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Follow our guide to choosing your
A Levels

Choosing A Levels

Your choice of A Levels is a significant decision which can impact what options are available to you if you enter Higher Education. 

It is a decision which should not be rushed and you should consider a number of factors while you are choosing which subjects you study. This section will explain to you what A Levels are and how you go about choosing the ones which are right for you. 

What are A Levels?

A Levels (Advanced Levels) and AS levels (Advanced Subsidiary) are courses that students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland take after GCSEs. They are the most common qualification for admission to university.

A Levels are taught at schools, sixth form centres and further education colleges and are very well regarded by both universities and by employers. The majority of entrants to UK universities have A levels.

They are two-year qualifications which give students a chance to study an existing GCSE subject in greater depth, or perhaps to try a completely new subject like law, drama or economics for example. This is the time in your life to consider which subjects you enjoy and do well in and, just as importantly, which ones to leave behind! 

What should I expect from A Levels?

  • An increase in difficulty compared to GCSEs. A GCSE reform in 2016 was designed to make the transition to A level more gradual, so there is less of a shock.
  • You’ll see differences in the way you’re taught and what is expected of you – but schools and colleges are experienced in supporting students with the transition.
  • More independent study time. You will only have between three and five subjects to study as opposed to ten or more at GCSE. This equates to less time in the classroom in a given week and more time spent studying independently. 

How many A levels do I need?

Up until now, most students have taken four or even five subjects in Year 12. Then, after AS level exams, they drop one or two subjects, and continue the other three through to A level.

  • From September 2015, with the changes in AS and A-level qualifications, this has changed. Students might choose three A levels to study for the two year course, or work towards AS qualifications, or a mixture of both.

Discuss your options with your school or college and also find out whether they will offer both AS and A levels so you can decide the best route for you. 

  • Universities are thinking about whether they need to make changes as a consequence of the new A levels so check their websites for more information.

If in any doubt, contact the university admissions office and ask about the entry requirements for the course or courses you are interested in.

What GCSEs are needed to study A Levels? 

To study A levels you will need to have done relatively well in your GCSEs.

  • Most schools and colleges will expect you to have gained 9-4 (A*–C) grades in at least 5 of your GCSEs. If you do not achieve this level, then other pathways will be available including BTEC and other vocational courses.
  • Requirements can vary from four to six passes, so you should check with your school or college. 
  • Often you will need a GCSE at grade 5-6 (B) or above in a subject if you want to go on to study it at A level. 

GCSEs have also changed in recent years, with most students in England now getting new numerical grades (9-1) and changes to exams, coursework and specifications. Over 90% of GCSEs are taught under the new arrangements in 2018 with more still in 2019.

  • Your school or college will have all the details – check with them if you have any questions.

Based on an original article by Alison Utley