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.

139 thoughts on “Choosing the “right” A Levels

  1. What else can i take if my combinations are Geography ad travel and tourism? Is computing ok?

  2. Chemistry is considered to be far more academic than philosophy. If you can get a good grade at A Level I would choose chemistry over philosophy, but then I’m a scientist and therefore I’m biased and I don’t know what you want to do at university.

  3. Thanks so much for your reply. I really want to do english at Bristol and will need a*aa – do you think it would be better to get an a for as philosophy or a b for as chemistry? Thanks, Hannah

  4. Well if Bristol require A*AA then there’s no point in getting a B grade in anything. For an English course you might be alright with Philosophy – you should check with Bristol and with your careers advisor.

  5. Following on from the english at Bristol comment, how important are as grades as regards to whether you get a place or not?

  6. Very. In my experience, only the most competitive of courses use anything beyond grades to any great extent (unless you turn up to an Open Day and stab someone). As usual, check with your Careers Advisor.

  7. I am thinking of doing fashion/textiles or Physcology/criminology at university. Im currently choosing my 4 a levels, do you recommend Physcology and biology? And textiles, with media to support that?

  8. I want to study physics and I’m doing, maths, physics and chemistry for A-level. I’m stuck between German and F. maths for my last option because I feel like further maths would be more helpful but german would open more career aspects in foreign countries.

  9. I have absolutely no idea what the requirements for “Fashion/Textiles” are, so I can’t help you there. “Physcology”, by which I assume you mean “Psychology” and Criminology are popular courses so you’ll need good A Levels to get into those. Psychology is not a particularly well-respected A Level, and neither is Textiles or Media – none of these are “hard” subjects; they don’t appear on the “facilitating subjects” list. Biology is generally a good choice.

  10. I think either would probably be fine. I’ve always regretted not continuing with a foreign language, and Germany does a lot of good physics, so my personal preference would be German. Having said that, I’d check with prospective universities and with your Careers Advisor – further maths certainly isn’t a bad choice if you want to read physics at university.

  11. Hello! I am considering dropping one of my four AS levels. My teacher thinks I should not do so and continue with all four of them as I can get good grades in them. I do both, Economics and Business Studies, and since many universities don’t want them to be studied together, I want to drop Business Studies. Is it better to do four subjects (even if they’re soft ones) and get straight As or should I just stick to the best three?

  12. It depends on what your other subjects are. Generally speaking, four is better than three, but three good grades in “hard” subjects are better than four not-so-good grades in “soft” subjects. Talk to your careers advisor.

  13. I’d like to do Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics for my IALs. Do you think it’s a great combination? And isn’t there any problem of omitting Physics?

  14. I don’t know what IALs are. And whether or not there is a problem with omitting physics depends entirely on what you want to study. If you want to read physics I would say that omitting physics would be a big mistake.

  15. I have just been told, that my chosen A levels (English Literature, Maths, Psychology and biology) clash. I have to drop either English, Maths or psychology and replace it with either sociology, applied business or accountancy. Which do you think would be my best option? I get similar grades in all subjects. Also I am looking at studying veterinary nursing at university which requires at B grade in biology and grades CD in two other A levels. Thank you.

  16. I don’t know enough about veterinary nursing to say, really. Maths and biology are “hard” subjects, and English literature is similar. Psychology, and the alternatives you’ve listed, are not “hard” subjects. You should speak to your careers advisor.

  17. Hi Mr. Reid! Which is the best option out of these three:

    1. English Lit, math, bio, chem
    2. Psych, Eng Lit, bio, chem
    3. Psych, bio, chem. math?

  18. It depends on what you want to do, but I would avoid psychology as a general rule. Option 1 contains only “hard” subjects, so that may be your best bet.

  19. Hi, thank you so much for your help. I’m currently in year 10 going to year 11 this September. I plan on doing English language, French, business studies and ict as my a-level subjects. What do you think about these combination of subjects, seeing as I only picked one “hard” subject? I really want to pick the right combination of subjects because I do not want my choices to hinder my chances of being accepted into top universities. I think it’s also made it harder for me to pick my subjects because the subjects I’m good at are considered “soft”. Any advice? Thank you again for your help.

  20. Business Studies and ICT are soft, but French and English are not. There’s no point in picking a combination of subjects because “I do not want my choices to hinder my chances of being accepted into top universities” if you don’t know what you want to study at university.

  21. Hello Mr Reid i would just like to ask if this is a good combination of A levels Chemistry Biology Economics and statistics my first choice included Maths A level but unfortunately i achieved a Grade B in GCSE maths instead of the requirement which was an A?

  22. Chemistry and Biology are both “hard” subjects; I don’t know much about Economics & Statistics A Level. As always, it depends on what you want to study. (Also, I’m not sure why your sentence ends with a question mark.)

  23. Hello Mr Reid
    I am really confused between history and economics for my A level as both clash and also would politics, chemistry, maths and german be fine as A level ti get into a top university? Thanks in advance

  24. I want to study Physics at university therefore I am definite on taking Physics, Chemistry and Maths. However I am not too sure what to take for my fourth subject. My options are Biology or Geography. If I take biology, I am worried that all four of my subjects will not be versatile enough as it would only realistically be science and maths that I am taking. Do universities care about that? If I take geography at AS then at least I would have one ‘essay’ subject to be considered by universities. However I am not too sure if the geography course is right for me. In summary, would three sciences and maths seem like I only have one set of skills for the top universities or is that combination still credited?

  25. Mr Reid I’ve picked Maths, economics, philosophy and ethics and drama and theatre studies… With 4A’s at as and 3A’s predicted for A2, do I stand a chance at Russell group universities? (Not sure on the degree I will pick, probably economics or something to do with the financial sector)

  26. Aadeer, it depends entirely on what you want to study. Chemistry, maths and German are “hard” subjects, but I’m less sure about politics.

  27. Hollie, universities are looking for someone with a passion for their subject. I wouldn’t attach too much emphasis to being a “good all-rounder”, but I’m not an expert. I would talk to a careers advisor, but I don’t think you’d have too much trouble applying with physics, chemistry, maths and biology. You might want to consider geography just to give yourself some variability in your A Level years. Do you really want to do quite so much science?

  28. Far Cry, Philosophy & Ethics and Drama & Theatre Studies are not considered “hard” subjects. I don’t think they’d be a good match for a economics/finance application. Also, don’t get too focused on the idea of the Russell Group – the Russell Group is a self-selected group; nobody is saying that they’re the best other than themselves.

  29. hello, this question isn’t really about choosing the right subjects but I thought you may be able to help me anyway. I’m just about to start my A Levels and I have chosen to do 3 A Levels that I am happy with. A lot of other people I know have chosen to do 4 and I was considering looking for a 4th one to do. My question is will it benefit me by doing 4? will it look better when applying for universities? or am I better at sticking to 3 and getting good grades in them? thanks

  30. I just started with my A level’s . Please suggest me the right subject combination i currently have Economics, Business Studies and Urdu. Other than English and History Advise me a good credited subject.

  31. Most offers are based on three grades. As to whether universities “prefer” three or four, I simply don’t know.

  32. What? It’s up to you to select your subjects. It depends entirely on what you’re good at, what you want to spend the next two years doing and what you want to study at university.

  33. Hello mr.reid I do not know what to choose my choices are
    1 – business, economic, accounting , math
    2- business , economic , law , german
    3- business , economic , law , german , math.
    tell me which is the best and why , and umm I am reallt confused as I want to go for a accounting field but the job opportunities are slowly decreasing . And my next choices are law or economist. And accountants don’t usually get paid that good so there’s that. I am currently in Alevel and so I want to know

  34. First of all, learn to write. Capital letters and proper spelling are not optional, and nobody is going to hire you if you write things like “accountants don’t usually get paid that good” (which is demonstrably false, by the way). If you ask your question again, in an understandable way, I’ll answer it.

  35. If I’m taking sciences, Shall I also take Business Studies or drop it?

    (What is your opinion, if I’m coming from an Arabic country)

  36. It depends on what you want to do. I’m not sure what the relevance of coming from an Arabic country is though? Are you applying to UK universities? Business Studies is not generally considered a “hard” course, FWIW.

  37. Hi Mr.Reid,
    I just wanted some quick advice from you regarding my AS Level choices, whether they give me a good chance of getting into the top universities such as the Russel Group Universities, So the 5 subjects I’m doing are: Maths, Economics, Politics, Business and German. Also could you please recommend which I should drop in my second year.

    Thanks in advance much appreciated!

  38. Why the emphasis on the Russell Group? And why on Earth do you think I’d have a better idea of what you should drop in your second year than you do, without even knowing what it is you want to study at university? And why are you doing five subjects in the first place when your university offer will be based on three?

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