Students warned to choose A-level subjects carefully ahead of university

Some students may be putting themselves at a disadvantage when applying to university by studying A-level subjects that they think will help them in their career, according to research.

Students sitting an exam
Students sitting an exam

A new study suggests youngsters who want to work in industries such as law, accounting or business may take A-levels in these subjects in the belief that this will help them reach their goal.

But instead, taking these courses could hinder their chances of winning a place at a prestigious university, and they would be better off studying traditional academic subjects such as maths, science or history.

Catherine Dilnot, of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at UCL's Institute of Education, used information on nearly 475,000 English students who went to UK universities with three A-levels in 2010, 2011 and 2012, examining the subjects they studied and the universities they attended.

The findings show that students taking A-levels in subjects such as law, accounting and business were less likely to attend a highly selective institution, those with high entry requirements, than those who had studied subjects such as science, maths or languages.

The Russell Group, which represents 24 leading universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, publishes information on the "facilitating subjects" that are often preferred, or required more often, by these institutions

Subjects on this list include English, maths, science, languages and history.

The study concludes that for accounting, business and law degree courses, studying more "facilitating subjects" at A-level was linked with attending a university that scored higher on league tables.

It also suggests that in some cases, studying a particular subject at A-level can be unhelpful. For example, law students were more likely to be at institutions that scored lower on university rankings if they took A-level law, rather than a more traditional academic subject.

"Students taking it (law A-level), of whom much the highest proportions are at sixth-form and further education colleges, are apparently not putting themselves at the advantage that they might reasonably have expected.

"Before dismissing law (or indeed any other A-level) as potentially unhelpful for university entry, it is important to consider both the aspirations of students taking it, and the context of their other subjects.

"Students may be unconcerned about the ranking of university they attend.

"But given that 42% of those reading law with at least three A-levels have law A-level, it is likely some students will have taken it to aid them get into a high-ranking university, and the results described here are likely to be counter-intuitive for these students."

Ms Dilnot said: "A student who aspires to a career in a professional services firm might easily think that taking an A-level in law, accounting or business would be helpful in achieving that goal.

"But it may be that choosing these subjects is actually unhelpful in high status university admission.

"So an apparently sensible subject choice for students wishing to prepare for a professional career may, in fact, put them at a disadvantage."

Jessica Cole, head of policy at the Russell Group, said: "It is vital that students have the information and advice they need when making their choices at A-level.

"Choosing 'facilitating subjects' allows students to keep their options open, meaning they have a wider choice of degree courses. Our advice is that if students don't know what they want to study at university then it's a really good rule of thumb that taking two 'facilitating subjects' will keep a wide range of degree courses open.

"Students who aren't sure which subjects they need to take for a specific course should be able find information in university prospectuses, or they can speak to the university directly who will be able to help them."