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How to choose your A levels: useful tips

Updated: Jul 6, 2023


Advanced level qualifications (known as A levels) are important for a number of reasons. They open doors to the best universities in the UK, being the most popular qualifications for university admissions, are the most widely accepted all over the world and can also lead to other opportunities like further study, training, or work.


However, with around 80 different subjects available to study at A-level overall, it's easy to go down the wrong road when it comes to university preparation. As one study has shown, one in five students at UK universities, including those from overseas, polled by the University and College Admissions Service (Ucas), later regretted their choice of a degree subject because they didn’t get good advice from their school on which A-levels to choose.


That's why picking the right A levels is so tricky. Some universities, like the University of Cambridge, even offer their own advice on which subjects to study. Let's look at the most important things to consider before making this momentous decision:


Dig deeper


Taking A levels is a serious commitment. It's quite a big step from GCSE and IGCSE examinations in terms of difficulty and how much independent study and dedication it requires from a student. That's why it's so essential to pick a subject that you are really interested in and good at, even if your degree and career plans might change in the future.


A good place to start is to dig deeper into the subjects you're about to take (typically three or four, although some students who are set on applying to competitive universities take more). Oxford and Cambridge even coined a special term for this discovery process: a supercurricular. It means any activities that are connected to the subject and go a little bit beyond what's usually taught in the classroom/the regular school curriculum.


For example, you can immerse yourself further in topics that are only very briefly touched upon at school (A levels may be offered in subjects that you have not even studied before) by reading articles in special magazines, taking online courses, listening to podcasts, and attending events such as lectures and masterclasses (this will also come in handy later on when you'll need to write a Personal Statement!).


Check out the entry requirements


If you already have a specific degree in mind or simply want to do some research, you can explore various courses that are being offered and their entry requirements, use resources recommended by the universities themselves (for example, reading lists), and visit them on open days to learn more.


Take career tests


Although you can always talk to your teachers and to staff on open days, it's important to explore what you are genuinely interested in, not allowing other people's opinions, stereotypes and preconceptions to influence you or sway your decisions. What might be helpful at this point is to take a career test to better understand your own personality type and a whole variety of options that exist for you out there.


For example, you can take the CareerExplorer Career Test (it's free!) which uses advanced machine learning, psychometrics, and career satisfaction data to determine one’s personality type as accurately as possible and match it with some of more than 1500 careers.


If you're still in doubt, choose wisely


It's also totally fine to be undecided about what you want to study at university. However, if you want to keep your options open, you can choose the so-called 'facilitating subjects', i.e. subjects that are most often required or preferred by top universities.


Of course, these subjects shouldn't be perceived as the only ones that leading universities would consider, but picking one or more of these will allow you to choose from a far larger pool of courses later on. For example, the University of Cambridge lists the following subjects that are essential for many of its courses:


Modern languages

Chemistry

History

English

Mathematics and Further Mathematics

Biology

Physics


You can also use this helpful tool from Russell Group universities called Informed Choices here.


Be mindful of subjects or subject combinations that might not be accepted


This is another important thing to keep in mind when it comes to A levels. Some universities don't recommend taking specific combinations of subjects such as Business Studies and Economics (in this case, they're too similar), or might not accept vocational subjects such as Photography and Media Studies. London School of Economics (LSE) even has a specific list of common "non-preferred" subjects that includes Art and Design and Creative Writing.


Want to know more about A-level exams preparation and British education in general? LEO International Online School offers a diverse and intensive two–year A-Level programme designed to prepare students for entry to universities in the United Kingdom. Learn more about this programme and our other courses here, and don't hesitate to contact us at info@leo-school.uk.

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