So, my advice here is addressed to YOU, the Year 11 pupil about to select your subject choices...
First, let me say that the best Level 3 course, whether it is A levels, or the BTEC Extended Diploma, is the one that best suits you. If you can choose subject(s) that interest you; that motivate you to work hard, to read around the subject and to achieve the best grades that you can, then those are probably the best subjects for you to choose.
There are some provisos however...
You need specific A level subjects for some degree courses or careers
This is especially the case where a bank of subject knowledge is required to cope with the degree course.
So, for engineering courses/careers it is usually a requirement to have Maths (and often Further Maths) as well as Physics at A level. For Medicine and Veterinary Science, most universities ask for Chemistry & a second science, usually Biology. Interestingly, it is not necessary to take 3 sciences and Maths for these courses!
The Russell Group of universities, which includes most of the high status universities, have produced a useful guide which itemises the different subject requirements for different degrees at their universities, and this has just been up-dated. See: http://russellgroup.org/InformedChoices-latest.pdf
Bear in mind that universities each have their own views on subject requirements, and universities outside the Russell Group have less stringent subject and grade requirements.
Employers too, will often specify certain A level subjects, where a bank of prior knowledge is required: a typical example would be Maths & Physics for many engineering apprenticeships.
Sometimes employers don't specify particular subjects, but may ask for xxx UCAS points eg three B+ grades.
If you know what you want to study at university, or if you know what career you want to enter longer-term, then you should look at the subject entry requirements for the specific course that you want to apply for. You will find all degree courses and their entry requirements listed on www.ucas.com.
What if the A level subjects required are not suitable for me?
You should take advice from a Careers Adviser, or discuss the issue with a university's Admissions Tutor - there may be alternative subjects that would be acceptable for that specific degree course, or similar careers that you could consider without those specific subject requirements. You should also check similar courses and their entry requirements, as they can vary quite considerably, on www.ucas.com.
No clear career plans yet?
That's fine. A levels were designed to keep a number of career routes open, with each subject leading to a number of different degrees. If you choose subjects that you enjoy, this should lead onto degree courses that you will also enjoy.
There are also complementary packages of subjects that keep a larger number of career routes open, including, for example: Biology with Chemistry, Maths with Physics, English & History.
Are there subjects that shouldn't be taken together?
Yes. Some subjects are deemed to be too similar e.g. Business Studies and Economics.
What about "soft" subjects?
There is undoubtedly some "snob" value about some A level subjects being worth more than others - these being the "facilitating subjects" listed by the Russell Group of universities (see link above).
So where does that leave more practical subjects like Media Studies, Art & Design, or Business Studies? Well, if you are academically high achieving & you plan to apply to Russell group universities, then I would advise you to avoid choosing more than one practical subject, unless it is directly relevant to the degree that you're applying for, e.g. Journalism, and is backed up by two or three facilitating subjects like English.
Remember that other universities view all A level subjects equally! See www.ucas.com to search for courses & look at different entry requirements.
General Studies, and Critical Thinking A levels are often not given any credit at all, so should be seen as added extra subjects.
What about the Welsh Baccalaureate?
This is an additional qualification, offered alongside other subjects, like A levels, in Wales. It encompasses a core of 5 elements, including work-related education and an individual investigation, and is designed to allow students to include experiential learning both in and out of school/ college as well as academic study.
In theory, the Welsh Bacc is worth 120 UCAS points (the equivalent of one A grade at A level). In reality, universities can decide for themselves how many points they will accord it, and it can be less than 120 points. From this year, the Welsh Bacc will be graded, and anything better than a C grade will be awarded 120 UCAS points.
At a conference last week on the future of Welsh qualifications, top universities were asked whether students should choose 3 or 4 A2 subjects to study alongside the Welsh Baccalaureate. The answer was rather vague, in that it depends on the student and his/her abilities. In theory, for most students, the answer is that 3 subjects alongside the Welsh Bacc will be enough. The exception is with Further Maths A level. For many science, engineering and technological subjects Maths and Further Maths, alongside Physics is preferred - so taking 4 subjects at A2 level is ideal.
What about level 3 BTEC Extended Diploma courses?
BTEC courses are less well known, and are often "looked down upon" by people who know very little about them. They are vocational, career-related courses, mostly offered by colleges of Further Education although some schools may offer one or two BTECs in their 6th form. Typical subjects are: Business, Childcare & Education, Animal Care & Management, IT Practitioners (with pathways in e.g. Software Development or User Support), Art & Design, Graphic Design, Sport, Health & Social Care, Engineering etc.
They usually take 2 years to complete, and form an entire timetable, so it is seldom possible to combine them with A levels. The courses are very practical, with work-related assignments & projects completed through a series of modules. There are no exams. They are, in theory, equivalent to 3 A levels, and if Distinctions are achieved, would be the equivalent of 360 UCAS points, which is the same as 3 A grades at A level.
They can be used to enter relevant Higher Education courses, even at the Russell group, although very high grades would be required.
It is worth knowing, that even if you struggle to do well in academic GCSEs, and achieve C grades in only four subjects, you could still go on to achieve the highest of grades through the BTEC route because it has a different learning style. To check whether the degree subject that interests you accepts BTEC qualifications, see www.ucas.com; search for your subject and look at the Entry Requirements section.
Even without high BTEC grades, it is possible to go on to study Higher National Diploma (HND), or Foundation Degree courses at university, which can usually be "topped up" to an Honours degree afterwards, so there is always a route through Higher Education for you, if you want it.
In many ways, BTEC courses are more highly valued than A levels, by employers who recruit students at 18 - the courses are career & workplace related, so BTEC students are useful to employers straight away. A student from the BTEC Extended Diploma in IT, would have spent 2 years studying nothing but IT-related content & could apply for an IT technician post straight after their course. The same applies to many other BTEC courses and technician level vacancies.
GCSE grades matter!
Hard as it may be to hear this if you are about to sit GCSE exams this year - these exams really matter! Increasingly, universities are using GCSE grades to distinguish between candidates, and are specifying certain GCSE grades for their degree courses. So work hard this year and get the best grades you can!
If you don't achieve a minimum of a C grade in English and Maths, I would advise you to retake these subject(s) in Year 12 and Year 13, if necessary, until a C grade is achieved.
Make the most of your time in the 6th Form!
Whether it is employment or university that is of most interest at the end of the 6th form, chances of success will be enhanced if you can show that you have some work experience, especially if it is relevant. Quite often there will some time set aside during your studies to do this, but weekend or holiday jobs can be just as useful to show that you can manage your time, and that you're hard-working.
Voluntary work, scouts, charity fund-raising, orchestras/other musical groups, school council involvement etc - are ways that you can show your individuality and impress future employers and universities alike.
• Actively CHOOSE the Level 3 courses you plan to study, don't just "drift" into whatever is easiest, or accept the subjects that your parents/ teachers have chosen for you.
• Make sure that you have chosen the required subjects for your career/ degree interest. See www.ucas.com to look at entry requirements.
• Take advice about the subjects & courses that might best suit you. Speak to the staff in school and your Careers Adviser, either in school, by phone or online.
• Find out about all the courses that might interest you that are within travelling distance.
In England, look at: https://nationalcareersservice.direct.gov.uk/advice/courses/Pages/default.aspx
In Wales, look at: http://www2.careerswales.com/coursesinwales/default.asp
• Visit a number of 6th forms or colleges so that you can compare courses/ facilities/ ethos' etc. - they will all have Open Days, or can arrange individual visits.
• Apply in good time - many schools have application deadlines.