Special Report on Courses: Why A-levels offer a degree of opportunity: Anne Daniel looks at the options and asks four pupils how they made their own selection

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The Independent Online
IF YOU are thinking of A-levels, you are probably also thinking of university. True, there are other routes to university. There are also other options after A-level. But most people going to university have A-levels, and most people taking A-levels go on to university, so degree course requirements are usually a key consideration in A-level choice.

There are three main ways in which universities will consider your A-levels (or two AS levels in lieu of one A-level). First, A-levels are a measure of a level of ability and achievement appropriate for higher education, so the number counts. Second, some courses build directly on a foundation of specific knowledge, so the subjects may be important. Third, A-levels are the currency with which you pay the 'price' the market sets for entry to popular courses, so the grades may be vital.

The question of number is the most straightforward. Passes in two subjects is the minimum requirement, but many courses demand three. Three subjects will give you much more scope, but do not assume that four is necessarily better still. Four subjects are never required, and you must be careful not to dilute your overall performance.

Make sure that at least two of your subjects are sufficiently 'academic'. Problems sometimes arise with practical, technical or vocational subjects which may not be regarded as sufficient evidence of the intellectual preparation needed for a degree course. But these subjects are usually perfectly acceptable as your third A-level.

Recent years have seen a growing flexibility among admissions tutors. Mixed combinations of arts, science and social studies are becoming far more common and acceptable. This has big advantages both for those who have a specific goal and for the undecided. The undecided can leave more options open (if they are careful), while those with a clear goal and a traditional choice of closely related studies need not feel trapped if chance or choice makes them look again.

That does not mean you can be haphazard in your choice of A-levels. Basic ground-rules apply and specific requirements remain. You still need to consider carefully the implications of taking, dropping and combining various subjects.

Science and technology have the most specific requirements. Sometimes three science A-levels are required, but usually only one or two will be specified, with some choice for the others. If you are interested in science but do not have a clear goal, such as medicine, for example, it is important to remember that science subjects are interdependent. Unless you have at least two sciences your choice of science/technology degrees will be restricted. Chemistry is particularly important for biology and maths for physics.

In the arts and social studies one or two specific subjects may be required, but many courses accept any two (academic) subjects.

But your choice of A-levels can reveal something about your motivation, your intellectual maturity and your understanding of a subject. English, history and French hang together better than, say, physics, sociology and communication studies. There are sound educational reasons for taking conventional combinations that go beyond the convenience of the school timetable or the requirements or preferences of universities.

The decisive factor, especially if you are interested in a competitive field, may be how well you and your teachers feel you can do. But you will not do well in a subject just because you did well at GCSE: A-level is much more demanding than GCSE. It is difficult to meet the considerable demands unless you have a genuine interest in your subject.

ANDY EVANS (Latin, history, economics):

In the fifth year the heads of department held talks at break-times to tell us what their subjects entailed and the difference between them at GCSE and A-level. At that time I was thinking of sciences but those talks put me off. We had done JIIG-CAL (computerised career selection) in the fourth year to give us a basic idea of jobs we could do. After an interview with the careers officer, I decided on law. So I tried to choose subjects that would help.

It's important to do what you enjoy, but you have to find out what you're in for.

LUCY WAITE (maths, physics, art, GCSE business studies):

It just dovetailed really. They're my best subjects and the ones I enjoy most - that's probably why they're my best. It was the obvious choice. I looked at a book for GCSE which showed what you couldn't do if you dropped particular subjects. I've been interested in engineering since that stage and I found out I could give up the things I didn't like without it mattering. And the things I did like were important.

I think I made the right choice. The important thing is to do what you enjoy.

EDWARD ROBINSON (maths, German, English literature):

I chose German, maths and physics. German I simply enjoyed, and maths and physics I saw as useful for a career, perhaps engineering. The step up from GCSE in physics and maths was tremendous, especially in physics. It became a burden, and I hated it. By mid-October I could see it wasn't working out.

The school was extremely supportive about changing. I sat in on English classes and fixed on the literature. It is interesting and challenging, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. No regrets.

AMY JANES (maths, physics, chemistry and German):

Chemistry was my favourite subject and I'd always wanted to do it. I didn't feel too confident of my own ability in physics and maths, but I spoke to my teachers and they encouraged me. They didn't push but said, 'If you want to, you're capable of it.'

They were the subjects which I felt would give me most options, especially since I've considered medicine and engineering. But I really felt it was important to keep up a language. For the first couple of weeks I did feel very under-confident. But when I started getting good test results, I felt better.