What A level subjects should I take?

A level subject choices: a student choosing a book
Choose the best A levels, Scottish Highers or International Baccalaureate options for your future, whether you want to go to university or get a job straight after school or college.

Everyone’s got an opinion on which subjects are best for A level, Scottish Highers or the International Baccalaureate (IB) but it’s important to make the right choices for you. You can put yourself in a strong position for the future even if you’re not sure what you want to do after school or college.

A level choices and careers – keep your options open

Investigate careers you might enjoy before finalising your subject choices for A level, Highers or the IB. It’s not necessary to have a definite career plan, so if you’re not sure what you want to do that’s absolutely fine. However, it’s good to leave doors open to careers you might want to pursue.

Look at the routes into careers that catch your interest. They may be more flexible than you think. For example, if you want to be an accountant you can do so with any degree or A level subjects (or equivalent) – there’s no need to study maths, economics or business studies unless you feel like it. And you don’t even have to go to university if you don’t want to.

However, for other careers you need specific subjects. For example if you want to become an engineer then you need maths A level or equivalent, and usually other science subjects such as physics too, in order to get onto an engineering degree or a higher apprenticeship.

  • Take a look at our info on different career areas, including what jobs are available, how much they pay and how to get into them.
  • Read our advice on how to choose your career. There’s help with getting started and specific advice if you know you want a creative career, a career as a manager or a well paid career but aren’t sure what the options are.
  • If you’re thinking of going to university, read up on which careers require a specific degree – a surprising number are open to graduates of any subject.

A levels you need for different degree subjects

Thinking of going to university? Do some initial research into degree subjects that might interest you and what qualifications you need to get onto them. Again, you don’t have to make a definite decision yet. Depending on your thoughts about careers, you might have quite a limited range of degree subjects to consider or you could be in a position to pick anything you fancy.

Facilitating subjects – A levels that universities like

Facilitating subjects are ones that are viewed as particularly good for keeping your degree options open if you study them at A level or equivalent. The list is put together by the Russell Group, which is a group of 24 of the UK’s top universities including Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Durham and Edinburgh.

The subjects are:

  • maths and further maths
  • English literature
  • physics
  • biology
  • chemistry
  • geography
  • history
  • languages (classical and modern).

These are the subjects that the Russell Group finds are most often required for admission onto degree courses. It flags up that the more of these subjects you study the more degree courses will be open to you.

There are some subjects not included on the list that you might need for specific degree courses – for example if you want to study art or music at university then you usually need to have taken them at A level or equivalent.

There are other degree subjects for which you often don’t need any specific subjects at A level or equivalent. For example, most law degrees don’t specify subjects you need – though academically challenging subjects such as those in the facilitating subjects list will be the most likely to impress.

What subjects should I take if I want to do a degree apprenticeship, higher apprenticeship or similar?

If you don’t want to go to university, maths and sciences are good at keeping options open but by no means essential. Quite a lot of opportunities such as degree apprenticeships, higher apprenticeships and sponsored degrees are in technical areas such as IT and engineering, for which science and maths subjects are often required. However, there are also a good number of schemes in other areas, such as finance and business, that often don’t require specific subjects.

A level subject combinations

If you’re only interested in arts or social science subjects, you’re usually OK to combine them how you like, as long as you keep the above advice in mind. However, it’s worth thinking about what form your homework will take. For instance, English literature, history and sociology all involve a lot of reading. Is this a good thing, or would you like something a bit different to break this up?

Some science subjects have others that support them. For example, if you want to do a biology-related subject at university you very often need chemistry A level (or equivalent) as well as biology. If you want to study physics or engineering you’ll need to have taken maths. If you’re thinking of joining an engineering employer programme such as a degree apprenticeship or higher apprenticeship it’s sometimes more important to have studied maths than physics.

This means that taking biology without chemistry or physics without maths isn’t nearly as good at keeping options open as taking both biology and chemistry, or both physics and maths. They can still be useful – for example some universities like you to have a science subject for courses such as nursing, sports science or psychology but are flexible as to which science it is. But there will be fewer options than if you took both.

For most students it’s completely fine to mix arts, social science and science subjects. In some cases this can even be an advantage: it can be good to have this mixture to get onto some architecture degrees, for example. However, if you’re sure you want to go into science but don’t know which area, you might want to take as many science subjects as possible to keep your options wide open. There are also some science degrees at some universities that will require at least three science subjects – keep a look out for this if you are considering medicine or chemical engineering, for instance.

Choose A levels you can get good grades in

Think about how well you might do in different subjects. A levels are harder than GCSEs or National 5s, and universities and employers care about grades. Take a look at typical grade requirements for university courses or employers that might interest you.

Getting good grades depends on both ability and motivation. If you love a subject or you know you need it for your dream career, your passion should help you along even if it’s not your strongest area. But beware picking subjects that really aren’t your best unless there’s a very good reason for it.

For example, perhaps you’re working flat out to succeed in GCSE maths and just scraped a B in your mock exams, while you got As and A*s in other subjects with less effort. In that case you’d want to think very carefully about whether there was a good reason to pick it for A level or equivalent, even though it’s on the list of facilitating subjects and your parents might think it’s a good idea.

If you’re considering taking a subject at A level that you haven’t studied before, think about how you are doing at GCSE/National 5 level in subjects that draw on similar skills. For example, if you’re interested in politics A level, reflect on how well your history GCSE is going.

Take subjects you’ll enjoy

Motivation is a key factor in success. If you pick a subject that doesn’t excite you, or that will at least help you into a career that excites you, are you really going to work hard at it consistently for two years? Facilitating subjects and sensible subject combinations will only take you so far. Yes, French, German and geography might look like a good choice on paper but if your heart is sinking at the thought of it, it’s trying to tell you something very important.

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