Choosing A-Levels: WTF? What the... facilitating?!

Is A-level jargon making your head spin? Ever heard of facilitating subjects?

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These are simply some of the more “traditional” subjects that some of the top universities say they prefer. But that doesn’t mean all – or in fact any - of your choices need to include these.

With everything, it depends what you want to do, and what you enjoy.

As a basic rule, the more of these subjects (see below) you choose, the more options you will have to apply for more prestigious university courses. But you can pick two traditional subjects and something more “out there” and still get on to a highly competitive course. And if you’re heading for the creative arts, you’ll obviously need relevant creative qualifications.

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Research from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that A-level students focusing on science and maths or languages are more likely to go to Russell Group institutions, while students who pick applied or creative subjects are more likely to go to the newer universities.

For some degree courses, especially science, it’s obvious. Maths and physics are usually essential for engineering, while further maths and design technology can help.

Science degrees at Cambridge require further maths, if possible. Modern languages degrees will ask for two language A-levels.

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But subjects required for humanities and social science degrees can vary – psychology students might not need psychology A-level for instance, but may need maths and even a science.

Popular social science degrees won’t specify particular subjects but you can look up on sites such as Unistats and Which? University what current sociology students, for instance, typically did at A-level.

English degrees usually want at least English literature and possibly English language. Many economics courses need maths, but not economics.

“It’s really important to make sure you can see yourself going into much more depth in the subject areas you choose,” advises an A-level student on The Student Room. “Maths goes with absolutely everything. If you like too many subjects, try to work out what you like about each one and make sure your final choices include all aspects so you don’t end up missing a dropped subject too much.”

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At this time, there are many myths about A-level choices floating around, so the best advice is to check with individual universities directly if you can’t find the information on a university website.

Some universities such as Sheffield spell out what it thinks are “acceptable” A-levels – but this list is much broader than those listed below and includes subjects such as theatre and performance studies and history of art. And the competitive London School of Economics publishes a list of “non preferred” subjects, which include the likes of art and design and business studies – note these are welcomed by some institutions – but equally values subjects such as religious studies and law.

“If you aren’t sure…then I would advise you to take at least one or two facilitating subjects,” says Nick Hull, head of admissions at the University of Southampton. “These ensure you leave open the widest possible range of degree options.” But not all subjects need to be from the list, he says. Dance or music would sit perfectly well with traditional choices. If in doubt, universities say, then get in touch directly with relevant academic departments – most genuinely welcome queries from would-be applicants.

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“Taking a subject such as history of art, government and politics or media studies in conjunction with at least one (ideally two) of the facilitating subjects shouldn’t be an issue if you get the grades,” advises Which?University. And many university courses, from archaeology to tourism, will accept you whatever A-levels you choose.

“There are very few hard and fast rules these days, other than Russell Group universities still prefer facilitating subjects,” says Chris Webb, a CDI (Career Development Institute) registered careers adviser at a northern academy.

Facilitating subjects

Biology, Chemistry, English, Geography, History, Maths, Languages (modern and classical), Physics.