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

If you have an idea of what you might like to do after school - University, Apprenticeship etc - then it makes sense to check that your Sixth Form subjects will enable you to do this. Look on University websites to see what subjects are 'required' for relevant degrees, or look at Apprenticeship listings to check what school subjects you need to have studied. 

For some degrees its fairly obvious what you need to be taking at A level. An English degree requires A level English. For Medicine you need to be taking sciences. However for many other courses this may be less obvious - what do you need to do an Engineering degree for instance, or Pharmacy, or American Studies? And, for others there are some surprises - for a degree in Politics you do not need to have done A level Politics - but you may need another social science, or an 'essay based subject'. For Law, there are no required subjects. So, don't 'assume' you know what A level or BTEC subjects you need to have studied to do a particular subject at University - always check.

If you have not yet decided what you might want to do after school, 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'.

Most schools or colleges offer a range of other qualifications apart from A levels and these can usually be taken in combination with A levels.

BTECs and Cambridge Technicals - these are more vocationally orientated qualifications than A levels. Increasingly Universities are accepting them for admissions purposes - but top Universities will want high grades.  Be aware that a BTEC Extended Diploma covers the timetable space of 3 A levels, but there are also BTECs that are considered 'equivalant' to one A level, or two A levels.

One big difference between between A levels and BTECs/CTECHs are that they rely more on coursework assessment, and A levels more on final exams. Which suits you best - this may guide your choice. Also, they are 'vocational' qualifications and be geared to providing you with the practical skills required for a job or apprenticeship in that area. BTEC 'Applied Psychology' therefore has a different content to A level Psychology and the BTEC will include less theory and more practical work (including placements) than an A level in that subject. Think about your learning style - do you learn better by 'doing' or by studying the more theoretical or factual aspects of a subject?

'Level 3' means they are the same study level as A levels - but even when they appear attract the same UCAS points as A levels, do not assume that a Uni will automatically accept a BTEC or CTECH qualifications for your selected course instead of A levels. Also that because they accept BTEC Extended Diploma for that degree that they will also accept 3 separate subject BTEC Certificate instead. Be aware that some Universities will only accept BTECs in combination with at least 1 relevant A level - so always check admissions requirements very carefully. If in doubt - email the University Admissions office and ask.

GCSEs - You may need to retake GCSEs in Sixth Form alongside A levels or BTECs. Usually this is required if you got below a grade 4 in GCSE Maths or English Language. This is because these GCSEs are a basic requirement for many jobs, apprenticeships or degree courses. If you leave school without them, your options may be limited.  Many Universities will require specific GCSE grades regardless of how good your A level predictions are. Typically this will be GCSE Maths and/or English Language. Subjects such as Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing, Teaching, Economics, Psychology, Business, Marketing etc will usually require a higher Maths grade - and if you have taken Foundation Maths (with a max grade of 5), and the degree requirement is GCSE grade 6 or above, you may need to ask you school to allow you to take or resit this GCSE alongside your A levels/BTECs to reach the required grade.  

Other qualifications.

Alongside A levels and BTECs there are also qualifications such as WJEC Diplomas or those offered by awarding bodies such as City & Guilds. Many of these have a similar structure to BTECs. They are also designed with the workplace in mind and provide another more vocational. practical alternative to A Levels with a range of subjects to choose from. Like BTECs, these qualifications may or may not be accepted by Universities or Colleges, or they may need to be combined with certain A levels.  Ask the relevant subject teachers about what they are designed for - are they vocational (work-orientated) or academic (more theory based).

Cambridge Pre-U is a school leaving qualification from Cambridge Assessment International Education that is considered a similarly academic alternative to A levels. There are 26 principal subjects available. Each is a two year course with exams at the end, either resulting in a certificate or a diploma. You can take up to four Pre-U subjects, which can be combined with other qualifications. 

Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is a research project qualification considered equivalent to an AS level (and attracts UCAS points). It is not offered by all schools. Its usually offered as a one year course. It involves writing either an extended essay of about 5,000 words or creating a product with an accompanying shorter essay of about 1,000 words. Its useful as an 'extension' opportunity to so some extra work/study within an academic area that interests you. It can also give you a useful example for your UCAS Personal Statement to show that you are working beyond the A level syllabus and are ready for the step-up to degree level study.

Core Maths is a one-year higher Maths qualification roughly equivalent to an AS level and is useful if you want to show evidence of your higher Maths ability but don't want to do more than 3 A levels. Again its not offered by all schools.


 ​​​​​​​What do I want to eventually 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/degree. Some Universities and college courses will require you to have studied specific A level or BTEC subjects, and some give guidelines on which subjects they’d prefer over others. 

Be realistic - if you know you are unlikely to get an good grade in A level Maths and that is what your chosen degree 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'.

'Facilitating Subjects' was a term used to describe 'traditional' A level subjects such as English, Maths, History, Chemistry etc, and excluding many performing arts or vocational subjects. Your teachers may try to tell you that Russell Group Universities still require Facilitating Subjects or 'won't accept Dance A level' or whatever.  However, as a result of new marketing legislation, Universities no longer use this concept, and instead must list clearly any required or preferred subjects for any course. They must also list any subjects they will not accept. If, for instance, the subject requirement says 'must include Mathematics and Physics' then that means the 3rd subject can be any A level subject. If they tell you that particular subjects will not be accepted for a certain course or degree, that is what they mean.

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 doing. As an avid reader you may enjoy English Literature; maybe you’re interested in History, Art or Laguages; 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.

What does the course/qualification/subject involve?

Do not assume that the BTEC or A level or whatever will be 'just like doing the GCSE'. Remember its at a higher level. The syllabus (topics you are taught) will be different and the learning style will be different.

Most schools will run a an Information Evening for you  and your parents to find out more about the subjects on offer. Don't be afraid to ask questions. What topics are covered, what are the assessment methods, how much practical work is involved, are there any required work-placements? And you might even want to know how big the class group might be, how many lessons a week, how much homework is expected. Often you can look at the relevant textbooks or course-notes - this will give you an idea of the areas covered (or not covered!), and how different it will be compared to doing a GCSE or BTEC Level 2. 

HOW MANY A LEVELS?

It's often tempting to think that because you coped with 8+ subjects or whatever at GCSE level, that you can do lots of A level subjects as well. Many people underestimate the amount of work involved, or the required step-up in the level or style of study.

No UK University requires more than 3 A levels - not even Oxford or Cambridge - and you won't get any extra 'ooooo clever' Brownie points for taking more. Therefore try to resist pressure from your school or from your parents - more is not 'better', and you may need to be firm about this. Yes, there are exceptions - doing both Maths and Further Maths alongside two sciences is a common combination. However, an EPQ or a one-year course like Core Maths may add more to your academic profile than doing 4 full A level subjects.

Its sadly common for students to take on 4 (or even more) subjects and under-achieve simply because they took on more than they could realistically cope with. Remember that Sixth Form is suppose to be enjoyable - by weighing yourself down with work, you may get over-stressed and tired, and then simply not enjoy it at all. Doing 3 subjects well, and getting top grades, is always better than doing 4 subjects and messing them up. AAA will always look better than ABBB.

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 an Investment Banker or a Rock Musician but if Maths or Music is a chore and you do not enjoy studying them, school is going to become very hard going. Money isn't everything - lots of people get immense satisfaction from their jobs regardless of the 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.

DO I HAVE TO STAY AT MY CURRENT SCHOOL?

You can apply for a place at a range of different options - school, local College, Sixth Form college or whatever is available to you locally. You can hold offers from several if you want to and you only need to make you final choice when you have your GCSE results. This is especially important if there is a particular course or subject you want to do and its not offered by your current school.  Many people find that a change to College or a stand-alone Sixth Form gives them a different, more-mature attitude to study than just 'more school'.

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 involved in 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, or whatever degree course you take.

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

[edit]What courses are on offer?

There may be unfamiliar subjects on offer - Politics, Economics, Psychology, Hospitality, Product Design etc etc. Are these the sort of subjects you might 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 a BTEC might give you more vocational or creative options like 'Music Technology' or 'Health and Social Care' alongside two traditional A level subjects.

There may be 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.

[edit]Final considerations

Still don’t know what you want to study in Sixth Form or at College? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. 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 just 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, or you may be able to start 4 subjects with the knowledge that you can drop one. 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.
  • Look at Not Going to Uni for other career options - more vocational courses, apprenticeships etc. Also look at the future 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.


Useful Links

  • Which Uni advice on choosing A level subjects
  • Advice from UCAS about choosing A level subjects
  • Lots of info and ideas about specific jobs and career areas and 'what you need' at Prospects
  • What Uni has a searchable database on what courses are available at which Unis (always double-check the specific qualifications and subjects needed on each Uni website).
  • Careers in the NHS 
  • Careers in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths)
  • 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.