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A-level Subjects

25 October 2021

What A-Levels Should I Take? Ultimate Guide

Contents

Choosing A-levels can be daunting.

That’s why we created this guide - to make the decision easier.

In this guide, we’ll cover:

  • A-level options
  • How many subjects you can take
  • How to choose your A-levels
  • Hardest and easiest subjects
  • A-levels for each career

...and much more! Let’s get started.

List of A-Level Subjects

Here is a handy list of common A-level options, sorted by subject group.

Art, Design and Music

 

  • Art
  • Design & Technology
  • Design & Textiles
  • Digital Media & Design
  • Graphic Design
  • Media Studies
  • Music

 

Science

 

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Information Technology
  • Maths
  • Maths, Further
  • Physics

 

Languages

 

  • Arabic
  • Chinese
  • French
  • German
  • Hindi
  • Japanese
  • Portuguese
  • Spanish
  • Tamil
  • Urdu

 

Classical Languages

 

  • Ancient Greek
  • Latin

 

Humanities

 

  • Anthropology
  • Business Studies
  • Classics
  • Drama/Theatre Studies
  • Economics
  • English Language
  • English Literature
  • Geography
  • History
  • History of Art
  • Law
  • Philosophy
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Theology
  • Travel & Tourism

 

Sports

 

  • Physical Education
  • Sport and Physical Education

 

There are lots of options and every school and college is different. Be sure to check which subjects your school or college offers.

5 Popular A-level Combinations


There are lots of possible combinations you can choose, from the more specialised to the more varied. Here are five examples of popular combinations of A-levels:

  • Maths, further maths and physics
  • Maths, chemistry and biology
  • Business studies, economics and maths
  • Art, English literature and French
  • Music, art and English literature

 

For most careers, however, there is no ideal combination of subjects. We’ll see more on this later...

What are Facilitating Subjects?


Facilitating subjects were a set of “preferred” A-level subjects created by the Russell Group (English literature, history, modern languages, classical languages, maths and further maths, physics, biology, chemistry, geography).

The list was scrapped in 2019 due to its exclusion of creative and technical subjects.

The list also didn’t take into account the broad range of university courses available (now over 50,000 according to UCAS).

Facilitating subjects were replaced with Informed Choices, a website that offers students guidance on which A-level options and degrees are compatible.

So if you hear the term “facilitating subjects” - don’t worry about it too much.

How Many A-Levels Can I Take?


The maximum number of A-Levels you can take is typically five. Some students have taken more (read on to hear from Bhavik, who took eight).

The vast majority of students take three subjects. This is also the number most university offers are based on, with any further subjects considered more of a bonus.

Dr Alice Taylor, admissions tutor and lecturer at King’s College London, said to The Guardian “we don’t favour four above three.”

 

Original Data: Joint Council for Qualifications.

Should I Take Four A-Levels?


If you are considering taking four subjects, take some time to make sure it’s the right decision.

Here are some steps you should take before you decide:

  • Talk to your teachers: they will have a clear picture of the academic road ahead and your capabilities.
  • Ask a student taking four subjects: if possible, find a student in the year above taking four A-levels and ask them about what it’s like.
  • Look at your current workload and grades: studying four subjects is no mean feat - if you weren’t fully on top of everything during GCSE then it might not be for you.
  • Look at your subject combinations: taking on extra subjects is far more doable if they are related.
  • University requirements (if applicable): since most university offers are based on three subjects, taking a fourth could drag down the other three grades and cause disappointment.

How to Choose Your A-Levels

Now that we’ve looked at some options, it’s time to start choosing. 

Choosing your A-levels, along with choosing a university if you want to go, is an important part of your career path.

So before you make a decision, try asking yourself these questions.

What do you enjoy?


This should be the main question guiding your choices.

After all, you will spend the next two years - or longer - studying these subjects. You might not enjoy all of the subjects you end up studying for A-Level. But putting your passions first will give you confidence and boost your motivation. 

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” - Steve Jobs.

What are you good at?


If there is a subject you excelled in at GCSE, it’s probably worth taking further. 

After all, A-Levels are a big step up from GCSE, so play to your strengths where possible. 

Read through the syllabus and weigh it up against your skills. Some subjects are very coursework-heavy, while others - like science subjects - mostly depend on exams.

Do you need to meet certain entry requirements?


If you have a university course you want to study, then entry requirements are key.

Some courses, such as medicine or engineering, require specific subjects at A-Level with very little flexibility.

That being said, the vast majority of degree courses do not have such specific requirements and typically look for three academic A-levels (more on this later).

Should you keep your options open?


If you aren’t sure what you want to do after school, it could help to select a wide range of subjects.

For example, studying purely languages could narrow your prospects if you aren’t considering a language-based degree or career.

If you aren’t sure what your third subject should be, maths is a pretty good option. It looks great on a CV, demonstrating your numeracy and analytical skills.

Don’t worry if you don’t yet know what career you’d like to pursue. Future employers won’t just look at your A-levels - they are only part of your professional profile. Your professional profile also includes your work experience, employability skills and hobbies and interests

What are the hardest and easiest A-Levels?


Students often ask what the ‘hardest’ and ‘easiest’ A-levels are.

To investigate this, you could look at which A-levels have the highest proportion of A*s.

The chart below shows the average percentage of A*s across each subject group in 2021.

Original Data: Joint Council for Qualifications.

 

As you can see, languages had a much higher proportion of A*s than humanities. 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean languages are easier. 

There are lots of different factors that could have caused a higher number of students to perform well in languages, including how they were examined and how difficult that year's exam questions were. 

Some subjects have higher average grades but that doesn’t mean you will find it easier. After all, further maths had the highest proportion of A*s - almost half - and most people would agree further maths isn’t the easiest subject.

The ‘easiest’ A-levels for you will usually turn out to be the ones you enjoy and that play to your strengths.

Now let’s look at which subjects suit each career, plus some expert advice...

Which A-Levels You Need for Each Industry

 

Medicine 

 

Essential A-levels for Medicine

  • Chemistry

Some medical schools also require biology.

Beyond chemistry, entry requirements vary between universities, so it’s worth checking what’s compulsory at the institutions you want to apply to. 

Many universities will also require you to pass the UCAT, the University Clinical Aptitude Test, or the BMAT, the BioMedical Admissions Test. 

Complete guide to UK medical school entry requirements.

Useful A-levels for Medicine

  • Maths
  • Physics

If you take chemistry, biology and physics or chemistry, biology and maths, you will be able to apply to any medical school in the UK. 

“I’m from Scotland, so the system is a bit different, but essentially I did biology, chemistry, maths and music. I did music as an extra subject: I really enjoyed it and was good at it, so it didn’t feel like a huge amount of extra work. Biology, chemistry and maths took up a lot of my mental bandwidth that year.”

Dr Manik Kohli, speciality registrar in sexual health and HIV medicine and director of InvestIN’s Medicine Programmes

Want to know more? Check out our full interview with Dr Kohli: A Day in the Life of a Doctor.

 

Law 

 

Essential A-levels for Law

  • None! (For the most part.)

Some universities ask for a particular subject - e.g. English - though this is not the norm, and some A-levels - e.g. art, P.E. - are not counted by certain institutions.

Check the entry requirements at each individual university you wish to apply to to be sure. 

In addition to A-levels, some Russell Group universities will also require their applicants to pass the LNAT, the National Admissions Test For Law. 

Useful A-levels for Law

  • English
  • History
  • Politics
  • Languages

“I did history, English Literature, French and Business Studies – I chose the subjects because they were those I thought I would enjoy most. That’s the best advice that can be given about options/degree choices, if you do something you enjoy you’ll invariably get better results.”

Rhys Rosser, Barrister at 2 Bedford Row Criminal Barristers Chambers

“I took English Literature, French and History for A-level, with AS’s in Mathematics and Critical Thinking. Critical thinking was in the mix because I thought it would be a useful (and complementary) skill to develop. The day before I had to finalise my options I actually had Physics, Chemistry, French and Maths down as my AS level subjects, so I really was on the humanities fence!”

Kathryn Finch, Solicitor and General Counsel of Quartz Counselling, Psychotherapy and Training Limited

Want to know more about the life of a lawyer? Discover what it’s like to be a solicitor in our exclusive interview with Kathryn, or see what Rhys has to say about the life of a criminal barrister!

 

Investment Banking

 

Essential A-levels for Investment Banking

  • None

There is no specific degree needed to become an investment banker, and therefore no mandatory A-levels. As it’s such a competitive industry, it’s a good idea to choose those subjects that you're most likely to do well in. 

Want to know what a top investment banker picked? 

“I did the International Baccalaureate Diploma program in Singapore and took French, English and Economics as my Higher Level subjects. For my standard level subjects I took Math, Physics and Business & Management. The most important for me was Economics as I did my extended essay in it (equivalent to a high school thesis). I enjoyed following current affairs and geopolitical issues; I studied economics so I would have the analytical tools to better understand them.”

Erika Terrones Shibuya, associate on the Asia Equities sales desk at Goldman Sachs and speaker on InvestIN’s Investment Banker Programmes

Read Erika’s full interview to hear more about the life of an investment banker.

Useful A-levels for Investment Banking

  • Maths
  • Economics
  • Further maths
  • Accounting
  • Business studies
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • English
  • History
  • Geography
  • Modern and classical languages

 

Dentistry 

 

Essential A-levels for Dentistry

  • Chemistry
  • Biology

Having both chemistry and biology A-level will allow you to apply to most dental schools, though some will accept just one. 

Many universities will also require you to pass the UCAT, the University Clinical Aptitude Test, or the BMAT, the BioMedical Admissions Test.

Complete guide to UK dental school entry requirements

Useful A-levels for Dentistry

  • Physics
  • Maths 

If you take biology, physics and chemistry or biology, maths and chemistry you will be able to apply to any dental school in the UK. 

Having said this, if the university courses you’re applying for only require two specific subjects, you may want to use your third option to explore another area of study. 

Here’s what Charlotte Leigh, professional dentist and speaker on InvestIN’s Dentistry Programmes, had to say about her A-level choices: 

“I did biology, chemistry and history with an AS in maths. I think doing a humanities subject served me well in terms of reading, analysing and critical thinking. Now I can look at evidence and draw conclusions - something you do a lot of at dental school. 

It’s not essential, but doing a mix of subjects really helped me. So if you love photography, music, textiles...anything, just go for it! You’ll have to study it for two years, so you may as well do something you enjoy.”

Want to hear more from Charlotte? Check out our full interview: A Day in the Life of a Dentist

 

Veterinary Science 

 

Essential A-levels for Veterinary Science

  • Biology
  • And/or chemistry

Most vet programmes require biology, some require chemistry, some require both. If just one is compulsory, it is usually required of you to do another science subject. 

Useful A-levels for Veterinary Science

  • Physics
  • Maths

Taking chemistry, biology and either physics or maths will keep the biggest range of courses open to you. 

“I did biology, chemistry and physics at A-level, with French and English Literature at AS-level.”

Dr Michael Lazaris, RSPCA Veterinary Surgeon.

Want to know more about what it’s like to be a vet? Check out our full interview with Dr Lazaris: A Day in the Life of a Vet.

 

Engineering 

 

Essential A-levels for Engineering

  • Maths

No matter what kind of engineering you want to study, maths is essential. 

After that, it depends on what kind of engineer you want to be. A chemical engineer will, naturally, need an A-level in chemistry. Physics is usually required for mechanical and electronic engineering courses. 

Check the individual requirements for the course you want to take on the university website. 

Useful A-levels for Engineering

  • Further maths
  • Design technology

Here’s what Bhavik Bhatt, a thermofluids engineer at Rolls-Royce and speaker on InvestIN’s Engineering Programmes, had to say about his A-level choices:

“I was a bit of an anomaly at A-level. I did the usual maths, further maths and physics because that’s what most universities require for aeronautical engineering. But then I also did chemistry, 3D design, French, computing and astronomy. I racked up over 1000 UCAS points. Would I recommend it? Probably not. 

I actually think 3D design taught me the most about the engineering process in terms of designing something from scratch and seeing it become reality. In terms of recommendations, apart from maths and physics I would say do something you really enjoy.”

Want to know more about how Bhavik came to be a top engineer? Read his full interview: A Day in the Life of an Engineer.

 

Architecture

 

Essential A-levels for Architecture

  • None

Architecture courses don’t usually require specific A-levels. 

For most universities you will have to provide a portfolio in addition to your A-level grades.

Useful A-levels for Architecture

  • Art
  • Design Technology
  • Maths
  • Physics 

It is generally understood that a combination of arts, maths and science subjects will provide a good basis for further study.

When we asked Karl Mok, professional architect and founder of TA!LAB spatial design studio, what he chose for his A-levels, his answer supported this:

“The subjects I had at university are unconventional to the profession because I did my A-levels abroad and the combination I desired was not available to me. I did Physics, Chemistry and Maths. Ideally, I would have replaced Chemistry with Art...”

Want to know more about the life of an architect? Read Karl’s full interview: A Day in the Life of an Architect

 

Psychology 

 

Essential A-levels for Psychology

  • One science or maths subject

Some universities require one science or maths subject at A-level, though this is not always the case. This could include psychology, biology, chemistry, physics or maths.

Useful A-levels for Psychology

  • Sociology
  • History
  • Geography
  • Philosophy
  • Politics
  • Anthropology
  • English
  • Economics 
  • Computing 

Some universities look for a combination of science and humanities subjects.

Want to know what a top clinical psychologist chose at A-level? 

“I did geography, biology and psychology,” says Dr Vicky McKechnie, an NHS clinical psychologist at an acute hospital in London. “I chose them because I found them interesting and enjoyed them.”

If you want to know more about Dr McKechnie’s career and working life, check out our blog: A Day in the Life of a Psychologist.

 

Tech 

 

The A-levels you need for a career in tech will depend on the field you want to go into. 

People who go on to become software developers, data scientists, product managers or cyber security experts may pursue all sorts of related degrees, including computer science, maths, physics, electronic engineering, data science or even some business courses.

Essential A-levels for a Career in Tech

  • Maths 

Many universities require maths A-level for computer science-related courses, with some requiring further maths as well. 

Useful A-levels for a Career in Tech

  • Further maths
  • Computing/ICT
  • Physics
  • Economics
  • Philosophy
  • Another science subject

Naturally, a computing A-level will provide a good rudimentary understanding of the field. It is sometimes accepted in place of maths. 

“I did home economics, health & social care and ICT. I chose these because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work in healthcare and become a nurse or go into tech. I'm glad I picked all three because it gave me a good insight into the potential careers I could have ended up in.”

Victoria Sloan, frontend software engineer and product designer.

Want to know what a career in tech is really like? Read Victoria’s full interview: A Day in the Life of a Software Engineer.

 

Business 

 

Most business-related careers are open to graduates from all backgrounds and areas of study. This means you can really focus on what you enjoy. 

Essential A-levels for a Career in Business

  • None

It’s worth doing some research into the kind of business role you’d like to pursue, what skills you will need for the job, and which A-level might give you the chance to develop them. 

If you don’t know which business route you want to go down yet, consider choosing a range of different subjects; it will help keep your options open and make you seem like a well-rounded candidate. 

Useful A-levels for a Career in Business

  • Maths
  • Further maths
  • Economics
  • Business studies
  • Computing
  • English
  • History
  • Geography
  • Philosophy
  • Psychology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics

If you want to get a basic understanding of how businesses function, you could elect to take business studies. Similarly, economics could prove useful.

“I did the IB (International Baccalaureate), which is the same as A-levels except you’re crazy and do six subjects instead of four. I did higher-level German, economics and chemistry, then standard level maths, English and history. It was quite varied, but that’s because I’m so multi-interested. I wanted to do a bit of everything. Part of that IB is to build all-rounders who do a language, humanity, maths and English.”

Mary Agbesanwa, strategy and operations management consultant and speaker on InvestIN’s Management Consultancy and Entrepreneur Programmes

Want to know more about what a career in business is like? Check out Mary’s full interview: A Day in the Life of a Management Consultant

 

Politics 

 

There aren’t usually any compulsory subjects if you want to go into politics or a related field such as international development, diplomacy or environmentalism. 

However, humanities subjects are often preferred, and will set you up with the essential skills needed for a career in the political field.

Essential A-levels for a Career in Politics

  • None

Although some universities specify that at least one A-level should be in a humanities or social science subject.

Useful A-levels for a Career in Politics

  • Politics
  • History
  • Economics
  • Law
  • English
  • Philosophy
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Business studies

Maths and science A-levels are also respected when combined with relevant humanities subjects.

“English and Maths were my two favourite subjects at GCSE, and I was always interested in Politics, so I took that as my third subject,” says Ben Simpson, a diplomat at the British embassy in Libya. “I also did an EPQ on the book Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Want to hear more from Ben on life in politics? Take a look at the full interview: A Day in the Life of a Political Leader

 

Creative Industries 

 

When it comes to creative career paths, formal training and higher education are less essential to success. There are plenty of successful artists, writers and musicians out there with no related qualifications at all. Having said this, relevant A-levels and further education will help set you up with skills, experience, contacts and resources to kickstart your career.

Art

Essential A-levels for Art

  • Art

It goes without saying that aspiring artists will need A-level in art if they want to go on to study the subject at degree level. 

It is also usually necessary to complete an art foundation course and provide a portfolio of work.

Useful A-levels for Art

  • Design technology
  • Photography 
  • History of art

“I did art, English literature, French and early history. I liked English lit, French and art. I have no idea why I did early history.”

Check out our full interview with artist, illustrator and advertising creative Katy Edelsten to find out more about the life of an artist. 

Film 

Essential A-levels for Filmmaking

  • None

Choose subjects you enjoy and supplement them with relevant extracurriculars that will demonstrate your passion for film. 

Useful A-levels for Filmmaking 

  • English language or literature
  • Film studies
  • Media studies
  • Art
  • Design technology
  • Photography
  • Computing/ICT
  • Sociology
  • Psychology
  • Philosophy
  • History
  • Maths 

If you want to do a film studies university course then a film studies A-level will of course provide excellent grounding in the subject. If you want to write or direct then English, or indeed any essay subject, will help you develop your writing skills. 

A combination of arts and computing subjects will give you a well-rounded and useful knowledge base to draw upon. 

“I actually hadn’t found my passion for film when I studied my Highers (The Scottish equivalent of A-levels). When choosing my subjects I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do when I left school, so I chose the subjects that most interested me, which were English, French, Spanish, History and Computing Studies.”

Ben Hunter, award-winning writer, director and filmmaker. Want to know more? Read Ben’s full interview: A Day in the Life of a Filmmaker

Fashion 

Essential A-levels for Fashion Design

  • A creative A-level

Some fashion design degree courses will stipulate that an art and design-related A-level is needed, though not all of them will. 

You will also likely need to complete an art foundation course and provide a portfolio of work.

Useful A-levels for Fashion Design

  • Art
  • Textiles
  • Design technology
  • Graphic design
  • Any humanities subject

“I went to art college to study Decorative Art & Textiles at diploma level,” says Karen Peacock, high street fashion designer and co-founder of Albaray. “Art and textiles were the only subjects I really enjoyed at the time.”

Want to know what it’s really like to be a fashion designer? Read womenswear designer Karen’s full interview

Music, Music Production or Music Management 

The A-level subjects needed for a career in music will very much depend on the avenue you want to go down. 

Essential A-levels for a Career in Music

  • Music or a music-related subject

Naturally, you will need to take music A-level for traditional music degree courses, as well as grade 7 or 8 in your chosen instrument. 

If you’re applying for music production, a portfolio is sometimes required. 

Some music-related courses don’t require any specific A-level subjects. It’s best to check the entry requirements of each individual course and university you want to apply to. 

If you decide not to pursue a formal qualification in music, that doesn’t mean you can’t enter the industry. 

When we spoke to David Davies, a tour manager and senior producer who’s worked with the likes of Skepta, J Hus and Sigala, he told us he never even studied the subject. 

“I did English, history and theatre studies. I also started politics but was told not to come back after the first term!”

Want to learn more about David’s life in the music industry? Check out the full interview: A Day in the Life of a Music Manager.

Writing

Essential A-levels for Writing

  • English

If you want to study English, creative writing or journalism in preparation for a career as a writer or publisher, an English A-level will usually be necessary.

Check with each university to see their specific requirements in regards to English language vs. English literature. 

A portfolio is sometimes required, particularly for creative writing courses. 

Having said this, there are many professional writers with no background in literature. This is what Lauren James, Carnegie-nominated author of Young Adult fiction, had to say about her A-level choices: 

“I did chemistry, physics, biology, maths and further maths – no creative writing/English at all. But I was reading over a hundred novels a year, which in hindsight was very good training.”

Want to know more about the life of an author? Read Lauren’s full interview: A Day in the Life of a Writer.

Useful A-levels for Writing

  • Creative writing
  • History
  • Sociology
  • Psychology
  • Law

Any essay-writing subject will help you hone your craft. 

Make your A-level choices even easier with our free infographic!

A Level Choices Infographic

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