A-levels – the end-of-school exams in England

General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level is also known as A Level with standing for Advanced. School children sit these exams in the last year of school – Year 13 while studying in the sixth form. A-levels are sat in May-June

A levels is mostly written exams, although for a majority of subjects referats are a very important part too. For some subjects such as art or sciences some practical work might be required.  

Most students will start by choosing four subjects in the first year of the sixth form (Year 12) and later on drop one to be left with three A-level subjects. The choice of A-level subjects can’t be overestimated as it will determine which universities and which courses in universities children may go to after they finish school. It is, therefore, vital to be very serious and responsible while making your A-level choices. It is not necessary to choose strictly between sciences and humanities – a mix is also possible. However, if a future profession is already decided upon, then choosing A-level subjects is a good opportunity to start specialising and working towards the goal.  

One piece of advice often given to students choosing their A-level subjects is to select subjects that bring more enjoyment while studying them and a student is good at. Preparation for A-levels is a study on a very deep level in comparison with GCSEs, in order to get the highest grade possible a lot of subject-specific literature will need to be read and in great depth too. 

The choice of subjects for A levels may depend on what a school or sixth form college can offer. Often the selection of subjects offered is similar to GCSEs and schools usually allow their students to continue studying the most favourite GCSEs subjects. A-levels can’t be sat unless a student has passed his or her GCSEs (unlike International Baccalaureate).

Sometimes schools offer subjects for A-level that were not possible to study for GCSEs. It is really worth investing time into looking into all options possible. The best source to find out more about new subjects are to talk to the teachers, open days and internet resources. 

Marking the A levels

The grading system scale is from A* to E, where A*- the highest mark possible.

Most universities recognise the results of A-level exams as a standard for a student being prepared to study in an university. When applying to a university the A-level grades are converted into UCAS points – the higher the grade the more UCAS points a candidate gets.

Most British universities usually give their offers based on the predicted grades of A-levels. If an offer is conditional and an applicant fails to obtain the necessary grades, then the offer may be withdrawn and become void.

Universities most of the times specify the grades needed in order to secure an offer. For example, an offer may be given under the condition that a student will sit three A-level exams and will get A-A-B with at least an A for maths.

Nowadas there are two main examination centres: Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) and Edexcel. The international A-level is well known worldwide and there are opportunities to sit them in over 125 countries with the choice of more than 60 subjects available. 

International Baccalaureate is a serious alternative for A-levels, although admittedly they are less popular in the UK.

What is important to know before making decision on the choice of A-level subjects

1. A-levels is much harder than GCSEs

The reasons for A-level subject choices are usually narrowed to the three below:

  • “I dream about this profession or career”
  • “This is an interesting subject and I want to continue studying it”
  • “I never studies this subject but it seems suitable”

In any event it is important to be prepared to a higher level of depth and complexity in comparison with the level of GCSEs. The difference will be felt as in what way the studying is going as well as the student’s expectations. 

2. There are more opportunities when applying to a university by choosing facilitating A-level subjects

Few of us have been ready to choose a profession at the age of 16. In that case it is possible to choose a combination of most demanded by universities subjects, which are called ‘facilitating’:

  • biology
  • chemistry
  • English
  • geography
  • history
  • maths
  • languages – modern and classic
  • physics

It is important to keep in mind too that some universities don’t recommend students to choose certain combinations of A-level subjects, which are too similar to each other. For example, business and economics or geography and environmental studies are considered very similar and students are advised to pick one or another. 

3. Some universities require a certain combination of subjects for A-levels

This is a very important factor to keep in mind if a student already has defined plans for his or her career. It will be impossible to apply to some courses if the subjects choice is unsufficient (or fails to get the necessary grades). 

Here are a few examples:

  • Pharmaceuticals: chemistry plus at least one subject from the choice of biology, or maths, or physics 
  • To go to read English at a university usually requires A-level for English literature, English language and a modern language 
  • Geology: at least two subject from maths, physics, chemistry and biology 

4. Some courses and universities have lists of subjects they don’t accept at all 

5. Study all possible combinations. Learn to distinguish between myths and reality 

What is difference between GCSE and A-level?

A number of students per class studying for A-levels will be smaller. There will be more attention paid towards class participation. Given that, the key is a thorough preparation before each lesson, revision and abundant reading around the subject. 

Considering there are less subjects than for GCSEs the depth of studying each of them will increase dramatically. With that in mind, it is vital to make a right choice of A-level subjects in order to get studies more enjoyable. Written assignments are much longer.