/or opt for those you enjoy the most. Again, take a look at our factors to consider when choosing your A levels to help you make the best choices for you.

However, if you’re currently in Year 11 at school or college, and have your heart set on a particular future, don’t be the next Daniel - start investigating now what subjects you need to study to make sure you can pursue it later on.

Any comments, suggestions or feedback about this post are more than welcome, and should be left below.