Should I take four A levels?
Tempted to take four A levels but not sure if it’s a good idea? Some students do, but first consider your motivations and if there are other ways to achieve the same goal.
How many A levels can you take?
Some schools and colleges in the UK limit you to taking three A levels, though you may be able to take an extra AS level or an EPQ. So you may need to decide whether it’s more important to you to study at your first choice of school/college or take four A levels.
Reasons to take four A levels
One reason for taking four A levels is if there’s more than one subject you’re seriously considering studying at university but you’d need more than three A levels to cover all the entry requirements. For example, if you’re deciding between a degree in veterinary medicine (for which you often need both biology and chemistry) and a degree in engineering (for which you often need both maths and physics) then you may want to take all four subjects at A level in order to keep your options open. Though of course, once your plans are clearer you may be able to drop one of the subjects that you won’t need or just take it to AS level.
You might also be tempted to take four A levels if there are multiple degree subjects you are considering and you want to try them out, even if they don’t require specific subjects at A level. Or perhaps there are simply lots of A levels you would enjoy and you’re not keen to narrow down. In these cases, it’s worth investigating whether you could study one of them as an AS level, take an EPQ focusing on one of these areas or even find a school or college that offers the International Baccalaureate instead of A levels.
If you’re thinking of applying to Oxford, Cambridge or another top university, you might feel you need to take four A levels to prove that you are clever or to get a competitive edge. However, taking extra A levels isn’t necessarily the best way to do this, and there’s the potential for your plan to backfire. See below for more detail.
Will four A levels help me get into Oxbridge or other top unis?
First things first. No UK university asks for four A levels, and they understand that many students don’t have the option to take more than three. If they make you an offer, it will be based on your grades in three A level subjects.
In practice, a lot of students at top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge either have four A levels or an extra such as an AS level or an EPQ on top of their three main subjects. However, this doesn’t mean that that is what won them their place, or that you should automatically do so.
Your top priority should be getting the best possible grades in three subjects – if taking four would stretch you too thinly then it’s counterproductive. Yes, AAAA would be a great result but if your offer is A*AA then you’d still have missed the grades. Part of your decision should be around how much time outside the classroom your fourth A level subject would take you. For example, students who are particularly good at maths often get through maths homework and revision quite quickly, whereas students who are particularly good at history and take it for A level still need to spend lots of time doing background reading, essay writing and memorising facts.
Also prioritise time to do something that shows your interest in the subject you want to study – this could be taking another academic qualification, such as an EPQ but it doesn’t have to be. For example, relevant volunteer work or spending time doing extra reading on your chosen subject could be more beneficial. There’s no point turning up to your Oxford English interview claiming to love Shakespeare when you’ve only read the three plays you studied at school.
On the flip side, if you genuinely feel you can do four A levels without your grades or extracurricular commitments sliding, taking four A levels rather than three could give you a useful safety net. If you mess up one A level, you’ll still have three good ones to help you meet your university offer.
Below are some examples of leading UK universities’ stances on whether to take more than three A levels.
University of Oxford
Oxford University states that: ‘Our courses require students to have not less than three A levels, or other equivalent qualifications. Many candidates do take additional AS levels, A levels, or other qualifications such as the EPQ. These additional qualifications can be one way of demonstrating the academic abilities that will be required for the intense studying of an Oxford degree but they are not essential.’
As an alternative, it suggests: ‘Students can also demonstrate their abilities by exploring their subject beyond what is expected by their exam syllabus. Oxford tutors may prefer a candidate who has read around their subject beyond school and college work, and who shows a great passion for, and engagement with, their subject, over a candidate who may have taken more qualifications or more subjects, but who is unable to discuss their interests with any enthusiasm or in any depth.’
University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge takes a similar approach, stating: ‘Our typical offers are based on students taking three A levels together in Year 13, and most Cambridge applicants are studying three or four A level subjects in Years 12 and 13. This is usually sufficient to show breadth of interests and ability to manage a range of differing academic tasks. We’d rather applicants develop broader and deeper knowledge of the subjects most relevant/closest to their chosen course than accumulate additional A levels. Applicants taking four subjects won’t normally be at an advantage compared with those taking three, although competitive applicants for STEM courses often have further mathematics as a fourth subject.’
King’s College London
King’s College London explains: ‘Our conditional offers are based on three A level subjects. If you are studying four or more A level subjects, we will take the highest three grades into consideration for assessment. High achievement in additional A level subjects may compensate for an applicant who narrowly fails to achieve the A level offer.’
University of Bristol
The University of Bristol states on its website: ‘The standard requirement for our undergraduate courses is three A levels (or equivalent qualifications). We do not give preference to applicants taking four A levels, although we welcome the breadth that a fourth subject taken to AS level can bring to an application.’
Alternatives to taking four A levels that will impress universities
Academic alternatives to a fourth A level include:
- An AS level
- An EPQ – this is an independent research project and can be on any topic you choose. This means you could dip a toe into a subject you haven’t explored before, or explore a topic of interest that relates to one of your A levels but isn’t on the syllabus.
Sports or performing arts qualifications
If you’re thinking of studying sport or a performing arts subject at university – or you just enjoy these areas – you could consider:
- Taking a sports coaching qualification in a sport you are good at
- Taking or continuing to take your grades in music theory, music practice, dance, or speech and drama.
Work experience and volunteering
Volunteering and work experience are pretty much essential for degree subjects such as medicine and veterinary medicine. Prioritise these over a fourth A level! Examples relating to other subjects include:
- Getting experience on your local newspaper if you want to study journalism
- Volunteering at a museum, English Heritage site or National Trust property if you want to study history
- Helping out in a classroom setting if you want to study education.
A part-time job
Part-time jobs offer more than a useful source of cash. If you work part time during your A levels you can write on your university application about how you are good at juggling priorities and not afraid to work hard. You’ll probably gain other useful skills too – for example, if you work in a shop you’ll develop your confidence in talking to people you don’t know, which could be very helpful in a wide range of degrees, from healthcare subjects (where you’ll need to deal with patients) to journalism (where you can’t be afraid to approach a stranger you want to interview).
Whether you enjoy competing in sport, playing an instrument, performing in theatre shows or volunteering as a first aider, it’s worth keeping up your interests. If they relate to the subject you want to study at university they will be invaluable on your UCAS application, but even if they don’t they can still prove surprisingly useful. For example:
- If you compete in tennis to a high level throughout your A levels and still manage to get good grades, you can use this to show universities that you are good at managing your time – and that you’d be keen to participate in sporting life on campus.
- If you love to play the clarinet, you could use this in a medical school interview as an example of how you relax and anchor yourself in the moment, and how this could be useful to you as a busy doctor.
Of course, it’s not just about impressing universities – A levels are hard work and can be stressful at times, so keeping up with an outside interest can help you to stay happy and grounded and remind you that there’s more to life than study.