What is Economics?
Economics is the study of the allocation of resources, that is, how, why and to what effect market and non-market institutions (such as governments) distribute goods and services. Economics purports to be a scientific discipline meaning that it uses abstract mathematical models to capture the essential features of more complex real world processes and tests the validity of these models against available economic data. Studying economics is therefore about developing problem-solving skills, including mathematical and statistical techniques as well as more general analytical skills. You also become great at writing essays!
Although the behavior of individuals is important, economics also addresses the collective behavior of businesses and industries, governments and countries, and the globe as a whole.
Microeconomics starts by thinking about how individuals and firms make decisions. Macroeconomics considers aggregate outcomes. The two points of view are essential in understanding most economic phenomena.
BSc Economics vs. BA Economics
Important point - not all Economics courses are the same. They may have the same UCAS code but that doesn't mean there is some universal syllabus like at A level. Read the course descriptions carefully as each course will be very different, with a different focus and with different optional units. Do not get carried away with the idea of a particular University - make sure it is the course you actually want to do.
There is fundamental difference between BSc and BA courses - read on ......
Students studying on a BSc Economics degree course will learn pure mathematics and statistical theory and techniques for application in economic theory. Consequently, universities offering BSc Economics programmes expect candidates to offer Mathematics to A2 level (or equivalent). An example of a degree with heavy maths content is at Bristol.
Students studying on a BA Economics degree course may use some mathematics, but to a much lesser extent than those on a BSc Economics programme. Often universities will only demand GCSE Mathematics (a B or above) for this programme. BA Economics involves a lot more discursive arguments and essays, and involves greater amounts of qualitative study, sometimes possibly in related social science fields. There is less competition for entry onto this course than on BSc Economics. An example of a less maths-focussed BA degree is BA Business Economics at Liverpool.
Many Universities offer both a BA and BSc program, plus other interesting Economics degree with a particular focus such as 'with Finance', 'with International Relations' etc. The wide Economics program at the University of Sussex is a good example of this.
Some universities, such as Nottingham and Sheffield allow students without A-Level Maths to 'catch up' by means of specially designed modules incorporating refresher mathematics. Students will apply and enrol on the BA degree. However, subject to adequate performance, these students can take advanced mathematical modules and either transfer to the BSc or obtain an equally numerate BA.
Cambridge BA Economics, Exeter BA Economics, Durham BA Economics and any Oxford Economics-related BAs are still very quantitative - it is the tradition of these universities that all Oxford, Cambridge and Durham degrees are BAs (even Mathematics and science), whilst it is only tradition for all Exeter undergraduates course in economics to be named a BA.
There are Economics courses - both as a single subject and as a combined/joint subject - at most Universities. See What Uni for a complete list.
Economics is one of the most competitive courses at British Universities. 'Top' Universities will look for an excellent all round academic record. This includes a good GCSE 'profile - (mostly A*s and As), good AS results and strong A Level predictions in at least three 'traditional' subjects including Maths. 'Lower' Universities will be more flexible but all require solid grades at GCSE or AS in Maths.
A Level Maths is not necessarily required by all Universities - but you will need good AS and/or GCSE grades to compensate. And, you need to ask yourself why you didn't do the full A level - if it was because you don't enjoy Maths, Economics is a very poor choice for University. Remember, its not just 'getting an offer' but actually enjoying the course while you are there. Economics is top-heavy with Maths and Stats, expecially with modules like econometrics and game theory - if you don't enjoy this, you will be found out very quickly.
A Level Economics is not a stated requirement for Economics at any University in the UK. Cambridge has noted that A-Level Economics is 'preferable' which is an indicator that its a good idea if you can take it, but it clearly isn't essential. If Economics is not offered at your 6th Form/college then it will help your application if this fact is mentioned in your reference.
A-Level Further Maths is helpful if you are applying for 'top' Universities, simply because many other applicants will have it. Again if Further Maths is not offered at your school then it would help if this was mentioned in your reference.
For more specific information on academic requirements for each Economics course, you should look at the individual University websites. They will all be different. As examples (2015 entry) :
- Bath (A*AA with Maths at grade A/A* and GCSE Mathematics Grade A and English Language at grade B or above)
- Manchester (AAB, including A in Mathematics and GCSE minimum grade C in English Language and a minimum grade B in Mathematics).
- Southampton (Three A level subjects: AAB including A level mathematics at grade B. Plus GCSE English grade C or above.)
- Reading (ABB preferably including Maths but must have AS Level Mathematics, grade C or above as a minimum. Plus GCSE GCSE English, grade C or above).
- Sussex (ABB with at least GCSE grade B Maths).
- Keele (BBB or ABC, preference given to those offering Maths and/or Economics to at least AS level. GCSE English Language at C and Mathematics at B or above).
- Kingston (280 points to include 2 A levels or equivalent with GCSE: Mathematics and English grade A*–C )
Do ALL Universities require top grades at A level?
NO. Entry requirements range from A*A*A at Cambridge to BCC (for example, Coventry, Stirling).
Joint subject degrees tend to have lower entry requirements not because they are 'easier' but because there is less competition for places. It is also possible to do a Foundation year before a 3 year degree if you lack the right grades or subjects at A level.
Joint-honours Economics courses
There are two-types of joint-honours courses. If the course title is 'Mathematics and Economics', then you will spend half of your time studying Mathematics, and the other half studying Economics. Here, both subjects have an equal weighting in your degree. However, if the course title is 'Mathematics with Economics', then three-quarters of your time will be spent learning Mathematics, and the other quarter will be spent studying Economics. Here, the Economics has only a subsidiary weighting to your final degree mark.
The nature of Economics is such that it can be combined with several different subjects, because of its multidisciplinary nature. Different universities offer different subject combinations - the joint-honours courses available and which universities offer them can be found on the UCAS database. or at whatuni.com
The most popular combinations include: Mathematics, Statistics, Politics/government, Management/Accounting, Economic history, Social Policy or a Language.
Options within degree courses and alternative degrees
- Remember, many Universities now offer a Year Abroad as part of a degree course. This is very much worth considering. This will enhance your CV, increase your immediate job prospects and give you invaluable experience to use in your studies. You do not have to be 'good at languages' as options often include English speaking countries such as USA, Canada, Australia etc. Universities like Leeds, Edinburgh and Warwick offer these options. Other Universities will have conventional options in Europe.
- Another career enhancing option is a degree including a 'work placement' (sometimes called an 'industrial placement'). Options can range from working in banking, accountancy, the oil industry or a major IT company or retail organisation. Courses available at Sheffield and Essex are good examples of this.
- Economics is a common joint or combined subject degree. It is possible to combine it with obvious subjects like Business Management or Accounting, but there are also unusual combinations like Egyptology or Film Studies (both at Liverpool).
- If you are interested in working overseas on graduation, many Universities offer optional language courses within a degree, or you could consider a joint subject degree. This could be a conventional European language like French, German, Italian etc, or something more unusual like Chinese (Nottingham, Chester) or Arabic (SOAS). You could also think about a combination with an 'area study' - for example 'Latin American or Iberian Studies' with Economics (Liverpool) or 'with European Studies' (Kent).
- If you are interested in a career with an organisation like Oxfam, the Dept for International Development, the Foreign Office etc, think about a course in 'International Development and Economics' (East Anglia, Northampton)
- Think about subjects connected to Economics like Economic History, Law or Social Policy - several Universities offer these as a joint subject with Economics (York, Birmingham, Keele, Glasgow as examples), or Industrial Economics (Nottingham).
- It may also be worth you looking at a degree course named 'Politics, Philosophy and Economics' if you are considering a career in government or high level economic policy. Advice on the course at Oxford here but it is also offered at numerous other Universities including East Anglia (UEA), Warwick, Durham, and Sussex.
UCAS Form & Personal Statement
The personal statement is a chance for you to show the admissions tutor that you have the commitment and interest to study economics for three/four years at advanced level. It isn't the place to tell her/him all about your A level syllabus or what you think about the Conservative Party's tax policy.
Write in a clear, concise style. Make sure spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct. Do not waffle or use silly pretentious statements you wouldn't use in everyday speech. Avoid using words like 'passionate' and don't state that you've 'always been interested in Economics'. You did not come out of the womb being interested in Economics. Explain when you became interested, and why. Use brief examples of areas/topics you find interesting or intriguing.
Most of your PS should be about Economics and your academic interest in it. Yes, you should mention briefly what else you do with your life as it makes you look a more interesting person but concentrate on answering this one important idea : 'I want to study Economics at University because .....'
Books. Do not write book reviews in your PS. The admissions tutor has already read them all and understands them a great deal better that you do. You should mention that you are reading outside your A level syllabus but 'I have recently become interested in ..... and done some more detailed reading on this subject' is far better than trying to show off about a book that you have only read once and the admissions tutor might disagree with. Do not tell the admissions tutor that you 'read the Economist'. Everyone writes that and it doesn't say anything interesting about you.
For one ex PS Helper's personal views on how to do an economics PS, check out Any Questions on how to do a good Economics Personal Statement?
Graduate Destinations and Career Prospects
Mathematically focused BA/BSc Economics degrees tends to offer a wider range of career opportunities than less-mathematically orientated Economics degrees, as the quantitative element is especially appealing to employers in the financial services industry requiring advanced numeracy or quantitative ability.
Careers in quantitative finance, such as investment banking, prefer mathematically-focused Economics graduates because of the mathematics and statistics they have learnt, which is not only a key aspect of the job, but demonstrates rigorous and analytical thinking.
Several years general experience and a relevant specialist post-graduate Masters degree is required for Economist positions in national or international organisations like the IMF and OECD.
There are numerous other careers open to Economics graduates than just banking and finance - journalism, teaching, civil service, local government, international charities etc.
'Careers for Economics Graduates' from University of Kent here.
Civil Service Economist Fast Stream here.