Advanced Level qualifications, better known as A Levels, help students enter universities or colleges or careers related to the subjects they choose to study. Originally introduced in the UK in 1951, they are also offered in a range of Commonwealth countries, and are normally studied over the course of a 2 year period. Most students will study either 3 or 4 A Levels between the ages of 16 and 19. They are a big step up from the I/GCSE level qualifications students usually take aged 16, and are totally linear courses assessed via exams in the final year of study - typically finishing in June in a student’s final term of schooling. You will normally need a GCSE B grade in the subject you want to study at A Level, as well as 5 A*-C grades at GCSE overall in order to be eligible to take A Levels.
A Levels form a vital bridge between a student’s schooldays and the start of their adult life, and as such they give rise to a lot of questions. Which subjects should I take - especially as this choice will influence the university courses I can apply to? Which careers can I use them for, and how relevant are they to gaining employment? How do I ensure I get the best possible grades? Given the importance of these qualifications answering these questions accurately and getting the right help and support can be incredibly important for a student’s future prospects and success.
Keystone Tutors has put together this comprehensive guide to your A Levels, aiming to help you excel at these essential examinations - we hope you find it useful. We are always happy to discuss specific educational requirements, and the role expert tuition can play in improving performance at A Level - so please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
- What are the hardest and easiest A Levels?
- What A Levels do I need for my ideal career?
- How should I choose which A Levels to take?
- What is the difference between A Levels and the International Baccalaureate?
- How do universities and employers view A Levels?
- How do I get the best possible A Level grades?
What are the hardest and easiest A Levels?
There are plenty of opinions on this topic - ranging from the simplistic (it’s Maths, Further Maths, or any of the sciences) to the unhelpful (study what you’re passionate about and you’ll find it easy). Another way in which people frame this commonly asked question is to ask which are the most respected A Levels? Again, there is no straightforward answer - respected by whom and for what? There is no single ‘correct’ answer to these questions, but being clear-sighted about the challenges different subjects bring is a great way to prepare yourself to do well at them, and to remedy any weak spots you have through practice and extra study. Understanding why an ‘easy’ A Level might have that reputation will help you to identify how to truly excel in that subject.
If you are determined to get an answer to the question, no matter how unreliable, a quick Google search will show you plenty of lists of subjects in order of their difficulty as ranked by students - but remember most of these will be unrepresentative polls. If you are interested in the key statistics rather than anecdotal evidence, Ofqual publishes a great infographic which highlights the proportion of A and A* grades awarded at A Level in England by subject. There are some interesting counters in the data to the typical opinions mentioned above - for example over 40% of students taking Maths achieved A or A* grades, compared with 18% of students taking Sociology - and though accurate, neither statistic is much use in helping a student decide between them!
Once again, it’s worth stressing that none of this information is likely to be more relevant to student success than their level of interest and commitment to a particular subject, their willingness to practice and study hard, and the importance of the subject to their desired future career path or choice of university course.
What A Levels do I need for my ideal career?
This is a much better question to be asking than which A Levels are supposedly harder or easier, and the answer varies a great deal depending on the career in question - something which many students are not sure about when it comes to making their choice of A Level subjects.
Some careers require specific degree courses, which in turn require specific A Levels. For example, becoming a doctor requires a Medical degree, which normally require Chemistry and Biology, and many also require either Maths or Physics in addition. You need Maths to study Engineering, and normally another physical science like Chemistry or Physics in addition.
Other courses, like Nursing, will not require a particular A Level but typically prefer students who have taken Biology or a relevant social science like Psychology. Some courses, like Architecture or Law, might seem like they would require particular A Levels, but in fact have no specific requirements.
Researching potential career paths on the UCAS Careers Advice website is a great way to check out the requirements for careers you are considering, and trying to pick a range of A Levels that will keep as many options open for you as possible is a good idea. It’s also worth taking any opportunity you can to do work experience in a range of fields you think might be interesting, no matter how briefly nor how mundane the work you are given may seem to be; this will give you a far greater insight into whether a career is right for you, and hopefully also help you understand how the required A Level subjects may be practically useful to you once you do enter the world of work.
How should I choose which A Levels to take?
Choosing your A Levels can be a difficult decision, especially given the fact that they can close down or open up specific routes for further study and particular careers. Your first port of call should definitely involve checking which degree courses and jobs require specific A Levels - and our handy guidance above will help you understand how this works. It’s also important to know that some universities prefer certain A Level choices over others - most notably with General Studies, which is often not accepted as an A Level for the purposes of assessing candidates. You may not have a particular course or job in mind when considering which A Levels to take - for many people it’s too early to have a firm idea on either front - but it is well worth making an informed choice.
Next, it’s vital to think about the subjects you enjoy studying, which should hopefully also overlap with the subjects you are doing well at. It’s much easier to do well at a subject at A Level and beyond when it’s something you’re genuinely interested in or even passionate about - and where you are prepared to put in the practice and extra study that will differentiate you from other students and help you to achieve the top grades. Picking A Levels that you think you ought to take, but find boring or unstimulating, may lead to you achieving sub-par grades, or even struggling to complete the qualification given the big step up involved from GCSE Level. Take advice from teachers seriously, and also think about speaking to older students at your school about their experiences - but in the end this is a choice that only you can make after serious contemplation and research.
What is the difference between A Levels and the International Baccalaureate?
Both qualifications are highly regarded by universities and employers and are accepted in any university admissions process. So, what’s the difference between them?
The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme is taken over the course of two years, just like A Levels, but it is structured very differently. Students take exams in six subjects from six separate topic groups: Studies in Language and Literature; Language Acquisition; Individuals and Societies; Experimental Sciences; Mathematics; and The Arts. This leads to a much wider range of study than the three or four subjects taken at A Level, although it also typically leads to subjects being studied in less detail than on the equivalent A Level course.
International Baccalaureate students are also assessed in three core requirements: Theory of Knowledge - covering epistemology and critical thinking skills; Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) - participating in social, athletic, or creative activities; and an Extended Essay - a research essay completed independently by the student on a subject from an approved list. This tends to help students on the International Baccalaureate develop their ability to study independently and think critically - and it’s often claimed that the International Baccalaureate also helps students develop a more global outlook.
Read more about the differences between A Levels and the IB in our article on A Levels vs IB.
How do universities and employers view A Levels?
Universities regard A Levels as unquestionably important, but not the entire picture of a student’s academic achievements and potential. Written assessments are an increasing part of the university admissions process at some institutions, and are given a great deal of weight as additional measures of your aptitude for a particular subject and course. At certain universities interviews also play a key role in going beyond predicted A Level grades to really understand why a student wants to study a particular subject, and how likely they are to do well.
Actually getting the grades you need to take up an offer from the university of your choice is a vital hurdle to pass, but you will normally have a good idea of how difficult a bar this will be given your academic performance and predicted grades. Good A Levels are therefore necessary but not sufficient when it comes to getting onto the course and into the university you want!
When it comes to employers, this recent article from the Independent sums up one viewpoint on A Levels - they are seemingly not as important to employers as relevant work experience, professionalism, and work ethic. A better way to think about how A Levels fit in to your career prospects is to understand that doing well at academic studies, gaining practical work experience, and learning about a topic you are genuinely passionate about and interested in, should ideally all link together. It’s much easier to do well at A Levels if you are so interested in the subject that you read and learn about more than just the curriculum. It’s easier to get work experience if you are studying a relevant A Level and have thought about how you can put it to practical use in an industry you are interested in. When an employer is looking at your CV, your A Levels will only be part of the picture, but they should indicate that you have gained relevant skills and understand how to use them outside of the classroom. When seen in this light, A Levels are an important part of your overall ‘pitch’ to employers, and doing well at them will help in taking your first steps in the world of work.
How do I get the best possible A Level grades?
There’s no substitute for hard work, systematic revision (and not just in the weeks before an exam, but as part of your approach to consolidating your understanding of each module you take within an A Level), and plenty of practice papers - but there are other things you can do to help boost your performance and add the icing on the cake!
Reading around the subject - going beyond what is prescribed in the curriculum - is a great way to broaden and integrate your knowledge of a particular area. Read the examiners’ reports for your chosen A Levels - these will give you a clearer idea of how papers will be marked and what your examiners are looking to see to award the top grades.
Private tuition can also really help, whether you need to reinforce your understanding of the fundamentals in a particular subject, or if you want to ensure you achieve the very best result possible. The experienced, nuanced, and detailed feedback and support that can be provided by the A Level tutors Keystone represents can make a positive difference in helping you get the grades you aspire to - so don’t hesitate to get in touch and see if we can help.