10 Tips on Choosing your A Levels (or equivalent) for top UK Universities
If you’re currently in year 10 or 11 and considering an application to top UK universities, perhaps including Oxford or Cambridge, you’ll want to think ahead about your choice of A Levels to make sure that your choices will serve you well in making a strong application.
Whether you’ve already chosen a university path or you have no idea what you’d like to apply for, you can still take steps towards creating a strong A-level profile. With this in mind, our friends over at Oxbridge Applications have outlined 10 factors to consider as you weigh up your options when choosing A Levels.
If you do have a course in mind, the first thing you’ll want to do is to check any subject requirements on the course page. These are non-negotiable unless it wasn’t possible for you to take that subject for some reason beyond your control. If this is the case, you’ll want to get in touch with the university to discuss your situation.
Do note that Cambridge colleges can make their own subject requirements independently of other colleges, so make sure you look through the course page carefully, including the section on college-specific requirements.
What about subjects that aren’t listed as required? A certain degree of reading between the lines is often necessary here. For example, the Oxford Maths course lists Further Maths as ‘recommended’ rather than ‘essential’. In practice, however, you will obviously be disadvantaged by not having it unless your school does not offer the A Level. This can also be the case with other hard sciences such as Engineering, where Further Maths is often an implicit, though not an explicit, requirement; 96% of successful A Level applicants for Engineering at Cambridge in 2021 were studying Further Maths.
In some cases this is a bit less obvious; PPE is not normally considered a science, nor is it heavily mathematical, but nevertheless most applicants do have Maths A Level and it is clearly helpful for the more quantitative aspects of the course, including logic in Philosophy and most of Economics. The Thinking Skills Assessment, which is used as the admissions test for PPE, includes a lot of maths in section 1. Although this takes the form of problem-solving questions rather than specific A-level topics, it’s clear to see how being strong at maths is an advantage.
Although some admissions tests are purely skills-based, several others are based on knowledge from GCSE or A Level. For example, the BMAT test for Medicine includes sections on Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, which are roughly equivalent to GCSE. While it is not at all necessary to take Physics for Medicine, you’ll want to make sure you check the specification for the test as you’ll likely have to revise some Physics material.
Once you’ve ticked off the required subjects, you’ll want to think about which other options may be helpful for your chosen course. Some courses may help you with this, for example by requiring or suggesting that you take one or more essay-based subjects. But even if this isn’t stated, it’s a good idea to have a think about what skills your chosen course requires, and how you can show these skills. For example, is your chosen subject mostly essay-based? Does it involve a lot of reading? Is it more quantitative in nature? Does it involve a language or literature element?
Have a look through the course description to get a feel for the content of the course and how it is assessed, and try to pick at least one or two A Levels that will show these skills. For a History of Art application you may want to take History, or maybe a helpful language – say, Italian. Something like RS/Theology would also be relevant in terms of content, and English Literature would prove your essay-writing and close analysis skills.
But what if you haven’t decided what you’d like to study at university by the time you have to pick your A Levels? The first thing to say is that you don’t need to worry or rush the decision – the majority of people will be in this situation, and it’s very normal for a university course decision to be based on what subjects you enjoy in your first year of A Level. In this case, A Level choices should be based on three things: ability, interest, and complementarity/subject groupings. Let’s look at those one by one.
It goes without saying that to succeed in an A Level course, the subject should be something you’re good at, and not just something you feel you ‘should’ take for whatever reason. In many cases, you will already know which subjects you naturally excel at from your time studying the GCSE syllabus, and this will hopefully be confirmed when your GCSE results come out. If you are considering an A Level that you did not study at GCSE, use the principle of transferable skills; if you excel at essay-based humanities, you’re likely to be a good candidate for A Level Philosophy or History of Art, even if you’re never studied it before. If you’re good at Maths, you’re in a good position to take an A Level in Computer Science.
In some cases, a good GCSE result is not always enough to tell you how you will do on the A Level course. For example, some people find the jump from GCSE Maths to A Level Maths to be a challenge, even if they got a 9 grade. If you’re unsure, ask yourself the following questions: Have I genuinely enjoyed this subject? Am I in one of the top sets, or near the top of the class? Am I aware of what the A Level will entail? Speak to your subject teacher if you are unsure as they will know your potential in the subject, and what it takes to excel at a higher level.
No matter how smart you are, you’re unlikely to do really well at A Level if you simply don’t enjoy the subject. Take some time to reflect on what you enjoyed at GCSE, and why – was it the content itself, or was it just the fact that you had a good teacher? Sometimes it can be hard to separate the two! Choosing subjects that you have a real interest in will ensure that you will later be able to apply for a university course that you’re interested in, which will maximise your chances of success. If you pick sciences because you feel you have to, and then later realise you’re more of a philosopher at heart, it will be harder to change direction for university. Listen to your heart now, and you’ll make life a lot easier for yourself later on!
If you’re not sure what you’d like to apply for in the future, it’s a good idea to think more generally about the sort of subjects you enjoy and use that to choose some complementary A Levels. For example, if you’ve reflected on the last two points (ability and interest) and have concluded that your top subjects at GCSE were History and English, it might be a good idea to pick a third subject that relates to those in some way – perhaps another source-based subject, or another literature-based subject. This tends to be a ‘safe’ way of picking A Levels because the link to subjects you have a proven ability in should ensure that you excel in all of them, and because it will allow you to access many university courses that also fall into these categories. This doesn’t mean your set of A Levels needs to look like everyone else’s – bright students often have multiple different interests, and that’s a great thing to pursue as long as there’s just enough complementarity to make an application viable further down the line.
Offers for the vast majority of courses will be based on 3 A Levels, and in most cases there’s no need to take more than 3. However, there is a difference here between science and non-science degrees. At Cambridge, for example, the average number of predicted A* at A Level for successful applicants to science courses is 3.5 and 2.5 for non-science courses, indicating the majority of successful applicants for sciences have 4 A Levels, and for Arts/Humanities the majority have 3. The same pattern is replicated for Oxford, and therefore for many applicants to other top Russell Group universities. The main reason for this is that A Level content in the sciences is more direct preparation for science degrees, and covering more content can put applicants in a more versatile position when they begin their course.
If you are doing Further Maths as one of your A Levels, you may want to check whether the courses you’re interested in accept Further Maths as a separate A Level when taken as one of 3. Although most courses do view them as separate and independent, it’s still common for applicants to take it as one of 4, and you may decide it’s the best option for you.
In general, adding on extra A Levels will only benefit your application if you are able to make or exceed the standard offer for the course. If you feel that adding an extra A Level might jeopardize your grades overall, consider doing an EPQ (or equivalent) instead.
Although there is a lot of discussion around so-called ‘soft subjects’, the only A Levels that won’t be accepted by Oxford and Cambridge are General Studies (not accepted by either) and Critical Thinking (not accepted by some courses at Oxford; only accepted by Cambridge if in addition to 3 others, and unlikely to count as part of your offer). All other A Levels are acceptable and can form part of an offer. However, older and more well-established A Levels may in some cases put you at an advantage because they are known to be rigorous and demanding enough to prove your academic capability, and they have been shown historically to be good preparation for various courses. These A Levels have been called ‘facilitating’ in previous years, and typically include:
o Mathematics and Further Mathematics
o English Literature
o Languages (Classical and Modern)
If you are totally unsure about A Level choices, then this list is a great place to start. As Clare College, Cambridge, have stated, ‘Most of our successful applicants over the last couple of years have offered facilitating subjects for most or all of their A Levels.’ If you are thinking about taking a newer or less traditional A Level, it is wise to balance this with other, more traditional subjects, to be on the safe side.
Oxbridge Applications, part of the Dukes Education family, speaks with young people and their families on a daily basis to discuss individual educational pathways. Register with Oxbridge Applications and receive a wealth of resources, including our free e-book “So You Want To Go To Oxbridge? Tell me about a banana”.
It can be difficult to work out exactly what you should be doing to give yourself the best chance of success, but we are always happy to help. Telephone +44(0)20 7499 2394, email at email@example.com, or request a callback to discuss your situation.
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