Oxbridge Applications A-level guide

If your child is currently in year 10 or 11 and considering an application to Oxford or Cambridge, you’ll probably want to think ahead about their choice of A-levels to make sure that their choices will serve them well in making a strong application. Whether they've already chosen a university path or they have no idea what they'd like to apply for, you can still take steps towards creating a strong A-level profile. With this in mind, we’ve outlined a few factors to consider when choosing A-levels with a course in mind.

Explicit course requirements
If they do have a course in mind, the first thing they’ll want to do is to check any subject requirements on the course page. These are non-negotiable unless it wasn’t possible for them to take that subject for some reason beyond their control; if this is the case, they’ll want to get in touch with the university to discuss their situation.

Do note that Cambridge colleges can make their own subject requirements independently of other colleges, so make sure they look through the course page carefully, including the section on college-specific requirements.

Implicit or ‘hidden’ requirements
What about subjects that aren’t listed as required? A certain degree of reading between the lines is often necessary here. For example, the Oxford Maths course lists Further Maths as ‘recommended’ rather than ‘essential’; in practice, however, they will obviously be disadvantaged by not having it unless their school does not offer the A-level. This can also be the case with other Hard Sciences such as Engineering, where Further Maths is often an implicit, though not an explicit, requirement.

In some cases this is a bit less obvious; PPE is not normally considered a science, nor is it heavily mathematical, but nevertheless most applicants do have Maths at A-level and it is clearly helpful for the more quantitative aspects of the course. The Thinking Skills Assessment, which is used as the admissions test for PPE, includes a lot of Maths in section 1; although this takes the form of problem-solving questions rather than specific A-level topics, it’s clear to see how being strong at Maths is an advantage.

Top tip- check the admissions test!
Although some admissions tests are purely skills-based, several others are based on knowledge from GCSE or A-level. For example, the BMAT test for Medicine includes sections on Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, which are roughly equivalent to GCSE. While it is not at all necessary to take Physics for Medicine, make sure they check the specification for the test as they’ll likely have to revise some Physics material.

Course-related skills
Once they’ve ticked off the required subjects, they’ll want to think about which other options may be helpful for their chosen course. Some courses may help with this, for example by requiring or suggesting that they take one or more essay-based subject. But even if this isn’t stated, it’s a good idea to have a think about what skills their chosen course requires, and how they can show these skills. For example, is their chosen subject mostly essay-based? Does it involve a lot of reading? Is it more quantitative in nature? Does it involve a language or literature element?

Have a look through the course description to get a feel for the content of the course and how it is assessed, and try to pick at least one or two A-levels that will show these skills. For a History of Art application they may want to take History, or maybe a helpful language- say, Italian. Something like RS/Theology would also be relevant in terms of content, and English Literature would prove their essay-writing and close analysis skills.

Choosing A-levels without a course in mind
But what if they haven’t decided what they’d like to study at university by the time they  have to pick their A-levels? The first thing to say is that they don’t need to worry or rush the decision- the majority of people will be in this situation, and it’s very normal for a university course decision to be based on what subjects they enjoy in their first year of A-level. In this case, A-level choices should be based on three things: ability, interest, and complementarity/subject groupings. Let’s look at those one by one.

Ability
It goes without saying that to succeed in an A-level course, the subject should be something they’re good at, and not just something they feel they ‘should’ take for whatever reason. In many cases, they will already know which subjects they naturally excel at from their time studying the GCSE syllabus, and this will hopefully be confirmed when their GCSE results come out. If they are considering an A-level that they did not study at GCSE, use the principle of transferrable skills; if they excel at essay-based humanities, they’re likely to be a good candidate for A-level Philosophy or History of Art, even if they never studied it before. If they’re good at Maths, they’re in a good position to take an A-level in Computer Science.

In some cases, a good GCSE result is not always enough to tell how they will do on the A-level course; for example, some people find the jump from GCSE Maths to A-level Maths to be a challenge, even if they got an A*. If they’re unsure, ask them the following questions: Did they genuinely enjoy this subject? Are they in one of the top sets, or near the top of the class? Are they aware of what the A-level will entail? Speak to their subject teacher if they are unsure as they will know their potential in the subject, and what it takes to excel at a higher level.

Interest and Enjoyment
No matter how smart they are, they’re unlikely to do really well at A-level if they simply don’t enjoy the subject. Take some time to reflect on what they enjoyed at GCSE, and why- was it the content itself, or was it just the fact that they had a good teacher? Sometimes it can be hard to separate the two! Choosing subjects that they have a real interest in will ensure that they are later able to apply for a university course that they’re interested in, which will maximise their chances of success. If they pick sciences because they feel they have to, and then later realise they’re more of a Philosopher at heart, it will be harder to change direction for university. Ask them to listen to their gut now, and it’ll make life a lot easier later on!

Complementarity
If they’re not sure what they’d like to apply for in the future, it’s a good idea to think more generally about the sort of subjects they enjoy, and use that to choose some complementary A-levels. For example, if they’ve reflected on the last two points (ability and interest) and have concluded that their top subjects at GCSE were History and English, it might be a good idea to pick a third subject that relates to those in some way- perhaps another source-based subject, or another literature-based subject. This tends to be a ‘safe’ way of picking A-levels because the link to subjects they have a proven ability in should ensure that they excel in all of them, and because it will allow them to access many university courses that also fall into these categories. This doesn’t mean their set of A-levels needs to look like everyone else’s- bright students often have multiple different interests, and that’s a great thing to pursue as long as there’s just enough complementarity to make an application viable later down the line.

How many A-levels should I take?
Offers for all courses will be based on 3 A-levels, and in most cases there’s no need to take more than 3. If they are doing Further Maths as one of their A-levels, they may want to check whether the courses they're interested in accept Further Maths as a separate A-level when taken as one of 3. Although most courses do view them as separate and independent, it’s still common for applicants to take it as one of 4, and they may decide it’s the best option for them. In general, however, adding on extra A-levels will not benefit their application, and may jeopardize their grades as they have less time to spend on each. If you feel that they would like to do more, consider doing an EPQ (or equivalent) instead.

Are there any subjects I should avoid?
Although there is a lot of discussion around so-called ‘soft subjects’, the only A-levels that won’t be accepted by Oxford and Cambridge are General Studies (not accepted by either) and Critical Thinking (not accepted by some courses at Oxford; only accepted by Cambridge if in addition to 3 others, and unlikely to count as part of they offer). All other A-levels are acceptable and can form part of an offer. However, older and more well-established A-levels may in some cases have an advantage because they are known to be rigorous and demanding enough to prove their academic capability, and they have been shown historically to be good preparation for various courses. If they are thinking about taking a newer or less traditional A-level, it is therefore wise to balance this with other, more traditional subjects, to be on the safe side.

To find out whether your child has a good collection of subjects or the right subjects for the course they want to do, contact our Oxbridge Consultancy Team. It can be quite difficult to work out exactly what should be done to give your child the best chance of success, but we are always happy to help. Telephone +44(0)20 7499 2394, email at info@oxbridgeapplications.com, or request a callback to discuss your situation.

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