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Choosing Your A-Levels - A Complete Guide

Choosing Your A-Levels - A Complete Guide

10 min Read|February 06 2024
|Written by:

Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa


A-Levels are a big step up from GCSEs and can play a significant role in determining a student's future. Choosing the right A-Level subjects is therefore a critical step in planning your future education and career. In this article, we will discuss the factors that should be considered when choosing A-Level subjects, including university requirements, career goals and personal interests.

Think about your future goals

If you know what degree you want to study

If you want to go to university, the starting point for choosing your A-Levels should be what degree you want to study. Meeting university requirements is an important consideration when choosing A-Level subjects. Universities use A-Level subjects in the admissions process to determine a student's readiness for a specific degree program and many courses have specific A-Level subject requirements. So it is important to research these requirements before making final subject choices.

Make sure you look beyond what the name of the degree suggests - for example, if you want to study PPE at Oxford you may initially consider choosing Philosophy, Politics and Economics as a combination of A-Level subjects, but Oxford recommends studying Maths and History.

The Informed Choices website is very useful for identifying which A-Level subjects different courses require. But it is also useful to look at different university course pages, as each university may have different admissions requirements.

Universities often require particular grades in some subjects for certain degrees. For example, some medicine degrees may require an A* in Biology or Chemistry. It is therefore also important to look at which grades you will need to achieve to get onto the course.

If you don’t know what degree you want to study or are not sure if you want to go to university

Many students who are choosing their A-Levels do not know which degree they want to study, or whether they want to go to university at all. Often students may have a general idea about their interests, but it is sensible to keep your options open if you are unsure at this stage. For example, if you have an interest in History and Economics it might be sensible to take A-Level Maths as this will prove useful if you choose to apply for an Economics degree in the future.

To get a better idea of which subjects interest you, you should research different degree programmes. For example, using this degree explorer which may help you identify which courses suit you.

Some students prefer vocational training to academic learning, in this case you should research apprenticeships, including degree apprenticeships (in which you get paid to work alongside studying).

What are your career goals?

Choosing A-Level subjects based on career goals is an important factor to consider. Different degrees and career paths have different requirements for A-Level subjects. For example, students interested in pursuing a career in medicine will typically need to take biology and chemistry at A-Level, while students interested in engineering may need to take physics and mathematics. Additionally, some popular A-Level subjects such as mathematics and English are required for many different degrees and careers. It is important for students to research different career options and the corresponding A-Level subject requirements to make an informed decision.

Below are the top 15 A-Level subjects in 2022, often students will choose a group of subjects which fit well together such as Maths, Chemistry and Physics. But studying a combination of sciences, humanities or arts can keep your options open, especially for multidisciplinary or joint-honours degrees which are increasingly popular at UK universities.

Top 15 A-Levels in 2021

Top 15 A-levels in 2021

What are your personal interests and strengths?

Many students choose to take A-Levels in the subjects they are strongest at. But don’t just choose your top three GCSE grades! At A-Level you study fewer subjects but in more depth, so it is important that you choose subjects you are interested in. Sometimes subjects are quite different at A-Level than at GCSE, so it’s a good idea to have a look at the specification from your relevant exam board or even look at a past paper to see whether the questions interest you.

Your interests and career goals might change over time, so it is important to keep your options open for future study. For example, a student who is interested in pursuing a career in the creative arts may want to take art and design at A-Level, but may also want to consider taking mathematics or science to keep their options open for other career paths such as architecture.

Here's what one expert, Zhen Shao, an lecturer at the University of Oxford, advises:

"I always advise my students to consider both their future aspirations and their personal interests when choosing their A-Level subjects. While it's important to consider university requirements and potential career paths, it's equally important to choose subjects that they would enjoy studying and want to learn about. A-Levels are a significant step up from GCSEs and require a lot of hard work, so students should be motivated to study and engage with the subject matter. Ultimately, the best A-Level choices are those that strike a balance between practical considerations and personal passions."

Some common mistakes to avoid

Mistake #1: Assuming GCSEs and A-Levels subjects are the same

Don’t assume that just because you liked a subject at GCSE you will also like it A-Level. The content is much more in depth and you will have to commit more time to the subject. Moreover, often the style of exam and coursework is very different.

For example, History A-Level is very different to History GCSE. The content is in much greater depth and you may learn a completely different time-period than your GCSE learning. Whilst in GCSE History you may be able to rely on learning the textbook, this will not achieve high marks in A-Level History. At A-Level, you are required to do further reading around the subject, and to use the content in an analytical way. Importantly, A-Level introduces historiography, this is the study of the methods used by historians in writing history. Therefore rather than reproducing content, you will be required to evaluate particular understandings and interpretations of historical events to come to a conclusion about how an event should be interpreted.

Another example of a subject that differs significantly between GCSE and A-Level is Mathematics. At GCSE level, the focus is on mastering fundamental concepts such as algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. However, at A-Level, the content is much more abstract and theoretical. You'll be expected to understand complex mathematical proofs and to apply mathematical models to real-world problems. The exams will be more challenging and the workload much heavier.

Progression rates from GCSE to A-Level. Sociology is 19%, biology is 22%, psychology is 25%.

Progression rates from GCSE to A-Level

Mistake #2: Taking three new subjects

Whilst it is not impossible to receive good grades in three new subjects, it is definitely creating more work for yourself. Whilst GCSEs and A-Levels differ, they often build on similar core content, particularly in languages. Therefore, whilst you may want to branch out into a new subject which was not offered at GCSE, such as law, media or economics, it is usually not advisable to take three completely new subjects.

Mistake #3: Taking subjects which are too similar

It is usually not advisable to take subjects which are too similar to each other as this limits your options in the future. For example, if you want to study a creative arts degree, most universities may require Art or Design Technology or Media studies. However, you do not need to take all three of these subjects at A-Level to be eligible for these courses. It is therefore important to do your research and check which subjects are required, and which ones you can branch out in.

Mistake #4: Taking subjects simply because you think universities or employers will like them

Whilst it is important to consider your degree and career goals when making A-Level choices, you should not choose subjects solely on this basis. Employers and universities care about yourA-Level grades as well as which subjects you have taken, and it will be difficult to achieve top grades in a subject which you find difficult or have no interest in. Moreover, you may want to reconsider whether you would enjoy a particular degree or career if you dislike one of the required subjects for it. Overall, researching potential career and degree options as well as the content of A-Level subjects will be important for avoiding this mistake and ensuring that you choose A-Level subjects that align with your interests as well as your goals.

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How many A-Levels should you take?

Most universities only require three A-Levels in 2024, and this is the general number that most students take, as reported by UCAS. However, it is important to consider individual circumstances and future goals when deciding how many A-Levels to take.

For science subjects, top universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College London may require four A-Levels. Taking four A-Levels can be a good idea as it provides a backup option in case one of your exams doesn't go to plan. It also allows you to show your academic strength in a wider range of subjects. However, taking four A-Levels can also be challenging, as it requires more independent study and time management. It is important to ensure that you can handle the workload before making this decision.

Some students, especially those interested in mathematical or scientific subjects, may choose to even take five A-Levels. However, this should only be done if you have a strong work ethic and feel confident in your ability to handle the workload. It is important to consider the potential impact on your grades and mental health before taking on a heavy workload.

It is also essential to consider the workload of each A-Level subject. Different subjects require different amounts of work, and this should be taken into consideration when deciding how many A-Levels to take. For example, STEM subjects often require more time and effort compared to humanities or arts subjects.

It is worth also noting that there are other opportunities to show your knowledge and work ethic besides taking many A-Levels. For instance, instead of taking a fourth or fifth A-Level, a student could spend that time pursuing extracurricular activities such as music or sports. These activities can also be impressive to universities and employers and can demonstrate a well-rounded skill set.

Graphic showing what female and male students are most likely to progress to at A-Level

Graphic showing what female and male students are most likely to progress to at A-Level.

What are the most useful A-Levels to take?

When it comes to university admissions, some A-Level subjects are more commonly requested by top universities than others. The Russell Group, a group of 24 leading UK universities, states that the most commonly requested A-Level subjects are Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Geography, and Modern Languages.

Moreover, certain degrees require specific A-Level subjects. For example, Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Science, and related subjects require Chemistry and at least one of Biology, Physics, or Mathematics. Engineering courses often require Mathematics and Physics, while Computer Science degrees often require Mathematics and either Physics or Computer Science.

In terms of job prospects, Mathematics is one of the most useful A-Level subjects, with a study showing that it can lead to high earning potential and a range of career options. A report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that people with an A-Level in Mathematics earn around 10% more on average than those without. Science and technology-related subjects such as Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Computer Science, and Design and Technology are also highly valued by employers, according to a survey conducted by the Sutton Trust.

Moreover, languages, particularly those in high demand such as Mandarin, French, German, and Spanish, are also valuable in today's globalised world. Learning a foreign language can provide a competitive advantage in the job market, particularly in industries such as finance, law, and international business.

On the other hand, some A-Levels are considered less valuable, such as media studies, drama, and performing arts, according to the same survey by the Sutton Trust. However, it is important to note that the value of an A-Level subject depends on individual career aspirations and interests. Choosing subjects that align with one's career goals and interests can lead to better job prospects and earning potential in the future.

In addition to the A-Level subjects that universities and employers commonly request, taking the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) can also be a great way to stand out on your university application. The EPQ is an independent research project that allows students to explore a topic of their choice in depth and develop their research and critical thinking skills. The EPQ is equivalent to half an A-Level and is highly valued by universities, particularly for courses that require independent study and research, such as humanities and social sciences.

Which A-Levels are the most popular?

According to recent data from the Joint Council for Qualifications, the most popular A-Level subjects in 2021 were Mathematics, English, Biology, Psychology, and Chemistry.

Mathematics remained the most popular A-Level subject for the 19th consecutive year, with over 90,000 entries. This may be due to its value for both university admissions and job prospects, as mentioned in the previous section.

English also remained a popular subject, with over 62,000 entries, followed closely by Biology with over 59,000 entries. Psychology and Chemistry rounded out the top five most popular A-Level subjects with over 56,000 and 46,000 entries respectively.

Interestingly, the number of students taking A-Levels in modern languages has declined in recent years. According to the British Council, the number of students taking A-Levels in modern languages has decreased by 45% since 2000. In 2021, French, German, and Spanish had just over 8,000 entries each, making them some of the least popular A-Level subjects.

It is important to note that popularity does not necessarily equate to value or importance. Each A-Level subject provides unique skills and knowledge, and choosing subjects that align with individual interests and career goals is more important than following popular trends.

If you're interested in finding out more about what A-Levels are most challenging, read our articles on the Top 10 Hardest A-level and The Top 10 Easiest A-Levels.

Which A-Levels go well together?

Some subjects complement each other well, providing a broader and more versatile skillset, while others may overlap too much and limit future options. For example, students interested in pursuing a degree in medicine or health-related fields may choose to take a combination of Biology, Chemistry, and either Maths or Physics. These subjects are often prerequisites for medical or health-related degrees and can provide a strong foundation for future studies and careers.

Another popular combination is Maths, Further Maths, and Physics. These subjects are often required for degrees in mathematics, physics, engineering, and computer science. The combination of Maths and Physics helps develop analytical and problem-solving skills, while Further Maths provides a deeper understanding of advanced mathematical concepts.

Humanities subjects such as History, English, and Politics can be paired with subjects such as Economics, Maths, or a language to create a well-rounded skillset for social sciences and law degrees. Similarly, creative arts subjects such as Art and Design can be paired with subjects such as Media Studies or English to prepare for degrees in creative fields such as graphic design, fashion design, or film production.

What skills will different A-Levels teach you?

Different subjects teach different skills, and it is important to consider this when choosing your A-Levels. STEM subjects such as Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology are highly valued by employers and universities, as they teach analytical and problem-solving skills. Mathematics A-Level is particularly important for careers in science, engineering, finance, and technology. Physics and Chemistry A-Levels are also highly sought after by universities and employers, as they provide students with excellent analytical and problem-solving skills. Biology is important for those considering a career in healthcare or medicine, as it covers a range of topics including genetics, biochemistry, and physiology.

Humanities subjects such as History, English, and Modern Languages, on the other hand, provide students with excellent critical thinking and communication skills. History teaches students how to analyse complex information, form arguments, and develop their writing skills. English literature develops students’ analytical, writing and communication skills, and is a useful subject for a range of careers including publishing, marketing, and advertising. Modern Languages develop students’ language and communication skills, which are highly valued by employers and universities alike.

Creative subjects such as Art and Design, Music, and Drama provide students with excellent creative and expressive skills. Art and Design teach students how to develop their creativity, problem-solving and visual literacy skills. Music and Drama develop students’ performance, communication and collaboration skills.

The Pros and Cons of Taking "Facilitating Subjects"

Taking "facilitating subjects" at A-Level is a popular option for students looking to keep their options open for university or for those who want to study a subject that is highly valued by employers. Facilitating subjects are defined by the Russell Group of universities as "subjects most commonly required or preferred by universities to get on to a range of degree courses". These subjects are known for being highly respected by universities and employers because they provide students with a set of skills that are highly transferable to different fields of study and work.

The facilitating subjects recommended by the Russell Group include mathematics and further mathematics, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history and modern and classical languages. These subjects are highly valued by universities because they provide students with a range of skills that are useful across different degree courses. For example, studying mathematics at A-Level can provide you with analytical skills that are highly valued by universities for courses such as engineering, physics and economics.

However, while facilitating subjects can be highly valuable, they are not always necessary or appropriate for every student. For example, if a student knows exactly what degree they want to study, they may choose to take A-Level subjects that are specifically required for that degree rather than facilitating subjects. Additionally, some students may have interests or skills that are better suited to other A-Level subjects, such as art or music.

Furthermore, taking facilitating subjects does not guarantee success in university or the job market. Other factors such as work experience, extracurricular activities and personal skills are also highly valued by universities and employers. Additionally, it is important for students to choose subjects that they enjoy and are passionate about, as this can increase motivation and overall academic performance. While facilitating subjects can be highly valuable for students looking to keep their options open, they are not always necessary or appropriate for every student.

Final thoughts

Choosing the right A-Level subjects is an important step in planning for your future career. Have a think about university requirements, your career goals and personal interests when making subject choices. The most important thing is to research different options – look at career options, degree courses, past papers and speak to people who have studied the subject before to make an informed decision. The students struggling in certain areas should consider consulting an expert A-Level tutor because they can provide such tips, resources and advice that can help you achieve high grades.

Making the choice between subjects is difficult but you are not alone in this experience – every A-Level student has been there! Sometimes the best way to make your decision is to speak to someone who has done it before – you can ask them how they made their decision, how difficult or interesting they found the subjects, and where the subject has taken them now.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa

Written by: Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa

Oxford University - PhD Mathematics

Rahil spent ten years working as private tutor, teaching students for GCSEs, A-Levels, and university admissions. During his PhD he published papers on modelling infectious disease epidemics and was a tutor to undergraduate and masters students for mathematics courses.

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