How to Make Your A Level Choices

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The English (and I use that deliberately, as other parts of the UK are different ) education system asks young people to narrow their subject choices at a very young age which can pose real dilemmas for many when they come to make their A Level choices.

In Year 7, we learn a whole range of subjects which we then narrow down for GCSE level. After GCSEs, we tend to narrow down even further and this can have real implications for future decision making.

The choices after GCSEs include A levels, Btec, IB (International Baccalaureate) or other more vocational qualifications. These are Level 3 qualifications and this level will be required for university entrance and for many Higher Apprenticeships, Degree Apprenticeships and School Leaver Programmes.

A Level Choices

September 2015 saw the introduction of a new wave of exams – a return to a linear, 2 year programme of study (Years 12 and 13/Lower and Upper 6th) rather than AS exams in Year 12 followed by A2 exams in Year 13.

We are in the middle of this transition which means that there are different offerings at different schools and colleges (all very confusing)

The ‘norm’ has been to choose 3 full A levels and 1 AS level. The AS level ends at the end of Year 12. This pattern continues in many schools and colleges although the AS will soon simply be a year of study in an extra subject i.e. no exam.

Some schools will offer 4 or 5 A levels – these will usually be in the independent sector as the state sector cannot fund this number. DON’T WORRY. NO university asks for more than 3 A levels  (not even Cambridge). Universities HAVE to make offers based on what everyone has access to studying. The extra subjects will give the student extra knowledge/ breadth etc but this can be covered in other ways (see below).

The most important thing is to acknowledge that A levels do not suit everyone – they are exam based, structured, curriculum based sets of learning. The second most important thing to consider is that students should choose what they are interested in and will enjoy.

If a young person aspires to applying to university for a particular subject area then it is really important to ensure that they choose entry-specific subjects. For example – Medicine requires Chemistry A level and  commonly Biology as well. Many Engineering courses require Maths. However, the majority of university courses are not prescriptive about subjects although they may strongly suggest that some subjects will be preferable.

A mix of Sciences and Humanities is usually very welcome and shows a rounded student with multiple skills. For example:

Maths, Physics, Art would be welcomed in many areas of engineering, is perfect for Architecture, very relevant for computer science
Biology, History, Sociology would be welcomed in Psychology, Education, Nutrition
Geography, Spanish, Maths would be welcomed in International Relations, Politics, Surveying

The creative subjects including Drama, Art, Design Technology are still highly regarded even for ‘academic’ degrees as they show creative thinking, solution-finding, problem solving skills. Combined with more ‘academic’ subjects they make a very valuable offering.


UCAS – the university application organisation – has information covering everything you need to know. They include tips on choosing A level subjects and it is well worth a look to get the FACTS.

I say FACTS as, sometimes, students can be misinformed by teachers and by parents and this can create some very sad and frustrating scenarios where young people struggle and ultimately fail in their studies.

It also worth remembering that many university degrees are not confined to one narrow subject area – most will be a combination which will draw on the various interests of the student. For example if you do a UCAS course search for politics you will find 112 universities offering a vast range of courses which have some relevance to politics.

Extra Curricular Activities

Alongside the A level subjects, students are strongly advised to retain some extra curricular activities. These could include sport, drama, music, a part time job, volunteering, a language conversation group etc and will look very good on a CV or be a good topic for discussion in an interview.

Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)

Many schools and colleges will offer the EPQ – the Extended Project Qualification. This is an independent project which the student chooses and its aim is to show some in depth research into an area of particular interest. This can be a great way to complement the A level subject choices and the end product can be almost anything – an essay, a film, a piece of music, a play, a piece of artwork etc.

Students who undertake the EPQ need to be good time managers and able to work independently. The EPQ is graded and some universities will base their offer on inclusion of this. Here is one student’s advice about the EPQ.

A levels are usually a ‘stepping stone’ to Higher Education or an Apprenticeship and grades count! Students can achieve the best grades in subjects they enjoy so make this the deciding factor.

I will be posting shortly about BTECS and the International Baccalaureate and it is worth visiting my facebook for daily work experience and career opportunities. I also offer one to one consultancy sessions for people at all stages of their education and career. Please visit my website below for more details.

Good luck

Vanessa Kenneth
CareersTutor Facebook


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