Your Guide to Choosing the Right A-Levels and University

Choosing A-Level subjects and which universities to apply to can be tricky, so NBH Canonbury teacher advises pupils to take it one step at a time.

How should students embarking on their A-Levels decide which subjects to take in order to achieve their future goals? The key is to take one step at a time says Dan MacPherson, Head of Modern Foreign Languages and Senior Leadership Team member at NBH Canonbury.

Choosing the right A-Levels suddenly seems like a huge deal as the time approaches, and one that can be a real dilemma if you have not yet decided what you want to do in the future. But rest assured, you don’t necessarily need to know what career path you want to take – most 16 year olds don’t – in order make the right subject choices.

Your path to a bright future…

If you’re not entirely sure what you want to do at university or as a career, or have absolutely no idea whatsoever, the best thing to do is to keep your options open. Select A-Level subjects recognised for their transferable skills and which are not too similar to one another; a range of both humanities and science subjects will give you the most choice when it comes to applying for university and jobs.

The humanities – essay weighted subjects such as English Literature and History – prove your ability to think critically and analytically, whilst the sciences demonstrate your logic and understanding of complex theorems. Practical subjects such as Art and Drama highlight your communication skills and depth of expression.

Most importantly, choose subjects you enjoy! Whether you have clear future aspirations or not, your chances of success and achieving your life goals will be far greater if you study courses in which you have a genuine interest. Your predicted GCSE grades will also indicate the subjects you should pursue for the best A-Level results, and will more often than not be those you enjoy anyway.

Russell Group universities also value the Extended Project Qualification – a standalone qualification, equal to an AS-level, that shows independent research skills – so it’s worth considering Sixth Forms that offer this alongside their core A-Level subjects.

So you’re making haste with your A-Level studies but only have predicted grades to go by when you reach your next big decision:  what universities should you apply to? 

This first begs the question, do you one hundred percent want to go to university? It comes with an expensive price tag and is not all fun and games when you have thousands of words to write and virtually a whole library to reference on the bitter taste of last night’s hockey social. There feels like a lot of pressure to go to university in this day and age, like you should go if you’re reasonably academic or have to go in order to get a good job. Uni is a fantastic lifetime investment if it’s going to benefit you but, first, take a moment to consider the following:


  1. Do you want to study a subject in more detail?

This is the ultimate decider: the most important thing to consider when evaluating whether university is definitely the best path to take. Whether you have a keen interest in an existing subject of study (e.g. Geography or Maths) or in a more specific field of higher education (Architecture or Engineering for instance), this thirst for knowledge is a sure sign you are making the right decision and will ensure your degree is fruitful.


  1. Have you researched courses carefully?

Courses vary hugely at different unis – English Literature at one can have entirely different content to English Literature at another – and the degree programme itself should therefore determine the universities to which you apply. By the same token, this is the exactly why you should remain open-minded to courses and explore topics about which you may not have previously known.


  1. Are you a social butterfly?

Most people find friends they keep for life at university. From the like-minded people on your course to those you can meet through the huge range of clubs and societies, uni surrounds you with all sorts of characters and is a real people place. If you value your own peace and quiet, do not let this put you off but instead think about your living arrangements…


  1. Do you want to move away from home?

You can of course live at home or away when studying for a degree and should not let this affect your decision to go to university but rather inform your choice of institution: if you are itching for independence then university living is for you but it’s not for everyone. If you are uncomfortable with the idea, do not feel pressured into choosing universities for which you’ll have to move or move far away. You can always complete your first year at home, get to grips with what uni is all about and then take the opportunity to move out in second or third year.


  1. Are you familiar with life away from London?

For the many of you invested in the complete university experience, you should think carefully about the location and, in turn, the lifestyle you choose. With unis all over the country and indeed the world, you can surround yourself with rolling hills or key tourist attractions. If you’re used to London life and enjoy the hustle and bustle, big city unis will suit you better than those that run an hourly bus into civilisation.

Similarly, if you’re living away from home, think about whether you prefer the more communal Halls first and then house?


  1. Do you want to travel?

Consider the Erasmus Programme: a foreign exchange programme for students across Europe which involves many of the best universities and aids the growth of international studying. With thousands of students involved in the programme at any one time, Erasmus offers an excellent chance of experience abroad.


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