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ExamsOnce upon a time, you did your A Levels based on what you see your future to be.  If you did well enough, you went to university and got yourself a degree.  Meanwhile, you paid no fees for your experience and you set yourself up well for life.

Of course, today is rather different – a country where tuition fees cost a mint and what you actually studied doesn’t seem to make the blindest bit of difference (except for law and medicine).

What we’re seeing is a rather fragmented higher education system which is rather painfully dividing itself into a few distinct tiers:

1.”We’re asking for high grades and we’re going to tell you what you need to have studied.”
2. “We’re asking for high grades but we’d like to see a well-rounded education.”
3. “We’re not asking for the highest but you have to have studied X, Y and Z.”
4. “We’re not asking for the highest and we want to see well-rounded individuals.”

I very much went for the 4th option there – I didn’t walk out with the best A Level results and came out with five separate marks in the end.  Still, a well-rounded set of A Levels and enough UCAS Points saw me off to uni all the way back in 2011.

I’ve seen examples of university courses which could fall into any of the other three options, from rather elite universities asking for A*AA and particular subjects to BBC at another with a few required subjects.

The actual part of choosing your A Levels is something you do all the way back of March of Year 11, long before you’re planning on university.  In my view, choosing A Levels and applying to study them is quite the distraction when you’re trying to get through your GCSEs – you’re revising a multitude of subjects whilst thinking about which ones to keep on with and which you can say goodbye to.  Ultimately, my mind wondered from the task in hand a bit.

In theory, picking your A Levels should be relatively easy – you pick the subjects you like and the ones that you’re good at.  Obviously this is going to close the odd door further along the line but, with many universities wanting nice and rounded educations, you’ve got plenty of opportunity to study what you like.

The reality, it would seem, is somewhat different, for not only do you have to consider your personal preferences and competencies, but now you have to consider how well-regarded a subject is and how ‘hard’ it might be.

First off the bat, I should say that no A Level is truly ‘easy’, if you were to use the definition of ‘succeeding without any major difficulty.’  The reality of A Levels is that you’re going to have to work very hard in order to succeed.  That said, research seems to point some interesting facts about A Levels which caught my eye.

On a purely superficial level, we could look at the percentages of students who obtain As or A*s in a given subject.  OK, that’s a fair idea… Well, for the last full set of data we have (from the results published in the summer of 2013) we’ll see that 27% of history students got A or A*.  For French, it was 39%.  OK, but what about what we consider the ‘hardest’ A Level out there – Further Maths?  Significantly less, you’d think.

Actually, it was 57%.  Eh?!

Is that because it’s actually not so difficult or is it because the students taking it are all bright sparks?  It’s very difficult to tell and so your perceptions of what is considered ‘easy’ might not come into it as much as you think.  In simplest terms, don’t immediately discount a subject because you think it’ll be too hard.  After all, none of this is ever plain ‘easy’ and the exam regulator Ofqual says every subject has to pass examination criterion to make sure it’s acceptably challenging.

The thing is though… it isn’t truly a case of the clever do as well in the tougher subjects as everyone else does in the ‘less demanding’ subjects.

Researcher from Durham University first published some statistics back in 2008 about how A Levels were not on a level playing field.  In March this year, it all got backed up even more with another round of analysis.  What they find is that it is actually tougher to get higher grades in Maths, the sciences and modern languages than, say, business studies, drama and English.

It certainly surprised me to read that research is pointing that way – I can almost begin to hear the cynics arguing that some subjects are soft and carry no value.  A bit of a shame, yes – and it does seem to have some potential consequences.

Whilst The Telegraph were looking at this research, they contacted the Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education who expressed concern that some pupils were being discouraged from taking A Level Maths and Further Maths – especially if they hadn’t attained an A or A* at GCSE.

Why – surely it’s the student’s choice on what to study?  I suspect it’s somewhat reputation-based from the schools that do this.  It certainly happened at my school – despite the entry requirement for Maths and Further Maths being a B and A respectively, the school tried to push people away if they didn’t have an A or A*.

So, we’ve established that some subjects are actually harder than others and that students are pushed away from certain subjects (in our example, two quite rigorous subjects) if they don’t possess the top grades.  As long as the universities actually appreciate the subjects you’re studying, it would seem that it doesn’t matter too much.

Of course, I am not alone in suspecting that universities have certain preferences of subjects over others.  For example, General Studies is almost always excluded from offers and Critical Thinking is often looked down on too.

Take the elite (or elitist, depending on your view) group of universities that are part of the Russell Group.  As well as different subject requirements, the Russell Group publishes a list of ‘facilitating subjects’ – those which are considered better preparation for courses in their institutions.

Included on their list are subjects such as Maths, Further Maths, the sciences, foreign languages, Geography and History and English Literature.  Some universities carefully word how they use this list and argue that facilitating subjects offer a better grounding, rather than being more academically sound.

Naturally, there’s some foul play involved and soon you’ll discover that the idea of facilitating subjects is complete nonsense – that blog article will be landing with a thud very soon.

Two universities – Trinity College of Cambridge and London School of Economics (LSE) go further and write up their lists of subjects which they consider ‘less effective preparation’ in an attempt to force you down a very specific road.  If you’re thinking of applying to them, it’s worth looking at their lists.

To summarise, you’re going to have to do your research.  Some A Levels are, it would seem, more rigorous than others and universities are trading on this a little bit, publishing lists of what they consider to be better.

And just remember, if you are being discouraged from a certain subject because of your grade, remember that it’s your choice and – if you’re well informed about what is expected come university choosing – it’s you that’s studying for your future.

Don’t get caught out.





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