A Level subjects – making the right choice

It feels like only yesterday when I had sat my fraught GCSE exams (twenty-four in total, I cannot forget that figure) and was waiting patiently, anxiously for that fateful day in August where all would be revealed. In the mean-time however, something else was occupying my mind. As all students who have just completed their GCSEs will know, it doesn’t quite end there. The next chapter is literally around the corner and making a thought-through, informed decision about which subjects to take for your A Levels is as – if not more – important than your GCSE results. That is why I decided to investigate the significance of A Level subjects, how they affect your university prospects and what the top educational institutions have to say on this matter.

One thing that is universally clear is that subject choices definitely do make a difference to how universities, especially reputable ones, view your application. Of course it is not just enough to pick ‘hard’ subjects; you must also work unwaveringly hard to achieve grades that will do those subjects justice. What type of subjects am I referring to? Well, there are many sources online and each tells a different story.
The prestigious Trinity College (of Cambridge university) admissions website categorises A Level subjects in to different ‘bands’ based on perceived complexity and thus ranking of a subject. For example, any candidate wishing to be in with a chance of studying at this particular Cambridge college must meet the criteria defined as having studied ‘two or more subjects from lists A1 and A2’ if they are applying for a Ba (Bachelor of Arts) or if opting for a BSc (Bachelor of Science), they “will normally be expected to offer three subjects from List A1”. Ouch.

Take a look at the lists which are broken down in to four classifications:
List A1 – ‘traditional’/’respected’ Science A Levels i.e. Maths, Physics, Chemistry etc.
List A2 – ‘traditional’/’respected’ Arts A Levels i.e. English Literature, History, Economics etc.
List-B (uh oh) – described as “A-levels of more limited suitability” including Business Studies, Psychology, Media Studies etc.
List-C (now you’re in trouble) – specified as “A-levels suitable only as fourth subjects” amongst which we find Critical Thinking, ICT and Photography etc.

Please see the end of this article for some useful links.

What does this mean? Well, following some extensive research I have reached the understand that, just as it was in my day (some four years ago), prevalent prejudice against so-called ‘soft’ subjects still exists and a strong preference for more academically stretching, ‘traditional’ subjects is still firmly in place. Wendy Piatt, Director of the distinguished Russell Group which comprises a collective of established, high-achieving universities, says this on the issue: “We agree A-level choices really matter. Too few students realise that some subjects and subject combinations can keep open wider degree course options at leading universities…The Russell Group has published a guide called Informed Choices which lists ‘facilitating subjects’ …those most commonly required for entry to our leading universities.”

The government has upped its involvement in the A Level debate by proposing a new way of evaluating A Level success in schools. The proposals aim to gauge how many sixth formers across the country are attaining at least grades AAB in ‘facilitating subjects’ (considered the most challenging) by the end of A2. This is to gain a clearer picture of the number of students that are “Russell Group ready”. An unsurprising and predictable move really, considering how many top institutions now advocate this stance.
How to figure out which subjects to take at A Level

The easiest way is by taking pen and paper and listing which subjects you enjoyed the most, were most passionate about and were most successful in at GCSE (list five subjects).
Now, write down three ‘dream jobs’ you could imagine yourself doing in five years’ time (this may not be as easy).
Alas, it’s time to be realistic (n.b. you can also do this after you have received your GCSE results. Remember, it’s not too late to change the A Level subjects you have applied for. Most sixth forms allow you to change them up to two weeks in to your course!). Ask yourself – am I academic? Do I see myself aiming for a highly competitive university? Do I want to increase my chances of landing a high-paid job in future? The answers to these will help in whittling down your A Level subject choices.

If you answer yes to two or more of the above questions then it’s time deliberate the following. The ‘facilitating’ A Level subjects that most sought-after universities look for in candidates about can be broken down (approximately) in to two blocks.

1. If you want to study something related to the Natural Sciences or Maths the ‘most respected’ A Levels to take are…
Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology

2. If you want to study something related to Humanities, the Social Sciences or the Arts the ‘most respected’ A Levels to take are…
English Literature, English Language & Literature, English Language, History, Economics, a modern or classical Language, Geography

Nevertheless, talk to your teachers and do some independent research before finalising your A Level subjects. Remember, you’ll be studying these for two years and they will majorly influence your choice of degree course later on. It may be worth visiting your desired university’s website and checking out their entry requirements/A Level preferences for the course you want to do. Every person is different and, likewise, every institution is too!

Are you in the process of choosing your A Levels this summer? Or know somebody who is? Please feel free to post your comments below and let us know! Alternatively, you can contact us if you have any questions – we’d love to have a chat.

We would be very grateful if you could please make a  comment after reading this. We appreciate any comment you may have  – positive or negative!

If you have any questions relating to the topics raised in this post or if you would like to speak to a member of our advisory team about any education-related matter, please feel free to contact us through the following mediums:

This blogpost was written by a  teacher or former student of EIKS and not by Idris


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a useful link: