Chapter 1 – How do A-Levels work?

A-Levels (short for Advanced Levels) are generally studied over two years, and students take 3 or 4 subjects.

They focus mainly on academic subjects in contrast to vocational qualifications such as BTECs and NVQs.

Since they’re highly valued by both employers and universities, they can be very useful for students looking to keep doors open for further education and careers. However, the small number of subjects a student studies at A-Level does mean there is some specialisation.

University offers are typically made as grade requirements for 3 A-Levels, so it is not actually necessary to take more than this (though some may require an additional AS level).

There are currently more than 40 A-Level subjects to choose from. Some of these are continuations of subjects offered at GCSE, while some are entirely new.

A-Levels have recently undergone a massive reform by the Department of Education. The most significant change of late is the decoupling of A-Levels and AS-Levels. Previously, AS-Levels were taken at the end Year 12, and made up 50% of the final A-Level grade. Now, AS-Levels are an entirely separate qualification, and A-Levels are examined linearly, with exams at the end of Year 13 on the last 2 years of teaching. If the prospect of having all your exams at once makes you nervous, check out our guide to Exam Preparation!

The AS levels are now a kind of supplementary qualification, worth 40% of an A-Level in UCAS tariff. They are generally designed to overlap with the first year of an A-Level, so a student can decide to take an AS exam at the end of Year 12 with little change to the teaching they receive, but the grade they get from the AS will not count towards their A-Level.

Different schools and colleges have taken different policies on AS levels. Some will not enter students for AS levels, in order to focus on teaching for the full A-Level (though there will likely be internal examinations at the school to set predicted grades). Others will continue with the AS/A-Level as before.

There are still some advantages to taking AS Levels. They are certainly useful for determining how well you’re doing in a subject and which subjects to continue to A-Level. They may also help teachers in setting predicted grades, and carry more clout with universities than predicted grades set from internal examinations.

“The AS is a piece of concrete information about how the candidate is performing, so when youre making the decision you have
a fairly good idea of how theyre doing.”
– Angela Milln, Director of Admissions at Bristol University


Conversely, not doing external exams in Year 12 frees up more time to focus on A-Levels, allowing you to explore your subjects in greater depth without the pressure of exams.

If you have a preference on whether you wish to take AS levels, it’s an important consideration to make when choosing schools. Check out our guide to choosing schools for further insight! It is important to verify your options with your school/college beforehand, as it will impact how many A-Level subjects you select for Year 12.

As different schools will be dealing with AS/A-Level reforms in different ways, universities will likely move to give more weight to GCSE performance, personal statements, teacher predictions and references.

Additionally, there is now a reduced emphasis on coursework, so if something can be evaluated through formal examination it will be (only subjects such as art and design will have coursework). Science practicals will not form part of the A-Level grade, but will be pass/fail, and universities may require a pass in the practicals for science degrees.