Which A-Levels should you study if you want to get into a top university?

I don’t think university is for everyone, but I do believe that in every school in the country there are young people who would enjoy university life, who would succeed academically and who would benefit enormously from doing a degree. At the moment, students from many schools are missing out. This is particularly true at the country’s top universities, like Oxford where almost half the students come from private schools. It shouldn’t be the case that the best universities are reserved for the most privileged, and there is no doubt in my mind, that the universities could do much more to make sure that everyone who can do a degree has a fair chance of a place. On top of this, we need more students to apply to top universities, and we need those applicants to get good grades in the right A-levels. One of the reasons that students from private schools do so much better than others at getting into the top universities may be that they have had better advice at school. Most students know that good grades are important for getting a place a uni, but perhaps not everyone realises just how important the choice of subjects can be. When applying for university, the plain fact is that some subjects are much more useful than others.





This table (click to view full size) is based on the “Informed Choices” leaflet produced last week by the Russell Group (20 of the country’s top universities). The leaflet explains which A-levels are likely to be needed or useful when applying for different university courses. I went through this leaflet and (roughly) graded the advice for each A-level and degree course – 1 means “essential or usually essential”, 2 means “often required, or one of several of options (one or more of which is required)”, 3 means “required by some/few courses”. 4 means “useful” (i.e., it could help your application, if you have met the other requirements). 5 means not useful except to demonstrate versatility. The A-level subjects are the columns of the table, and degree subjects are the rows.


Some universities will have different requirements, and some will be less fussy about the particular subjects studied and the grades required (and some courses will be more particular),  but the Russell Group’s report provides a very useful yardstick which will give you a realistic idea about the sorts of combinations which are (and are not) useful for university applications. I would recommend reading the full report, since it contains much more detail and advice than is possible to cram into the summary table. In addition. You should always research the particular requirements of any course you are considering applying for (go to the university website, or consult the prospectus).
I am not a careers adviser, but I teach at a university. I am not an expert on careers advice but here, for what it is worth, here is the advice I would give to family and friends based on my experience.  

Because it is hard to be sure when picking your A-levels which subject you will want to study at degree level, it might be more useful to look at the overall pattern of the table, rather than pick a specific row.  

A-levels with very few ones and twos (on the right hand side of the table) are less useful for university applications; they are only helpful for a few courses, and may not be essential even for those. On the left hand side are the most useful subjects, they are essential for some courses and may be required for many more. 

Because you only study a limited number of subjects at A-level, choosing from the right-hand side of the table means missing the opportunity to study a subject on the left. Unless you are very careful choosing subjects towards the right hand side can easily limit the range of universities and courses you can choose from.  

If you want to go to university, you should only choose subjects on the right hand side of the table if you are sure that they will help you get onto the course you want. Otherwise, you will have fewer options to choose the more useful subjects on the left hand side, and you may not have enough of these “facilitating” subjects to get into a top university. The “facilitating” subjects will help you get into a large number of the more competitive and selective courses, but just as importantly they will not stop you getting into the less picky courses (which will be looking for strong grades, but will be less worried about the particular mix of subjects you selected).


[Added pdf files – 13/2/11] 

PDF version of this article – print or pass on 🙂

Disclaimers: My own views, not my employers. I am not a careers advice expert. Table may contain errors (contact the author). Please consult original “Informed Choices” document, University prospectuses and websites. Please let me know via the comments page of this blog if you’ve found this useful, or tell me if you think there is a problem with the advice.

Notes on table:

*The original leaflet isn’t very clear on English A-levels (Literature, Language, Literature and Language) so I combined them. If English seems to be required, further investigation is needed.


*Teacher training/education. The advice in the leaflet is that subjects taught in the relevant classroom (primary/secondary) are best. I am not sure how this relates to PGCE, where I thought you needed a degree in a relevant subject.

Author: tomhartley

Neuroscientist and University Lecturer in Psychology

10 thoughts on “Which A-Levels should you study if you want to get into a top university?”

  1. Lol@Law 4 for earth sci &5 for law. Heard that law Alevel can count against you for aw degree b/c often picked up bad habits

  2. Thanks for the comments.@keepstherainoff – read the original document, but my understanding is that you are right – Law is probably not the best A-level for students hoping to do Law, it is certainly not regarded as essential, and many of the other subjects will keep more options open, and might be more impressive. However I am not a lawyer or admissions tutor. Students should always consult the prospectus or website for up to date accurate information.@John Hesten Email me (if you haven’t already), and I’ll send something tomorrow.If anyone spots an error please let me know.

  3. I added downloadable/printable pdfs. Please use with care (see disclaimers at bottom of article), and notify me of any errors in the table.

  4. Thanks, a very useful summary of the Informed Choices document. Speaking to a couple of ex-students about the need for Further Maths, one (at Warwick studying Maths) would probably put Further Maths as a 1 and the other (Chemistry at Oxford) would put it as a 2.

  5. Further Maths looks like an exception (in the Russell Group report) in that it is *very* useful as an added extra, but rarely a formal requirement. That said for Maths/Physics specialists at the top universities, I imagine it is essential or all but essential.

  6. @keepstherainoffI think you misread the table. It’s geology, not Law that gets a 4 for Earth Science/Geology. Law does get one four – for politics. The guidance in the “Informed Choices” document is fairly complicated, and if students are looking to do Law at degree level, they would be well advised to take a close look at the university prospectuses/websites. Readers should bear in mind that the numbers in the table are my (fairly subjective) summary of more detailed advice in the Russell Group report.

  7. Very interesting. I wonder whether a hypothetical Psychology degree applicant might be hindered by not choosing to do a Psychology A-level offered by their school (as evidenced by other applications to the same programme from the same school, reviewed by the same admissions tutor). Rather than being interpreted as a ‘sensible choice of A-levels’, could this choice be seen as a demonstration of a ‘lack of interest’?

  8. Thanks for your comment, Akira. I deleted my response for reasons we discussed. I really appreciate and enjoy the open exchange of views with colleagues. Long may it continue?

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