Choose A levels for the right reasons…

If you are a Year 11 student, you will likely have started thinking about what you are going to do when you have finished your GCSEs. For the first time in your life, you will have a choice over where you will go and what you will study, and with a bit of thought and care, you can make the right decisions and avoid making mistakes over your choices.

As you may know, the government requires that all young people stay in some sort of learning until age 18. This does not mean that you have to stay on at school, but it does mean that you will need to take one of the following options:

  • A place at college full time
  • A place at a school sixth form full time
  • An apprenticeship (paid job with training) of at least 30 hours per week
  • A job or voluntary work which involves at least 20 hours per week attendance and includes recognized education or training leading to qualifications

One of the qualification pathways you may be considering is whether to take A levels. These are qualifications taken at schools that have a sixth form and at many colleges. The GCE (General Certificate of Education) Advanced (A) level has been in existence since the early 1950s and so your grandparents and possibly great grandparents may have taken them.

Key facts about A levels:

  • A levels do not train or prepare you for jobs but they are well respected by employers and are still the standard entrance qualifications for entry to university. The skills developed from taking A levels are highly valued eg history or English Literature develop skills in researching information and presenting well-structured and argued written pieces of work. Mathematics develops problem solving and reasoning skills which are often talked about by employers as things they see as desirable from applicants. Sciences develop the ability to analyse and present information effectively and so on….
  • They take 2 years to complete
  • A levels are graded either entirely or mostly by exams at the end of the course, depending on the subject, with the top grade possible being an A* and the lowest pass an E grade. “U” grade stands for unclassified which is a fail. A levels are not changing to number grades as with GCSE.
  • They are much more demanding than GCSEs; rather than simply repeating information, you will be required to express your own ideas much more and study subjects in much greater depth than at GCSE. Essays will be longer and need to show a much greater depth of understanding than those encountered at GCSE.
  • To be permitted to study A levels, you will need at least 5 GCSEs grade C/new grade 5 including English language and mathematics, and for some subjects at A level you will need at least a grade B/new grade 6 at GCSE eg if intending to take a language, sciences or mathematics at A level. Check college and sixth form websites or prospecti as they can vary.
  • Three, sometimes four subjects only are studied

A levels buy you some time if you are unsure about what you want to do as a future job or study at university, but it is important to choose subjects that are going to be right for you and combine to maximise your choices later.

Reasons for choosing A levels should be based on the following:

  • That you have the ABILITY to take them.
    For example, subjects such as sociology or government & politics may be new to you, but you need good English skills as they are essay based.
  • That you are INTERESTED in them.
    A levels will require you to do a LOT more private study, reading etc outside of lessons. Having a passion for a subject will help!
  • That they are needed for the career or university course you want to do.
    For example, at least two sciences (usually chemistry and biology) will be required for entry to medicine, dentistry or veterinary science at university.

What A levels should I choose?

Entrance requirements for some university degree courses can be high, so grades achieved at A level can be essential.

A debate I have often encountered in my many years of careers guidance work is whether students should take three sciences for entry to medicine. Taking three sciences will potentially open all universities to you, but the majority are happy to accept two, with the third subject being something different.

ONLY take three sciences if you are particularly good at them! If, for example, you are very strong in the life sciences (chemistry and biology), also very good at history but weaker in physics, you would do better to choose history. Subjects like history are among what are called facilitating A levels which are those preferred or even required by more competitive entry universities.

Having a broader skillset which can be gained from taking a non-science subject can be a good thing, for example you will have developed strong written communication skills from studying history which can be invaluable when writing university assignments.

For entry to medicine, things that you do OUTSIDE of A level study are also very important, for example work experience with vulnerable people, regularly looking at sites such as the GMC (General Medical Council) to keep up to date with issues in medicine and attending a Medlink course to enhance your understanding of medicine as a career.

If you are focused on a business-based career, it can be tempting to choose all business type A levels such as business studies, economics and accounting. This is not necessary, in fact universities often prefer a broader skillset from students entering a business-based degree.

A language A level is particularly useful for entry to business courses, as sciences and mathematics develop analytical and problem solving skills, English literature or language develop written communication skills, geography strengthens data presentation and analytical skills and so on.

If you enjoy writing a great deal, three verbally based subjects can be an attractive proposition, for example history, government & politics and sociology. But remember that there will be a LOT of reading and essay writing!

The age old nutshell is whether to take A level law for entry to a law degree. If I had been paid £5 for each time I have been asked this question I would be very wealthy! The straight answer to this is that it is NOT necessary to take A level law to study this subject at university. Conversations I have had with university admissions tutors on this question have included the following advice:
‘… having A level law is neither an advantage or disadvantage for entry to a law degree.’
‘… ideally we prefer students not to have taken A level law as we prefer to teach students as beginners to the subject.’
‘… t is our experience that students with A level law tend to be complacent in the first year of a law degree.’

In the final analysis, A level law will be acceptable as a valid subject for entry to a law degree, but it is NOT necessary to have taken it. If the college or sixth form you intend going to offers them, consider taking law as an AS (Advanced Subsidiary) level as a fourth subject. AS levels are not available everywhere any more and they no longer form part of the A level as they used to. Taking it to AS level at least will give you some insight into the subject which can enhance a university application.

What are facilitating subjects?

Returning to the question of facilitating subjects, if you take at least two from the following list, you will have better opportunities for entry to more competitive entry universities and/or degree courses generally. The facilitating subjects are:

  • Biology
  • chemistry
  • English literature
  • further mathematics
  • geography
  • history
  • mathematics
  • modern foreign or classical languages
  • physics.

However, do not lose sight of your aims. For example, if you intend going into an art/design based degree, then you will need to take a subject such as art & design, likewise music if you intend taking a degree in this subject.

Support

Remember that there are people who can help you in these sorts of decisions.

Your teachers know you and your abilities, and sixth form or college tutors have expertise in their subject fields so it is important to attend things like open evenings to fully grasp what subjects are like. Your careers adviser will have an in depth knowledge of occupations and their requirements, as well as apprenticeship or university opportunities.

You can get useful insights into A level subjects by looking at websites such as The Student Room which has many web chats about subjects and what they are like to take.

If available, attend taster sessions for A level courses, these can help you see early on if subjects are going to be right for you. Taster lessons are often offered by colleges and school sixth forms, so give them a try.

It is VITAL to see things for yourself, not just rely on what others say. Just because a subject or place was wrong for your friend does not mean that they are wrong for you!

To conclude, you cannot cover every possible university degree course and their requirements, given that you will at most study four subjects at A level. However, by making an informed choice over subjects by following guidelines such as those above, you are much more likely to choose A levels for the right reasons and enjoy your studies as well as achieve good grades.

Good luck with your choices!


Written by Ray Le Tarouilly, Careers Adviser

Ray’s new book Choose the Right A Levels is now out

Find out more