The River Thames outside DLD College London

How to choose the right A-Level subjects for university

20th July 20

Advanced Level courses, also known as ‘A-Levels’, are the most commonly recognised qualifications students can take to gain place at a UK university. A-Levels also have the benefit of being a well-respected global qualification, so universities outside of the United Kingdom will also accept A-Level students.

Typically, A-Level students will take 3 or 4 subjects over a period of 2 years, starting every September – although our colleges also offer 18 month January start and even 1 year A-Level options. There are a wide range of A-Level subjects to choose from in subject areas including; science, humanities, business, languages, social sciences, and mathematics. With so many subject options to choose from, it can be difficult to know which combination of subjects to study to access your preferred university course.

Universities will often ask students to take a specific combination of A-Level subjects to gain entry to particular undergraduate courses, and will also ask students to achieve a qualifying UCAS ‘score’ for successful entry, which is derived from the grades across the subjects they have studied. 

With so many subject options to choose from, it can be difficult to know which combination to choose to access your preferred university course, or perhaps you may not quite know which university course you want to study yet, and want to keep your options open. Let’s consider the best strategies for each case.

Many courses will ask students to study a combination of specific subjects, and will ask applicants to achieve specified grades in them, here are a couple of examples of university course admissions requirements:

Medicine at the University of Cambridge

A*, A*, A* grades with an A-Level in Chemistry and one of Biology, Physics, Mathematics.

Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol

A*AA including A*A (in any order) in Mathematics and any one of Physics, Chemistry, Further Mathematics or Computer Science.

So if you have a clear idea of the type of course you want to study at university, the best place to start your search is by visiting a wide range of university websites to learn which A-Level subjects they expect applicants to have studied.

A good example of a course with consistent A-Level subject requirements is medicine. If you want to study this course in the UK, every medical school will expect you to have studied mathematics and chemistry and/or biology. Medicine is also a highly competitive undergraduate course, so applicants will need to be targeting A grades in each subject they study to stand a chance. 

Likewise, to gain a place to study mechanical engineering at the University of Bristol you will need to achieve a strong academic performance in mathematics and the sciences.

It’s also important to be aware of the courses which don’t list a specific subject requirement, but which ask students to demonstrate skills or possess knowledge which can only realistically be gained by studying particular subjects. A good example of this is the prestigious Architecture course at the Bartlett School at UCL, the course’s academic entry requirements state:

 ‘No specific subjects. Comprehensive portfolio of creative work required at interview stage.’

In most cases, the level of portfolio required can only really be developed by students pursuing A-Level Art studies.

In the two examples given above, we have given entry requirements of universities which are members of the Russell Group. This is a group of 24 British universities who are considered amongst the most prestigious. The prestige of studying at a Russell Group university can mean that competition for places and subsequently entry requirements are set high. So, it is important to conduct research into the type of courses and institution you want to study at before making your A-Level subject choices. After all, if you want to study mechanical engineering at Bristol, but only achieve a C grade in your mathematics A-Level, then you are likely to be disappointed and not receive an offer to study there.

Here are examples of some associations that UK universities broadly align themselves into:

Oxbridge – not an official group, but the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are often referred to collectively as ‘Oxbridge’. Most Oxbridge applicants can only apply to one university –  have to choose between Oxford and Cambridge. Both are collegiate universities, and are considered to be the most prestigious’ highest performing, and difficult universities to gain entry across a wide range of undergraduate courses. Both universities require applicants to pass additional tests and admissions interviews to gain a place (on top of their academic qualifications).

G5 – Established in 2004, members of this group are the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Imperial College London, and University College London (UCL). Universities in this group are all world-renowned and considered traditionally to be the strongest in the UK. Entry requirements for UCL and Imperial tend to be set a little lower, LSE specialised in Economics and other Social Sciences, and in these areas competition for places is intense.

Russell Group – A group of 24 research intensive universities, most are highly ranked in the UK and globally. Russell Group Universities are often referred to as ‘red brick’ universities, meaning they tend to be older and more established. To become part of the group each member university has to conduct wide-ranging, globally recognised research and offer a broad range of courses for students. Competition for places is high, but perhaps not as competitive as G5 or Oxbridge institutions.

1994 GroupLike the Russell Group the 1994 Group was another prestigious collective of smaller, mainly campus-based universities that focused on research until the group disbanded in 2013. The 1994 institutions are known for doing well in the league tables particularly in terms of student satisfaction.

MillionPlus – is an association of modern UK universities. Universities in this group have been more recently established. Although they may not be as well recognised globally or carry the prestige of universities in the other groups, many MillionPlus universities conduct world leading research and offer high quality, specialised courses for students.

So it’s important to have a broad idea of which type of course that you would like to study at, and which type of university you would like to study at when choosing your A-Level subjects. But, it’s just as important to be realistic about your academic abilities when planning your studies post A-Level.

If you are an A*A*A* student, then Oxbridge should certainly be on your radar (although even 3 A* grades offer no guarantee of success), if you are achieving A*, A, A, then reaching Oxbridge is going to be tough, but a place at a G5 university is a realistic ambition. If you achieve AAB or ABB then a Russell Group university would be a likely destination.

So the key is to choose the combination of subjects that is going to give you access to your preferred course, at your preferred university. For the most part this should be a straightforward process, for example if you want to study English Literature at university, then it makes sense that you should be studying and aiming for high grades in English Literature A-Level.

But what subject choices should you make if you aren’t sure of what you want to study at university? Or maybe if you’re split between two opposing courses such as a creative and science based subject. The first step is to choose A-Level subjects that you actually want to study. Remember A-Levels are designed to be challenging, ‘advanced’ level courses, and if you have a natural passion for your subject, you are more likely to achieve better grades, and enhance your university applications prospects, than if you choose subjects that don’t particularly interest you, but you feel might give you a better chance of a place on a hypercompetitive course.

It’s also important to be aware of facilitating subjects, these are a handful of A-Level subjects commonly asked for in universities’ entry requirements, regardless of the course you’re applying to – this makes them a good choice to keep your degree options open. 

The facilitating subjects are biology, chemistry, English, geography, history, mathematics, modern and classical languages and physics. If you don’t know what you’ll want to study at university, but enjoy any of these subjects, it can be a good idea to take one or two of these at A-Level.

Another great feature of studying A-Levels with the Abbey DLD Group of Colleges is that we give students the option to study 4 subjects. This naturally opens up a wider range of university course choices, and you can always drop one of the subjects when your preferred university option becomes clear.

So to summarise, here are the key points to consider when selecting you’re a-Level subjects for University

  1. Learn more about the universities and courses you are interested in, are their entry requirements achievable?
  2. Pick the subjects you are passionate about, and that will give you the best chance of success at your first choice university
  3. If you are not sure  what you want to study at university, consider choosing facilitating subjects to give you a wide choice of courses

Start with 4 A-Level subjects, this keeps your options open, and you can always drop one subject when your preferred university route becomes clearer.