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.

242 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



  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,

  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.

  9. I am studying in as level
    And I have taken the following subjects
    Biology chemistry psychology and economics. I want to pursue medicine.
    I am finding economics very hard and planning to drop economics and take up photography under art. I am wondering whether photography will be too hard maybe
    I am ver confused please help

  10. I don’t understand your question. Photography will not help you get a place on a medicine course. If you’re struggling with four A Levels you will struggle more with studying medicine.

  11. Hi, I just wanted to ask a question. I’m really concerned about my IGCSE results because I’ve missed one requirement for A-Level Psychology. The terms were getting a (B) in Maths, Biology and English. I failed Maths. Being a psychologist would be my dream job. So I’m wondering with my results, what are my options? Any other career paths I can follow (that are well paid) and is there an alternative so I can do psychology in University instead of in A-Levels? With my results, what do you think I should go for?


    History (A*)
    Art (C)
    Geography (B)
    Biology (B)
    Maths (F)
    Literature (A)
    English (A)

  12. You don’t need A Level psychology to study psychology at university, in fact I’d recommend *against* A Level psych.

  13. Hi,Mr Reid
    i want to study medicine and i was wondering if my A level combo which is maths,chemistry,biology and French is okay to get into a good university.Thanks

  14. Hi. I will be starting my alevels this year. I am not sure wat i will be doing in the future. Eng is compulsory in my college. I was thinking to take all 3sciences and math however i didnot have admaths in my olevels. But then 5 subjects can be very hard to pull off. Wat should i do?

  15. Wat should i do?

    Try submitting your comment again, but this time put some effort into getting it to make sense.

  16. Hi Im going into a levels this year and know I want to do biology, chemistry, and economics. I know maths will go well with this list but Im not that good at maths and have achieved an a at gcse. In comparison, I would LOVE to do history at a levels but it doesn’t fit my subject choices. I may do business in the future or medicine so maths will help get into medical school. However I don’t want to ruin my chances of getting into a good university if I get a b in maths at a levels so I’m facing a dilemma. At gcse I got an a* for biology, chemistry and history so should I go for history or just cope with maths to get a good grade?

  17. Maths will give you more university options, but if you don’t like it you shouldn’t study it. History is a good subject, and with bio and chem you *might* still be able to get into medical school.

  18. Hello. Is it wise to take a level maths when i didnot have olevel addmaths?

  19. Hi , I am doing AS level in my school the board is edxcle! I wanted to know what would be easier AS Maths or ICT ! I want my major as Business management so I have choose Business and English till now but I am just confused about AS Maths or ICT so I can get a better grade.

  20. Maths and ICT are difficult to differentiate between. To study business I’d go with maths, but ICT is probably easier (ICT also involves a large amount of coursework, I expect).

  21. Hi Mr. Reid
    for my gcse I got A* in lit and an A in chem. however in my alevel I was thinking of dropping lit for chem because I feel I may want to do psychiatry or perhaps forensic psychology.
    my current alevel subjects are maths, physics, psychology and lit. I took psychology to get a flavor of how its like cause I am very interested by it.

  22. I was wondering if dropping lit for chem would be wise?
    Since i am good at lit i can guarantee a good

  23. I was wondering if dropping lit for chem is wise or to stick with my first choice?

  24. Hi Mr Reid
    I got B in both Biology and Bsuiness IGCSE and i want to choose 1 of them for A level
    i know that Biology is a better subject compared to the “soft’ business but i am not really into the medical field but into the aviation field as i am also taking Maths and Physics
    So what do u recommend for me? biology or business?

  25. Are you only taking 3 A Levels? If I were wanting to go onto flight training I’d want to see some maths in there too.

  26. Hi Mr. Reid
    Im now doing my A levels
    I finished my AS levels last year, i did biology chemistry physics and math
    I got an A in all of them!
    This year im doing 3 AL subjects: Maths, biology and physics.
    Would these subject choices and grades allow me into chemical/ biomedical engineering? Would i be better choosing chem over physics? I find chemistry very challenging and boring though

  27. Hi Mr. Reid
    Which A level choices would qualify me best for engineering?
    I took biology chemistry physics and math as my AS level subjects and achieved an A in all 4! For my AL i chose physics biology and math! Alot of my friends have advised me to change from physics to chemistry but i find chemistry to be very boring and tough
    Should i keep physics or would chemistry increase my chances of getting accepted by more universities
    Im aiming for an A* in biology and math and an A in physics for my A2 exams this year
    Thank you

  28. For engineering I’d take maths, further maths, physics and one other. You don’t have FM, but I would choose physics over chemistry if I was applying to study engineering.

  29. I’m currently in the as level. I’m taking maths, physics, economics and chemistry. However, I’m thinking of dropping chemistry because I find chemistry is quite of a difficult subject. I’m afraid after I drop chemistry, the field I can pursue for my degree will be very narrow, so do you think I should still drop it?

  30. I’m currently in the as level. I’m taking maths, physics, economics and chemistry. However, I’m thinking of dropping chemistry because I find chemistry is quite of a difficult subject. I’m afraid after I drop chemistry, the field I can pursue for my degree will be very narrow, so do you think I should still drop it?

  31. Hi I want to do medicine at uni. For a level, I’m definitely doing maths, chemistry and biology but not sure whether to do physics or philosophy as my fourth. I’m much more interested in philosophy and ethics than physics but I’ve been told both are just as useful. What do I do

  32. Gaya, which do you enjoy more? I would probably choose physics, but if you’ve been told that Philosophy is just as good, then choose the one you most enjoy.

  33. If you drop chemistry you’ll be unable to take many chemistry- and science-related courses, yes. I have no opinions on whether or not you should drop it, because I know nothing about you.

  34. I am hoping to take maths physics, economics and business for my AS….is it a very bad combination? I am very interested in Architecture, And the business world, besides i also have an ambition to study further in economics…please help me out here. I have got 4A*s and 4As in my IGCSE.

  35. That’s not a combination I would recommend for architecture. The maths and physics are both good, but economics/business doesn’t add much in terms of being useful for architecture.

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