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Sixth form subject selection, helping you choose

If you thought it was tricky choosing GCSE subjects, it’s even harder at A level, IB or equivalent. Consider what you are good at and what’s good for you.

First things first: if your school only offers A level and you prefer the breadth of IB or vocational orientation of BTec qualifications and the like, you may need to consider changing schools at 16.

But whichever school you choose, before you sign on the dotted line, take a good look in the mirror. How do you measure up?

Ten key considerations when choosing your A level subjects

  1. Subject strengths. You may be passionate about history but, if you have difficulty stringing sentences together, history may not love you. Unsure? Ask teachers (and those who know you well) for an honest assessment. You may be guided by your GCSE choices, of course, but many sixth forms offer new subjects at 16 - politics, economics, psychology, to name just a few - so they'll need to be added to the mix too. Sometimes there's a balancing act between your aptitude for a subject and what universities and colleges want.
  2. What you enjoy. You'll typically have twice as many lessons for an A level as a GCSE and potentially weeks’ worth of one subject at university. If you have a bent for physics but an aversion to lab work, oscillations leave you in a spin and mechanics fail to move you, you may be better considering alternatives rather than alternators. When it comes to endurance, enjoyment can be the redeeming feature.
  3. Keep your options open. You may be hell bent on studying economics at 16, but after two years of charts, diagrams and increasingly complex mathematical operations, may wish to confine economics to the history books and opt for anything but. Will your subject combination count?
  4. Take subjects that are of value. The Russell Group universities used to publish a list of 'facilitating subjects'. Applicants were expected to have studied at least two of these at A level if they wanted to apply to a Russell Group university. This is no longer a requirement. However, for the more academic degrees at higher ranked universities, it is still fair to say that a greater importance is placed on certain more traditional and academically challenging A level subjects. If you click through to the course page on a university website, you'll find that most are up front about the subjects prospective applicants are expected to study at A level. If you're at the very early stages of figuring it out, visit the Informed Choices website to see which A level subjects are suggested for your Russell Group university application. 
  5. Read the small print. If your heart is set on a particular career or university course, find out any course requirements before you choose your advanced level course/ subjects. A course may not only request the specific grades eg AAB but specify the subjects too. Often the grades will be attached to subjects eg minimum of: maths A, physics A, chemistry B, so getting the right grades in the wrong subjects may matter.
  6. Not all advanced level studies are equal and not all subjects within those are considered equally worthy by top universities. A levels are the most popular advanced level qualification. Check the suitability of the subjects you are studying (and the combination) for subjects which interest you. Avoid eg business studies and economics - they are deemed too similar to count twice.
  7. Check for additional requirements. Not studying biology will severely limit the choice of medical schools available to those wishing to pursue a career as a doctor. The vast majority of economics degree courses require either A level maths or top grades at GCSE. Similarly, only studying applied A levels or BTecs will limit your chances of getting a place on a course at top universities (those in the Russell Group).
  8. Take care with resits and early entry. Not only do courses specify grades (and possibly subjects); some top universities now expect all the grades to be obtained at one sitting. The ability to manage a heavy workload is cited as the key reason behind this decision. You may be penalised for taking subjects early, as well as resitting.
  9. There are exceptions to rules. If you can offer something special, are a mature entrant or have extenuating circumstances or a disability, it may be worth contacting admissions departments to see if they will flex their requirements.
  10. Think about future employers. University isn't the only post-18 path and, regardless of when, the world of work will loom at some point – so the more doors you keep ajar the better.

Russell Group Universities

The Russell Group’s 24 members are world-class, research-intensive universities.


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