10 Questions About A-Levels, Answered

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Date of Publication: 16 November 2020

Narrowing down your subject choices for A-levels isn’t an easy decision. 

The A-level options you choose now can set your career in a certain direction. It’s important you make the right choices now, so you don’t find yourself looking to change your subjects at a later date.

Even if you don’t know what career you want to do in the future, you should still make informed choices now that will leave you in the best position for the future, so that you don’t close yourself off from any potential career opportunities.

To help make the decision process as easy as it can be, we’ve compiled a list of the top 10 most frequently asked questions about A-levels. Hopefully, they should help you get a clearer understanding of which subjects choices you may want to make, and how they will affect your future career. 

 

1. What Are A-Levels in the UK?

A-levels (short for Advanced Level) are the traditional subject-based qualifications which are offered by schools and colleges in the UK for students aged between 16 and 19. 

Students will begin their A-level qualifications directly after they have earned their GCSE qualifications. They typically take two years to complete and can lead to further study at university, training or work.

 

2. What Are A-Levels Equivalent To?

There are a variety of post-sixteen courses available in the UK, as well as internationally. Most of which are accepted by UK universities as being recognised as equal to an A-level in terms of subject content and difficulty.

Some of the qualifications recognised as equivalent to A-levels include:

  • Scottish Highers & Advanced Higher – These are the Scottish equivalent to A-levels, usually earned during the last two years of a student’s time at school. Students usually take between four to five subjects and students can achieve A-C grades for Scottish Highers and A-D grades for Advanced Highers.

 

  • Scottish Baccalaureate – For high-achieving students, the Scottish Science Baccalaureate and Scottish Languages Baccalaureate consist of a coherent group of current Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications, in addition to an Interdisciplinary Project. Enabling students to delve deeper into their subjects, they add breadth and value to students’ skillsets.


  • International Baccalaureate (IB) – A two-year course for students aged 16-19 which is recognised in the UK and internationally. Students will study a whole range of subjects which leads to a single qualification, rather than individual qualifications for each subject.


  • NVQ Level 3 – One NVQ Level 3 is the equivalent to two or three A-levels. These subjects tend to focus on vocational areas, such as travel and tourism, engineering, media, beauty and IT. Like A-levels, these are graded from A* – E and will be studied over a period of 2 years.


  • The Extended Project – A stand-alone qualification, equivalent to an AS-Level. Taking just one year to complete, the qualification requires students to create a single piece of work on a topic agreed to with their teachers. Most universities will reject the Extended Project as a stand-alone qualification, seen instead as an enhancement course which enriches your A-levels.

girl-studying-on-computer

3. What Grades Do I Need to Take A-Levels?

In the UK, to take A-levels, you normally need to achieve at least five GCSEs (or an equivalent qualification) at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C). 

Schools and colleges will also tend to recommend that you have achieved at least a B grade in the specific subjects you want to study. This is because a B grade at GCSE level predicts that you are likely to achieve a minimum of pass at A-level.

However, the subject requirements you need to study A-levels will vary depending on the school or college you are planning on attending. Therefore, it’s important to check with your chosen institution so you are aware of their specific requirements.

 

4. How Many A-Levels Do You Have to Take?

In order to be accepted onto a course, most universities in the UK will require that you take at least three A-levels – even the best-rated institutions like the University of Oxford and Cambridge.

Look at any course at any university, and you will find that most entry requirements specify three A-levels, usually excluding General Studies and Extended Project. 

Some students may choose to take an additional, but this is not a formal requirement. 

 

5. How Many A Levels Can You Take? 

If you wish to, you can take a maximum of five A-levels. However, most universities will accept students based on three qualifications.

Although it may seem tempting to take the maximum number of A-levels to impress prospective employers and universities, it’s worth discussing the workload with your teachers first, to see if they think you’re capable of being able to manage the workload.

From a university’s perspective, it’s much better to focus on three A-levels and achieve high grades, than study lots of A-levels and only achieve mediocre grades across them.

So if you are keen to study more than three, make sure you really take the time to discuss and consider if you will be able to manage the workload.

boy-making-notes-from-computer

6. What A-Levels Should I Take?

The A-levels you choose can have a huge influence on what subject you study at university. In order to make the right decision, it’s important you know what subjects are most commonly required for the course you want to study.

For guidance, we’ve compiled some of the most common degree courses below, including the subjects which are most often listed in the entry requirements.

It’s important to note that these subject lists are for guidance only, and you should always check the subject requirements for individual universities to ensure you choose the A-level which is best suited for your degree. 

 

Medicine

In the UK, over 20,000 students applied to study medicine for the academic year 2019/20. This statistic is hardly surprising, with our Medicine summer course often being the first course to fill up.

To give yourself the best chances for getting into Medical School, you want to ensure you’re studying the right subjects for the course.

If you look at any university Medicine courses, you’ll see that Chemistry is listed as must-have, along with another science of your choice. Most A-Level students will study three sciences, or opt for two sciences and Mathematics. 

You could choose from:

  • Biology
  • Further Mathematics
  • Human Biology
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Psychology (check that this is an accepted ‘hard science’ at the university you are applying to).

 

Law

To study Law at university, there are no specific subjects listed as a ‘must-have.’ In fact, when students join us for our Law summer school, we welcome pupils with a whole range of academic backgrounds. 

However, as Law courses are predominantly essay-based and focus on constructing well-evidenced arguments, you should probably choose at least one or two humanities subjects, such as:

  • English Literature (or Language)
  • History
  • Law
  • Philosophy
  • Politics
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

If looking to pursue a career in Global Law, then a language A-level may be preferred. Meanwhile, technical subjects like Mathematics and the sciences will show universities that you have a logical mind and are good at problem solving – both of which are also important skills for Law students.

 

Politics

Similar to Law, Politics degrees don’t usually list any specific entry requirements. As such, undertaking a mix of humanities and literature-based subjects will provide a solid foundation of general knowledge and prepare you for the essay-based style of examination which comes with a Politics degree. 

Any of the below would be sensible options:

  • Economics
  • English Literature (and Language)
  • History
  • Geography
  • Politics
  • Law
  • Mathematics
  • Sociology
  • Psychology

As Politics is often a subject that students don’t study until they reach university study, we see places on this summer course fill quickly, with students eager to see if they enjoy the subject enough to study at a higher level. 

If this sounds like you, then why not consider participating in a two-week Politics summer course. You’ll get to experience the subject at undergraduate level, giving you a real feel of what to expect in the future.

 

Architecture

To study architecture at university, you won’t only need to study three A-levels, but you’ll also be required to provide a portfolio of work. Therefore, selecting an art or design-based A-level may help with putting your application together. 

Architecture courses vary from university to university. Some are heavily art-based, while others may be more Maths or Physics-orientated. So, you may want to select a combination of A-levels to give you the best range of skills for the course. 

Your subject choices could include:

  • Art
  • Chemistry
  • Design & Technology
  • Further Mathematics
  • History of Art
  • Physics

It’s important to note that Architecture degrees are five years long, meaning you need to be really invested in the subject to pursue it at university and as a career. 

Therefore, you may want to consider attending an Architecture summer course before making your A-Level choices, giving you an opportunity to immerse yourself in the subject for a 2-week period. 

student-drawing-graph-lines

Psychology

Another popular degree choice for students in the UK is Psychology

As it is a social science, the entry requirements don’t tend to require many specifics, often only asking for a Psychology A-level, if your school or college offers it. 

The degree will combine essay writing with technical report writing and experiments. Therefore, having a combination of any of the following subjects will help give you a solid set of skills for when you study at degree level.

  • Anthropology
  • Economics
  • English Literature (or Language)
  • Geography
  • History
  • Mathematics
  • Politics
  • Philosophy
  • Statistics
  • Sociology

Again, Psychology is a subject that you won’t probably study until A-level or degree level. Therefore, if you want to get a taste for the subject before committing to a subject choice, why not consider attending a two-week Psychology summer course?

 

Engineering

As a technical subject, the most common subject requirements listed for an Engineering course includes Mathematics, and usually one other science subject (typically Physics).

It’s advised that students choose a range of technology-based subjects, as these will give you the best skill-base for studying the subject in higher education. Any of the following would be beneficial:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Design and Technology
  • Economics
  • Further Mathematics
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Statistics

 

Philosophy

Studying Philosophy at university doesn’t tend to come with any set A-level requirements, but having a mixture of art, humanities and science subjects could prove useful. 

Arts and humanities-based subjects will supply you with the essay-writing skills for further study, while science and other technical subjects will help you apply logic and reasoning to concepts. 

Some schools and colleges offer Philosophy as an A-level subject, which would be a sensible option to choose, but the rest can be determined by a mix of other subjects, such as:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • English Literature (or Language)
  • History
  • Mathematics
  • Philosophy
  • Physics
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Statistics

 

Classics

Studying Classics at university involves learning about culture prior to the period of life known as ‘classical antiquity’ – typically assumed to be the years between the Bronze Age of Ancient Greece and the fall of the Roman Empire.

As such an historic subject, A-levels in Latin and Classical Greek are highly desirable subjects for students to have, along with other humanities and essay-based subjects, such as:

  • Classical Civilisation
  • Classical Greek
  • Foreign Languages
  • Geography
  • History
  • History of Art
  • Latin
  • Philosophy

Some of these subjects may not be ones that you are yet familiar with, such as Classical Civilisation and History of Art. Again, participating in a short academic summer school may be the perfect opportunity to get a feel for the subjects and help you decide whether you want to study them.

 

If You Are Undecided

If you’re not sure what you may want to study, either for A-level or at university, then don’t fret. You are certainly not alone and many students face the difficult decision of knowing which subjects they should focus on. 

In order to keep yourself flexible for further study, we recommend that you study a combination of different subjects so that you can keep as many of your options open as possible. 

For example, taking a combination of essay-based subjects such as English Literature or History with a technical subject like Maths, Physics or Chemistry will give you a range of skills which can be transferred to any degree.

It’s important that you focus on subjects that you enjoy. Unlike your GCSEs, you will only study a few subjects at A-level, and so you want to ensure you are going to enjoy spending a lot of time working on them. 

You also want to make sure that with any subject you pick, you have performed well with it previously. A-Levels are a significant step up from your GCSEs in terms of difficulty, and so you want to make sure that you will be able to study the subject without too much complication.

Oxford Summer Courses students walking at the University of Oxford

 

7. What Degree Can I Do With My A-Levels?

As mentioned above, you A-level subject choices will play a huge role in deciding what and where you study at university. 

Whether you want to study a science-based subject like Medicine or Biotechnology, to art-based subjects like English Literature and Creative Writing to Architecture and History of Art, your A-level choices will be crucial in helping you to secure a place on a course and pursue further study.

Therefore, before choosing your A-levels, it’s paramount that you spend the time researching the course you are interested in studying at university, so that you can make an informed decision. 

Take the time to browse through a variety of university websites and their prospectuses, checking the A-level entry requirements for the subject which you want to study. 

You can also use the helpful UniGuide A-level explorer tool, which can tell you which degree is best suited to the A-levels you are interested in studying.

This stage of the decision-making process is crucial, and you shouldn’t cut corners when doing your research. Your A-levels may just help you get onto a university course which will change your career path forever, so make sure you spend as much time looking into your options as possible, to ensure you’re making the right decision.

 

8. What Can I Do With My A-Levels?

Lots of students ask for information on what they can do after they have completed their A-level qualifications, and the answer really is – anything! 

Here are just some potential ideas:

 

Further Your Study at University

Once they have earned their A-Level qualifications, lots of students in the UK continue their studies at university. 

A-levels are the most common qualifications used to get into university. When applying for a course via UCAS, the grades you will receive are transferred into UCAS points, which attribute a numerical value to your qualifications. Your grades need to meet the minimum requirements in order for you to be accepted onto that particular course.

 

Look for Employment Opportunities

By the time most students finish their A-levels in the UK, they are 18 years-old. For some, the thought of doing further study for another few years is unappealing, with them ready to launch into the world of work.

A-levels show a good level of education, and will be valued by employers looking to fill entry-level and training positions within their company.

If you are serious about considering this option when you finish your A-levels, do make sure that the job you wish to pursue doesn’t require any additional training or qualifications. It’s a lot easier to continue with your education after A-levels than it will be if you decide to go back and study again at a later date.

 

Study For a Work-Based Qualification

After completing your A-Levels, another opportunity that allows you to enter into the world of work is to study for a vocational or work-based qualification, such as an apprenticeship. 

Vocational roles and apprenticeships offer training alongside your job, so by the end of your contract with the company you will have earned a qualification. This can be great for career paths that require a more practical element, such as construction, manufacturing and agriculture. 

Before choosing this route, it’s important that you have a contract secured with a company so you can jump straight into your employment, otherwise you may spend a few months looking for a position.

You can take a look at what apprenticeships are available in the UK by visiting the official government website

 

Take a Gap Year

Not sure what to do next? Taking a gap year after your A-levels can give you the time needed to work out your next steps, whether that be to help you decide whether to apply to university, look for employment, or maybe even start your own business venture! 

Traditionally, the term ‘gap year’ has been associated with students who take a year’s break from study, allowing them to travel and explore the world, using the time to get new perspectives and develop their independence and other important skills. 

But today, a gap year can mean almost anything. You may take the opportunity to defer your university course by a year, allowing you to get some real-world experience by getting a job.

Alternatively, you may look to attend a spring or summer course, one which allows you to travel internationally and explore a subject you may wish to pursue at university in the future. Here, you can meet other like-minded students from around the world, and get inspired for your next steps.

If you’re interested in attending a summer school, take a look at our current courses, available in the UK and at a number of international locations. 

two-people-studying-together

 

9. What Are Facilitating Subjects?

If you are considering studying at a Russell Group university – that is, one of the UK’s leading universities – then you probably want to make yourself aware of the term ‘facilitating subjects.’

Although recently revised, this recommended list of subjects set out some of the A-level (or equivalent) subjects which are most often specified as a requirement by top universities. The list includes:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • English Literature
  • Geography
  • History
  • Languages (both Classical and Modern)
  • Mathematics
  • Further Mathematics
  • Physics

Though the Russell Group has re-launched their facilitating subject list, creating a platform that helps students make informed decisions about the subjects they should consider for their future careers, the previous list is still prominent in university selection processes. If you look at any leading university in the UK, most of them specify one or more of the above subjects as an entry requirement to their course.

Now, it’s important to note that this list doesn’t mean that you should be taking one of the specified subjects, but it may help you narrow down your choices if you’re not sure what to study.

However, if you do know what subject you may want to study at university, then you should check the subjects most frequently requested for that particular course. You can do this by directly searching for a particular university and checking their entry requirements, or by browsing the course catalogue over on UCAS’ website.

 

10. How Are A-Levels Assessed?

A-levels are predominantly assessed by exams, which take place at the end of your second year of study. 

However, there are some subjects, such as Art & Design or the main sciences: Biology, Chemistry, and Physics which require a coursework or practical assessment. Even still, these non-exam assessments will only ever account for around 20% of your final grade.

You will also sit exams at the end of your first year, but these won’t count towards your final A-level grades.

These ‘mock’ exams, as they are known, are used to provide you with your predicted grades, which you will use to apply to universities at the start of your second year of A-levels. 

Typically, universities will provide you with a ‘conditional offer’ if your predicted grades match their requirements. Then, after you have completed your final exams and received your final A-level grades, they will either accept your place on the course or reject your offer, depending on if you achieve those predicted grades.

Summary 

Choosing your A-levels can be a hugely daunting task, especially if you aren’t sure what career path you want to pursue.

Before having to make the decision, take the time to research your options carefully. Whether it be looking through each subject’s syllabi, or attending a summer course to get a taste of the subject in a real-world setting, this part of the decision process is critical.

It’s also recommended that you speak to your teachers, who will be able to guide you on which subjects may best suit your learning style and academic strengths. 

Ultimately, you want to gather as much information as possible to make your final decision informed and the best for your future.

Your A-level qualifications will determine where you study at university and on which course, both being two hugely significant decisions for your future career.

With that being said, there are always opportunities to retrain and change your path in the future – it just may take a little more time and effort. 

So, even though your A-level choices may be one of the biggest decisions you’ve had to make so far, never feel as though your options have to be your final choices.

 

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You can keep up-to-date with all our university guides and study tips by signing up to our newsletter – just fill out the form at the bottom of this page. 

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