How to make the right A level choices.

By Alison Home, on 22 October 2012

Post-16 Choices – Choosing A levels

What are A levels?

During Year 10 you need to decide what subjects you will study at sixth form. Most students take three or four A levels, but you can also study the International Baccalaureate (IB), which gives a wider range. Some people study BTECs. These are vocational courses focused on specific careers. All universities accept A levels and IB, but only some university courses accept BTECs. As most students will take A levels, this post is focused specifically on A level choices.

A levels have two parts. In year 12, you take AS levels – usually four subjects. At the end of year 12, you can drop one of your courses, and focus on the other three in year 13 for the full A level qualification. This means that you will finish with one AS and three A levels.

What A level subjects should you take?

A levels are available in subjects that you have not had a chance to study before, such as sociology, economics or philosophy. Talk to the teachers running these courses and research if they are right for you. Most sixth forms will also let you take a taster session in the subject. Some subjects – like history, maths, and languages – might require that you studied these subjects at GCSE or that you got a certain grade (e.g. C or above).

A levels allow you to really focus on the subjects that you enjoy, but they are also very important for university. Not only the grades you get but also the subjects that you choose will affect what courses you can study.

Before you choose your A level subjects, you need to get a prospectus (a list of courses) from each university that you might be interested in applying to.

If you want to go to a competitive university like UCL or Oxbridge you need to read the Informed Choices booklet  before you make any decisions about what subjects to study.

Making the right choice:

You might hear people talking about ‘soft’ subjects vs. ‘hard’, ‘preferred’ or ‘facilitating’ subjects. ‘Soft’ subjects might include subjects like Communication Studies, Media Studies, or Performing Arts. However, art, music and drama/theatre studies are sometimes considered hard subjects.  Some universities only care about the grades that you get, and don’t mind if you study ‘soft’ subjects. Other universities – including UCL, LSE and Oxbridge – require at least two A levels to be ‘hard’ or ‘facilitating’ subjects.

‘Facilitating subjects’ include maths, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history and languages.

UCL has a list of preferred subjects here   and there are more details in the Informed Choices booklet.

Some subjects need you to study certain subjects at A level before they can offer you a place. You can find out which subjects you need to study for a specific course in the university prospectus. If you are confused, email or phone the admissions office for the university where you want to apply.

Some courses always have the same requirements – for example, you always need to study chemistry (and normally biology) to do medicine.

Some courses do not require specific subjects, even if there are A levels in similar areas – for example, you do NOT need to study law A level to do law, or A level psychology to do psychology.

If you’re not sure what university course you would like to study, it’s a good idea to do at least two ‘facilitating’ subjects, because this will keep your options open. Think about what courses you really enjoy, and speak to your parents and teachers about your options.


Things to think about carefully:

Make sure that you are realistic about the subjects that you want to study. It’s important to pick subjects that you enjoy and that are related to the course you want to study at university – but you also have to make sure that you are able to achieve the necessary grades. Look at your strongest subjects at GCSE and talk to your teachers about how they think you would cope with the subject at A level.

Sometimes when people start year 12, they realise that they have chosen the wrong subjects for them. If this happens to you, don’t panic. Talk to your teachers about your options straight away. If it is early in the term, you should be able to switch courses quite easily. Otherwise, you might be able to choose a new AS subject to study in year 13.

If you have to continue a course for a year that you really don’t enjoy, speak to your subject teacher to see how to make it easier to cope.

If you decide that you really want to do a specific university course but you don’t have the correct A levels, speak to the university admissions tutor – you might be able to do a slightly different course with similar content, or take extra qualifications to improve your application.

The most important thing to remember is that you need to make the right choices for YOU. Pick subjects that you are good at, that you enjoy, and that have a clear link to your future career choices. Listen to parents, friends and teachers – but it is YOU who needs to do the work on your courses so you need to be happy with your choices!


Useful links:

A levels, BTECs and IB explained.

UCL’s preferred choices list.

Russell Group Informed Choices booklet.

How to find A level courses on offer in your area.

An article in the Guardian explaining different universities’ rules about ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ subjects .


This post was written by Charlotte Riley.