Choosing Your A Level Subjects
As you will have already read, AS and A levels are changing considerably.
The information on our website should only be seen as a guide. You must always do your own research and find out the latest advice. Please ask questions when you are invited for your subject choice meeting.
There are over 40 subjects examined at A level, and even though we don’t offer them all, you should still have a lot of choice. A level subjects range from ones you’ve probably already met at GCSE to ones which sound interesting but which you may not know much about. Choosing the right combination can feel really tough, but if you are methodical, take your time and ask lots of questions you will find the A-level subjects which are right for you.
The three sections which follow describe how to approach the business of finding the right subject combination.
Key things to bear in mind when choosing A-level subjects
Here are the three principles which should guide your choice:
Choose subjects you will enjoy
If you do not enjoy studying a subject (most of the time at least), it can be demoralising and difficult to do well. If you enjoy the work you will probably get a good grade in the exam, though the opposite isn’t always true, and in the sixth-form you want to be stimulated, not bored.
In thinking about whether you will enjoy a subject you should consider two things about it: the content of the subject and the skills it requires. You should have a real interest in the content, the things that you learn about but you should also be confident that you have or can develop the skills that the subject requires. Each subject involves a different mixture of activities. Does this subject require a lot of learning detail, a lot of independent reading, a lot of essay writing, a lot of creativity? Each of these activities requires skills you may or may not enjoy. The way a subject is assessed might be important to you, particularly if assessment involves a lot of project work.
Beware of taking a subject just because ‘it sounds interesting’. Check it out carefully. Finding out more about a subject is essential if you haven’t studied it before, but it is also important to review subjects you are familiar with – they are likely to change significantly as you move from GCSE to A level
Choose subjects which will fit in with your career plans
If you have clear ideas about what you want to study at university, you should check whether your plans require specific subjects. The third section of this guide shows A level requirements for some popular degree courses and you can find lots of detail on the UCAS website.
We can provide careers advice through Unifrog, our independent careers guidance service, if you need to clarify your long-term plans before choosing A level subjects, but don’t feel you have to nail that down before choosing A levels. Keeping options open is a good idea but check that your A level choices don’t rule out degrees you’re interested in. You will find that there are many degree subjects which you can apply to with any A level combination.
Don’t take a subject you find really tough just because it is needed for a particular career. Unless you have good reason to believe that subject will be easier for you at the higher sixth-form level (and your teachers confirm this) it’s better to rethink your choice of career.
Take time to find out all you need to know
You will need the time to think carefully about your interests and skills, and about possible directions after A levels. You then need to match these ideas up to the A level subjects on offer, which will involve finding out more about them. Time to do the thinking and time to talk to people, and time to change your mind if necessary, are all important.
While other people might have good advice and opinions worth considering carefully, this is your choice: you are the person who will be doing the work, and it’s your future that A levels help decide. It is not your parents’ or carers’ decision but they will give you good advice. Take advice seriously but don’t just take a subject because someone else tells you that’s what you must do (or because that’s what your friends are taking).
Where to find out more about A-level subjects
A-level subject guides
We have guides to the subjects on offer which give you an outline of the content and skills needed, and details of how the subject is assessed. It should also tell you whether there are any restrictions on subject combinations which you need to bear in mind. The Student Room website provides a lot of online material on A-level subjects (www.thestudentroom.co.uk).
Your current teachers
Your current teachers will know your intellectual strengths and weaknesses. It is certainly worth asking their opinion on the subjects you are thinking about.
If you are moving to Tabor for A levels, make sure you visit and spend time talking to us. They should be able to give a detailed account of their subjects and can answer questions on what the subject is like. If you are staying on in school, do find time to talk to the staff who are likely to be teaching you.
Studying under a teacher you like and respect can make a real difference but don’t choose a subject just because you like the teacher. Teachers change jobs and anyway, your group might be assigned to another member of the department.
AS and A2 subject syllabuses
The exam board syllabuses (now often called ‘specifications’) describe the topics to be covered, often in considerable detail. You can find exam board syllabuses for AS and A level subjects online. AQA, EDEXCEL and OCR are the ‘big three’ exam boards. Many A-level subjects are offered by all three boards so you will need to find out which board your chosen sixth-form uses.
Talk to sixth-formers you know who are currently studying the subjects you are considering. Ask them what they like best about their subjects (and what they don’t like).
Texts and reference books
Skimming through a book in the subject area can give a good idea of the type of work you would be doing. This is particularly useful when you are contemplating something you have not studied before.
A-level requirements for popular degree courses
This section describes the A-level subjects which are essential for various popular degree courses, and those which would be directly useful. Sometimes Universities will accept an AS level in a subject instead of the full A level, but you must check.
Chemistry A level is essential or very useful for: Medicine, Veterinary Science, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Biology (and Bio related subjects).
To study Medicine: Chemistry is essential, plus 2 other A levels, one of which should be a science. Biology is not essential, but it is useful.
Business Studies degree: No essential A-level subjects, though Maths is useful and you will need a good Maths result at GCSE. Business Studies or Economics A levels are helpful. Top Universities do not like you to do both. The same is true for degrees like Accounts, Management, etc.
European Business Studies generally requires a European Language.
Law degrees: No essential subjects, though they like you to have subjects which show logical ability and the ability to write (eg, a mixture of Arts and Science subjects). Admissions tutors prefer you not to have taken Law A level!
Psychology: No essential subjects (a mix of Arts and Science subjects is good.) You will need GCSE Maths.
Computing: No essential subjects for most courses. Maths A level is essential for a few Universities and useful for all.
Engineering: Maths and Physics are generally essential (though you can apply without them and do an extra Foundation year). Chemistry is essential for most Chemical Engineering degrees.
Most other degree courses either have no essential A-level subjects, or just require an A level in the subject concerned plus any two others. Do check though!
And do bear in mind that the top academic degree courses will generally expect three ‘academic’ A levels (see their websites for more about this).
Above all you have to take the time to decide what you want to do and be sure it’s the right decision.