Computer Science - A Level Options Watch

hahaweeb
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Hey, I'm planning on doing a computer science degree at university and I wanted to know if I need to do Comp.Sci. at A-Levels. It says it is not necessary but I wanted to know because my school offers it and teachers say the university will find it weird if I didn't take Comp.Sci.
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winterscoming
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It generally isn't an entry requirement for the majority of universities right now, (that doesn't mean it won't change in the future, but I'd imagine it'll be several years before that happens -- if it happens at all) - although Maths is a requirement for the more prestigious universities, for CS and many other STEM subjects.

There's a difference however between 'need' and 'desirable' / useful. The first year of most CS degrees contain a lot of "catch-up" material for the students who haven't been taught some of the basic problem solving skills needed for later in the course, but it's really intense if you're new to everything. The reason why it's typically much easier to study it at A-level is that you could probably expect the first year of a degree to cover around 75% of the same material that an A-level will cover, but heavily compressed into a single year, with less time to catch up on the stuff you missed in lectures, and more time studying by yourself.

Typically, a Computer Science course at A-Level will cover a broad range of topics - obviously in much less depth than you'll get in a 3-year CS degree course, but there'll be a lot of concepts to get your head around in two years of A-Level CS, for example -
- Ethics and Legal issues (e.g. Data Protection, Privacy)
- Systems Analysis (Analysis of a "real-world" type problem and learning about Requirements, feasibility, design, etc.)
- Data Structures and Algorithms (e.g. trees, lists, search/sort, algorithmic complexity, etc.)
- Hardware architecture (Memory addressing, CPU registers, Fetch-decode-execute, I/O concepts etc).
- Discrete Mathematics (Binary arithmetic, Logic gates, sets, union/intersections, etc)
- Introductory Programming (Typically in a single language at A-Level - probably Java, and a lot of hands-on problem-solving using that language)
- Databases (ERMs/Design, Relational Data, maybe some SQL or MS Access)
- Networking (Ethernet, TCP/IP, Routers, Switches, various networking protocols)
- Project Management (Including general Planning, Software Development Lifecycles, and a large chunk of a 2nd-year Project)
- A little bit of "general knowledge (e.g. computing history - Babbage/Turing, birth of the internet, personal computing, mobile phones, social media..)
- Possibly some Security and Cryptography too
- Maybe even some basic overview of AI and machine learning
- Possibly perhaps some 3D and graphical concepts


There's a few subjects in that list which probably won't get a lot of coverage in A-Level CS, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's at least a couple of chapters on those, and one or two final-exam questions.

The general remit of A-Level computing is to be an introduction to CS and to equip you with some fundamental knowledge and skills. At university many CS students specialise, e.g. some move towards 3D/game programming, others towards AI, some towards Software Engineering, others focus on "pure" CS and logic/theory, some specialise in Databases or Networking, Security, Forensic Computing, Systems Engineering, etc. A-Level CS is supposed to give you the basics of all of those things without diving in too deep, because it's a lot of stuff to cover.

If you give yourself a headstart on all of this stuff at A-Level then your first year at university will be much easier, and you'll be able to use that first year in order to focus on areas which you might have struggled with at A-Level. A lot of people typically struggle with programming when they're starting out, although the total number of marks for actually writing code in A-Level CS is usually relatively low compared to the time spent learning it - this is because CS itself is a much broader topic than just programming, and you can still be successful at CS even if you struggle with or dislike programming (assuming that you don't struggle with the rest of it too..).

In any case, don't forget to think about whether it's something you'll enjoy. I can't emphasise how much of a difference it makes when you're studying something which makes you want to learn more compared with studying something just because you think it would be "weird" not to, or because somebody else is trying to push you into it. It's much easier to motivate yourself to do coursework, to google for information online, read books, etc, when the subject is something which interests you. (I'm assuming that you do enjoy it if you're already thinking of choosing it at Degree level).
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hahaweeb
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(Original post by winterscoming)
It generally isn't an entry requirement for the majority of universities right now, (that doesn't mean it won't change in the future, but I'd imagine it'll be several years before that happens -- if it happens at all) - although Maths is a requirement for the more prestigious universities, for CS and many other STEM subjects.

There's a difference however between 'need' and 'desirable' / useful. The first year of most CS degrees contain a lot of "catch-up" material for the students who haven't been taught some of the basic problem solving skills needed for later in the course, but it's really intense if you're new to everything. The reason why it's typically much easier to study it at A-level is that you could probably expect the first year of a degree to cover around 75% of the same material that an A-level will cover, but heavily compressed into a single year, with less time to catch up on the stuff you missed in lectures, and more time studying by yourself.

Typically, a Computer Science course at A-Level will cover a broad range of topics - obviously in much less depth than you'll get in a 3-year CS degree course, but there'll be a lot of concepts to get your head around in two years of A-Level CS, for example -
- Ethics and Legal issues (e.g. Data Protection, Privacy)
- Systems Analysis (Analysis of a "real-world" type problem and learning about Requirements, feasibility, design, etc.)
- Data Structures and Algorithms (e.g. trees, lists, search/sort, algorithmic complexity, etc.)
- Hardware architecture (Memory addressing, CPU registers, Fetch-decode-execute, I/O concepts etc).
- Discrete Mathematics (Binary arithmetic, Logic gates, sets, union/intersections, etc)
- Introductory Programming (Typically in a single language at A-Level - probably Java, and a lot of hands-on problem-solving using that language)
- Databases (ERMs/Design, Relational Data, maybe some SQL or MS Access)
- Networking (Ethernet, TCP/IP, Routers, Switches, various networking protocols)
- Project Management (Including general Planning, Software Development Lifecycles, and a large chunk of a 2nd-year Project)
- A little bit of "general knowledge (e.g. computing history - Babbage/Turing, birth of the internet, personal computing, mobile phones, social media..)
- Possibly some Security and Cryptography too
- Maybe even some basic overview of AI and machine learning
- Possibly perhaps some 3D and graphical concepts


There's a few subjects in that list which probably won't get a lot of coverage in A-Level CS, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's at least a couple of chapters on those, and one or two final-exam questions.

The general remit of A-Level computing is to be an introduction to CS and to equip you with some fundamental knowledge and skills. At university many CS students specialise, e.g. some move towards 3D/game programming, others towards AI, some towards Software Engineering, others focus on "pure" CS and logic/theory, some specialise in Databases or Networking, Security, Forensic Computing, Systems Engineering, etc. A-Level CS is supposed to give you the basics of all of those things without diving in too deep, because it's a lot of stuff to cover.

If you give yourself a headstart on all of this stuff at A-Level then your first year at university will be much easier, and you'll be able to use that first year in order to focus on areas which you might have struggled with at A-Level. A lot of people typically struggle with programming when they're starting out, although the total number of marks for actually writing code in A-Level CS is usually relatively low compared to the time spent learning it - this is because CS itself is a much broader topic than just programming, and you can still be successful at CS even if you struggle with or dislike programming (assuming that you don't struggle with the rest of it too..).

In any case, don't forget to think about whether it's something you'll enjoy. I can't emphasise how much of a difference it makes when you're studying something which makes you want to learn more compared with studying something just because you think it would be "weird" not to, or because somebody else is trying to push you into it. It's much easier to motivate yourself to do coursework, to google for information online, read books, etc, when the subject is something which interests you. (I'm assuming that you do enjoy it if you're already thinking of choosing it at Degree level).
Thanks for the in-depth reply! I'm not taking it for A-Level because it is weird if I don't, I wanted to take it anyway but I was asking if it was necessary. Also, someone told me that if I take Comp.Sci. for A-Level then Universities won't favour me over those who haven't (apparently because I will need to be retaught everything). Is this true?
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artful_lounger
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(Original post by hahaweeb)
Thanks for the in-depth reply! I'm not taking it for A-Level because it is weird if I don't, I wanted to take it anyway but I was asking if it was necessary. Also, someone told me that if I take Comp.Sci. for A-Level then Universities won't favour me over those who haven't (apparently because I will need to be retaught everything). Is this true?
Yes. Universities will want to teach whatever specific languages they want to use, which may well not be the same as in A-level CS, at the very least. Beyond that, the "core" CS concepts will be taught in much greater depth and, usually, with more mathematical rigour where applicable. For example as I recall Oxford teach Haskell in first year, which is pretty unusual and to my knowledge not used in the A-level curriculum; Imperial teaches 5 different languages in first year - you see the point.

Universities rarely expect students to even have programing experience before pursuing CS, so naturally A-level CS confers no advantage. You may find some topics in first year familiar, but unlike with say, Further Maths, for which this is also true, the relevant topics are generally easier to grasp and less fundamental.

If you're already taking Maths and Further Maths, CS is a perfectly valid option for your third choice (or as a fourth overall). You may want to consider Physics to broaden your options slightly if you end up changing your mind - the electronics and waves/signalling/information content is also somewhat useful for CS.
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hahaweeb
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(Original post by artful_lounger)
Yes. Universities will want to teach whatever specific languages they want to use, which may well not be the same as in A-level CS, at the very least. Beyond that, the "core" CS concepts will be taught in much greater depth and, usually, with more mathematical rigour where applicable. For example as I recall Oxford teach Haskell in first year, which is pretty unusual and to my knowledge not used in the A-level curriculum; Imperial teaches 5 different languages in first year - you see the point.

Universities rarely expect students to even have programing experience before pursuing CS, so naturally A-level CS confers no advantage. You may find some topics in first year familiar, but unlike with say, Further Maths, for which this is also true, the relevant topics are generally easier to grasp and less fundamental.

If you're already taking Maths and Further Maths, CS is a perfectly valid option for your third choice (or as a fourth overall). You may want to consider Physics to broaden your options slightly if you end up changing your mind - the electronics and waves/signalling/information content is also somewhat useful for CS.
Thanks. I was thinking of choosing Further Maths, Maths, Physics and Comp.Sci. but I might take German instead of Comp.Sci. Would German be a better option than Comp.Sci?
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artful_lounger
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(Original post by hahaweeb)
Thanks. I was thinking of choosing Further Maths, Maths, Physics and Comp.Sci. but I might take German instead of Comp.Sci. Would German be a better option than Comp.Sci?
It would neither be better nor worse in general - it's better if you think you can get a better grade in it (or if you know you want to do a year abroad/in industry in a German speaking country), but otherwise about the same.
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winterscoming
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(Original post by hahaweeb)
Thanks for the in-depth reply! I'm not taking it for A-Level because it is weird if I don't, I wanted to take it anyway but I was asking if it was necessary. Also, someone told me that if I take Comp.Sci. for A-Level then Universities won't favour me over those who haven't (apparently because I will need to be retaught everything). Is this true?
This definitely isn't true (unless you end up with a really bad grade in your CompSci A-Level - i.e. perhaps if you end up being predicted an "E" they will ask questions about whether you're able to grasp the subject), otherwise being able to show that you coped with CS at A-Level is certainly not a bad thing for getting into a CS degree. It's evidence that you've got a handle on the analytical and problem solving skills, and it makes the first year a lot easier.

I cannot really think of anything I studied at A-level which I had to be "retaught" at university, although the first year of university is fairly easy when you've got A-Level computing because most universities fill up the first year modules with a lot of catch-up content for the newcomers.

In reality, if you learn something at A-Level, then it's not going to change much at Degree level, aside from the fact that there'll be a lot more depth and detail at University. In the first year you'll probably find quite few lectures focus on things which you already know from A-Level, but that's not really a bad thing - repetition is quite helpful for learning and revision. All the fundamental concepts, ideas, analytical skills and problem solving techniques are exactly the same regardless of whether you're doing it for GCSE, A-Level, BTEC, Degree, etc.

To provide an example - at A-level you're taught that a byte is 8 bits, which is perfectly true in the modern world, but historically it's inaccurate, and some people will point out that old computers existed in the 1960s/70s where a byte could be 7 bits or 9 bits. That doesn't mean you need to be "re-taught" the fact that a byte is 8-bits, because it's still entirely true of the modern world, it's just that the reality/history is slightly more complex than you need to know for A-Level.
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hahaweeb
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(Original post by winterscoming)
This definitely isn't true (unless you end up with a really bad grade in your CompSci A-Level - i.e. perhaps if you end up being predicted an "E" they will ask questions about whether you're able to grasp the subject), otherwise being able to show that you coped with CS at A-Level is a good thing for getting into a CS degree because it's evidence that you've got a handle on the analytical and problem solving skills.

I cannot really think of anything I studied at A-level which I had to be "retaught" at university, although the first year of university is fairly easy when you've got A-Level computing because most universities fill up the first year modules with a lot of catch-up content for the newcomers.

In reality, if you learn something at A-Level, then it's not going to change much at Degree level, aside from the fact that there'll be a lot more depth and detail at University. In the first year you'll probably find quite few lectures focus on things which you already know from A-Level, but that's not really a bad thing - repetition is quite helpful for learning and revision. All the fundamental concepts, ideas, analytical skills and problem solving techniques are exactly the same regardless of whether you're doing it for GCSE, A-Level, BTEC, Degree, etc.

To provide an example - at A-level you're taught that a byte is 8 bits, which is perfectly true in the modern world, but historically it's inaccurate, and some people will point out that old computers existed in the 1960s/70s where a byte could be 7 bits or 9 bits. That doesn't mean you need to be "re-taught" the fact that a byte is 8-bits, because it's still entirely true of the modern world, it's just that the reality/history is slightly more complex than you need to know for A-Level.
Ok, thank so much!
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hahaweeb
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(Original post by artful_lounger)
It would neither be better nor worse in general - it's better if you think you can get a better grade in it (or if you know you want to do a year abroad/in industry in a German speaking country), but otherwise about the same.
Alright, thanks!
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jazzieb
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I'm in the same position - French is one of my best subjects, but I'm not sure it's really relevant to CS so I was planning on taking Maths. Further Maths, Computer Science and Physics. Still might swap Physics for French depending on my GCSE results.
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thotproduct
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I self study the CompSci A Level (OCR). Along with FM, Maths, Physics, Chemistry.

From my knowledge, Computer Science is more of a choice of preference as opposed to an actual demand, most universities may demand you for Maths (top Unis may also like Further Maths), and perhaps a science, maybe Physics. CompSci on its own isn't regarded as essential, probably due to its immense breadth but less depth (however that, is my own opinion).

However if you're that adamant over doing a CompSci degree then I'd expect you'd probably end up doing it anyway, for your own enjoyment.

Regardless, whatever is covered in the A Level, will be inevitably taught in the First Year (since the requirements never explicitly say CompSci A Level, a lot of undergrads will have done FM, Maths etc), so knowledge is not pre-assumed and will be taught from scratch, along with any programming languages needed for the course.

However as previous posters have mentioned, doing it now and grasping the fundamental basics of CS now, will mean less hassle when you actually start.
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hahaweeb
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(Original post by jazzieb)
I'm in the same position - French is one of my best subjects, but I'm not sure it's really relevant to CS so I was planning on taking Maths. Further Maths, Computer Science and Physics. Still might swap Physics for French depending on my GCSE results.
Yeah, I was thinking of doing a language but universities find Physics desirable for CS, so it is probably worth keeping. It is up to you though.
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BDE
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I'm taking CompSci, Maths, Further Maths and Physics, and wanting to read compsci at uni. I'm hoping not to drop but if I do I think it'll probably be compsci as that's usually one of the ones they value less. I'd definitely recomend taking Further maths if you can and think you are able - that is always highly valued by Unis especially if your school offers the decision module.
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hahaweeb
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(Original post by BDE)
I'm taking CompSci, Maths, Further Maths and Physics, and wanting to read compsci at uni. I'm hoping not to drop but if I do I think it'll probably be compsci as that's usually one of the ones they value less. I'd definitely recomend taking Further maths if you can and think you are able - that is always highly valued by Unis especially if your school offers the decision module.
Thanks.
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solark
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Hey! Taking Bio Phys and Maths, but not F Maths? Am I doomed for CompSci at uni?
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jazzieb
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(Original post by solark)
Hey! Taking Bio Phys and Maths, but not F Maths? Am I doomed for CompSci at uni?
You're not doomed! Some unis will require it but most I've looked at just want Maths - just check the entry requirements before you apply
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(Original post by hahaweeb)
Hey, I'm planning on doing a computer science degree at university and I wanted to know if I need to do Comp.Sci. at A-Levels. It says it is not necessary but I wanted to know because my school offers it and teachers say the university will find it weird if I didn't take Comp.Sci.
It may be a good idea for experience but there is no need. The only one that you may need would be maths. It does depend on university thought.

Computer science isn't offered as a module at every college or school. As such, universities don't expect you to have it. They also don't go and check what A levels are offered where you're studying and expect you to do comp sci because it's offered there.

The only reason you should consider taking it is that some of the things you cover at A level may be also covered in university so it may make it slightly easier to you.
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