Choosing the right A-level subjects

There are over 40 subjects examined at A level, and even though it’s unlikely that your sixth form offers that many, you should still have a lot of choice. A-level subjects range from ones you’ve probably already met at GCSE to ones which sound interesting but which you may not know much about. Choosing the right combination can feel really tough, but if you are methodical, take your time, and ask lots of questions you will find the A-level subjects which are right for you.

The three sections which follow describe how to approach the business of finding the right subject combination. Our site page 'FAQs about A-level choice' deals with the questions students most often ask, from basics such as ‘What are AS and A2 exams?’, 'Are A levels changing?'  to tricky questions such as ‘Are some subjects better for university entrance?’ and 'I can’t take the subject mix I want. What should I do?'

Students starting A level in September 2015 will find that A levels are changing. Students starting in 2014 will not be affected by changes in exams. For information about the 2015 changes look at our advice article 'the exams revolution is coming'.

Key things to bear in mind when choosing A-level subjects

Here are the three principles which should guide your choice:

Choose subjects you will enjoy;

If you do not enjoy studying a subject (most of the time at least), it is demoralising and difficult to do well. In the sixth-form you want to be stimulated, not bored, and if you enjoy the work you will probably get a good grade in the exam, though the opposite isn’t always true.

In thinking about whether you will enjoy a subject you should consider two things: the content of the subject and the skills it requires. You should have a real interest in the content - the things that you learn about - but you should also be confident that you have or can develop the skills that the subject requires. Each subject involves a different mixture of activities. One subject might require a lot of learning detail, another might require a lot of independent reading, some subjects involve a lot of essay writing, others a lot of creativity. Each of these activities requires skills you may or may not enjoy. The way a subject is assessed might also be important to you, particularly if assessment involves a lot of project work.

Beware of taking a subject just because ‘it sounds interesting’. Check it out carefully. Finding out more about a subject is essential if you haven’t studied it before, but it is also important to review subjects you are familiar with - they are likely to change significantly as you move from GCSE to A level.

Maths and languages are examples of subjects where there's a real jump in difficulty (and interest too!) when you move into the sixth form, so if you're thinking of A levels in these subjects it's important to talk it through with teachers who know you.

Choose subjects which will fit in with your career plans

If you have clear ideas about what you want to study at university, you should check whether your plans require specific subjects. The third section of this article shows A-level requirements for some popular degree courses and you can find lots of detail on the UCAS website.

Your school should be able to provide careers advice and testing if you need to clarify your long-term plans before choosing A-level subjects, but don’t feel you have to nail that down before choosing A levels. Keeping options open is a good idea but check that your A-level choices don’t rule out degrees you’re interested in. You will find that there are many degree subjects which you can apply to with any A-level combination.

Don’t take a subject you find really tough just because it is needed for a particular career. Unless you have good reason to believe that subject will be easier for you at the higher sixth-form level (and your teachers confirm this) it’s better to rethink your choice of career.

Take time to find out all you need to know

You will need the time to think carefully about your interests and skills, and about possible directions after A levels. You then need to match these ideas up to the A-level subjects on offer, which will involve finding out more about them. Time to do the thinking and time to talk to people, and time to change your mind if necessary, are all important

While other people might have good advice and opinions worth considering carefully, this is your choice: you are the person who will be doing the work, and it’s your future that A levels help decide. Take advice seriously but don’t just take a subject because someone else tells you that’s what you must do (or because that’s what your friends are taking).

Where to find out more about A-level subjects

A-level subject guides

Your chosen sixth-form will have guides to the subjects on offer which should give you an outline of the content and skills needed, and details of how the subject is assessed. It should also tell you whether there are any restrictions on subject combinations which you need to bear in mind. The Student Room website provides a lot of online material on A-level subjects.

Your current teachers

Your current teachers will know your intellectual strengths and weaknesses. It is certainly worth asking their opinion on the subjects you are thinking about.

Sixth-form teachers

If you are moving to a college for A levels, make sure you visit and spend time talking to the staff. They should be able to give a detailed account of their subjects and can answer questions on what the subject is like. If you are staying on in school, do find time to talk to the staff who are likely to be teaching you.

Studying under a teacher you like and respect can make a real difference but don’t choose a subject just because you like the teacher. Teachers change jobs and anyway, your group might be assigned to another member of the department.

AS and A2 subject specifications

The exam board  ‘specifications’ (new term for 'syllabus') describe the topics to be covered, often in considerable detail. You can find exam board specifications for the AS and A2 parts of each A-level subject online. AQA, EDEXCEL and OCR are the ‘big three’ exam boards. Many A-level subjects are offered by all three boards so you will need to find out which board your chosen sixth-form uses

Other students

Talk to sixth-formers who are currently studying the subjects you are considering. Ask them what they like best about their subjects (and what they don’t like).

Texts and reference books

Skimming through a book in the subject area can give a good idea of the type of work you would be doing. This is particularly useful when you are contemplating something you have not studied before.

Our FAQs

Have look at our FAQs about A-level choice which cover a lot of the A-level choice questions we get asked.

A-level requirements for popular degree courses

This section describes the A-level subjects which are essential for various popular degree courses, and those which would be directly useful. Sometimes Universities will accept an AS level in a subject instead of the full A level, but you must check.

  • Chemistry A level is essential or very useful for: Medicine, Veterinary Science, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Biology (and Bio related subjects).
  • To study Medicine: Chemistry is essential, plus 2 other A levels, one of which should be a science. Biology is not essential, but it is useful.
  • For a Business Studies degree: No essential A-level subjects, though Maths is useful and you will need a good Maths result at GCSE. Business Studies or Economics A levels are helpful. Top Universities do not like you to do both. The same is true for degrees like Accounts, Management etc.
  • European Business Studies generally requires a European Language.
  • Law degrees: No essential subjects, though they like you to have subjects which show logical ability and the ability to write (eg: a mixture of Arts and Science subjects).
  • Psychology: No essential subjects (a mix of Arts and Science subjects is good.) You will need GCSE Maths.
  • Computing: No essential subjects for most courses. Maths A level is essential for a few Universities and useful for all.
  • Engineering: Maths and Physics are generally essential (though you can apply without them and do an extra Foundation year). Chemistry is essential for most Chemical Engineering degrees.
  • Most other degree courses either have no essential A-level subjects, or just require an A level in the subject concerned plus any two others. Do check though!
  • And do bear in mind that the top academic degree courses will generally expect three ‘academic’ A levels (see our FAQs about A-level choice for more about this).