Your future starts here

For 15-year-olds, this is a crucial time: which A-levels should you study? The choice is huge, and decisions now will open or close doors in years to come. James Noel reports
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There are four questions that you should ask when embarking on decisions about which subjects to study.

Ask what subjects are available where you intend to study. Very few schools or colleges offer all subjects available and it is no good wasting time deliberating between archaeology and ancient history if the only subject of that sort on offer where you going to go is classical civilisation.

Ask yourself which subjects you think you will actually like. You will work hardest and get the best results if you enjoy your work and are fully committed to it. If you choose subjects out of a sense of duty, or as the result of external pressure, you are unlikely to make the most of them. Remember, however, that you may not be able to tell whether you like a subject until you have tried it. For it is in the sixth form itself that many students discover their potential in new areas and develop interests and enthusiasms that last a lifetime. So don't assume you will not like a subject just because you know nothing about it.

Ask what you are good at. All A-levels are not the same and each requires very different skills. Before embarking on a particular subject you need to ask yourself whether you have the potential to acquire the skills it requires. Subjects such as English literature and history demand powers of analysis and written expression and it would be a mistake to choose such subjects without a good standard of English. Similarly, it would not be realistic to choose physics, chemistry or economics without being reasonably good at mathematics. Unless you have the right intellectual make-up you won't perform to an adequate standard and are likely to lose interest and confidence.

Ask what subjects, given future plans, you might need. You may not need any particular subjects; but many college or university departments do have specific requirements. For instance, if you want to be a doctor or a vet, you will need at least two science subjects. For an economics degree you will often need mathematics.

To set about answering the critical questions, there are six essential tasks for you to undertake.

Talk to teachers who know you. This can be one of the most useful and important things you can do. A teacher who knows what different A-levels demand and who knows your strengths and weaknesses is uniquely well placed to advise you. You may not agree with the advice; but you should listen to it.

Talk also to those who teach any A-level subject you are considering even if they don't know you very well. It is always best to hear from the person responsible for teaching a subject what it is like and what it involves.

Talk to other students, best of all those a little older than you, who have studied a subject that you are considering. However, you must learn to evaluate what will be very subjective views and realise that what is important for someone else may not be so for you.

Attend school open days. These can be an excellent way of learning about different A-level subjects and what is involved in studying them. It is on these occasions that schools make an effort to sit down and explain what is involved in studying a subject and, more particularly, how they would set about it. Biology in your local sixth form could be very different from the biology in the CFE in the next town.

Talk to a careers adviser who is experienced in the requirements of university entrance. Guidance here is vital if you are to keep the right higher education options open.

Read typical textbooks. It is always a good idea to read some of the books that you will be required to study as part of any A-level course. Don't choose these yourself: ask the person who is likely to be teaching the subject for some recommendations.

And don't forget ... Distinguish between the teacher and the subject

You may like or dislike a subject because of a particular teacher or because of how it is taught at your school or college. This may be a good reason for choosing a subject; but it may not be. If you are influenced by such considerations, try to find out whether the teacher in question is likely to be teaching you and if so, for how long.

Remember, A-levels not only impart knowledge: they develop skills

When choosing your A-level subjects, don't only think about the subject matter of the A-level - the date of the Battle of Hastings, what happens when you heat metals, the French for "hard work". Consider also what skills you will be asked to acquire and whether you like the sound of them.

Many subjects require and develop the ability to analyse abstract arguments and to formulate your own ideas in essay form; others require the ability to solve mathematical and scientific problems; some require you to memorise facts and figures; others demand practical skills; a few require artistic and creative talents - visual, dramatic, musical. In general, these skills will be of more use to you than the facts and information you learn and may be used in a wide variety of situations.

Distinguish between potential and past achievement

When deciding whether you possess the right skills, don't confuse what you are able to do now and what you might be able to do if taught properly. Potential is more important than past achievement.

Final tip ...

There is no substitute for a good long talk with someone who has taught you and who knows you well.

Good luck.

The 1996 edition of `How To Choose Your A-Levels' is published in May and will be available from all good bookshops.