Subject choices at school and college

The Russell Group’s guide Informed Choices provides students with information, advice and guidance about their post-16 subject choices

Choosing your A-level (or equivalent) subjects carefully is really important – especially if you have aspirations to study at a leading university. The Russell Group’s guide, Informed Choices, includes advice from admissions professionals on the best subject combinations for a wide range of university courses as well as the best choices for students who want to keep their options open.

Choosing your A-level, Higher, IB and equivalent subjects

Universities look for students who not only have good grades, but grades in the right subjects for the course they want to apply for. If you already know what you want to study at university, you should think about choosing subjects which give you the best possible preparation for your chosen degree course. If you’re not sure what you want to study at university yet, it’s important to choose subjects which will leave as many options open as possible.

Many courses at university build on knowledge and skills which students gain while still at school. For this reason, some university courses require you to have studied a particular subject already. For example, for general engineering degrees, mathematics and physics are typically essential A-level qualifications. 

Some advanced level subjects are more frequently required for entry to degree courses than others. We call these subjects ‘facilitating’ because choosing them at advanced level leaves open a wide range of options for university study. These facilitating subjects are:

• Biology

• Chemistry

• English literature

• Geography

• History

• Physics

• Modern and classical languages

• Maths and further maths

If you don’t know what you want to study at university then it’s a really good rule of thumb that taking two facilitating subjects will keep a wide range of degree courses open to you.

While Informed Choices brings together advice about subject choices from across the Russell Group, each university and each course will have its own entry requirements. Some institutions publish a list of preferred A-level subjects which are acceptable for general admission, as well as specific requirements for individual courses. We advise students to check the guidance given by institutions very carefully. This information should be easily accessible on universities’ websites or in their prospectuses. 

The 2016/17 edition of Informed Choices will be published shortly. We hope that you find our guide useful, and wish you every success in your studies. 

 

Frequently asked questions:

Below are a series of frequently-asked questions on pre- and post-16 subject choices

Do I need to have passed the English Baccalaureate to get into a Russell Group university?

The English Baccalaureate includes academic subjects highly valued by the Russell Group but it is not required for entry to any Russell Group university. With the exception of English and Maths, and in a few cases a Modern Foreign Language, most universities have no universal entry requirements in terms of specific GCSE subjects. Subject choice is ultimately much more important at the post-16 or A-level stage.

However, entrance requirements do vary between universities and courses (for example Medicine courses sometimes require certain subjects and grades at GCSE). Therefore, we strongly encourage students to check universities’ websites for further information published by individual institutions.

Is it true that a modern foreign language at GCSE or equivalent is required for entry to Russell Group universities?

Our institutions very much value language skills but there is no universal entry requirement that students must have studied a modern foreign language at GCSE or equivalent. However, there may be course-specific requirements, so we strongly encourage students to check universities’ websites for details of these.

Currently University College London (UCL) is the only Russell Group institution to require a modern language GCSE at grade C or above for all of its programmes. However if you did not take a Modern foreign language GCSE, or if you got a D grade or below you can still apply to any UCL degree programme, and it won’t negatively affect your application. You will not be rejected just because you don’t have it but you will need to complete a short course in a modern foreign language, either on a summer school or in the first year of your degree, to catch up.

Please see the UCL website for more details.

Do I need to study three facilitating subjects at A-level to go to a Russell Group university?

It depends. If you know what you want to study then check the entrance requirements. Some Medicine, Veterinary Science and certain engineering courses may, for example, require three specific subjects. But for most other courses you won’t necessarily need to have studied three facilitating subjects at A-level. Some courses require one or two facilitating subjects, whilst for other courses there are no specific subject requirements. Some institutions publish a list of preferred A-level subjects which are acceptable for general admission, as well as specific requirements for individual courses. If you don’t know what you want to study then it’s a really good rule of thumb that taking two facilitating subjects will keep a wide range of degree courses open to you.

I want to study Music or Art at university but Art and Music A-levels are not facilitating subjects. Should I study them at A-level?

If you have talent in music and want to study it at university it is important that you take Music to advanced level (along with performance grades).

If you have a talent in art you may well be thinking about an art foundation course as a precursor to a degree programme. You might want to consider an advanced level qualification in either Art or Art and Design. Either of these will provide you with the basis for your portfolio, which you will need to gain entry to an art foundation course.

Why isn't my subject listed as a facilitating subject?

If a particular subject is not listed as a facilitating subject, this is because it is not generally required for entry onto degree courses. This classification does not imply any judgement about the importance of the subject per se; it merely reflects typical university entrance requirements.

There are some advanced level subjects which provide suitable preparation for entry to university generally, but which we do not include within the facilitating subjects, because there are relatively few degree programmes where an advanced level qualification in these subjects would be a requirement for entry. Examples of such subjects include Economics, Religious Studies and Welsh.

English is listed as a facilitating subject, does this mean English Literature, Language, or Language and Literature?

In our list of facilitating subjects, English refers to English Literature. However, individual universities will have their own admissions policies, and entrance requirements will vary by courses within institutions. In general, English Literature or a combined English Language and Literature course is required at advanced level for entry to study English at university. A few universities will also accept English Language without a Literature qualification.

Can you tell me what subjects I need to study for a particular course?

The Russell Group does not administer or coordinate admissions policies for its members, and each university and each course will have its own entry requirements. We strongly advise you to check the guidance given by institutions very carefully. This information should be easily accessible on universities’ websites or in their prospectuses. Further information can also be found on the UCAS website.

How do Russell Group universities view the AS-level?

Your choice of subjects at advanced level will be key to determining the university courses open to you. Generally speaking, universities make offers of places based on three A-level grades.  However, some courses at some universities also ask for an AS-level and some universities such as Cambridge and LSE see particular educational value in students taking AS-levels, so it is important to check entry requirements and guidance on university websites.

Admissions staff are used to assessing applications in the context of different qualification systems and the different ways that schools and colleges deliver the curriculum, and are keen to ensure their processes present no unnecessary barriers for students. Several universities have produced statements on qualification reform, links to which can be found here

Can I count subjects like Critical Thinking, Citizenship Studies and/or General Studies?

These subjects are usually better taken only as ‘extra’ subjects, rather than being one of the advanced level subjects on which your university application relies. For more information check entry requirements.

If I choose to study a BTEC can I still go to a Russell Group university?

Some of our universities consider vocational qualifications like BTECs in certain circumstances. However, for many courses they are not considered suitable preparation. Where BTECs are accepted, it is likely that you will be required to achieve very high grades, for example three Distinctions. You may also be required to have studied the BTEC in combination with other qualifications such as A-levels.

Entry requirements vary between courses and between universities. If you intend to study at a Russell Group university we would strongly advise that you carefully check entry requirements online before making your decision to study a BTEC.

Can I enter Russell Group universities with qualifications other than those mentioned in Informed Choices?

Our universities accept a wide range of qualifications and Informed Choices only discusses those most likely to be taken by students at ages 16 to 19 in the UK. Russell Group universities also recognise a wide range of qualifications from other countries and UK qualifications like Access to HE diplomas and Foundation courses. But as admissions policies and entry requirements vary for each course and university within the Russell Group, we would advise that you look on the websites of our universities for further guidance.

How do Russell Group universities view the Core Maths qualifications?

‘Core Maths’ refers to a new group of mathematics qualifications designed for students who have achieved a grade A*-C in GCSE, who are not taking the subject to AS or A-level, but who wish to continue studying maths beyond GCSE.

Russell Group universities value mathematics skills for many different degree courses, and many have GCSE or equivalent requirements. Many degree courses require Maths at A-level or AS-level, and some courses require Further Maths.

Universities will not generally require Core Maths qualifications for entry onto degree courses. It is important to be aware that where a university requires AS or A-level Maths or Further Maths, a Core Maths qualification would generally not be a suitable substitute.  It is important to check entry requirements carefully.

How do Russell Group universities view practical science assessments at A-level?

Russell Group universities value practical skills learnt during the study of science at A-level, which lay the foundation for studying at undergraduate level.  In future, pupils in England will receive a separate ‘pass/fail’ mark for their science A-levels. 

Entry requirements vary between courses and institutions. Many Russell Group universities will expect students with A-levels in science to have a ‘pass’ in the practical science element.  It is important for prospective students to check university entry requirements. 

How do Russell Group universities view the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)?

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is roughly equivalent to half an A-level and is available as a standalone qualification. It is a single piece of work of a student's choosing that requires evidence of planning, preparation, research and independent learning. These are skills that are valuable for study at university.

The EPQ is valued by Russell Group universities. Universities differ in whether or not they will include the EPQ as part of any offer they make to a student, but you can draw upon your Extended Project in your personal statement and at interview to provide evidence of enthusiasm for your chosen subject. Check university guidance for more information.