12/08/2014 15:00 BST | Updated 20/05/2015 10:12 BST

Will Your Teen Choose The 'Right' A Levels?


Will your teenager choose the right A level subjects? 'Right' A levels mean those that open the door to university, some kind of further training or employment.

A survey of 6,000 students by The Student Room revealed that over a third of students had received poor advice about A level choices or careers.

Many were not aware of which subjects and grades, including GCSEs, were required for degree courses they wanted to study.

The research showed that it's not advisable to rely on schools doing their homework on this; many aren't.

It's up to students – and parents – to do their own research.

Choosing the right A levels is essential if your child wants to study a subject at university and even more important if they have a particular university in mind.

Too many students are discovering too late that they have chosen the wrong subjects whether they are aiming for a degree, modern apprenticeship or training in a company.

Comments from The Student Room research include: "Teachers did not explain that dropping, for example maths, would stop you being able to enter a wide variety of degree courses. Not one teacher tried to stop me dropping it when I did, something which I regret."

Start early

Your child may already have a short list of possible A level subjects and will be waiting for their GCSE results. Before making the final choice it's essential to look ahead to the requirements of universities and colleges, which may differ considerably. They need to do this now, before starting Year 12.

Study university websites

Every degree course will have 'Entry Requirements', which list the A level and GCSE subjects and grades required.

These matter: with more than 12 applicants per place for medicine, not studying the preferred subjects will mean an outright rejection.

Students can apply to several universities, so it's essential to look at the required subjects and grades for each university. Look at all the subject options listed, including A levels, BTEC and IBac if relevant. Take note of whether re-sits for GCSEs count because some universities won't accept these.

Don't rely on 'best' subjects

Many pupils choose to continue with their best GCSE subjects – Grades A* - B - without much thought over whether they are useful.

One student complained: "You're told to pick subjects which you enjoy and are good at, so I took a total mismatch of subjects with no real end goal and nobody said to me that I might struggle to find a university course because of my mixed set of A levels."

One mum said: "My son received no guidance at all from his school. He had no idea what he wanted to study at university, so he chose his A levels based on his best GCSE results. He went to university to study geography – his best subject - but wasn't really interested in it and dropped out, lost a year and started a different course later."

Don't choose the easiest subjects and don't be afraid of taking a subject that is slightly challenging.

The Russell Group of universities has produced information – Informed Choices – to help guide students.

They advise: "Don't have misconceptions about a subject – look into it carefully."

This can be interpreted as not believing rumours about a subject, including how hard it may be, and not being influenced by friends.

It's better to choose a subject that is preferred by the university, even if you expect to achieve an acceptable Grade B, rather than a subject which is not accepted but in which you feel confident you could achieve a Grade A.

Be realistic: A level art is unlikely to enhance an application for astrophysics but it would make a great hobby or something to pursue after university.

Talk to the teachers

Schools often discourage pupils from taking certain A levels because they are worried that they may achieve a low grade, which will reflect in the school's league table position.

If your child obtained a Grade B at GCSE but an A is required to study at A-level, talk to the school about this. If your child shows enthusiasm and promises to work hard, schools can often be persuaded, especially if they are low on numbers for the subject.

The 'wrong' subjects

There's been much debate about which subjects are considered 'unacceptable' by top universities including Oxbridge for particular degree courses.

These are the so-called 'soft subjects'. They include General Studies, Critical Thinking, Art, Drama, Media Studies, and even Business Studies and Psychology.

Trinity College, Cambridge produces a subject list, in which subjects in Group A are acceptable, subjects in Group B have limited value, and subjects in Group C can only be offered as fourth subjects.

The right subjects

The Russell Group has produced a list of 'Facilitating Subjects'. The idea is that these subjects keep doors open if a student doesn't know which course they want to study.

The list has come in for criticism from some head teachers because it excludes creative subjects such as art and music.

Clearly, if your child wishes to study these subjects post-18 they need to study them for A level. But otherwise, this is what the Russell Group recommends:

  • Maths and Further Maths
  • English Literature
  • Physics
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Geography
  • History
  • Modern or Classical languages

It might seem premature to be deciding on a university degree course or further study immediately after GCSEs; many teenagers have no firm idea of what they want to do. But taking time now can save a lot of heartache later on when it is harder to reverse decisions that have been made.

For more information visit the Russell Group website.

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