Why is Post-16 Subject Choice Important?
Selective universities such as the University of Cambridge often require applicants to have qualifications in certain subjects, or combinations of subjects, because they prepare students more effectively for degree courses. The post-16 subject choices that students make therefore can have a major impact on 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.
This guidance is designed to support students and their teachers to identify the most useful post-16 subject combinations for their preferred degree options. 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 transparent and comprehensive advice that is helpful in the majority of cases.
In this short video, Lucy Cavendish College's Outreach Officer, Hayley, provides general advice to students choosing their post-16 subjects.
Further, specific advice for A-Levels, Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers, International Baccalaureate, APs and SATs, and the Irish Leaving Certificate is being developed, and will be found under relevant headings below. This guidance places information into four key categories:
Minimum subject requirements - Required A-Level subjects which students must have to apply and be considered for the course. If your school does not offer these subjects, we recommend getting in touch with our Admissions Team at email@example.com for further guidance.
Highly recommended subjects - The vast majority of successful applicants will have these subjects, and therefore students who do not have these subjects at A-Level may be at a disadvantage, especially in the most numerically competitive subjects. If your school does not offer these subjects, we recommend getting in touch with our Admissions Team at firstname.lastname@example.org for further guidance.
Useful subjects - Subjects that are not essential to a competitive application, but which applicants may find to be relevant and helpful throughout the admissions process and when studying the course.
Most competitive combinations - The subject combinations that the most competitive applicants generally present with.
In the document below you can find our guidance for A-Level combinations for Cambridge courses.
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 with 'just' three A-Levels.
There are only three subjects at Cambridge where four can be an advantage (although it is less essential for the latter two):
- Chemical Engineering & Biotechnology - Maths, Further Maths, Chemistry, Physics
- Computer Science - Maths, Further Maths, Computer Science, Physics
- Physical Natural Sciences - Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry
In the vast majority of applications, therefore, it conveys no advantage to study four subjects instead of three.
Indeed, in general, universities would rather students focussed on fewer subjects and achieved higher grades. Indeed, typical offers from Cambridge are based on students taking three A-Levels or equivalent together in Year 13 (Y14 - N.I.). In general, universities would rather students excel in three subjects than perform modestly in four.
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. This makes it more difficult to keep students’ options open, particularly to select combinations that would open up both Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences 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/Social Sciences and Science/Maths degrees open, they in practice reduce their options, particularly on the Science/Maths side.
There are some subjects that are generally less competitive as one of ‘only’ three A-Level choices for applications to Cambridge:
- Art & Design (unless applying for an art-related degree course, such as Architecture at Cambridge or Fine Art at Oxford)
- Drama and Theatre
- Film Studies
- Media Studies
- 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.
International Baccalaureate Guidance
In the document below you can find our guidance for IB HL combinations for Cambridge courses.
For any course where Mathematics is a requirement, IB applicants are expected to take IB Higher Level 'Analysis and Approaches'. If this option is not available at your school, we recommend getting in touch with our Admissions Team at email@example.com for further guidance.
There are some subjects that are generally less competitive as one of three Higher Level choices for applications to Cambridge:
- Visual Arts (unless applying for an art-related degree course, such as Architecture at Cambridge or Fine Art at Oxford)
- Business Management
- Sports, Exercise and Health Sciences
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 at Standard Level and alongside three academic subjects at Higher Level.
We hope the advice above is useful in helping students and their advisors to identify the most suitable A-Level subjects for the university courses in which they are interested. If you would like further, individual guidance, please do not hesitate to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Interested in learning more about applications?
Our prospective applicants page has resources to aid you in the application process