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Choosing what to study

Choosing A Levels

Choosing your A Level subjects is a big decision. Read our advice on how to decide, whether you know what you want to study at university or not.

Group of A Level students in a classroom

CONTENTS

  1. What are A Levels?

  2. Which subjects should you choose?

  3. University courses with specific requirements

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're the most common qualifications for university admission. Other qualifications include Scottish Highers/Advanced Highers and other alternatives to A Levels.

A Levels are two-year qualifications that give students a chance to study an existing GCSE subject in greater depth or try a completely new subject like Law, Drama or Economics. 

What to expect from A Levels

  • An increase in difficulty compared to GCSEs
  • Differences in the way you’re taught and what's expected from you 
  • More independent study time – you'll only have between three and five subjects to study as opposed to ten or more at GCSE, meaning less time in the classroom

Number of A Levels needed

Students generally choose three A Levels to study for a two-year course, but can decide to work towards AS qualifications or combine the two. Discuss your options with your school or college and find out whether they'll offer both AS and A Levels so you can decide the best route for you. The vast majority of schools and colleges now focus on A Levels, with the one-year AS Level less popular and available.

If you already know what you’d like to study, you can contact the university admissions office and ask about entry requirements for the course(s) you’re interested in.

GCSEs needed to study A Levels

Most schools and colleges will expect you to have gained at least five 9–4 (A*–C) grades in your GCSEs. However, other pathways are 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'll need a GCSE at grade 5–6 (B) or above in a subject if you want to continue 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.

A level students in a laboratory

Which subjects should you choose?

Take advice from your school careers advisor and university admissions departments so you can make an informed decision based on accurate and up-to-date information. It’s worth asking questions and researching entry requirements for courses at various universities to get a good idea of the subjects you should take.

Things to consider when choosing your A Levels

If you want to go to university, the main question to ask yourself is: 'Do I know what I want to study at university?'. Your answer will dictate which subjects you should choose for A Levels.

It’s perfectly normal not to know what you want to do for a career, or what you want to study at university. Many graduates go on to work in unrelated fields to their chosen degree. However, if you have aspirations for a certain career, you'll need to take a related degree. For example, subjects such as Law, Medicine, Architecture and Veterinary Science will all require specific qualifications.

If you already know what you want to study at university

Knowing what you want to study at university puts you in a good position when choosing your A Levels. Your first step should be to check entry requirements on university websites for your chosen course.

A lot of courses will specify at least one subject you'll need to have studied at A Level. For example, Medicine, Veterinary Science and certain Engineering courses may require three specific subjects. Additionally, some universities publish a list of preferred A Level subjects that are acceptable for general admission, as well as specific requirements for individual courses.

If you don't know what you want to study at university

You may not be sure what you want to study at university, or if you want to go at all. Don’t worry, as it means you can choose whichever subjects you want (within reason) and let that dictate your degree choice should you go on to study at university.

There are eight 'facilitating' subjects listed by Russell Group universities to help you keep your degree options open until you decide which course to take:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • English Literature
  • Geography
  • History
  • Maths and Further Maths
  • Modern and Classical Languages
  • Physics

Generally speaking, taking two facilitating subjects will keep a wide range of degrees open to you. Make sure you still choose subjects you like – you'll be studying them for the next two years.

If you’re still uncertain, phone or email the university admissions or schools liaison team for their advice before finalising your choices.

Other factors to consider when choosing A Levels

  • What you're good at – your career or degree plans may change so make sure you choose subjects you can do well in
  • What you enjoy – if you don’t enjoy a subject at A Level but need it for a specific university course, you might want to reconsider your degree preference
  • Your subject combination – if you're taking a science A Level, for example, you should consider whether you need to look at taking another science or maths subject
  • The syllabus – knowing the course content should tell you whether a particular A Level is the right option for you
  • The workload you can handle – for example, some courses may involve a lot of essay writing, so be realistic about how much work you can do

A Level students walking on school stairway

University courses with specific requirements

Course entry requirements are used to help admissions staff at universities pick students for their courses. Many courses will have more applicants than places so they'll set an entry requirement to allow them to reduce the number of students to consider.

Specific course requirements (e.g. Chemistry and Biology for a Biochemistry course) are there to ensure students can cope with the pressures of the course content itself. The majority of university courses look for at least Cs in GCSE English and Maths. Some courses go further and list specific subjects and grades they expect you to have.

Remember that some courses may only consider certain A Level qualifications or only accept certain qualifications when taken with another. This will depend on what the university department is looking for.

For example, a History department may be looking for students who can write essays and handle exams, and so might have a preference for A Level or Highers students. If you’re a BTEC student, look out for courses that name specific units you need to pass with specific grades.

Head to the subject guides to see if a course might require specific A Level subjects (or equivalent).

Keep in mind

  • Some universities discourage students from taking certain combinations of A Levels – this tends to be for very similar subjects such as Business Studies and Economics, or Maths and Further Maths
  • Core Maths is generally not a suitable substitute for AS or A Level Maths or Further Maths
  • If you do too many practical or vocational subjects (such as PE, Music Technology, Media Studies, Textiles or Drama), it may limit what you can study at university – some universities include these in lists of 'non-preferred' subjects
  • Highly selective courses such as Medicine may state that A Levels should be taken in the same sitting after no more than two years of study – this can affect you if you're looking to repeat some exams after sixth form or if you’ve taken some exams early

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