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Preferred Subjects

Year 12

There is much discussion about whether certain subjects are ‘preferred’ over others and will give you a better chance of gaining a university place. The Russell Group of 24 leading Universities published a booklet called Informed choices in 2011 and recently updated it in Dec 2013. This is their guide to making choices post 16 education.

The Informed choices booklet lists ‘facilitating subjects’. These are those subjects required by universities more often than others. They tend to be more academically rigorous. However a number of members within the higher education community, including the Arts Council, Design Council, Crafts Council and Sector Skills Councils are critical of the list of facilitating subjects. The later may be correct and absolutely right to defend their subject areas, however they are not doing the recruiting!

The Informed Choices booklet states:

“Although they may not be specified as required subjects, many successful applicants to many courses do have advanced level qualifications in at least two of the facilitating subjects”

“If you decide not to choose one or more of the facilitating subjects at advanced level, many degrees at competitive universities will not be open to you”.

This advice is particularly applicable to those students who are perhaps undecided about what degree course they wish to pursue and need to keep their options open.

A number of leading universities either specify the subjects they prefer or provide a list of those that are not preferred. Examples are listed below.

Unless you feel strongly about non-preferred subjects, or they are in the area that you wish to further your studies, you should consider limiting your choice to one of these. Certainly you should not take more than one of them if you are aiming for a competitive course at a leading university. Many universities are not particularly explicit in this area. However students with 3 or 4 ‘facilitating’ subjects will no doubt be looked on more favourably in comparison with students offering non preferred subjects if the competition for admission is very tight.

The University of Cambridge (Trinity) lists A Levels only suitable as a 4th subject, namely:

  • Accounting
  • Applied Science
  • Citizenship
  • Communication studies
  • Critical Thinking
  • Dance
  • Environmental Studies
  • General Studies
  • Health and social care
  • Home economics
  • Information and communication technology
  • Leisure studies
  • Music technology
  • Performance studies
  • Performing arts
  • Photography
  • Physical education
  • Science
  • Sports science
  • Travel and tourism
  • World Development

Sheffield University also publish a list that includes the above as well as Applied Business, Art & Design, Creative Writing, Electronics, Engineering, Film Studies, Media Studies. They state that these subjects primarily develop practical and/or applied learning and need to be combined with subjects from the ‘acceptable list’.

The London School of Economics (LSE) specialise in courses in accounting, finance, economics, international relations, politics, law, management and English. Their list of “non-preferred” subjects is:

  • Accounting
  • Art and Design
  • Business Studies
  • Communication Studies
  • Design and Technology
  • Drama/Theatre Studies
  • Home Economics
  • Information and Communication Technology
  • Law
  • Media Studies
  • Music Technology
  • Sports Studies
  • Travel and Tourism

As you can see, they are very similar to those defined by Cambridge. These are just a few examples and you should check the university website of your choice to see what they specify. It also depends what subject you wish to study. Bath for example talks about preferring ‘traditional A levels’.

It is claimed that Oxford, Imperial College, University College London, Bristol, Durham and St Andrews admit the fewest students with non-traditional A levels. For example Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Further Maths, and Physics make up almost half of accepted A levels at Bristol and UCL.

Many universities are also opposed to “professional” A levels – such as law and accounting. Many dons say they lack rigour. In 2011, just two out of 738 law entries at Queen’s University Belfast took a law A-level. Only six law students took it at UCL and 18 at Durham.

These comments relate however, to The Russell Group of universities. Others tend to be more accommodating.

Critical Thinking and/or General Studies are usually better taken only as an ‘extra’, rather than as one of the advanced level subjects on which your university application will be relying. Most universities will not count these subjects in terms of their basic entry requirements.

Limited research was recently conducted by LKMco on whether entry to The Russell Group of Universities was genuinely helped by taking the facilitating subjects. They found that taking three of them was not always necessary. Other subjects such as Economics, Religious Studies, Computing, D&T, PE and Government & Politics were just as facilitating for some courses. They also found Drama helped students get into law and psychology into medicine. They found that sociology, accounting and media studies were regularly at the bottom of their lists. English Language also never scored very highly. The subjects changed however depending on the courses applied which would make sense. Unfortunately they did not know the numbers or combinations of subjects that students took, so their research needs to be read with caution


The Informed Choices booklet, also states that

“There are some advanced level subjects which provide suitable preparation for entry to university generally, but which are not included within the facilitating subjects, because there are relatively few degree programmes where an advanced level qualification in these subjects would be a requirement for entry. Examples of such subjects include Economics, Religious Studies and Welsh.”

Check HERE for the different subjects required for different degree courses.

The facilitating subjects are:

  • Mathematics and Further Mathematics
  • English (Literature)
  • Physics
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Geography
  • History
  • Languages (Classical and Modern)

The guide, revealed an overwhelming preference for science and mathematical subjects, even for seemingly unrelated degrees.

Be aware however that if you wish to study music or art at university, advanced level qualifications in music or art are usually required.

Cambridge University lists the following preferred subjects for an arts or social sciences degree: English Literature, History, Languages or Maths, combined with Economics, Further Maths, Geography, Philosophy, Religious Studies and Sciences (Biology, chemistry, Physics). Other ‘possible’ subject choices include Archaeology, Citizenship, English Language, Environmental Science, Government & Politics, History of Art, Music, Psychology or Sociology.

If you are interested in studying a science course, they advise you to take at least two and ideally three of Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Physics. Other possible subject choices include Further Maths, Computing, Design & Technology, Electronics and Psychology.

Cambridge University (specifically Trinity College) has defined a list of subjects only suitable as a 4th subject. They claim that these easier subjects fail to provide “adequate preparation” for the academic rigour of university life

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