As you approach the end of Year 11, it’s natural to start thinking about what your next steps in education will be. One popular option is to enrol in A Level courses at a local sixth form or college.

What are A Levels?

A Levels, short for Advanced Levels, are academic qualifications taken by students between the ages of 16 and 18 (although some students may choose to pursue these qualifications at a later age as well) in the UK and various other countries. They are typically studied at sixth form or college. A Levels are considered a higher level of study compared to GCSEs and are often a requirement for entrance into university.

Students typically choose to study three A Level subjects in-depth over the course of two years. The range of subjects on offer is extensive and covers a range of disciplines, including sciences, humanities, languages, mathematics, and the arts.

A Levels provide an opportunity for more specialised and focused study, allowing you to delve deeper into subjects you’re passionate about or relevant to your career goals. They encourage further reading, critical thinking, and independent research, fostering skills critical for success at the university level and beyond.

How are A Levels assessed?

A Levels are typically assessed through a series of examinations at the end of the course in May or June. Some A Levels also involve coursework or practical assessments, completed during the academic year.

A Levels are graded on a scale from A* to E, of which A* is the highest grade and E is the lowest passing grade. Students who do not meet the minimum requirements for an E grade are awarded a U (unclassified).

A Level class sizes are typically smaller than at GCSE.

What are AS Levels?

AS Levels, or Advanced Subsidiary Levels, are qualifications considered half of a full A Level. AS Levels cover similar content to the first year of A Levels. They are typically taken in the first year of the two-year A Level course.

Traditionally, students studied four AS Level subjects in their first year of sixth form or college and then continued three of these subjects to full A Level in their final year. However, due to recent changes in the UK education system, AS levels are losing popularity. Many schools and colleges have stopped offering AS Levels altogether.

What are IALs?

IAL stands for International Advanced Level. IALs are qualifications offered by Cambridge International Examinations (CAIE) and Pearson Edexcel, designed for international students or those studying outside the UK. IALs are similar to A Levels but tailored for an international audience and are recognised by universities and employers globally.

Choosing your A Levels

If you’re set on attending university and have a specific course or subject area in mind, it’s a good idea to research which A Level subjects are typically required to pursue your chosen course.

Student researching A Level subject choices.

Commonly asked questions

What are STEM A Levels?

STEM A Levels encompass a range of subjects including:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Maths
  • Design and Technology (DT)
  • Information Technology (IT)
  • Computer Science
  • Economics
  • Geography
  • Psychology

STEM A Levels emphasise critical thinking, problem-solving, and practical application. They provide a solid foundation for students aspiring to pursue careers in fields like medicine, engineering, computer science, or scientific research.

How many A Levels can I take?

In any one exam period, you can take up to a maximum of five A Levels. However, this is a significant undertaking and equates to approximately 1,750 hours of study time. Most students choose to study three A Levels.

A Level student revising by watching educational YouTube videos.

Should I take four A Levels?

Deciding whether to take four (or more) A Levels depends on various factors, including your academic background, career aspirations, and ability to manage your workload.

Taking an extra A Level can be beneficial if it supports your core three A Levels. For instance, further maths complements the subject combination of maths, physics, and chemistry. On the other hand, you may decide to take a fourth A Level because you can’t decide between them. Both of these decisions are valid, but it’s important to make a thoughtful and informed choice. It’s crucial to choose your A Levels with purpose rather than just for the sake of quantity.

Taking more than three A Levels is not necessary to secure a place at university. Excelling in three subjects is far better than overwhelming yourself and performing poorly in four. In fact, the University of Oxford states, “We advise candidates not to spread themselves too thinly across too many subjects, where they may risk dropping a grade or two in their results.”

My school doesn’t offer the A Level course I want to take. What should I do?

If your school doesn’t offer a specific A Level course you’re interested in, consider discussing alternatives with your school. They might have dedicated advisors who can assist in exploring other pathways, like options available at other local schools or colleges.

It’s important to note that universities recognise that some students might not have access to more specialised courses, such as A Level Psychology or Law, so these subjects are not required for admission. For instance, to pursue a psychology course, most universities only require at least one science or maths-based A Level.