Coronavirus Read our latest advice

We use cookies to allow us and selected partners to improve your experience and our advertising. By continuing to browse you consent to our use of cookies. You can understand more and change your cookies preferences here.

Complete guide to choosing A-levels

Find out how A-levels work, how to choose your a-levels and how A-levels can affect your degree choices.

In this article
What are 'A-levels'? How do I pick my A-levels?
What are the alternatives to A-levels? What can I do after A-levels?

What are 'A-levels'?

An ‘advanced level’ or A-level is a qualification offered across a range of subjects to school-leavers (usually aged 16-18 years old), graded A*-E.

A-levels are studied across two years: your AS year (Year 12) and your A2 year (Year 13).

Usually, students:

  • Study four subjects in their AS year;
  • Drop one, which they achieve an AS-level in;
  • Continue with the other three in their A2 year to achieve full A-levels in these.

A-levels and AS-levels have been ‘decoupled’ in recent years, which means your overall A-level grades now depend solely on exams you take at the end of your second year, for the most part.

Previously, marks that you achieved for a subject in your AS year could be ‘banked’ and carried over, to contribute to your A-level grade. For those who aren’t keen on exams, sadly this is no longer the case.

That said, some subjects still have coursework-based assessment, including art and design. Regardless of the subject, these will only ever account for 20% or less of your final grade.

Check with your school or college as to whether they offer AS-level qualifications.

How do I pick my A-levels?

There are around 80 different subjects available to study at A-level. However, the options available to you will depend on which your school or college offers.

Typical A-level subjects include:

  • ones you’ve studied before eg maths, biology;
  • variations on ones you’ve studied before eg you could choose between English literature, English language, or English literature and language’;
  • or subjects you’ve never had the chance to study before eg law, philosophy, psychology etc.

So how do you decide which A-level subjects to take? Here are some pointers:

Certain A-levels can broaden your uni choices

Facilitating subjects are 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.

They are biology, chemistry, English, geography, history, maths, modern and classical languages, and physics.

A-levels are a lot tougher than GCSEs

Be prepared for a big jump in the level of difficulty when you transition from GCSE to A-level (or any other advanced level qualification for that matter).

You’ll also see differences in the way you’re taught and in what is expected of you.

Certain uni courses will look for specific A-levels

This is really important if you have a particular degree in mind. You won’t be able to apply to some degree courses without having taken some specific A-levels (and scored the right grades in them too, of course).

Have a degree subject in mind? Search for a handful of courses across different unis to make sure you’re ticking all the boxes for entry requirements within your subject.

Some courses and unis have lists of subjects they don’t accept

Particular universities and courses will view certain A-levels as less effective preparation for university study than others. They may go as far as to list them on ‘non-preferred’ subject lists.

While entry requirements are often a minimum set of criteria you have to meet, a university may view you differently from another candidate based on your personal statement or your portfolio if your predicted grades just miss the mark. 

Many unis aren't picky about your A-levels

There are lots of degree subjects that don’t normally have essential subject requirements, and will consider a wide range of A-level choices.

These include accountancy, business studies, law, politics, psychology and social work.

How not to choose A-levels

Alternatively, here are some mistakes to avoid when picking A-level subjects:

  • Don’t copy your friends: don’t just take a subject to be in a class with your friends, nor be turned off by one because of what others think of it.
  • Don’t just take it for a teacher: we all have that one teacher we love regardless of whether we’re actually any good at their subject. Don't be blinded by your adoration for them and take their subject just because. 
  • Don’t ignore the big, wide world: look at what A-level subjects are offered by other colleges and sixth forms in the area. While it may seem terrifying to leave your comfort zone, in two years you may well be making the much bigger move to uni – this can be good practice for those inevitable changes that life brings!

What A-levels do you need for the degree you want to study?

Use the search bar to search for a degree and what A-levels you need. 

What are the alternatives to A-levels?

Although A-levels are the most common choice for 18-year-olds applying to university, they aren’t the only option out there.

 

BTECs

 

A BTEC is a practical-based, vocational qualification that can be studied at a college or school. While commonly known as an alternative to A-levels, BTEC qualifications can be studied at GCSE and degree level too.

For each BTEC, you’ll complete a series of units – some core, others optional – that are assessed as written assignments or practical activities. 

BTECs may suit those who don’t excel in exam conditions, as they can relieve pressure by spreading work out. They also lend themselves to subjects with a practical nature, such as childcare or construction. 

That said, because BTECs focus on one particular area and teach specific skills, you won’t really be able to diverge too much from this field later on. 

Their practical nature means that students don’t necessarily get the opportunity to sharpen those more academic skills, such as essay-writing, in the same way. Therefore you might want to consider combining BTECs with A-levels so that you get the best of both worlds. 

 

International Baccalaureate (IB)

 

This is an internationally recognised qualification, accepted by UK universities. You choose three principal (higher level) subjects as well as three subsidiary (standard level) ones, together with additional elements such as the Theory of Knowledge essay. 

Assessment is based on coursework and final exams.

The International Baccalaureate offers more breadth than A-levels making it a great choice for all-rounders, as well as those considering studying abroad later as it’s internationally-recognised.

This broad study base makes the IB a good preparation for university-level study; for example, you’ll have already written a 4,000-word research report in the Extended Essay component.

The IB can be demanding, so make sure you are ready for the challenge. Students will have fewer free periods and more tutor contact time than most A-level or BTEC students. 

 

What can I do after A-levels?

  • Apply for university. Hopefully you’ve been smart about your A-level choices and kept your degree options open. Always check a university’s entry requirements to ensure your A-levels meet these. Usually a university will make you an offer based on three A-level grades – these may be in specific subjects.
  • Keep your options open and study a foundation degree, Higher National Diploma or Higher National Certificate. These are shorter – just one or two years in duration – and can be ‘topped up’ to a full degree later if you wish.  
  • If you want a degree but without the fees, consider the higher or degree apprenticeship route. This combines university study with real work experience in a company.
  • Jump straight into paid employment. You can apply to jobs that offer or support additional training, allowing you to progress further in the organisation. 

Want to appeal an A-level grade? Our Consumer Rights advice explains the process to do so.

Check out our full guides to writing the perfect personal statement and how to do open days the right way.

If the cost of university is a concern, learn about extra funding available or use our student budget calculator to work out your living costs.

×