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A-Levels: everything you need to know

by Leticia

What are A Levels?

Also known as a General Certificate of Education (GCE) an A Level is a Level 3 qualification which gives access to higher education courses such as a bachelor’s degree course or equivalent. The A Level is graded alphabetically from A* to U, where the percentage is roughly 90% for an A*, and 40% for an E. A Levels exist in most academic subjects. A Level courses may require students to take exams, to work on a coursework portfolio or to do a combination of both.

Who sits A Levels?

Typically, anyone with at least five Level 2 qualification (i.e. GCSE grade 4 (previously C) or above) can take an A Level qualification. Usually, students, aged 16-19 in sixth form or college take three to five A Level subjects. They do not need to be taken at any specific age, but usually students taking A Levels will have achieved at least GCSE grade 5 (previously B) or equivalent in the subject(s) they plan to study.


A Levels can be taken in conjunction with other Level 3 qualifications. Generally for students who go to a school where another Level 3 qualification (like a baccalaureate) is the default, parents can decide to enter their child for one (or more) A Level subject(s) externally.

Where & When do people take A Levels?

A Levels are usually taken at sixth form and are popular in the UK. They are studied over a course of two years, with AS material studied in the first year and A2 material covered in the second year. Both AS and A2 are now assessed in the final year of A Level study. This is a recent change in line with the government reform (2015-2018) which called for linear examinations. Previously AS exams could have been taken at any point during the course, but were usually taken in the first year. Students generally used to decide which subjects to continue at A2 based on their AS scores. AS scores were used to help universities decide whether or not to offer applicants a conditional offer. Today, mock exam results are used instead.

Why choose A Levels?

A Levels may be a good option for you if you’re planning to go to university and would like to specialise. For example, students intending to study Medicine at university would need to take a specific combination of subjects to be able to apply for the course. A Levels in Biology, Chemistry and a third Science is a typical combination for this degree course.

Some degree course guidelines actually recommend that students do not take their intended degree subject at A Level. An example of a course like this is Law. On the other hand, taking A Levels might be the best option for someone who isn’t certain what they’d like to do post-education due to the ability to select a range of subjects.


Although the selection may not be as varied as studying towards an International Baccalaureate (or 'IB') — which requires students to take six subjects — taking A Levels means that students don’t need to choose between Humanities or Sciences. The choice of subjects is entirely yours!

It is also worth noting that in certain subjects, you may wish to consider taking a Pre-U instead of an A Level, as a challenging alternative.

How do I choose my A Level subjects?

It is recommended that students consider two main factors. First and foremost, it’s important to study something that you will enjoy! You’ll be studying these subjects for at least 2 years, and will be going into great depth (in comparison to what has been covered prior to A Level). In many cases students are required to do some wider reading outside of class to get the highest marks.

Another important factor to take into consideration is how good you are at the subject. A Levels are reported to be exponentially more difficult than GCSEs, so it’s a good idea to choose a subject that you’re already doing well in. For many degree courses, the subject itself matters a lot less than the grade achieved so it may be useful to think about choosing the subject(s) you feel you’re more likely to get top marks for!

For students who might need to have studied specific subjects to be accepted onto a university course, the best thing to do is to check which subjects are needed with each university. You can do this by looking at university prospecti and websites.

If you decide to study A Levels, whatever the subject choice(s) may be, it’s good practice to leave a good amount of time to look into which subjects would be best to study and are in line with your future plans.

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