There are three stages to education in the UK before going to university– primary, secondary, and further education. These correspond to typical primary, middle, and high schools in other countries (they are just called differently in the UK).
High school in the UK is called a college or a Sixth Form. Students who are 16-18 years old attend a college for two years and work towards their final exams at the end of the second year. Then the outcomes of those exams determine which university students will go to.
The program that students take in those two years is called an A-level program where “A” stands for “advanced”. It is designed to provide students with a holistic view on the subject and equip them with the skills necessary for independent and team work at university.
At the end of the two-year program, students take exams which are simply called “A level exams”.
A-level program offers a variety of subjects including more conventional Mathematics, Sciences, and Humanities, as well as more skill-based subjects such as Business, Creative Writing, Design and Technology, Economics, and many more.
The grading system for A-levels is the following: A* is the highest grade that a student can get, then goes B,C,D, and E is the lowest grade to pass the exam.
Which A levels to choose
Usually, students need three A level subjects for a degree program. This means that a student needs to have a general idea of the field they want to study at university pretty early on. Students entering college are free to choose which subjects to take but they must consider university courses first.
If a student is taking A-levels, universities have criteria in terms of which A levels they want you to take for each specific course. This also means that if you do A levels in Maths, Physics, and Chemistry but the degree you are considering requires English A-level, you can’t apply for that degree.
How to choose A levels
- Think of which subjects you excelled the most during your middle school. It is easier to do A levels in the subjects that you have already studied and have a solid background in. But it is also possible to take news ones.
- Narrow down the field of studies you want to receive a degree in. It doesn’t need to be very specific at this stage. So it could be just “Chemistry” rather than “Organic chemistry” or “Biology” rather than “Botany”.
- Visit a few university websites and see the criteria for your degree. Most universities will have the same A-level requirements for the same degree meaning you will have many universities to choose from.
- If different universities have different A-level requirements for the same degree, choose A-levels based on other criteria such as the chances of getting into a university, university preferences, and your preference of the A level subject.
Universities put degree-specific criteria in this format: Biochemistry – “AAA* in Maths and two other sciences”. This means that you have to take A level in Maths but you can choose which two science to take. And your overall grades should be AAA* in total, irrespectively of the subject.
Another option could be like this: “Computer Science – BBC with B in ICT, B in Further Maths, and C in Physics”.
For each subject, A level exam consists of three papers approximately two hours long each. Exams take place in late May and all the way till the end of June. There is usually a one-week gap between papers so that you have time to revise.
Since you take three or more A levels, you will have three or more exams a week. They will take place in an exam room in your college.
Once the exams are over, you will wait till August 15 which is when examiners release the grades. Depending on percentages and how well did all the students, grade boundaries will be different for each subject.
For example, it can be that for an A in Chemistry you need 60% whereas in Maths A starts at 76%. Once you know your results, you can make arrangements for the university. If you meet all the criteria for the university of your first choice – congratulations! If not – don’t worry, you can choose other universities with lower entry requirements.