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A levelsWhat you study post-16 will shape a huge chunk of your future. If you’re considering university or apprenticeships at 18, scrutinise course requirements before choosing your advanced level courses.

If you're not sure what you want to do when you leave school, either opt for subjects at 16 that are real strengths or, if you have genuine choices open to you, look carefully at individual subjects and what universities think of them. English will typically open more doors than media - even in the world of media; economics is considered more academic than business studies. The traditional stalwarts - English literature, sciences and maths, modern languages, classics, history and geography - are described as ‘facilitating subjects’ and universally welcomed at universities, so it’s a good idea to take two of these. Other subjects such as economics, music and RE are also recognised as demanding options, but generally more useful for specific courses.

Try to make sure you have a sensible combination of subjects and that you don't omit a crucial one. Not taking biology limits the medical schools you can apply to. Maths is increasingly demanded for courses in economics, physics and even geography. See our article on Sixth form subject selection – how do I choose?  For further detail.

Exams and courses at 16+

A levels

The main end-of-school examination in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, much revered but increasingly reduced to rote learning with standardised questions, and little to generate the joy of learning.

  • They are pretty good exams for someone who has already been bitten by the bug for a subject, and hard work should result in a reliably good grade.
  • Great freedom of choice in subjects (especially when ‘applied subjects’ are included), and those with a particular bent can focus on it (physics, chemistry and maths is a common combination, for instance) rather than carry on with subjects they hate.
  • Now in considerable flux as AS levels have been decoupled from A2s, coursework and practical work abandoned and retakes restricted. This should, in theory, return them to gold standard status, but in meantime schools are confused about content and universities (such as Cambridge ) that have relied on AS scores to make offers are having to rethink.

The Cambridge Pre-U

In some eyes a nostalgic revisiting of old fashioned A levels and aimed primarily at the brightest of sparks, Pre-U’s finely shaded grading system goes beyond the A*, making it easier to identify the most able pupils. All exams taken at the end of the two-year course. Introduced in 2008 with Winchester College and Charterhouse  among the early adopters, it is now offered by some 100 UK schools, with an almost 50/50 state and independent split, generally as part of a mix-and-match with A levels. 


A very well-regarded qualification in use all over the world – so good currency if you might want to consider university overseas.

  • Astonishingly highly rated on the UCAS tariff in relation to A levels, it is well regarded by universities, but some demand high scores.
  • Can be much more fun than traditional A level courses: more scope for exploration, less emphasis on facts and recitation. 
  • Suits those with a broad intelligence as you have to do a range of subjects – you can't give up maths, science or indeed a foreign language.
  • You choose three subjects to study at higher level (rated by UCAS as equivalent to an A level), and three at standard level (rated by UCAS as two-thirds of an A level) – so pupils have a heavy workload.
  • Both higher and standard levels are marked out of seven, with the compulsory ‘core’ of an extended essay, theory of knowledge course and community service etc marked out of three – so the top score is 45, achieved by one per cent of pupils each year.
  • Was increasing rapidly in popularity, notably among academic state schools, though cuts to sixth form funding are reversing this.
  • Rejected by some top schools because of the restrictions it places on choice of subjects.


The IB Career Related Certificate (IBCC) is designed bring credibility to vocational education. Operates within a flexible framework that is individually designed by schools to meet the needs of its students, local community, world of work and beyond. A common core (including a second language and extended project) plus vocational options.

A levels in applied subjects

Often considered a Cinderella qualification, VCEs have been given a makeover and renamed GCEs/A levels in Applied Subjects.

  • Intended to provide a broad vocational base, they are frequently identified by the ‘studies’ tag: art and design, business, leisure and media.
  • Most are available as AS and A level single and double awards. 
  • Many have reduced currency for entry to top-flight universities (except on specific courses). Cambridge, for instance, will only recognise a six-unit VCE or applied A levels as a third GCSE A level, or as an additional fourth broadening subject and then, only if the ‘essential’ and ‘highly desirable’ subjects required, are covered. See for details.

Scottish Highers

A handful of independent schools in Scotland follow the English system; for the rest it’s Scottish Highers.

  • As a rough guide Highers, taken after a year of study, are similar to AS, and Advanced Highers, a second-year course, similar to A2.
  • In Scotland, some universities will admit students with Highers alone, but only for students doing a foundation year first.
  • Most English universities accept students with Advanced Highers on a similar basis to those with A levels.
  • The Scots claim that Highers are better than A levels, the English that they are easier. They are both right.

The AQA Baccalaureate

AQA, the largest A level awarding body, has launched this as perhaps an attempt to ape the International Baccalaureate, or perhaps more charitably as an effort to get all that goes on in schools offering A level (life skills, charitable work, children working on their own projects etc) properly recognised by the QCA.

  • Unlike the IB, there's no requirement for academic breadth.
  • Like the IB, the extended project will be recognised in the QCA points system - but only at the level of an AS level which still leaves the IB with a points advantage.
  • It will take a few years to know whether this becomes a valued part of the system.

Additional testing for university entrance

We may be one of the most tested nations in the world, but with so many students awarded A grade A levels it seems yet more testing is necessary to select the best from the rest. No longer restricted to the elite such as Cambridge, who require applicants for selected courses to take a ‘thinking skills’ assessment, there’s a burgeoning of schemes and pilot studies for application to universities nationwide.

Additional testing for a number of top-flight courses is increasingly commonplace. For example:

  • Many medical schools use the UK CAT. This computer-based exam, designed to test verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, abstract reasoning and problem-solving, can be sat at one of 150 test centres.  Checkout
  • Others use the BMAT – the Bio-Medical Admissions Test - One day they’ll get around to recruiting medical students because they are good with people – but not yet.
  • Law has the LNat, (currently used by 11 universities) a two-part test – multiple choice and essay sections, with the latter testing students’ ability to construct reasoned arguments. This is an online test with a fee payable at the time of booking (waived in certain circumstances). Sample questions and additional information found at
  • A number of other admissions tests are being trialled including an American-style scholastic aptitude test (SAT) promoted by the Sutton Trust
  • An academic reasoning and thinking skills test (ARTS) is being developed by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate and the Australian Council for Educational Research.


As governments preferred to extol the growing brilliance of pupils and teachers alike (easy) rather than opt for tougher marking (hard), would-be undergraduates have had to accomplish ever more inside and outside the classroom to stand out. Would-be doctors aren’t yet asked to develop a cure for cancer or donate a kidney to a friend as proof of dedication, but some parents wouldn’t bat an eyelid if they were, so quixotic are the requirements.

Though don't be tempted to cover your UCAS application in embroidery; a general rule of thumb is that no more than 20 percent of one's personal statement should be devoted to extracurricular activities. US universities in particular are interested in your out-of-lesson achievements, whilst Oxbridge doesn’t care if you have climbed Everest without oxygen, sailed round the world single handed and won Young Musician of the Year (unless you are applying to read music).

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