Chapter 2 – Which subjects should I take?

There are three important considerations:

1. Which subjects do you like?

The more you like a subject, the more likely you are to work hard and do well in it. With subjects that you studied at GCSE, it is quite easy to tell whether or not you like them. If you’re considering a subject which you do not have previous experience of, it is a good idea to do some research beforehand (for example, students expectations of what psychology is and what the reality of the Psychology A-Level often do not match up!). Talk to your teachers and to staff at open days and open evenings, and have a look online at the teaching material and syllabus for that subject to see what you will be expected to learn.

2. Which subjects are you good at?

Different A-Levels assess different skills, and it is of course in your interest to make sure your A-Levels match your strengths. Are you good at essay writing? Are you good at problem solving? Can you cope with a lot of reading? These are all important questions to ask. As A-Level reforms have moved away from coursework in most subjects, this likely not a discriminating factor anymore. But as some subjects still have coursework, it may be helpful to consider whether you prefer being assessed through coursework or exams.

Check with your teachers about the workload of the subjects and what may be best suited for you. Additionally, this is something our consulting service can help with.

3. Which subject do you wish to study at university?

Some degree courses specify which subjects you need at A-Level, so if you’re considering any of these subjects it’s important to have these A-Levels under your belt to keep your doors open. Here are some of the most common requirements:

Degree subject A-Level Requirements
Medicine/Dentistry/Veterinary Science Chemistry and one other science (some require Biology
Engineering Maths and Physics or Chemistry (Chemistry is necessary for Chemical Engineering)
Modern Languages Usually the language to be studied, though some universities allow you to study a language from scratch
Biology Biology and another science or maths
Chemistry Chemistry and another science or Maths
Physics Physics and Maths
Economics Usually requires Maths (rarely requires Economics)
History History (usually)
Geography Geography (usually); Geography BSc also usually prefer additional science A-Levels
Psychology Some courses require one science or maths

Check the requirements listed for specific courses at the universities you are interested in.
One way to keep your options open is to take a mix of the subject most commonly asked for subjects by universities (sometimes called ‘facilitating subjects’). These are:

  • Biology
  • English Literature
  • Chemistry
  • Geography
  • Physics
  • History
  • Maths
  • Modern and Classical Languages

The more you choose, the more university courses will be open to you. But it is still important to take into account the considerations described earlier: these need to be subjects you like and are good at!

Other considerations:

• Overlap in subjects

Universities tend to warn against taking subjects that overlap in their content, such as Geography and Environmental Studies or Business Studies and Economics. Obviously, this depends on the university, but in general this is something to avoid.

• Complementary subjects

On the other hand, some subjects work well together, and this may be something to consider when selecting subject combinations. For example, studying Physics and Maths together may be really helpful. It’s not necessary to specialise entirely into the humanities or the sciences if you’re not sure what your specific interests are, but taking some complementary subjects isn’t a bad idea.

• ‘Soft subjects’

Some top-tier universities have listed subjects that they consider less effective preparation and which they will therefore not consider less highly. It’s good to check the policy of specific universities that you are interested in. These kinds of subjects usually include: History of Art, Classical Civilisation, Economics, Geology, Government and Politics, Law, Media Studies, Philosophy, Psychology, Religious Studies and Sociology.If there is an A-Level that you are interested in on this list, it doesn’t mean that you should definitely discount it. A good grade in a ‘soft subject’ combined will good grades in 2 ‘hard subjects’ will still put you in good stead with universities. The thing to avoid is taking multiple A-Levels from this list.

• School restrictions

Some colleges/ schools will restrict the combinations of subjects you can take, just simple based on timetabling clashes. If there’s a particular set of subjects you want to take you should check with your desired school (especially if they are considered to be ‘opposing’, such as Maths and English Literature, as schools often schedule these at the same time).

• Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)

The EPQ is an increasingly popular option to supplement A-Levels and prepare students for university. This is a single piece of work of your choosing that requires evidence of planning, preparation, research and independent learning. This could be a research based written report, a production (e.g. fashion show, charity event) and an accompanying written report, or a creative artefact (e.g. a piece of music, art, product) and an accompanying written report. It is worth 50% of a full A-Level.While EPQs generally aren’t included in university entry requirements, they are well valued by universities as they demonstrate skills in time management, academic writing, referencing, and critical analysis, so may help make your university application more competitive.

The EPQ may also be useful in bridging the gap between sixth form and university.

You normally need at least five GCSEs at grades A* to C to get into sixth form, and at least a B in the specific subject you want to study as an A-Level, but these requirements vary between schools and colleges, and it is a good idea to check with the school you’re interested in.
For help in choosing subjects, get in touch with our Consultation Service.