Choosing A-level subjects: five points to consider
30th August 2017
Author: Lucy Skipper
Even if you know which subjects you want to study at A-level, it still pays to do your research.
The subjects you take at A-level can have a major impact on your future direction so before embarking on two years’ hard work it’s well worth doing your research. Here’s our five-point guide to making your choices.
1. Ability and enjoyment
Thinking about the subjects you are good at, like and enjoy is a useful starting point.
If you enjoy your studies, you are likely to be more motivated. Similarly, having a natural ability in your chosen subjects can increase your chances of success. For this reason you often need a certain grade at GCSE to study a subject at A-level, so you’ll need to check what subjects are open to you.
But beware, there can be significant differences from studying subjects at GCSE to A-level, so it doesn’t always follow that choosing a subject you enjoyed before will be a safe bet. It still pays to do your research, even if you feel you’re on familiar ground.
2. New subjects
Your school or college may offer A-levels in subjects that you’ve not studied before.
If any new subjects appeal to you, it’s worth taking some time to find out what’s involved to avoid disappointment later.
Keep a balance in mind. Choosing a couple of familiar subjects alongside one new one for example, can help leave your options open.
If you want to study certain subjects at university, it is not always necessary – or indeed helpful – to have studied them at A-level. This generally applies to new subjects at A-level, such as law or business studies (whereas for more traditional subjects an A-level in that subject is usually essential for university study). See section 5 for more details.
3. Subject combinations
Some schools or colleges have restrictions on certain subject combinations, so you will need to check your options.
Similarly, some universities discourage students from taking certain combinations of A-level subjects, especially where there may be an overlap in content, such as with business studies and economics.
The issue of subject combinations can be particularly important if you’re studying science subjects – see Choosing STEM subject combinations for further information.
4. Course content, assessment and workload
You may find it helpful to look at your course syllabus, sometimes called the specifications, which sets out course content and requirements.
Find out which exam board your school or college uses for your chosen subject, as both the content of the course (modules or topics) and the way it is marked (ratio of coursework to exams, amount of exams) can vary. Popular A-level exam boards in the UK include AQA and OCR and you can download the relevant syllabus from their websites.
You may also want to think about the likely workload of your choices. Find out what’s required in terms of essay writing, independent reading or extended projects and consider what this may mean in terms of your chosen subjects.
5. Future plans
If you have a particular career in mind, you may need to choose certain A-levels in order to meet entry requirements for degree courses or further study.
If you don’t yet have any career ideas, then keeping your options open can be just as important.
Top universities usually require three academic A-levels, not including general studies or critical thinking. The Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK universities, has produced a guide which sets out how the subjects you study at A-level can determine which degree courses will be open to you in future. Whatever your plans, it’s well worth a read – see Informed Choices for full details.
You can also check entry requirements for university courses on UCAS.
Changing your mind
Making decision about the unknown is difficult. Whilst things often don’t turn out how you expect, it’s worth noting you can be surprised in a positive way – modules with the least appeal at the outset can end up being the most enjoyable.
There’s no failsafe solution here but if you do feel you’ve made the wrong decision after starting your course, speak to your tutor as it’s often possible to change subjects.
Speak to your current school teachers, A-level subject teachers, and current course students to get an idea of what the course involves and what’s likely to suit you.
Your parents, family and friends can help shape your views but remember you are the one who will be doing the work, and it’s your future that will be affected, so it’s important to be happy with the choices you make.
You can also speak to a careers advisor for help – visit the National Careers Service for contact information.
Find out more
Searching icould videos by subject will give you real-life examples of how people have used certain subjects in their careers or if you’ve hit a particular stumbling block try searching videos by life event for inspiration.
The Which? University Guide has information on how A-level choices can affect university applications.
What next after your GCSEs? sets out different pathways open to you after year 11.