Success Tips - A Level

General key facts and helpful hints for
university admission and future opportunities


  1. The second and final year of A-level (A2) is more challenging than the first year (AS). At A2-level, students usually drop about one grade point from what they have achieved at AS level, for example, if a student is working at a B grade at AS, their likely grade at A2 is a C. However, this is a generalisation. Young people who are determined often improve on their AS grades and achieve a higher grade at A2. There has been a decoupling of the AS from the A-level programme – resulting in most students no longer taking the AS exam as they do the linear course – a two-year A-level


  1. Universities usually base their final offer for a place on a degree course on what a student is likely to achieve at A2 level. They now look mainly at predicted grades from the student’s school as most schools no longer enter students for AS exams. Admission to the very top universities is becoming increasingly more


  1. A solid start to the A2 course is vital. Unless it is absolutely necessary, your child should avoid getting a job over the holidays, but, rather, focus on his or her studies and make the best of the final year of A-level. Remind them that they can consider working during the long summer holiday at the end of A2 – just before university! However, they should not spend their time surfing the Internet unproductively, watching TV or playing computer


  1. After the A-level results have been released, and before they decide to settle for a university which requires lower A-level grades to study a degree course, contact other universities where higher grades are demanded and see if they are still able to offer them a place. It may not be too late.


  1. Top universities look down on A-level subjects such as Media Studies, Sociology, Photography, Critical Thinking, Computing, Business and General Studies (unless taken as the third, fourth or fifth subject). It is usually OK to do one of these subjects as the third or fourth subject, but the very top universities do not often count them in the three subjects on which they base their offers. Be aware of unwritten rules, what they say on their website does not always match the reality of what they actually do!


  1. The subjects we recommend are as follows: English Literature, Maths, Chemistry, Economics, French, German, Latin, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish (or any modern or ancient language), Physics, History and Biology. Some of the other subjects are also useful, but we strongly suggest that students include at least two and possibly three of these more academic subjects in their choices for the final year of A-level, particularly if they are intending to apply to some of the top


  1. It is the case that those who study Medicine, Engineering Maths or perhaps Computer Science at a top university are more likely to secure a well-paid job than those who study Fine Art, Graphics, Humanities (except History) degrees. Law and Architecture are very prestigious; however, securing a job at the end of these courses may, perhaps, depend on the university where you study the course. With law, becoming a barrister is more challenging than becoming a solicitor. It is advisable to do thorough research and seek independent advice.


  1. If your child wants to go into business in the future, I personally would not recommend a Business Studies or Management as a first degree. I’d recommend Economics, History or even a Science, Engineering or Maths degree if they are mathematically minded. That way, they’ll have a broader knowledge and can do a master’s degree in a business-related field after the first degree – as such, they are more valuable in the long term.


  1. To be an accountant, a first degree in Economics, Maths or, again, a science-related course, is more useful to start with. Remember, a degree or a PhD in Accounting or Accountancy does not make you a Chartered Accountant. You need a professional qualification after whatever initial degree. Again, a different first degree other than in accounting, is better for the long term.


  1. The actual degree course that a student studies at university matters, as employers do not take certain courses too seriously and are not likely to shortlist applicants who have taken these degrees for an interview. As important, if not more so, is the university your son or daughter attends. Although Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) may not be for everyone, it would be a real shame for any young person who is likely to achieve at least two A grades at A-level not to at least consider one of these prestigious institutions. Some school teachers have an ideological opposition to these two universities and they will do all they can to discourage your son or daughter from applying to them. If you feel your child is a possible candidate for Oxbridge, you can overcome this opposition by being persistent. Some other top universities, particularly other members of the Russell Group, are highly recommended – see below for the website addresses of Russell Group Universities and also a table of university rankings. There are some other top universities that are, for one reason or another, not part of the Russell Group, but are still excellent and ranked above some of the Russell Group in certain disciplines. You may contact us for advice if necessary.


  1. Top universities prefer either A-level or the IB (International Baccalaureate) to vocational qualifications such as BTEC. Although most universities will give students an offer based on vocational courses, they really do not like these qualifications and the student usually struggles unless they have studied A-level or the IB or the Cambridge Pre-U, which is only offered by a tiny number of elite institutions, especially at traditional red-brick universities. A-level, IB and Pre-U are not suitable for everyone, but make sure you consider these three first. These are the qualifications preferred by the top


  1. Start your research into possible universities for your son or daughter as soon as you can. There are websites where you can find out about university rankings. Please see the bottom of this document for links. It is more important for your son or daughter to be working hard to get the grades than to spend too much time visiting numerous universities. They should do their research before even visiting and a visit to two or three universities should be sufficient to help in making a decision as to which ones to apply to.


  1. If you are going to seek additional tuition from a tutor or tuition centre, make sure that the teacher is not only qualified, but also has years of experience of A-level teaching in that particular subject. Familiarity with the curriculum and the particular specification your son or daughter is studying is also helpful.


  1. Do not allow the high tuition fees to dissuade your family from considering a university experience for your son or daughter. Carry out research about the facts and figures, as a university education, along with the experience and potential reward that goes with it, is worth all the expense and hassle! However, not all universities are the same and not all courses are valued equally by employers and society as a whole. Encourage your children to strive for excellence and always tell them to do their best and put in the effort. Assure them that you will fully support them and be proud of them as long as they have tried their best.


The websites we recommend for research are:

  1. We can send you a list of Russell Group Universities by post or you can visit:
  2. University ranking:
  3. Earning power of graduates: [Earning power is not everything; it is just a cruel indication of what employers value!]


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Be demanding but at the same time encourage your son or daughter to celebrate their successes – including little progress made. Be mindful of their strengths and weaknesses and show them you are proud of whatever they achieve; as long as they have tried hard. Excel in Key Subjects offers helpful and impartial advice on matters relating to secondary education, achieving exam success and gaining admission to university. We offer free face-to-face or telephone consultation on all areas of primary and secondary education, including advice on sixth form study. More information is available to assist parents while making key decisions about their children’s education.

Good teachers are expensive but bad teachers cost you your child more

Excel in Key Subjects offers face-to-face or telephone consultations on all areas of secondary education, including advice on sixth form study and university choices. You may contact us for independent advice and more information to assist you as parents in making key decisions about your children’s education and future possibilities.

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