A guide to choosing your sixth-form subjects

For some this might be an easy question, but for others it can be very tricky.

Here are some quick questions - in no particular order - you should ask yourself to help you make the decision.

What do I want to be when I grow up?

This isn't essential, so don't panic if you haven't got a clue! Most people don't at 16.

If you already know what career path you want to take, then this will make choosing your school options a lot easier. These are some common career areas with suggestions for related A level subjects:

  • Medicine, Nursing, Veterinary or Dentistry pathway: Chemistry, Maths, Biology, Psychology.
  • Engineering Pathway: Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Product Design, Engineering
  • Public administration pathway: English Literature, History, Politics, Sociology.
  • Business and Accountancy pathway: Business/Accounting, Economics, Law, MFL
  • Journalism pathway: English Language, English Literature, Politics, Psychology
  • Teaching, police, social work pathway: English, Sociology, Psychology, Health & Social Care
  • Expressive arts pathway: Art, Drama and Theatre Studies, Film Studies, English Literature.
  • Environmental pathway: Chemistry, Biology, Environmental Studies, Geography.

For ideas about the sort of careers/jobs linked to particular subjects ('What can you do with Physics?'), then THIS is a useful website.

Remember, for some careers, required subjects are a lot less specific. Most Uni's don't specify any particular subjects for Law for instance - you could have 3 science A levels.

Check the 'admissions requirements' for the subject you are interested in at a wide range of Universities. Find the courses you are interested in on a variety of different University websites and check which subjects are preferred or essential for specific degree subjects or career areas.

Many A level subjects aren't 'vocational' - they don't lead to a specific job. This is especially true for subjects in Arts & Humanities or Social Science such as English, History, Politics etc etc. In these cases, you may want to study a subject just because you enjoy it. And that's fine! So, if you want to study English (or any other subject) just because that what sets your heart and soul racing, then do it. You don't have to justify this by making up claims about 'I want to be a Journalist'.

BTECs - are more vocationally orientated qualifications than A levels. Subjects include Applied Science, IT, Health Care, Performing Arts, Animal Management and other more practical subjects. Increasingly Universities are accepting them for admissions purposes - but top Universities will want D/D* grades. For many technical subjects such as Engineering, or Veterinary Nursing etc. they are considered a very good preparation for University level study, and are accepted for other courses such as Social Sciences or Arts subjects. However, some Universities will only accept BTECs in combination with at least 1 relevant A level - so always check admissions requirements very carefully. Basic info on BTECs and a list of subjects offered HERE.

GCSE retakes - it is now compulsory for you to resit GCSE English and Maths in Year 12 if you didn't get a C grade at your first attempt. All schools/colleges therefore will include this as a parallel course alongside A levels or BTECs. It is also worth double checking the likely GCSE requirements for any Uni or college course, or apprenticeship, you might be interested in to make sure you don't need to take or retake GCSEs in specific subjects or to raise grades. Remember top Unis will often ask for A or B grade GCSEs regardless of how good your A level predictions are.

What do I want to study at University or College?

Whatever subject you think you might study at University or College, you must research the entry requirements for that subject/course. Some Universities and college courses will require you to have studied specific subjects, and some give guidelines on which subjects they’d prefer over others. They will also state the specific minimum grades that are acceptable. You may also need specific grades in core subjects at GCSE like Maths or English. If you don't already have these GSCEs, you may need to think about retakes alongside A levels, BTEC etc.

Be realistic - if you know you are exceedingly unlikely to get an good grade in A level Maths and that is what your chosen subject requires, think long and hard about whether it is worth doing that A level or that Uni subject. It isn't just that a subject like Economics requires Maths, its 'do I want to spend 3 years studying a subject where Maths, which I don't like, is clearly an important element'.

Traditional versus Non-traditional subjects – some top universities have recently defined certain A level subjects they deem too 'soft'. These include Performing Arts subjects, PE and Sports Studies, Citizenship Studies, Art & Design subjects, Media Studies, Business Studies or Accounting. Both Cambridge University and the London School of Economics have published lists of the subjects they believe are a 'less effective' preparation for degrees than traditional academic subjects (see 'Useful links' below). Therefore, if you are planning to apply to top universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Durham, Manchester or certain University of London colleges (like LSE), or you are thinking of applying for a very competitive subject like Medicine, Law or Economics at any University, it is worth investigating whether your chances of being accepted will be more of a struggle if you take one or more of these less desirable subjects at A level.

For help with choosing a University subject, there is lots of advice HERE. This is worth reading now, even if you don't have any clear ideas about what you might do after A levels.

What do I enjoy the most?

If you enjoy a subject you are far more likely to get a good grade in it.

Everyone, even those who claim they hate school, will have one or two subjects that they really enjoy studying. As an avid reader you may enjoy English Literature; maybe you’re interested in History, Art or Politics; or perhaps you simply get a buzz from quadratic equations, in which case Maths will be the highlight of your day.

Whatever you like the most, remember that simply being interested in something can not only make it seem easier, but encourage you to engage and work harder, leading to better grades.

This is especially important if you don't have any define career/job ideas. Doing subjects because you simply enjoy them is fine. You don't have to pretend that you are doing them for any other reason than that.

Career prospects

Do not choose a subject just because you think it leads to a well-paid or glamorous job. You might have ambitions of being a Merchant Banker or a Rock Musician but if maths or music as an academic subject don't interest you, school is going to become very hard going. Money isn't everything - lots of people get immense satisfaction from their jobs regardless of lower pay. This is more important than any pay cheque.

Life isn't a race. It isn't 'If I don't choose the right A levels or BTEC subjects my life is over'. Lots of people change their minds about what they want to do with their life - both at school and later. And you wont just have one job for the whole of the rest of your life.

See below for useful links for career ideas.

What type of subject?

What do you enjoy? Theoretical subjects, creative subjects, practical or 'thinking'? Do you enjoy lab work? Do you like reading? Do you need a creative outlet? Think about the day to day work of each subject.

Remember that doing a course that will give you 'extra' practical skills like IT, Hospitality or a foreign language can be useful simply as a 'skill' whether you go to Uni eventually or not.

Look beyond the subjects you did for GCSEs - there may be lots of different subjects available at A level.

What courses are on offer?

There may be unfamiliar subjects on offer - Politics, Economics, Human Biology, Product Design etc etc. Are these the sort of subjects you enjoy? Find out about what these subjects involve, look at the coursework materials and exam papers. Think about extending your breadth of study beyond what you did at GCSE. And BTEC might give you vocational options like 'Music Technology' or 'Health and Social Care' alongside traditional A level subjects.

There is a much wider selection of courses available than you had access to at GCSE, especially if you went to a small school and are considering a sixth form college. If you are getting bored with the subjects you currently study and want to try your hand at something new, then it’s worth seeing what other subjects might be available.

Final considerations

Still don’t know what you want to study in Sixth Form or at College? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Take plenty of time to research all options and make your decisions.

Look at Not Going to Uni for other options - more vocational courses, apprenticeships etc. Also look at the training available via the Armed Services or within a large employer like the NHS or the Civil Service. Doing something like this doesn't mean you wont ever go to Uni. Many, many people go to Uni later in life, building on vocational training or work experience.

If you aren't sure what career path you might follow or if you even want to go on to Uni or College at all, then choosing subjects you enjoy is a good option. In this situation it is a good idea to have a 'balance' of courses from different subject areas. A combination of, for instance, English Literature, Physics and Geography leaves lots of options open to you in the future. If you choose 3 science subjects, that makes changing to an Arts or Humanities subject for further study more difficult.

  • Don’t allow yourself to be rushed into anything by your school or college deadlines, or by your parents. Take as much time as you can.
  • Don’t let yourself be cornered into doing this or that because of timetabling issues. If this happens, then think about looking at other institutions/schools or ask if you can do one subject at another school or college by arrangement.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If the course content isn't clear then ask your teachers for clarification or more information. Look at the text books etc that students currently doing those courses are using. Is the subject actually what you thought it would be about?
  • Don’t take subjects just because your friends are, or because you fancy the teacher.
  • Don't take subjects just so you can show off. 'I'm doing Law' can sound clever when you are talking to your neighbours kids, but you are the one who has then got to study it for 2 years, not them.
  • Don’t think that this is going to be a final decision – you may be able change subjects at the start of the school year if you’ve changed your mind, and one subject usually gets dropped after AS levels. This last option is useful if you are thinking of taking a new subject you have not studied before and are uncertain about what this might be like.

Useful Links

  • Which Uni advice on choosing A level subjects
  • Article from The Guardian about choosing A level subjects
  • Lots of info and ideas about jobs, careers and similar choices atThe Big Choice
  • What Uni has a searchable database on what courses are available at which Unis (always check the specific qualifications and subjects need on each Uni website).
  • Careers in the NHS - including school-leaver entry level jobs and apprenticeships.
  • Careers and training in the Royal Navy - including medicine, admin, catering etc
  • Jobs in the Civil Service across the UK - not just desk jobs - including school-leaver entry level jobs and apprenticeships.