Choosing Your A-Levels

Without wishing to sound like a wizened headmaster, A-Level choices are crucial in deciding a student’s educational future.

Wrong choices at this point can have serious consequences, but they are far too common. As many as ¼ of students have at least one retake while as many as 1/10 either drop out all together or have to re-sit the entire year. The Times has pooled over 60 studies on college subject choice in order to conclude that it is the single biggest factor in college dropout rates. This piece is designed to give useful advice to students and parents, to help them make informed choices.

Many vocational courses such as medicine have A-levels that all students must study. This takes a lot of stress out of the decision making process. However, the majority of 16 year olds aren’t so lucky, because they simply do not know what they want to do with their lives, How many of us really did at 16? This makes A-level choices much harder as you are planning for a goal, which does not yet exist.

A key source of information is the Russell Group publication Informed Choices, first published in 2012, and updated each year. It makes the point that the jump between A-Level and GCSE is higher in subjects such as Maths and English than it is with others. This can potentially cause conflict with parents who try to sway their children to what they see as ‘proper’ or more traditional subjects, thinking this will aid their job and university applications. Their intentions are good, but the retake rate in these subjects is 2/3 while the dropout rate is as high as 20%.  Seeking advice from your teachers at GCSE regarding your suitability for these subjects is therefore recommended.

However, this publication and many others such as respected educational magazines Schools House and the think tank CIFE do agree on several factors. Enjoyment and ability must be the two key factors in deciding A-levels. With each subject requiring much more time and effort than a GCSE, doing a subject, that you find boring or lack a natural aptitude for is never the right choice. A lack of enjoyment will almost certainly mean poor performance, and poor performance, along with poor subject choices are biggest barriers to university entry.

Therefore, knowledge is power, do your research. For advice tailored to you, CIFE recommends, that Teachers from your either secondary school or college of choice are a useful source of information. For information that is more general, they advise making full use of open days, and online resources such as course guides. Less obvious sources of knowledge such as ex students, can also give the inside track on what a subject is like to study. This should help you decide, whether you have the ability and the interest in a subject to make it a viable choice. The IC also warns of the dangers of perception, just because a subject is perceived to be ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ does not make it so. For example, Media Studies a perceived soft option had one of the lowest percentages of A-grades this year.

Just as important as the quality of your choices is the quantity. Some students, especially those who are seeking to standout to universities might decide to take 5 A levels. It is crucial that a student does not spread himself or herself too thin and cause an overall decline in academic performance. In fact to quote what a Cambridge don once told me, “A levels are not like stamp collecting young man” The point that he went on to make was that in almost all cases 4 AS levels, dropping to 3 in the second year is ample, and that it is quality not quantity that counts. Although this debate is unlikely to go away as competition for places intensifies. Take advice and ask yourself, weather you think you can manage the extra work.

So what are the best A-level choices? You may as well ask what the meaning of life is; the answer is different to everyone. For those seeking entrance to Russell Group universities so called facilitating subjects such as Maths, English, Science, Geography, and Languages are prized. However, if these subjects bore you, or your passion or goal lies elsewhere, then make your choices with that in mind. Another common misconception is that so called ‘less suitable subjects’ should be avoided like the plague. If you have a passion for a subject like photography, and see it as a break from the endless stream of essays, then study it. Any university admission tutor will tell you they would prefer well-rounded students rather than products of the system. That being said, always look out for lists of non-preferred subjects that some universities publish.

The key questions to ask yourself when making these choices are, what are my goals? What are my strengths? What do I enjoy? Level choices are not an exact science, but a balance of these three things is the Holy Grail. Answering these questions is as much a voyage of self-discovery as it is about deciding your future. There are plenty of sources of information out there to help you along the way make use of them, but always remember the decision lies with you, after all who is it that’s going to be working hard for the next two years!?

Additional resources:

Life After School: Does it Live up to the Dream?
Choose Your Own Path
The Rise of the MOOC

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