What is an A-level?
A-Levels are the traditional next step after GCSE’s, they are the sort of qualification you might expect to do in sixth form. They are subject based qualifications that opens doors to university and further study and are one of the most recognised and respected qualifications amongst employers.
You will usually study three or more subjects with exams at the end of two years. Some subjects still have a coursework element but if exams don’t play to your strengths then A-Levels will prove very challenging.
What grades do I need to start studying A-Levels?
Schools and colleges will often look for at least five GCSEs 9-4 (or A*- C under the old grading system), or equivalent.
English, maths and sometimes science are the important subjects to get this in – not just when applying to A-levels, but to university and jobs too. It’s also common to need at least a grade 5 or 6 in the subject you want to study at A-Level but not every school will require this so double check with your school.
How are A-Levels graded?
A-Levels use letter grades instead of number grades. Instead of grades 1 to 9 as you are used to for you GCSE’s, you will receive grades E to A*, with A* being the best grade. Because you study multiple A-Levels you will often see entry requirements for university and college degrees written as groups of three letters, such as ABB or BBC.
While a grade 4 (or C in the old system) is a minimum requirement, higher GCSE grades will leave you in a better position.
How do A-Levels work?
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, check out the Course Finder to see what type of courses are available locally. You will get to choose three or more subjects to study, but speak to your school, or the sixth form you want to apply to, and find out how many subjects they would advise you to pick.
Typical A-level subjects include:
- ones you’ve studied before: history, music, chemistry etc
- variations on ones you’ve studied before: eg you could choose between English literature, English language, or English literature and language; or you could take maths and further maths
- subjects you’ve never had the chance to study before: eg law, philosophy, psychology etc
A-Levels are an exciting opportunity to try new things as well as focus on your favourite subject.
A-Levels take two years to complete and your exams will take place in year 13 at the end of your studies, these will test you on content from both years. This is known as a linear qualification and is different to a modular qualification that tests you on subjects as you study them.
What is an AS level?
What is an AS level?
You might have heard about AS levels; they may even be an option your school offers. AS levels are worth 40% of an A-Level and are a stand-alone qualification.
They used to be ‘coupled’ to A-Levels and all students would study four AS levels, drop one, and continue to study three ‘full’ (Or ‘A2’) A-Levels. This system changed in 2016 for the new linear A-Levels.
AS-Levels may still be available to you and are a good way of trying a new subject, expanding your breadth of knowledge, or boosting your UCAS points. Check with your school if AS-Levels are available to you but be aware, not every university accepts or uses AS grades, and the extra time and study may best be used towards your other A-Levels.
Can I study BTECs with A-levels?
Yes, you can. Nearly 3% of 18-year-olds accepted into university in 2016/17 applied with both A-levels and BTEC Qualifications
Your decision to study a combination of A-levels and BTECs will depend on a few things, particularly what you plan to do afterwards. While BTECs allow students to acquire practical and vocational skills as part of the course, some universities and courses may have qualification preferences they look for. They’ll state clearly what they look for in their entry requirements.
Do you still get A-levels with coursework?
A-levels are now primarily assessed by exams, which take place at the end of your second year. You’ll still take exams at the end of your first year, but these won’t count towards your final A-level grades.
Some subjects will be exception to this, including:
- art and design, which understandably involves coursework projects you work on throughout the year;
- chemistry, biology, and physics, include a practical element throughout the course.
Regardless of the subject, these non-exam assessments only ever account for 20% or less of your final grade.
How to choose your A-Levels
Whether you’ve already decided your A-levels or you're struggling to decide, here are a few things to consider to help you make the right A-level choices.
Choosing a handful of subjects to take at A-level isn't a decision you should take lightly. The A-levels you pick now can impact what you do later, namely the courses you can apply to at university (and which universities will consider you).
That said, if you don't know what you want to do in the future, you can still make smart choices now that will leave you in the best position in two years' time.
Certain A-level subjects may help with university course options
For some university degree courses, you'll need to have studied specific subjects at A-level (or equivalent). Check out this A-Level Explorer tool from TheUniGuide to help you see where the subjects you're considering might take you
If you've already got a specific university course in mind, you can check university websites for any required A-level subjects.
But if you're not yet sure about university plans, you can keep your options open by choosing a range of A-level subjects. Being broad with your choices can be helpful. Some universities discourage students from taking certain combinations of A-level subjects, particularly when subjects are very similar like business studies and economics – something to bear in mind when you're making A-level choices.
A note on facilitating subjects
While you're looking at your options, you may hear about 'facilitating subjects'. This was a list of subjects previously published by the Russell Group; a list that was intended to help students choose the subjects that were most commonly asked for in universities’ entry requirements.
This list was scrapped in 2019. At the time, the group said it had become "misinterpreted" by students as being a list of the only subjects that top universities would consider.
The list of facilitating subjects:
- English literature
- Maths and further maths
- Modern languages
- Classical languages
So, don't assume that the above subjects are the only ones worth taking..
A-levels are a lot tougher than GCSEs
The reason you take a particular subject at A-level will come down to one (or more) of these three scenarios (usually):
- you need it to pursue a particular career
- it’s a subject you enjoy and are good at
- it’s a subject you’ve not studied before but you think will suit you
Either way, 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).
For more guidance on what to study at A-level to go on to particular degree subjects, check out these university subjects for more information, and what if any typical A-Levels are required or recommended.
Some courses and unis have lists of subjects they don’t accept
Particular courses will view certain A-levels as less effective preparation for university studies than others.
If you have a particular University and course in mind, its worth contacting them to see what their preferences are.
If your subject choices don’t match up, you shouldn’t necessarily discount the course, or be put off from taking a creative or vocational A-level subject you’re really interested in. Just make sure you're satisfying an entry requirements with the other A-level subjects you're taking.
Know myth from reality
Don’t take everything you hear at face value or based on what a friend/older sibling/girlfriend's hairdresser says – the reality might be quite different. It's always worth investigating things yourself so you get the full picture.
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. Don't rely on preconceived assumptions or what you hear through someone else from their experience. Double-check your facts with the university or department themselves.
Many unis and courses will consider you whatever you choose
Question: Accountancy, anthropology, archaeology, banking, business studies, classical civilisations, hospitality, information science, law, management, marketing, media studies, philosophy, politics, psychology, public relations, religious studies/theology, retail management, social work, sociology, surveying, television, travel and tourism…
What do these subjects have in common?
Answer: They will all consider a very wide range of A-level choices and do not normally have essential subject requirements! So don't get too bogged down in essential A-levels you have to take.
What can you do after A-levels?
There is a huge range of options available to you once you have done you’re A-Levels, you can check them all out here.