Go Higher: Not quite so easy as ABC

Grades are the key to higher education, but honest self-assessment is just as vital.
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When you choose your degree course you need to make a judgement about what grades at A-level you think you will achieve the following summer. Be guided by your teachers - if they expect you to get three Cs, look for courses which will take you with those grades. Don't become more ambitious. If you do set your sights too high, you may come a cropper.

A quick glance at the reference books will show that some subjects require higher A-level grades than others. A-level grades are a rationing device - the result of supply and demand. Any course which is very popular is bound to have higher entry requirements than one which is less so. Thus, the courses requiring the highest grades are medicine, veterinary science, dentistry and law.

All medical schools ask candidates for either AAB or ABB at A-level. Cambridge is harder still: it insists on three As. Some will not look at retake candidates because entry is so selective. Most of those that do consider retakes will only do so in extenuating circumstances.

In addition, most medical schools interview all applicants because they are looking for personal and social skills as well as academic ability. Chemistry A-level is always required and biology is often also needed.

Veterinary science is no easier. There are only six veterinary schools in the country. Of these, three - Cambridge, Liverpool and London - ask for three A grades. The remaining three - Bristol, Edinburgh and Glasgow - require AAB. Dentistry requires AAB-BBB.

Another vocational subject which is hard to gain entry to, particularly at old universities, is law. Oxford and Cambridge are looking for candidates with three As. Other universities, such as Queen's, Belfast, Birmingham, Durham, Edinburgh, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield, King's College London and University College London are asking for AAB or ABB.

But you don't have to get stellar A-levels to study law if you are prepared to go to a new university. Thames Valley University and the University of Wolverhampton, for example, will take you with lower scores.

One way of getting into an old university to study a popular subject such as English and history and not have to worry unduly about your grades is to study that subject in combination with another. "Dilute your course and it becomes easier to get into the institution of your choice," says Claire Davies, director of studies at Davies Laing and Dick tutorial college in London.

Oxford and Cambridge like to take students with three As at A-level for the popular subjects of English and history. Only slightly less difficult are universities like Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Edinburgh, University College London, Sheffield and Warwick.

In general, students will find they need lower grades to gain entry to the sciences. The exceptions are Oxford and Cambridge, which like to recruit students with three grade As for chemistry and AAA/AAB for physics, and some of the so-called Ivy League institutions such as Nottingham and Warwick.

Natural sciences is a subject which is studied at only a handful of old universities - Cambridge, Durham, Birmingham and Bath. The entry requirements are high. You need three As for Cambridge, AAB at Durham, ABC at Birmingham and BCC at Bath.

Subjects related to medicine are also difficult to gain entry to. Pharmacy and pharmacology requires ABB at A-level at Bath, Queen's Belfast and Nottingham. Aston, Cardiff, De Montfort and Liverpool John Moores are only slightly easier. Optometry is harder still.

This autumn universities have been slashing their grade requirements in Clearing because they found so many courses under-subscribed. Happy applicants have found they were able to gain places at universities with grades of DEE at A-level. Some courses even dropped their standard offer by 10 points.

Students who end up with grades substantially below those required, and who refuse to budge from a popular subject choice in Clearing will find it almost impossible to get a place. They will be faced with retaking their A-levels or switching subjects.

If a student fails to achieve the grades required for a degree in English and is determined not to resit A-levels, they would be well advised to consider a course in media or communications studies, for example, at a new university. But before they do that they should examine the courses carefully. Some new universities run theoretical media studies courses which don't necessarily lead to a job; others have close links with media employers.

Similarly science students who miss their grades and don't fancy retakes should look at alternatives such as biological or health sciences. A number of new universities will take students onto health science courses with 10 (CD) or 12 points (CC). Ditto biological sciences.

And don't forget the Higher National Diploma, a practical two-year alternative to a degree. Students can get on to an HND with minimal grades and then move over to a degree after a year or two so long as they meet the standards of the institution concerned.