Once upon a time, you did your A-Levels based on what you see your future to be.  If you did well enough, you went to university and got yourself a degree. You paid no fees for your experience and ended up pretty well set for life. Everyone would hire a job candidate with even an undergraduate degree.

Today, things work rather differently. In our country, where tuition fees cost a mint and what you actually studied doesn’t seem to make the blindest bit of difference (except for in law and medicine), even the most mundane businesses demand a Bachelor's degree for even entry-level positions.

These new, more demanding yet unspoken requirements have put college students in a quandary.

Somehow, we've gone from the sensible 'study what you will' proposition of choosing A-Levels and university degree plans to 'whatever you can make work' selections, driven by the need to earn a degree - ANY degree just to land a job that pays somewhat of a living wage.

Today, your Superprof puts higher education under the microscope; specifically, how to earn your place at university by aiming for the right A-Level strategy.

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Opening The Time Capsule

Before we get into our main topic, let's take a look at how the UK's educational system used to be structured.

Compulsory education has been the law in our lands for 150 years. Initially, all students were treated to 10 years of general education, after which they may choose to end their academic career and venture forth into.. and apprenticeship, their family business if they had one or finding work in a shop or some other such customer service concern. They were given their School Certificate and sent on their way.

Starting in 1951, the School Certificate was called a General Certificate of Education: Ordinary Level - what was once called O-Levels; now GCSEs.

Many students prefer to gain skills through an apprenticeship
After sitting GCSEs, many students prefer apprenticeship to university studies Photo credit: IFA teched on Visual Hunt / CC BY

Those who wished to continue their studies would carry on in advanced education. Future doctors, lawyers, scientists and engineers applied to college and, based on their O-Level marks, were granted admittance into a 2-year study programme that culminated in the General Certificate of Education - Advanced Level being awarded (upon successful completion of rigorous exams, naturally).

Much of what used to be is still in place today, albeit with a few name changes.

Upon successful GCSE completion, students may still opt for an apprenticeship in their desired field. If they have the means, the marks and the desire for it, they may stake their future on a good A-Level outcome, a coveted place at university and all of the respect and earning potential a university degree confers.

What's changed is how the world works.

These days, as more employers hold out for job candidates with advanced qualifications, more and more, a perfectly respectable GCSE results array carries less of a guarantee for a decent future.  Whereas before, a university undergraduate degree carried a certain cachet, these days, it is about the equivalent of A-Levels results, qualifications-wise.

The UK is not alone in that aspect. In the US, recent college graduates are discovering that their four-year degree carries about the same weight as a high school diploma did 30 years ago. Four years of university study is good enough for low-paying, dead-end work but real jobs require at least a Master's Degree.

As the cost of higher education increases and the necessity for such certifications grow, it's no wonder why students fret over which subjects to select for their A-Levels. Obviously, choosing ones that would return a higher yield is important, but how can one decide which ones will yield the most?

That's where things get even more hairy...

How A-Levels Work in Theory

In theory, every A-Level candidate knows, possibly before s/he sits GCSEs, what direction their life will take and which A-Levels will get them there.

That's a rather unrealistic and unfair expectation, even if, at Key Stage 1, kids say they want to be a doctor or firefighter when they grow up.

What's even more unfair is inviting adolescents to play a game that they don't know the rules to. Seriously, what teenager knows how the world - and the world of academia works? They're under the impression that they must achieve high marks in their desired subject to get into the university study programme they want.

The reality is vastly different. What we’re seeing is a rather fragmented higher education system which is rather painfully dividing itself into a few distinct tiers that do not break along the expected lines. They are:

  1. ”We’re asking for high grades and we’re going to tell you what you need to have studied.”
  2. "We’re asking for high grades but we’d like to see a well-rounded education.”
  3. “We’re not asking for the highest but you have to have studied X, Y and Z.”
  4. “We’re not asking for the highest and we want to see well-rounded individuals.”

Did you notice the pattern? It's not about what you want but about what schools want.

Most students unwittingly go for the 4th option. They don't walk out with the best A-Level results; some come out with three separate marks in the end.  Still, a well-rounded set of A-Levels and enough UCAS Points will see a hard-working student off to uni, even if they weren't able to enrol in the study programme of their choice.

Some universities and the courses they offer can only fall into any of the other three options, from rather elite universities asking for A*AA and particular subjects to those willing to accept BBC in a few required subjects.

For universities, the important thing is filling seats so, even if you miss out on the first round of picks for your preferred courses, you may still have a chance to study the subjects you want when UCAS Clearing opens up. 'Clearing' courses generally have a lower grade bar for acceptance.

The actual part of choosing your A-Levels is something you do all the way back of March of Year 11, long before you need to plan for university.

Students focusing on GCSEs have a hard time thinking about A-Level subjects
Secondary school students often have a hard time choosing A-Level subjects while focusing on GCSE studies Photo on Visual Hunt

Most students opine that having to choose one's A-Level subjects and applying to study them is quite the distraction when you’re trying to get through your GCSEs. There you are, revising a multitude of subjects to end one chapter of your academic journey while being told to think about which ones to keep on with and which you can afford to say goodbye to.

Not surprisingly, plenty of overtaxed student minds wander from the momentous decision they're being compelled to make. In the end, most choose hastily and, maybe, imprudently.

In theory, picking your A-Levels should be relatively easy – you pick the subjects you like and the ones that you’re good at.  Such a straightforward method of selecting subjects may close the odd door further along the line but, with many universities wanting nice and rounded educations, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to study what you like.

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The Practical Experience of A-Levels

The reality of choosing your which A-Level subjects to test in, it would seem, is somewhat different.

Not only do you have to consider your personal preferences and competencies, but now you have to consider how well-regarded a subject is and how ‘hard’ it might be. Did we have to mention difficulty?

First off, keep in mind that no A-Level exam could be considered easy - if we understand that word's definition as ‘succeeding without any major difficulty.’  The reality of A-Levels is that, unless you're unusually gifted in your subjects of choice, you’re going to have to work very hard to earn high marks.

That being said, research seems to point to some interesting facts about A-Level results.

Let's take a look - a quick glance at A-Level scores published in the summer of 2013, focusing on the percentages of students who obtain As or A*s in a given subject. That data set shows that 27% of history students got A or A*.  For French, it was 39%.

OK, but what about what we consider the ‘hardest’ A-Level out there – Further Maths?  You would think that those percentages would be significantly lower, right? It was 57%.

Did students score higher on what is reputed to be the most difficult exam because it’s actually not so difficult or is it because the students taking it are all bright sparks? Maybe it's graded differently than other exams, or perhaps grades are higher because there are no essay questions...

It’s very difficult to determine the exact reason(s) why students find one exam hard and others easy. It has a lot to do with individual perceptions so your definition of what is considered ‘easy’ might not come into it as much as you think.

All of this goes to show that you shouldn't immediately discount a subject because you think it’ll be too hard.  After all, none of this is ever plain ‘easy’ and the exam regulator Ofqual says every subject has to meet their examination criteria to make sure it’s acceptably challenging.

The thing to remember is: A-Levels aren't so much about the clever outshining everyone else in the tougher subjects as they are about how everyone else scores in the presumably less demanding subjects.

While We're On the Subject...

That revelation in the last segment - that French and History saw a poorer showing of A-Level scores than Further Maths did is just the tip of the iceberg.

A researcher from Durham University first published some statistics back in 2008 about how A-Levels were not a level playing field.

In March of this year, that study's conclusions were reinforced by another round of analysis. It revealed that it is actually tougher to get higher grades in Maths, the sciences and modern languages than, say, business studies, drama and English.

The academic community was surprised to find that the research points that way. Of course, the cynics had a field day, arguing that some subjects are soft and carry no value - usually the subjects they don't teach, like a Maths professor saying that nobody cares about Art History. It's all pretty comical but also a bit of a shame.

Nevertheless, these discoveries seem to have some potential consequences.

While investigative journalists at The Telegraph were looking at this research, they contacted the Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education. Those worthies expressed concern that some pupils were being discouraged from taking A-Level Maths and Further Maths,  especially if they hadn’t attained an A or A* on their maths GCSE.

Wait a minute, isn't it supposed to be the student’s choice on what to study?

It's possible that schools' reputations drive their attitude. One school in particular, despite their entry requirement for Maths and Further Maths being a B and A respectively, tried to reject students who hadn't scored an A or A* on their Maths A-Levels. As though to back that assertion, some students reported they were discouraged from enrolling,

We now have conclusive proof that some subjects are actually harder than others and that students are pushed away from certain subjects (in our example, two quite rigorous subjects) if they haven’t earned top grades.

Overall, though, as long as the universities appreciate and cater to the subjects you’re studying, it would seem that A-Level difficulty wouldn't matter too much.

At Superprof, we know we're not alone in suspecting that universities have certain preferences of subjects.

For example, A-Level marks in General Studies - even if they're the best possible are almost always excluded from UCAS offers. The same with Critical Thinking A-Levels - a skill that most employers say is most desperately needed in the workforce. If you sit and passed a Critical Thinking exam, don't count on it being looked upon favourably.

Take the elite (or elitist, depending on your view) group of universities that are part of the Russell Group.  As well as different subject requirements, the Russell Group publishes a list of ‘facilitating subjects’ – those which are considered better preparation for courses in their institutions.

Included on their list are subjects such as Maths, Further Maths, the sciences, Foreign Languages, Geography and History and English Literature.  Some universities carefully word how they use this list and argue that facilitating subjects offer a better grounding, rather than being more a part of some academic master plan to keep students paying tuition.

Naturally, there’s some foul play involved and soon you’ll discover that the idea of facilitating subjects is complete nonsense. Hint: we just let that cat out of the bag... can you hear it mewing? 

Some schools make it plain that they prefer some subjects over others
Beware that some schools will have a decided preference for certain academic subjects Photo on Visualhunt.com

Pragmatic Advice for Choosing A-Level Subjects

To help prospective students choose their exam subjects most efficiently, two universities – Trinity College of Cambridge and London School of Economics (LSE) write up their lists of subjects which they consider ‘less effective preparation’. You may consider it guidance or an attempt to force you down a very specific road of their choosing.

Nevertheless, if you’re thinking of applying to them, it’s worth looking at their lists. If you have a different school on your radar, be sure to check with them to see if they have any lists comparable to those we just mentioned.

If you're uncertain which way to go - you haven't yet made up your mind about where you want to go in life let alone how you'll get there, choose more A-Level subjects than you'll need to present come time to apply for university.

Every student is allowed to choose up to five subjects to study in their first year of college. Most students drop their two least-interesting courses - or the ones they scored the worst on after their AS results come in.

Keep in mind that, according to the new scoring policies, AS exam results no longer count toward your overall A-Level grade.

That means that, if you score poorly on a subject that you enjoy and want to keep studying, you shouldn't feel compelled to drop it just because of the bad grade. Instead, try to find out why you didn't do as well as you had hoped - maybe you need a new approach to studying or help from a Superprof tutor.

Meanwhile, drop a different class if you think dropping would be your wisest course. If you're particularly motivated, feel free to continue with all five subjects; just know that UCAS will only accept three grades. Whatever you do, those three grades should be in subjects that will show you favourably to university admissions boards.

You’re going to have to do your research.  Some A-Levels are, it would seem, more rigorous than others and universities are trading on this a little bit, publishing lists of what they consider to be better. Also, keep in mind that some subjects are more broadly accepted while others are... less so.

And just remember that, if you are being discouraged from a certain subject because of your grade, you should push back on those 'kindly' advisers. What you study is your choice.

We hope this article leaves you well informed about what you can reasonably expect to face come time to choose your university programme – and on how a university chooses you. With this knowledge, you should have an easier time studying for your future.

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Brentyn

Avid movie-goer, reader, skier and language learner. Passionate about life, food and travelling.