Choosing the “right” A Levels

There has been a lot of discussion [Guardian, BBC, Telegraph] in the media recently about how a student’s choice of A Levels affects their chances of securing a place at University. It has been suggested – frequently – that there is a “secret” list of subjects that are considered “hard” and therefore worthwhile, and those that are considered “soft” and therefore not worthwhile.

The Russell Group of universities, which includes Oxford, Cambridge, and my alma mater, King’s College London, has recently released a guide for students called Informed Choices. It is one of the ugliest and most difficult-to-read documents I have ever come across, so I have summarised below what I think is the most important advice.

The guide lists “facilitating subjects” that are “required more often than others” for entry to university:

“By choosing facilitating subjects at advanced level, you will have a much wider range of options open to you at university. An A Level qualification in any facilitating subject will keep open to you a number of degree courses.”

The list of facilitating subjects consists of physics (of course), chemistry, biology, maths and further maths, english, geography, history and classical and modern languages. The guide goes on to warn that:

“If you decide not to choose some of the facilitating subjects at A Level, many degrees at competitive universities will not be open to you.”

On the subject of “hard” and “soft” subjects, the guide has this to say:

“In general, subjects referred to as being ‘hard’ are more traditional and theoretical subjects, for example: English, History, Physics and Chemistry. In fact all the facilitating subjects listed earlier can be considered ‘hard’ with the addition of others such as Economics and Politics. ‘Soft’ subjects are usually subjects with a vocational or practical bias, for example: Media Studies, Art and Design, Photography and Business Studies.

“If you plan to take more than one perceived ‘soft’ subject, some caution may be needed.”

The University of Cambridge published its own list of “soft” subjects a couple of years ago. It included accounting, art and design, business studies, communication studies, dance, design and technology, drama and theatre studies, film studies, health and social care, home economics, ICT, leisure studies, media studies, music technology, performance studies, performing arts, photography, physical education, sports studies and travel and tourism on a list of subjects that it considered “less than ideal”.

There is a section in the Russell Group’s guide entitled Subjects Required for Different Degree Courses. I did a quick totting-up of the subjects listed as “Essential” and whilst I was hoping that Physics would come in in first place, I’m happy to settle for the Silver Medal.

(I took to using “MPBC” as shorthand, due to the frequency with which that four-subject combination came up.)

Update: Tom Hartley has a better graph than mine.

198 thoughts on “Choosing the “right” A Levels

  1. Manisha, I think it’s very unlikely that you’ll get into a top-flight university with only two A Levels, unless they are accompanied by something else like an EPQ.

  2. Thank you for help.

    So should i stick with ICT because there is no space for me to do computing? Or should i change it to BTEC business?
    Any other subject you would recommend instead of ICT, so that my application is better for university.

    thank you,
    Arsh Shaikh.

  3. Arsh, I don’t think ICT or BTEC Computing are particularly good for university applications. I’d suggest switching to physics, or chemistry, or one of the other “hard” subjects like English or a foreign language. But bear in mind that there’s an argument to be made that a good grade in a crap subject is worth more than a crap grade in a good subject.

  4. Yea. I only have choice between ICT or BTEC Business. I have chosen ICT. So my question is should stay in ICT or change it to BTEC Business?


  5. Thank you Mr. Reid! But don’t universities consider the grades rather than the number of a levels? However, do you think 2 a levels are acceptable for employment? How about 2 complete a levels of Chemistry & Physics + 1 Advanced subsidiary a level Biology? Do they seem to be acceptable at any condition?

  6. Manisha, universities certainly pay attention to grades, but they’re expecting a certain number of grades too! Many people get jobs without any A Levels, so I think two is fine for certain types of jobs. I really think you’ll need three full A Levels for university applications, but I could be wrong, depending on exactly which courses you’re looking at.

  7. Hll Mr. Rd. wld jst lk t pnt t yr bltnt gnrnc twrds th trm “fclttng sbjcts” nd sbjcts tht rn’t mths, blgy, chmstry r physcs rltd. Frst f ll, “fclttng sbjcts” (n th cs f nfrmd Chcs) smply mns sbjcts tht wll llw y t pply fr th wdst rng f dgrs. Ths thrfr mns tht n shld nly pply fr fclttng sbjcts f thy r nsr f thr dgr sprtns. Fclttng sbjcts ds nt ncssrly mn “bttr”. Fr xmpl, sy ws crtn tht wntd t d dgr n Clsscl Cvlstn. -Lvls n nglsh Ltrtr, Hstry, Phlsphy, Rlgs Stds, tc. wld bnft m t mch grtr xtnt thn yr nsstnt prpsl f th sppsd “hly qdfct” f th frmntnd mths nd scncs.
    Scndly, yr nsstnc tht Rlgs Stds/Phlsphy sn’t hghly rgrdd by nvrsts s llstrtv f yr gnrnc; Trnty Cllg hlds bth sbjcts n hgh rgrd s mttr f fct. Sm mprcl vdnc:
    ll n ll, fl lk y r msldng ths prspctv ndrgrdts (myslf bng n f thm) by ttng mths nd scnc s th b ll nd nd ll. Jst bcs sbjct sn’t rgrdd s “fclttng” dsn’t mn t hs lss mrt s rslt. fl lk ths clrfctn ws srly ndd ftr sphnd thrgh sm f yr pst nswrs nd fc-plmd s rslt. Pls d yr rsrch bfr rplyng wth yr ncrdbly bsd nd gnrnt pnn.

  8. hello, I’m planning on studying medicine, as so i’ve taken chem, bio,math but cannot decide between physics or sociology? i have been taking physics for a while, but just can’t seem to preform as well in it as the rest of my subjects nor enjoy it. Would i be at a disadvantage if i take sociology as my fourth subject? Thank you.

  9. hi I’m want to become a real scientists in a physics but how I can get a free courses

  10. Are media studies,business studies, geography, psychology or sociology and English language good subjects to study for a levels? Would they get me into a good university? I don’t know what I want to do in the future.

  11. You need to decide what you want to do. Media Studies is often used as a prototypical example of a “soft” course, so I wouldn’t recommend that, and I feel the same way about Business Studies, Psychology and Sociology. Geography and English Language are fine.

  12. Im choosing my A levels at the moment and id like to study history and Spanish at a Russel group university with an Erasmus programme and then hopefully work in the foreign office. So far my three definite A levels are history, classical studies and Spanish but I don’t know whether to take French, English language or geography for my fourth option block, im best at English language but I keep hearing its a soft subject, French I do enjoy but im doing French and Spanish gcse atm and now im in Y11 having French and Spanish controlled assessments at the same time is starting to bite. Im still getting As and A*s just with too much stress. Also geography I find interesting and all but with Spanish history and classics which are all very academic im concerned it could fry my brain so to speak :s any advice appreciated.

  13. Is there a site anywhere on internet, that will tell you the degrees / careers that your choice of A Levels will lead to ?
    All sites, it seems, approach the problem from the wrong direction for the majority of students; most students don’t have a clue what they want to do as a career but like / decide to do certain A Levels and it would be SO useful if they could be told what their choices will / will not let them do !

  14. As far as I know, there isn’t a site that does that. And you’re wrong, that’s not the wrong way around. Far more sensible to decide what you want to do with your life, and then choose what you do for two years; than to decide what you want to do for two years and have that dictate the rest of your life.

  15. I agree with what you’re saying from one point of view but that is asking a sixteen year old to know where their life is going. I think the majority of ‘children’ of that age don’t know.
    Back to the internet: do you think it would be a useful tool (site) that allowed one to enter A Level choices to see where they would lead. Then alter one choice or more to see how it would affect course and career possibilities. I think that would reinforce all the the talk of facilitating subjects before a student embarked on the course / career search.

  16. No, I don’t think that would be a useful tool. It’s a bit like saying “You have £5. What can you buy?” rather than “You want to buy a sandwich and some crisps. That will cost £5.”.

    Imagine that a pupil decides to study physics, chemistry, English and geography. This makes it possible for them to go on to do almost anything. For the vast majority of A Level choices your website would have to list the vast majority of careers. Doing it the other way around is far more sensible, and far more useful.

  17. You’re still assuming someone knows what they want. The sandwich and crisps can only be bought with the exact number and denomination of coins: get that wrong but still have £5 and you can only have a baguette and a coke.
    I agree with you and disagree with you.
    Thank you for taking the time to reply and I think you site is one of the best around.

  18. hi I if I do physics chemistry and french what kind of medicinal
    work can I got in the futur…..

  19. Are you serious? You can’t even write a simple comment in proper English. No work at all would be my guess, based on your comment here. Do you want to try again?

  20. I would learn to spell “psychologist” first. And the answer is that I don’t know, you’d be better talking to your school’s career advisor. I would think that a psychology A Level, which is not well-regarded, would perhaps not be the best idea. You’d be better-off with a good grounding in the STEM subjects: chemistry, biology, maths, etc. Look at university websites and see what their entrance requirements are.

  21. Currently I am in high school, and I am struggling to choose which courses to take if I wanted to get into the realm of physics. I was debating between calculus 30 and calculus 30 AP (advanced placement) and was wondering if that would be necessary or if calc 30 is enough.

  22. Hello Mr Reid, I am currently in year 11 with a few months left till I undergo my GCSE’s. I wish to pursue the career of being a vet and decided in picking biology, chemistry and psychology. Even though some if the top unversties require physics or maths, some luckily don’t, my reason for not picking one if them is because my maths skills is not that impressive, even though I am predicted a C/B I’d say maths is my weakness. So any advice ? And which exam board for chemistry would you say is harder OCR or AQA, and is chemistry heavily maths related? To the point at someone like me would struggle ?

  23. Jocelyn, if you’re struggling with GCSE maths you will struggle with the very demanding and veterinary science course, and even more so with the extremely competitive application process. I can’t say for sure, but if I were running a veterinary school I wouldn’t want to take on anyone with only a ‘C’ grade in GCSE maths.

  24. I wanna choose Geography and History in A level.. My questions are.. are those subjects relevant and okay? And.. I need to choose one more subject.. What do you think it should be? I’m comfortable with psychology.. Sociology..

  25. Hi Mr Reid,
    is the following courses related?
    1- Drama and Theatre Studies, English, Media Studies and Sociology- [All A Level]
    2- Sports Diploma and Applied Science- [All BTEC]

  26. It’s not specific maths skills, though I’m sure they’re present (doses, etc.), but rather the difficulty involved. Cambridge states that “applicants with weak science/maths GCSE grades or low science/maths AS module scores will be at a considerable disadvantage”. Bristol, Nottingham, RVC, etc say the same, either at GCSE or A Level.

  27. Hi
    I am currently doing History, English Language and Literature, maths, biology and Chemistry IGCSEs. I want to study child diet and nutrition or Travel and tourism for A Levels. If I take an Open University degree in one of the fields I’m considering, do you think I’ll be able to get a proper job or will I have to take some ‘hard’ subjects for A levels?

  28. Dania, I’m not sure I understand. An Open University degree and A Levels are not in the same category. You shouldn’t be choosing either OU or A Levels.

  29. I would like to be a vet, I’ll soon have my gcse exams in 2 months time and the plan is to get A-a* for my science, b for maths, and everything else A’s except. For a level I wish to pick english literature, biology, chemistry and psychology. Is that okay ?
    I also need help in deciding a back up plan, because since I was 5 I’ve always wanted to be a vet, even up to now at im 16, I can only see myself working wih animals
    Any ideas on a well paid, animal involving career?

  30. I want to study law at university. For my AS-Levels, my current options are: English, French, Philosophy and Ethics, Psychology and History. However, I can only choose 4 out of those 5 subjects as I am doing Leiths as well so it would be too much work doing 5 AS’s and Leiths. To get the best chance of getting into a university to study law, which 4 should I pick?
    Note: I really want to keep French and English but the other three I am flexible. Also, I can’t do maths or any other languages.

  31. Jocelyn, to become a vet you need the best-of-the-best grades, at GCSE and at A Level. There is no university course that is more competitive that Veterinary Science. I don’t think English Lit and Psychology (especially Psychology) would be very useful for a Vet. Sci. application, but I’m not a careers advisor. You should speak to one of those.

  32. Flora, I have no idea what “Leiths” is, so I can’t comment with regards to that. English, French and history are “hard”, “enabling” subjects, but P&E and psychology are not, so I would drop one of those. I would definitely keep history and English if I were looking to apply to read Law. You should talk to a careers advisor though, because I’m not an expert re: Law applications.

  33. Hi Mr Reid.
    I have recently got my conditional offer at Handsworth Girls Grammer Sixth Form.
    I have applied to study A Levels in the following subjects:

    English Literature
    (My reserve being Chemistry)

    Everyone who hears the combination of A Level subjects that I wish to study insist that I am ‘crazy’, ‘lost’ or ‘stupid’. I chose these subjects because I have a talent in all four at GCSE and enjoy studying them. I’ve done some research and the University of Birmingham (my ideal university) would allow me to study, at the least, degrees in at least 3 different subjects (depending on which subject I drop in my second year or if I carry on studying all four).

    I just wanted your opinion on my choices, they are not too ‘random’ are they?

    Thanks :)

  34. Hello, I am currently taking A level applied science, single and double, I can’t imagine these sciences being greatly accepted, i also take English Lang and Politics; however, I have being thinking of changing courses, maybe taking law, business or economics rather than the extra science and politics.

    Any advice

  35. Zainab,

    They are certainly an odd combination, but if you’re sure they will allow you to study the subjects you want to study at university then I’d say they’re fine.

  36. Alex,

    With the exception of English Language, none of the subjects you mentioned are considered “facilitating subjects”. You may wish to bear this in mind.

  37. Mr.Reid. I am looking to do Law at university but cannot decide which A Level to do. The subjects I am wavering between are Physics and French. I am better at French but physics would probably leave me a wider choice in the future as the subjects I am picking are: English, Maths, Spanish, History, (French or Physics). Any advice?

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