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.

291 thoughts on “Choosing the “right” A Levels

  1. Mr Reid,
    I am currently having trouble picking what I want to do for a-level. I know I definitely want to do English Literature and History, but cannot choose 2 from Biology, Politics and Psychology. I am predicted As or above in all my subjects (Triple Science, Maths, Spanish, History, Drama, ECS and both English literature and language) except Maths and Physics in which I am predicted Bs. I am also unsure about degrees and career choices, but I am especially interested in History, Law and English.
    Please help!

  2. Gloria, Biology is a facilitating subject, politics and psychology are not. English would be better than English Literature, but it really does depend on university choices – decide on those first. As always, you should talk to your Careers Advisor.

  3. Hi I want to apply for medicine. I am in AS and biology and chemistry, and I want to take Latin and Japanese. I don’t want to do maths because I find it difficult. Do you think med schools will reject me for another candidate who does 3 or more science AS/A2s because I’m taking softer subjects, even if I get all As in them? Do med schools look down upon non-science subjects?

  4. I don’t know anything about Latin or Japanese, but I suspect that medical schools would prefer maths or a science instead. People with three or four STEM subjects are certainly who you’ll be up against.

  5. Dear Mr Reid,
    I wanted to pursue a law degree after my A levels. Which A levels subject combinations stated below is best suited for an application to a law school?Thank you for your time.

    1. Economics/ Law/ English Lit
    2. Psychology/ Law / English Lit

  6. hi i would like to know what are the carriers i have by doing bio , phy ,and computing science for my a/l .

  7. Dear sir, I finished my IGCSEs on jan 2015 and I was suppose to give my As this jan 2016.
    But due to some health issues I will not be able to give them. My subjects are chemistry, physics, maths, further maths, English, Economics and Accounting. I am going to give my As on Jan 2017, how will this affect my chances of getting into a good university, as I am having a gap year.

  8. Sure sir, I finished my IGCSEs ( O levels) on Jan 2015. I was going to give my AS( Advanced Subsidiary) on Jan 2016 but due to some health issues I cannot. If I give my AS on jan 2017 and finish my whole A level course with good grades will I be eligible to get Scholarship at a good university or will my gap year affect my chances. I plan to study computer science.

  9. hey mr ,
    i wanna study social science in uni , and i really dont know what are the a levels required for studying that . i hate chemistry so im thinking of dropping it in school to take economics thought that would help me more in my future major . and i dont know if biology is needed . what do you think i should do . thanks for ur help

  10. You’ve got more chance of getting a scholarship if you learn to use capital letters and proper English. Also, if you’ve been absent due to illness, that isn’t really a Gap Year.

  11. Dear Mr.reid
    Im planning on doing aerospace engineering in uni, and my A level subjects(which I have selected) are maths, futher maths and physics. Is this combination good?(to entr uni for aerospace engineering)

  12. Hi Mr Reid,
    I am currently undecided as to whether I would like to study economics or medicine in uni. I have chosen to take Maths, Biology, Chemistry and Economics at A level. Will these subjects enable me to study economics in university?

  13. Yes, I’d’ve thought so. But physics would probably be better than biology. You should check out universities’ requirements via their websites.

  14. Hi, I wish to pursue a law degree and I was wondering if these subjects would be good to study at a level:
    English literature
    I was also considering doing a law a level in preparation for the degree, however I am slightly confused as I have heard mixed opinions over the a level and I’m not sure if 5 a levels would be do able. What subjects would you recommend?

  15. Anna, they sound fine, but I would check with universities’ requirements first. I would avoid doing fine A Levels, especially if the fifth one is Law.

  16. Hi, I’m in year 11 and I have to choose my A-level options sometime in February I think. I’d love to choose the subjects I enjoy the most which is theatre studies, French and chemistry. I also really like the combination because I would like to be something like a midwife or obstetrician (so chemistry is needed for that), I would also like to become pretty much fluent in French (and it’s a facilitating subject right?), and I just LOVE theatre! But whenever I tell people I want to do these subjects they are never happy and think it’s a bad combination and probably wouldn’t help me get into a good uni or a good job… I was just wondering on your opinion.

  17. Florence: It’s a very disparate collection of subjects, certainly. Theatre Studies isn’t going to help you get in to much at university unless what you want to study is related to Theatre Studies. If you want to be a midwife, there are probably better subjects you could choose. Having said that, studying what you love is very important. Make sure to speak to a careers advisor and look at universities’ grade requirements.

  18. Mr Reid, I have recently completed my IGCSE’s. Id like to know if it is reasonable doing biology, chemistry, maths and french at A level? If so, what are my career options?

  19. Rutendo, there are too many things to list. Better to decide what you want to do first, and choose your A Levels based on that.

  20. Dear Mr Reid
    I’m currently in my As year of my A levels. I’m taking Chemisty, biology, psychology plus an EPQ accounting for my fourth AS. I’m not studying math because I just don’t believe in studying subjects you don’t have a passion for. My goal is to apply to a Russel group university for medicine(excluding Oxbridge). Do you think not taking math would affect this goal to badly?

  21. Demi, those are not the subjects I would choose for a medicine application. I think you will find it difficult to secure a place when you’re up against people who have done maths in place of your psychology, but the chemistry and biology are good choices – you may be alright.

  22. I am a biology student as I studied the combination of physics chemistry and biology but I want to study geology maths is really necessary….I really don’t want maths to study what shall I do…

  23. Hi! For my A Levels I would like to take Maths, Economics, Fine Art and one other subject. The options I am heavily considering are RS or Goverment and Politics. What do you recommend?
    I’d like a career in marketing. I’m doing well in my GCSEs right now and I’m aiming for As and A*s in everything.
    Thank you for your help :)

  24. Mr Reid I want to do journalism or teaching, I want to take Biblical Hebrew, Spanish and English.
    Should I take French or history as a 4th?
    Thanks !

  25. I’m not sure myself unfortunately! Is history as respected as French? Does it leave more options if I take two MFL subjects or one MFL and history? Which will make me stand out? Thank you !

  26. I’ve no idea, Tamar. This is not my area of expertise. Hebrew is certainly an unusual choice, so I wouldn’t rely too much on that. It depends on what courses you’re going to be applying for. Two languages would probably serve you well as a journalist or teacher, provided you kept up with them and were fluent in both.

  27. I’m doing my as levels and its my first year and I’ve chosen math, french, english lit, and business/economics. thinking about dropping math and taking philosophy as i am finding math difficult. would that be a bad move? i did want to get into cambridge/oxford and I’m not sure what to do! in gcse math i got a B+. what would you suggest? i am strong in all 3 of my other subjects.

  28. Oxford and Cambridge both require that you can use capital letters and punctuation properly, so you’re not off to a good start there! It depends on what subject(s) you want to study, but generally speaking maths is probably better than philosophy. In terms of average level of ability, I don’t think I know anyone who has got into Oxford or Cambridge with B grades at GCSE – they only take the very best of the very best. You should talk to a careers advisor.

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