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Our subject choice guidance

The choices students make at the start of their post-16 education can have a significant impact upon their options at degree level.  Recent research has reiterated this, with as many as one in five students reporting that they were unable to study their preferred degree subjects because they had chosen the wrong A Levels, and two in five reporting that they would have chosen different subjects had they received better advice.

At Lucy Cavendish College, we want to support students and their teachers to identify the most useful A Level (or equivalent) combinations for their preferred degree options.  The guidance below is written to that purpose.  Please note that it is not intended to suggest that there are compulsory combinations that must be studied, or that it is impossible to receive an offer with alternative combinations.  Rather, it is intended to provide clear, unambiguous advice that is helpful in the majority of cases.  Students should consider this alongside their own preferences and the subjects in which they attain the highest grades.

Please see below for guidance that relates largely to A-level subject choice. We aim to release more comprehensive guidance on International Baccalaureate (IB) and Scottish qualifications soon. We are also developing a separate page for students offering international qualifications.

General Guidance

According to recent data, less than five percent of UK students now take four or more A Levels.  University entry requirements have adapted accordingly and it is now possible to put in a very competitive application to all subjects on the basis of just three A Levels.  There are only three subjects at Cambridge where four can be an advantage – Chemical Engineering, Computer Science and Physical Natural Sciences (although it is less essential for the latter two).  In the vast majority of applications, therefore, it conveys no advantage to be studying four subjects instead of three.  Indeed, in general, universities would rather students focussed on fewer subjects and achieved higher grades.  However, it is essential to ensure that students taking three select a competitive combination of subjects and that there are not one or more which are ‘out of place’ within this.  Student should therefore consider which subjects they enjoy, which ones represent their academic strengths and which ones form a solid and relevant academic foundation for the course they wish to study at university.  This makes it more difficult to keep students’ options open, particularly to select combinations that would open up both arts/humanities and science/maths degrees.  Our advice to students applying to the most competitive universities is that it is in their interests to work out which of these broad fields they wish to follow prior to selecting their A Levels and to choose their subjects accordingly.  In our experience, when students seek to be able to keep both arts/humanities and sciences/maths open, they in practice reduce their options, particularly on the sciences/maths side.

If students feel their interests are drawing them towards a degree in this area, they would be well advised to pick from a range of academic, essay-based subjects in the first instance.  They may also wish to add in one or more science or mathematics subjects if they are skilled at these subjects, too.  This will not harm their application to an arts, humanities or social sciences course as long as it is not instead of a crucial, relevant subject.  Indeed, it may even strengthen it – subjects such as languages, Law or Philosophy, for instance, strongly regard the thinking skills gained by studying Mathematics, whilst others, such as Archaeology or Anthropology, benefit from a knowledge of sciences like Biology.  If a student is talented at Mathematics in particular, this will never be detrimental to an application.  Beyond that, any academic subjects which build relevant skills and knowledge will be beneficial

Broadly speaking, degrees in these subject areas tend to be more numerically competitive, so it is advisable to use A Level choices to consolidate students’ knowledge and skills and to form the most appropriate academic foundation possible.  We would advise any student interested in a science or mathematics degree at a competitive university to be taking at least three science and mathematics A Levels (i.e. three from Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics).  It is definitely possible to secure an offer with just two, but it is less likely, certainly at Oxbridge.  Above all, this is about seeking to present as competitive an application as possible and we find that students who study more science and mathematics at A Level tend to do better in the admissions process that those who do not.  Furthermore, for students interested in the physical sciences – physics, engineering, computer science, etc. – and mathematics itself, or related disciplines, we would also strongly recommend Further Mathematics.  It is compulsory for Mathematics at Cambridge.

Regardless of which academic field students are interested in, we would always advise taking one or more strong, academic subjects as a foundation for students’ A Levels.  We call these subjects ‘keystones’.  They are as follows:

Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences ‘Keystones’

English  Literature 

 History

Mathematics 

 Languages

Sciences and Mathematics ‘Keystones’

Biology

Chemistry   

 Mathematics  

 Physics

We would recommend at least one of these, plus two or more additional, relevant, academic subjects as the foundation for every student’s choices.

There are some subjects which are generally less competitive as one of ‘only’ three A Level choices for applications to Oxbridge.  These are Art & Design (unless applying for an art-related degree course, such as Architecture at Cambridge or Fine Art at Oxford), Business, Criminology, Drama and Theatre (unless applying for related courses, such as the English, Drama and the Arts track in Cambridge’s Education degree), Film Studies, Law, Media Studies, Photography and Physical Education.  We would also advise against any Vocational Level 3 courses as part of ‘only’ three choices – these do not meet the Oxbridge entry requirements.  Students wishing to take one of these subjects and apply to Oxbridge or the most competitive Russell Group universities would be well advised to do so alongside three academic A Levels, rather than as one of three.

Cambridge Course-Specific Guidance

All Cambridge courses

Please see here for our full guidance on A-level combinations for all Cambridge course.

Applying for Competitive Subjects at Cambridge

On average across all subjects, Cambridge receives roughly five applicants per place available.  However, there are certain courses that receive a much higher number of applicants per place, or are particularly competitive given the high quality of the applications received.  Students applying for these courses often ask how they can ‘stand out’.  One way to do so is to ensure that your subject combination in your post-16 qualifications provides as appropriate and solid a foundation as possible for your preferred course.  The information below suggests ways to do this.  It is not intended to be prescriptive and there are always alternative combinations which may also be appropriate – prospective applicants should get in touch with us if they want to discuss their options before or after making their choices.  However, we hope that in the majority of cases it will be a helpful guide.

Please see here for the full guide for competitive subjects.

Getting Support

We hope the advice above is useful in helping students and their advisors to identify the most suitable A Level subjects that will enable them to make the most competitive applications for the university courses in which they are interested.  If you would like further, individual guidance, please do not hesitate to email us at admissions@lucy.cam.ac.uk or outreach@lucy.cam.ac.uk or to book in to one of our regular, online admissions clinics. Take look at our visits and events page to book on.

Webinar Series: Subject Matters

For detailed advice on subject choice and the opportunity to talk with our admissions team, attend our next subject matters webinar