Preparing For Sixth Form and A level Exams

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A level exams

The most common route into university in England is via Advanced Level (A-level) exams. In fact almost 90% of those who have gained admission into higher education in recent years have applied using their A level qualifications. It is not only students aiming for higher education who sit the A level exams though, many others also take the exams because these qualifications are widely recognised by employers.  Students and parents of students who want to be at the top of their game will therefore do well to pay attention to the latest changes to A levels in England.

A level qualifications are obtained at the end of a two-year study period after GCSEs. These studies are not restricted to secondary schools, they can also be taken at further education or sixth-form colleges. The qualifications have however recently been reformed in England and there are a number of implications for students, particularly those who do better in course work than in exams. Before we delve into the changes, it would be useful to explore the things to consider when choosing A-level subjects.

Choosing Your Subjects for the A level Exams

Students typically start their first year of A levels with about three to five subjects. A good number of those who start off with more than three subjects drop one of them at the end of the first year. Having said that, it is not uncommon for students in the schools that feature regularly at the top of the league tables to continue with all four or five subjects. Getting top grades in their A level exams in more than three subjects means potentially more UCAS points, giving them a competitive edge with the leading universities.

Broadly speaking students about to choose their A-level subjects fall into two categories:

  • those who are certain about what they want to study in university
  • those who are unsure or undecided
  1. Students certain about the course they want to study in university

If you know what you want to study in university then you should start with the end in mind. Research the course entry requirements for the universities you are considering. That way you will know if there are any specific A level subjects they expect you to take and if there is a minimum grade required for any of the subjects.

  1. Students unsure or undecided about the course they want to study in university

It is not unusual for a 15-16 year old to be unsure of what they want to study in university however despite this, A level subject choice decisions have to be made in Year 11 as the schools need some insight into demand in order to plan ahead.

Choosing Your A level subjects
Where no decision has yet been made about the course you want study in university, it would make sense to keep your options open by having a good mix of subjects when you sit your A level exams. In such a scenario it is advisable to include at least two facilitating subjects in your options as good A-level grades in such subjects give you a broader choice of courses and universities.

Whether or not you are certain about the course you want to study, you need to consider your ability in the subjects you are planning to select. Have you done well or are you predicted to do well in these subjects at GCSE level? Most institutions offering A-level places will expect you to attain A*-B / 9-6 (in new grade parlance) in a subject if you are to take it as an A-level option.

Knowing the A-level subjects required for the particular course you want to study in university and evaluating this in view of your predicted GCSE grades serves as a reality check. It can help you decide whether to continue pursuing the course you had been thinking of, or to consider another viable option. However you do not always need to change direction; with the right mindset and determination, this check to take stock could be the wake-up call that spurs you on to work harder and exceed the predicted GCSE grades in the subjects you will be taking at A-levels.


Note that it is not always the case that you would have attained a GCSE in a subject before you select it as an A-level option. Subjects like Psychology and Economics fall into this category as they are typically unavailable as GCSE subjects in a lot of schools. Students sometimes take these at A-levels because they feel they are fun subjects and they will do well in them. It is also often the case that they want to get a sense of what the course is like at university level. Most universities however do not require A levels in Psychology and Economics for you to study them at higher education level. The top universities are mostly interested in the grades you have attained in facilitating subjects.

This however does not mean you should drop such subjects. You will do well to continue with them if you find them enjoyable and are on track to get top grades in them as long as you get the balance right by doing well in at least two facilitating subjects to help broaden your choices.

Some of the highly selective schools insist that you take more than three subjects all the way to the final A level exams. If you do not have such constraints then you may start with four or more subjects in the first year to see how well you’re doing before dropping the ones that you are weakest in at the end of the first year. Following that you can shift your focus to your strongest subjects for the year of the A level exams.

In summary, whether or not you are sure of what you want to study, you are likely to have an advantage if you take at least two facilitating A-level subjects. And where you are sure of what you want to study, conduct your research before you select your A-levels subjects so that you do not inadvertently omit to take any subjects that you definitely require. That is definitely one way to avoid surprises when the time comes to apply to university.

What Are Facilitating Subjects?

These are the subjects that most universities require or prefer in order to offer you a place on their degree programmes. The following subjects are listed by the Russell Group of Universities as facilitating subjects:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Classical languages e.g. Latin, Ancient Greek
  • English Literature
  • Geography
  • History
  • Modern Languages e.g. French, German, Spanish
  • Maths and Further Maths
  • Physics

These subjects are seen as foundational because they form the bedrock for a lot of courses beyond A levels. Therefore it is not surprising that universities tend to prefer these subjects.

This however does not mean that you should only take facilitating subjects at A-levels. The section above on choosing your A-level subjects should help you get the balance right.

Changes to A levels from September 2015

From September 2015, there have been some changes to the structure and nature of the A-level qualifications. These changes do not invalidate the above paragraphs however there are other things that have been impacted and which each A-level student needs to know. Click here for a summary of the changes to A levels.

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