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.

210 thoughts on “Choosing the “right” A Levels

  1. I’m doing following a’level subjects geography,business studies and english literature . i recently changed from french to geography but i git a lower grade at gcse in geography than french was this change advisable?

  2. Hi Mr Reid,
    Thanks for your reply; my son’s going to have a chat with his school to see if they can speak with uni admissions. It was much easier in the 80s when an ‘A’ was 3 points, a ‘B’ 2 etc

    Regards,

    Ami-K

  3. Dear Mr Reid,
    I’m not completely certain yet so wan’t to keep my options open but I’m hoping to study Education at university with Philosophy or religious studies. I’d be interested in studying something sport related.
    For A level, I think I’m going to study Philosophy and ethics, Classical civilisation, Music and Psychology. Or maybe english literature would be more useful that Music?
    Thank you,
    B

  4. None of those subjects (except English Lit) are facilitating subjects. Beyond that, it depends on what sort of “Education” you want to study.

  5. How important is it to do ‘facilitating subjects’ to get into a good uni?

  6. I want to study computer science at a top university and also do want scholarship. I have 6 A level subjects: Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry,English and Applied ICT.Is applied ICT a soft subject. Should I drop it and take computing or computer science instead, or are they too soft subjects.

  7. I want to get admitted to a top university with scholarship. I have 6 A level subjects: Maths, Furthermaths, PHYSICS,Chemistry,English and Applied Ict. I wanted to know sir that if app.ict is a soft subject or not. And should I drop it and take computing or computer science, or are they too soft subjects.

    waiting for your kind reply.

  8. I can barely understand your comment, so I’m not sure about getting into a good university with a scholarship. There is no good reason to take 6 subjects, and you haven’t even indicated what you’d like to study at university, so I can’t help you.

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