You might think that this is a redundant question. After all, universities generally only require three A-Levels for any given course; the exception might be private universities and schools that offer intensive study in a particular subject.

Who would want to do more work than is absolutely required? And why?

Perhaps surprisingly, the ‘how many exams’ question appeared as a thread on The Student Room’s messaging board; obviously, it must be a matter of concern to some students.

And, judging by the number of responses, plenty of A-Level candidates must have given the issue some thought.

So has your Superprof.

In this article, we discuss the number of A-Levels you must take to meet university entry requirements, how many you should take to be an outstanding candidate and why there are limits on the number of exams you can sit.

Outlining A-Level Fundamentals

At their most basic, A-Level requirements are easy to understand: to meet university entrance requirements, you need at least three exam results of acceptable grades – usually B or above. The subjects you test in should be related to the programme of study you wish to pursue at university.

However, if you are uncertain of how to choose your A-Levels because you don’t yet know what you want to read, good exam results in facilitating subjects should suffice.

There are strong arguments for both sides of the 'sitting three/sitting four' question.

More than 3 GCE advanced level exams can be advantageous
You may show you are academically gifted by sitting more than three A-Levels but you have to take a lot of factors into account! Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

If you would like to – or are working towards your EPQ (Extended Project Qualification), you would be overburdened should you select four A-Level subjects to test in.

Likewise, if you’re participating in a work experience programme, it would be unreasonable for you to take on a superfluous subject, especially one where there is extensive coursework involved.

Conversely, if you are certain that you will enrol in one of our country’s top universities, selecting four subjects would benefit you greatly.

University enrolment has gotten so competitive that some institutions are getting more specific in their admissions requirements; even today, most schools look at your GCSE results as well as A-Levels when considering making you an offer.

One of the hidden benefits of sitting four A-Levels is that you are giving yourself room for error.

If you sit only the number of exams required for university entrance, you must excel in every single subject but with four exams, your top three results will be actively considered while the fourth, even though perhaps poorly-scored, would prove that you’re determined to work hard.

With that groundwork laid, let’s move on to the particulars that dictate how many A-Levels you can take.

A-Level Logistics

Coordinating annual exams at five different levels – Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs, GCSEs, AS and A-Levels is a logistical nightmare for the awarding bodies.

It is made worse by the fact that the exams all happen at the same time – the end of the school year, and the fact that each school may choose its favourite exam board, meaning that those awarding bodies are constantly jockeying for position by changing their exams, varying their pricing and finding a variety of ways to promote their offerings.

Schools have been known to change exam boards mid-course, meaning all of the coursework students had already done had to be cast out and new studies undertaken. Imagine how those students felt!

Among the reasons that occasionally happens, the cost of exams and each exam's pass/fail rate prevail.

How would you like to study for A-Level mathematics only to be told you won't sit that exam series?
Imagine you've been studying further maths for a year and now are told you must scrap all of your work and begin anew! Image by Jills from Pixabay

If your school doesn’t have the funds to cover OCR exams, the directors may decide to switch to Edexcel or AQA. (Note: this is not an issue in Scotland as they only have one awarding body: SQA)

That’s the landscape from the exam board’s perspective; now, let’s talk about the schools.

They too have a great deal of planning to do; arranging the number of students and the exams they’ve selected into a timetable that affords the maximum number of students the maximum number of exams.

Let’s say you’ve selected Maths, English Literature and English Language as your three subjects. How unfortunate would be it if the Literature and Language exams were scheduled into the same time slot?

Timetabling is the main reason that you may be restricted to a limited number of exams but cost is another factor.

Every exam comes with a price tag attached; your school or college may have budget restrictions preventing them from offering every student as many exams as they wish.

Besides going through facilities like Cambridge International to sit exams you want, you should learn more about what can you do if you’re limited by the A-Level courses your school offers...

A-Level Requirements for Studying Abroad

Attending university in a different country is a wonderful experience. Doing so can broaden your cultural and global perspectives and provide you with a level of education outside of UK norms.

Because UK universities have gotten so competitive, more and more students are choosing to study abroad than ever before, and with good reasons:

  • Discover different styles of education
  • Experience first-hand what life is like in a different culture
  • Gain a new appreciation for life in the UK
  • You might uncover new interests
  • Living in a new environment does wonders to boost your confidence and self-esteem
  • You will gain a sense of independence
  • It’s a fantastic addition to your CV!
  • You might even discover career opportunities you might not have at home

Unfortunately, studying abroad is not simply a matter of buying a plane ticket and paying tuition fees. Just like our universities, there are entry requirements to be met.

Superprof now outlines what university entrance qualifications you need in the top destinations for study abroad.

Study in the US

Of all the countries we looked at for international study opportunities, our friends across the pond had the highest and most stringent requirements for UK students’ university registration.

No matter whether you choose Business Studies at Stanford, Chemistry and Biology at Cal-Tech or Art and Design at Columbia University, you will be required to furnish four subject-related A-Levels and 8 General Certificate marks, listed in their literature as O-Level.

If ever you needed a reason to sit more than the customary number of exams, this would be it!

Even general studies abroad can generate this type of excitement!
Studying language and literature abroad will certainly expose you to new experiences! Image by Omar Mousa from Pixabay

Canada’s Welcome of Foreign Students

Casting aside the fact that Canada is one of our Commonwealth countries, Canadian universities are a bit less demanding than the US (and even in the UK!) in their qualifications requirements.

To study there, you must have good results for two A-Level examinations and five GCSEs. If you’ve only made it to Year 12 in your sixth form school, you need four Advanced Subsidiaries or AS level grades.

Australian University Entrance Requirements

In Sidney, Melbourne or New South Wales, university entrance requirements are substantially lighter than in the UK – or most anywhere else, for that matter!

If you have two well-marked AS and two A-Levels, you may choose to study at any of Australia’s universities including those that are top-rated.

Perhaps life really is easier in the land down under.

International Study in New Zealand

For this lovely country, university entrance requirements are a bit harder to understand; one reason is that they gauge their acceptance of UK students based on UCAS tariff points rather than the marks they’ve earned on their exams.

That begs the question: which A-Levels should you take to satisfy their entry requirements?

If your Advanced Level (A-Level) marks are in-line with the course of study you’ve applied for, they will be accepted as proof that you are ready for university study.

Your AS marks might be accepted provided they generate enough UCAS tariff points and their marks are substantially high.

If you have neither acceptable A-Levels nor qualifying AS levels, you may instead take their three-month foundation course, which will get you ready for study in their finest universities.

Whether you opt for international study or prefer studying in familiar surroundings, the number of A-Level exams you sit matters as much as how well you do on them.

If you’re of a ‘more is better’ mindset and have the stamina, organisation and determination to take on four subjects or more, we salute you.

We also remind you that this round of exams is far more rigorous than those at GCSE level – not just in the difficulty of the subject material but in the amount of information you will be required to take in, fully understand and be able to use and discuss competently.

Those are not considerations to be taken lightly.

Even though you might coordinate your A-Level examinations with your school’s timetable so that you can maximise the number of exams you might sit, you should ask yourself: why would you do it?

Quality over quantity, dear students, is all that matters in the end. It's best to excel in three subjects than to score averagely on four. Keep that in mind as you look over your prospectus and choose your subjects.

It’s your turn to chime in: what can you do with your A-Levels?

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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.