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A levels are a qualification in a specific subject typically taken by school students aged 16–18, at a level above GCSE. The equivalent in Scotland is the Higher.

A levels – when do you make your choices?

Schools expect students to consider their A level choices before they have sat their GCSEs. For a student, this can feel pressurised, but the school needs to have plenty of time to ensure they have the appropriate staff and timetabling in place to be able to support everyone.

The options

Students generally sit three or four A levels. There’s no shortage of A level subjects to pick from, but not every school will offer all options. Schools choose the A level subjects that they will teach and that they feel are most appropriate for their students based on historical data such as popularity in the past, student aptitude, timetabling and most importantly the availability of teaching staff. If a school does not offer certain subjects, it is always worth discussing your choice with them or looking at other institutions which may provide different courses and options.

Purely academic?

Most A levels are purely based on academic capabilities and examinations. There are exceptions such as design & technology, music and art where you will be required to prove your practical skills alongside academic theory. Languages, understandably, also need a high level of both oral and written aptitude in the chosen language. 

A levels exam boards

There are seven exam boards (also known as awarding boards) within the UK, all of which are regulated by Ofqual, a government body:

There is extensive information about each board and their A level subjects on their websites. Much of the information is relevant to teachers, not parents and students, but there are always times when it may be helpful to see the content and type of examination that each A level will comprise.  Schools choose the board that suits their teaching and curriculum and students may therefore find they are adjudicated by several boards.

Thinking ahead

Although it may feel a long way off, if you’re thinking of going to university, we strongly advise researching what A levels different degree courses require.

Science, medicine, music, and art are obvious examples of degrees that have pre-requisite A levels. But there are plenty of less obvious examples too. For instance, to read Economics all Russell group (and some other) universities, you’ll need A level maths. And budding architects should consider taking maths, physics, DTI or art at A level.

The Russell group of universities have their own list of essential or ‘facilitating’ A levels and generally applicants are required to have at least two of these courses among their A levels. The facilitating A levels subjects are mathematics, further mathematics, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history and classical or a modern language.

Also consider the combination of A levels. Some universities will discount certain A levels, so it’s no good choosing three only to find out half-way through the course that your university of choice will only count one or two of them.  

While reading university websites you may see that some universities allocate their places via a points system. Each A level grade, A* – E, is assigned a number of points and entry will be dependent on the total sum, know as tariff points, of a student's achieved grades. The tariff chart is available here

Individual university websites and prospectuses clearly outline what A levels or equivalent qualifications are required or accepted for each degree course, along with the grade offers that have been set for the following year's entry.

UCAS and What Uni  are useful and reliable sources of information.

Our qualified consultants excel at advising on A level choices and how to apply to university. 

Recent changes to A levels

In Autumn 2017, the first component of the A level programme, A1s, was removed in many subjects; students now sit a final set of final exams at the end of the two-year period. There has also been increasing talk about an introduction of T levels, T standing for Training. These A levels will be vocational.

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