How Many A-Levels Should You Take? And Other Commonly Asked Questions

Starting to think about your future? Have questions about A-Levels and what to expect? Find answers to some of the most common questions in our A-Level guide.

Katie Broadbent - 23 August 2021 · 12 min read

Starting to think about your future? You may never have considered it before, but A-Levels play a hugely important role for many students’ academic journey, helping them prepare and secure places on their dream university course

These ‘Advanced Level’ qualifications are studied across two years, usually between the ages of 16-18 years-old, where you focus on a handful of related subjects that really pique your interest and are related to your future ambitions. 

The aim? To level up your academic foundations, giving you a deeper understanding of a select few subjects that will prepare you for your degree specialism at university. 

Whether you’re new to the UK academic system or already started thinking about your A-Level options, here are some of the most frequently asked questions, with answers, to help you understand your options and start thinking about how to make the best decision for you.

What are A-Levels in the UK?

A-Levels (also known as Advanced Level qualifications) are traditional academic qualifications in the UK, offered to students over the age of 16. 

Many students will study for A-Levels during sixth form, either at school or at a sixth form college. Sixth form refers to year 12 and 13, where students aged 16 and 17 complete their final two years in education, before going to university. Sixth form follows on from GCSE, which students work towards during the previous five years of secondary school.

A-Levels typically take two years to complete and can lead to further study at university, training or work.

What’s the difference between BTECs and A-Levels?

In sixth form, it’s not uncommon for students to be offered the option of choosing an A-Level or a BTEC in a particular subject. But what’s the difference between them?

Broadly speaking, A-Levels aim to give you a solid academic foundation in a given subject, while BTECs are slightly more vocational, helping to prepare you for a particular career. With that being said, some BTECs can also be quite academic too, depending on the subject and modules that your school or college teaches. 

Another key difference between BTECs and A-Levels is the way you are assessed. A-Levels are often heavily classroom based, with students’ knowledge assessed via final exams. Meanwhile, BTECs revolve around coursework, often with work experience elements included in the final grade.

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When do you choose your A-Levels?

In terms of when you choose your A-Levels, this is all dependent on your school or college. Usually, you have to submit your A-Level choices before the month of March in Year 11, though this can and will vary depending on where you study.

Whether you then study those particular subjects at A-Level will depend on the GCSE grades you receive on results day. Most schools and sixth form colleges like you to have a minimum of a grade 9-4 in at least five GCSEs, as well as a grade 6 minimum in the specific A-Level subject (or a related subject) before allowing you to pursue that subject at A-Level. 

When you start Year 12, you may even decide to swap to another A-Level subject, based on your experience of the first few weeks of the new school year. Though you should only do this very early on in the year, so you don’t have to catch up on too much extra material.

Are A-Levels right for me?

In the UK, A-Levels are the popular subject qualification for students aged 16 and over, with more than a quarter of a million people pursuing them each year.

For those who have ambitions of going to university, most higher education institutions require specific A-Levels (or the equivalent Level 3 qualification) for entry, making them an obvious choice for many. 

Beyond that, A-Levels are also a great academic option for those students who aren’t sure what career or job they want. Studying a selection of A-Level subjects can help keep your options open, broadening your horizons for future pursuits.

How many A-Levels should you take?

As a minimum, all students should take three A-Levels as that is the standard entry requirements for most universities in the UK. 

You can take up to a maximum of five A-Levels, although you should really take the time to consider if this is the right option for you. Universities won’t necessarily give you extra credit for taking any more than the three A-Levels, so unless you are sure you can excel in them, it may be best to focus your energy on achieving the very best grades possible in the standard three A-Levels.

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Will taking more than three A-Levels help me get into university?

Taking more than the standard three A-Levels is not essential for securing a place at a university. Those with four or even five A-Levels are not given priority during the admissions process - even those applying to the top universities

If you look at any entry requirement for an undergraduate course, you’ll typically find that a set of three A-Level grades are required for students to secure admission there. And universities will expect you to achieve those three A-Level grades, even if you are pursuing four or five A-Levels.

Therefore, it’s far more important that you focus your efforts on achieving the minimum required grades for your three A-Level subjects, rather than trying to secure mediocre grades across more subjects. 

Not convinced? When it comes to applying for university, there are a whole range of factors that are considered by admissions officers as part of your application; from Extended Project Qualifications, to your personal statement and even extracurricular activities - there are so many things that the team will evaluate when choosing whether to make you an offer. 

They also understand that prospective students come from a whole range of diverse backgrounds, where many schools and colleges are unable to support those who wish to pursue extra A-Levels on top of the traditional three. 

So, if you are considering completing additional A-Levels on top of the recommended three, you should take a long hard think about whether your time could be better spent pursuing a new hobby, volunteering, or finding other ways to help your university application stand out.

How do A-Levels work?

You may not have ever considered it before, but A-Levels are extremely important. A-Levels make up a significant part of your academic journey; they are your gateway to higher education, apprenticeships, and other future pathways. 

Most universities set three A-Levels as a minimum entry requirement, along with a particular set of grades which you need to achieve. You will study these A-Levels during your two years in sixth form, also known as Year 12 and Year 13. 

In Year 12, alongside your three A-Levels, you also have the option to take an Advanced Subsidiary (AS-Level), which takes one year to complete. When you reach Year 13 - the final year of your A-Levels - you will have the option to drop that AS-Level, or continue it through to be a full A-Level, meaning you will end up with four A-Levels. AS-Levels are not compulsory

Before 2015, AS-Levels contributed to your final A-Level grades. It’s important to note that since 2015, AS-Levels now no longer count towards your final A-Level grades. Therefore, you may just want to take three subjects in both Year 12 and Year 13, allowing you to focus on achieving the best grades possible in those three A-Levels. 

However, AS-Level qualifications can be converted into UCAS Tariff points, which can help you secure a place on a degree programme, depending on the subject and university you want to study at. Around one third of UK universities accept students based on their number of UCAS points. Therefore, you may want to consider taking an AS-Level if the university and course you’re interested in pursuing provides offers based on points.

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What A-Levels are there?

One of the great appeals of pursuing A-Level qualifications is that there is a wide range of A-Level subjects available to choose from, including both traditional ‘core’ and elective subjects options. 

Of course, not all A-Level subjects are on offer at every single school or sixth form college in the UK. Therefore, you will need to take your chosen institution into consideration when looking at which subjects you may want to pursue. Some colleges offer a very niche or specialist set of subjects, while others offer a far more broader range of subjects to appeal to a wider range of students. 

The other consideration you’ll need to take into account when choosing your A-Level subjects is what you want to study at university. If you have a certain degree in mind, you’ll want to select A-Level subjects that will best prepare you for that. For example, if you want to pursue a degree in Business and Entrepreneurship, then subjects such as Business Studies, Economics and Mathematics may be the perfect combination to help you start with success.

In line with this, also bear in mind that some universities require you to have taken certain A-Level subjects for a particular degree. For example, many Medicine degrees will require a minimum of one science subject at A-Level - usually Biology or Chemistry - for you to be considered for admission there. 

Which A-Levels should you choose?

The A-Level subjects you choose to pursue depends very much on what your ambitions for the future are. Your A-Level subjects can have a huge influence on what you study at university, as the skills and knowledge you will gain during Years 12 and 13 will lay the foundation for any future study. 

You’ll want to choose subjects that are relevant to your degree subject, which you think will help you excel in the future. Many universities also list any required subjects as part of their entry requirements, so you can take guidance from these to help you decide which A-Levels to pick.

No idea what you want to study at university? Don’t fret. You are certainly not alone in your thoughts, as many students face the dilemma of choosing what subjects to focus on for their A-Level studies. 

If this is you, then it’s key that you keep yourself flexible for further study, choosing a combination of different subjects so that you can keep as many options open as possible. 

For example, taking a combination of essay-based subjects such as English Literature or History with a technical subject like Maths, Physics or Chemistry will give you a range of skills and subject expertise which can be applied to a variety of degree subjects. 

Just remember, whatever options you choose, always focus on subjects that you enjoy. Unlike your GCSEs, you will only study a few (probably three) subjects at A-level, and so you want to ensure you are going to enjoy spending a lot of time working on them. 

You also want to make sure that with any subject you pick, you have performed well with it previously. A-Levels are a significant step up from your GCSEs in terms of difficulty, and so you want to make sure that you will be able to study the subject without too much complication. As mentioned before, this means that you typically need to achieve a Grade 6 (B) minimum at GCSE to pursue it at A-Level. 

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Other factors to consider when choosing A-Levels:

Setting your future pursuits aside for a moment, there are also a few other factors to consider when choosing your A-Level subjects. These include:

  • Your academic ability - In terms of difficulty, A-Levels are a significant ‘step-up’ from GCSE. Choose subjects that you have proven successful in before so you have the prospect of performing well in them at A-Level.

  • Subject combinations - If you need to study a particular subject at A-Level, e.g. Biology for a Medicine degree, consider whether you need to look at taking other related subjects to support your studies, such as another science subject or Mathematics.

  • The syllabus - You’ll be studying your A-Level subjects intensively for 2 years. Ensure the content of the course really sparks your interest.

  • The workload - Check with your teachers what the workload for each subject involves so you can choose subjects that are equally balanced. E.g. Choosing three essay-based subjects may mean you spend lots of time writing! 

Summary

For students in the UK, A-Levels can play a critical role in helping you lay the academic foundations for further study and getting you one step closer to reaching your future goals.

As part of this, when choosing which and how many subjects to pursue at sixth form, you’ll want to take the time to really consider which options will be best for your future and the interests you have. 

Now that you've read our introductory guide, you’ll want to think about what you may want to study in the future and what you’ll need to help you reach that step. Even if you have no idea what you want to do with your career, you still want to think about your options and ensure that you make decisions based on what can give you the best flexibility. 

Find your future passion

Not sure what you want to study at university? Need some help at narrowing down your options? Study a university-style subject online with Melio and gain clarity on your future pursuits. 

You’ll have the option to customise the experience around you, with over 10 popular university subjects to choose from. Even if we don’t have the subject you’re looking for, get in contact with us and we’ll do our best to match a tutor to your interests.

What’s more, you’ll even get the opportunity to choose the learning method which best suits you:  You can study one-on-one with a tutor through personalised Tutorials, or opt to study alongside a small class of other academically-curious students with our 2-week online Academic Programmes

To find out more about Melio and the options available, get in touch to speak with an advisor. Alternatively, you can browse our upcoming online courses to browse the available options.

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