[32] Helping your child to choose their A levels

how to choose a levelsIf your child is currently going through the process of choosing their A Level subjects they might be agonising over the different options. They want to keep their options open and do what they enjoy at the same time. In this week's episode of The School Success Formula I'm going to give you some pointers on how they should choose their A Levels.

How to choose A Levels

What do they want to do after school?

If your child has very specific goals or ambitions about what they want to do when they leave school doing some simple research will give a strong indication about the types of subjects your child should be choosing to study at A Level.

For example, if your child wants to become a doctor and study medicine, you will find that the vast majority of medical schools require your child to have an A Level in chemistry, whereas biology is not necessarily a requirement. If your child wants to study computer science, A Levels in maths, physics and computer science will be a huge advantage.

If your child has a specific ambition like this, the first thing you should do is look up the entry requirements for at least five university courses, or see what employers are looking for if your child is aiming to go straight into employment from school, to give you an idea of whether they're following the right path with their A Level subjects.

What do they enjoy?

People need to be motivated in order to learn effectively. And there is no greater motivation than taking true enjoyment in a subject and genuinely having questions you want to answer through the study of it. I talk about motivation in the first chapter of my book, The Ten Step Guide to Acing Every Exam You Ever Takebut most of that chapter is dedicated to external motivations – things like the long-term ambitions that mean your child needs to do well in their exams. However, there is nothing better than being internally motivated to study because of a sheer love of a subject.

Get your child to write down all of the subjects they enjoy and what they would hope to get out of studying that subject at a higher level.

For example, I chose to study chemistry A Level because, at the time, I was fascinated by colour. I wanted to know what colour was. I got my answer through a combination of understanding the physics of the electromagnetic spectrum and the chemistry of how different coloured materials are made.

What are they good at?

A Level study is a big jump from the demands of GCSE which a lot of students struggle with. (See this podcast interview with Martin Griffin, co-author of The A Level Mindset, on successfully stepping up to the sixth form, and this blog post on how to successfully transition from GCSE to A Level).

It can really help to make a smoother and more successful transition if you child is good at the subjects they choose. Of course, if they employ a growth mindset, it is possible to study subjects that aren't their natural forte. But, my question would be, why would you battle with your weaknesses and play against your natural strengths when you don't have to?

Why battle with your weaknesses and play against your natural strengths when you don't have to? Share on X

A couple of years ago I read the book, The Big Leap, by Gay Hendricks. In the book he talks about every one of us having a ‘genius zone'. Your genius zone is where your greatest passion meets your greatest talent. Your genius zone is unique to you, and the more you operate within your genius zone, the more satisfaction you will get from life and the more you will be able to give back to the world.

Choosing A Levels is really the first proper chance a young person has in their life to exercise any real choice over what they study. I would always advise doing the things they are naturally best at to both a) make their life easier (isn't life hard enough already?) and b) so they have a greater chance, eventually, of giving something back to the world through exercising their talents? Choose subjects that are in their genius zone, wherever possible.

Are their A Level choices compatible with each other?

Certain A Level subjects go better together than others, leading to more natural career choices and more synergy in studying them. Three of my own A Levels were biology, chemistry and geography and I found that several areas of these subjects overlapped with each other. For example:

  • The carbon and nitrogen cycles were taught in all three subjects.
  • I learned about eutrophication in both geography and biology and my understanding of chemistry made it easier for me to understand.
  • Photosynthesis was studied in all three subjects in different ways.
  • In chemistry, I learned about atmospheric chemistry which enabled me to write about the depletion of the ozone layer and climate change with more authority in geography.

Other subject combinations that have this natural synergy and compatability are:

  • English literature, sociology and history – because of the emphasis that English has on the historical and social contexts of the texts studied and the fact that sociology helps us look through the world through certain paradigms or ideologies such as marxism, feminism and post-modernism which are also used in the study of literature.
  • Maths, physics, computer science and chemistry – much of the maths is studied across these four subjects, but applied in different ways.
  • Sociology and psychology – they are different ways of looking at the human condition.
  • Economics, history and geography – they frame looking at many of the same issues through difference lenses.
  • Economics and maths – maths is almost essential for the further study of economics.
  • Languages and history / English – languages enable students to access other cultures and sources in history and give students an insight into the etymology of the English language.

This is just a start – there are other subject combinations that would work well together. Talk to your child's teachers about where they find natural synergies lie that would appeal to your child's strengths and natural interests.

Unusual subject combinations

Sometimes students choose unusual subject combinations because those are the things they are good at and enjoy the most. Don't immediately put a stop to this, do some further research about where these combinations might go.

For example, one of my clients chose to do A Levels in maths, English literature, physics and art. On the surface this was a slightly kooky set of choices, but she'd done her research and found that this was an ideal combination for the degree course she wished to study: physics and philosophy.

If your child announces they want to study something like chemistry, textiles and history don't be too alarmed. This might lead to an amazing and fascinating career in the conservation of historical costumes. Try to look at the possibilities that might arise from their choices.

Don't hurry choices

Even though school or your child's sixth form might have given a deadline for you to finalise their choices, don't take this overly seriously. Most schools will let your child alter their choices on the back of their GCSE results. (I did this myself, switching from textiles to geography after I got an A* in geography GCSE and an A in textiles). They will also generally allow students to switch options once they've had a short taste of the courses at the beginning of year 12. (Again, I did this myself, switching from physics to English literature after physics totally bamboozled me in the first three weeks).

The best thing you can do is give school the most accurate idea of what you child wants to study at A Level at this point in time so that they can plan their timetable and staffing for next year, but check with them in what ways they might be able to flex after GCSE results a short taster of the courses at the beginning of year 12.

What you study shapes your life

One of the questions I most like to ask people I've just met is what they studied at university.


It's because what they studied shaped the way they think and look at the world.

I look at the world as a geographer. Recently, when it snowed and then the snow turned to ice I noticed something interesting in my village. Where there was a brick wall next to the pavement there was ice on the pavement. On the same side of the road, where there was grass next to the pavement and then a wall the pavement had defrosted. From my geographical training I knew this was down to micro-climates developing because of the absence and presence of walls. When I pointed this out to one of the other mums in the village she said ‘No-one else would have noticed that, Lucy.'

My husband is a mathematician and I describe him frequently as being ‘relentlessly logical'. It's down to his academic traning. My mum studied literature and she sees the poetry in everything as well as all the literary references.

Why am I telling you all this? It's so that you are aware that the subjects that your child chooses to study will shape them and their minds for the rest of their lives. Be ready it for!

Head or heart?

At the end of the day, I would advise going with the heart over the head when making these choices. Passion and natural aptitude will go so much further in getting excellent results than the thought of a ‘nice, comfortable, safe career'. I've written about this before in my post / video about choosing what to study at university.

Over to you…

I hope you've found this episode of The School Success Formula useful. If you've got any questions or comments I'd love to hear them in the comments section below, in my Facebook group for parents, or on Twitter (you'll find me @LucyCParsons).

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Useful links

My book, The Ten Step Guide to Acing Every Exam You Ever Take.

Ten Steps to Exam Success download.

Supportive Parents, Successful Students facebook group

Lucy on twitter: @LucyCParsons

Contact Lucy by email: lucy@lifemoreextraordinary.com

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