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Deciding what to do after your GCSEs can be a difficult task and with so many options available to students, it is often tricky to know what’s right for you. Our Further Education guide will explain all there is to know about life after GCSEs, with information on how to go about selecting your subjects, which qualifications are right for you and why further education is so important.
With increasing numbers of students applying to jobs and university each year, students are expected to gain qualifications beyond their GCSEs. If you want to be a doctor, a number-crunching accountant or a teacher, additional qualifications are essential to your land you a job in your dream career. Even if you’re not sure what you would like to do as a career or what course you would like to do at university or whether you even want to go on to university, qualifications like A-Levels, BTEC National Diplomas and the International Baccalaureate are a great foundation to then develop your future career.
So, what are A-Levels?
A-Levels are subject-specific courses which allow students to study a particular subject in greater depth. Split over two years, you can complete the first year of the course (AS) and still receive a qualification. If you go on to study it for the second year (A2), you then receive a full A-Level, also known as General Certificate of Education (GCE). Many students take four or five subjects at AS level and then drop one subject when they go on to A2. Most universities expect a minimum of 3 A-Levels, but you can do more. We suggest taking 3 – 4, and excelling, rather than taking on more.
Which subjects are on offer?
Most schools and colleges offer a range of A-Levels as they are a common route into university. Not only can you study your GCSE subjects such as English, Maths, History or French at A-Level, but you can also study a range of subjects which are not on offer, such as Psychology, Sociology, Economics and Politics. Try to keep an open mind when choosing your A-Levels - you never know what might take your fancy! It’s also a good idea to look at sixth form and college prospectuses and syllabuses to see what’s on offer.
How do I decide which subjects are right for me?
Choosing your A-Levels can be a tough decision. If you have a particular career path or degree course in mind, then it’s always good to start researching the A-Levels which will help you get into that field. One obvious example is Medicine, where students need to take Chemistry plus one other science (preferably Biology), plus a few more A-Levels to get into medical programmes in the UK. If you know exactly which profession or degree you are interested in, you can have a look at the UCAS website where you can view the A-Level requirements specific to your preferred course. Although many of you won’t know exactly what you want to do in the future, it’s still important to think about which industries / career paths most appeal to you and try and match your subjects to that area. If you think you might be interested in working within the financial sector, do some research and learn about the different jobs available and what qualifications they require. You can then match your A-Levels to best-suit that particular sector.
Ultimately, choosing subjects which you enjoy and that you’re good at is by far the most crucial factor when selecting your A-Levels – there is nothing worse than studying a subject you hate and that you don’t perform well in! This is why it is imperative to research your subjects by looking at college prospectuses and reading about the course structure, the topics you will cover, the assessment procedures, any fieldtrips or courses you go on, etc. Speak to students in the years above you to find out what they think about the subjects, how the course is different / similar to GCSEs, etc. Some students enrol onto a course which they haven’t researched thoroughly and find that it’s very different to what they expected, so make sure you do your homework!
Traditional vs soft subjects
Securing a place at university is increasingly competitive and some universities are starting to focus more on the type of A-Levels you study. Universities such as Cambridge, Imperial College London, UCL and St Andrews have created a list of subjects that they consider to be ‘soft’ subjects which they believe do not prepare students for their degrees. They will only admit students who have studied ‘traditional’ subjects such as English, Maths, Physics and History. If you are thinking of applying to top universities and if you are achieving As and Bs we strongly suggest visiting the university’s website to view the entry requirements so you can make the right subject choice – you wouldn’t want to select a subject which eliminates you from being offered a place at your first choice university.
Some tips for choosing your subjects:
- Don’t choose subjects based on what your friends are doing. If you’re studying a subject you enjoy, it won’t matter if you’re studying it on your own, or with your friends.
- Choosing a subject because your parents want you to study it is not a good idea. If you’re parents want to you to become a doctor and you have no interest in the profession, then it’s not worth spending the next few years studying something you hate. Sit down, talk to them about your options and explain your decision – they will respect you and your decision that much more if you go to them with a well-researched alternative.
- Don’t select a subject because you like the teacher – you will find that teachers either change roles or they stop teaching a particular subject, or they end up leaving the school altogether. We do however suggest talking to your teachers about your choices as they have had years of experience with helping students in your position. Maybe talk to head of department about the course – it shows initiative and it’s also a great way to gather information about the subject.
- You might end up changing your mind once you get your GCSE results so remember to have a Plan B in place just in case you don’t get the grades you expect.
- Some subjects are predominately exam based which means heavy workloads during January and May / June, whilst other subjects have a lot of coursework, and practical tests throughout the year. Take into consideration the workload of each course to ensure you aren’t over-worked.
What other options are there?
A-Levels aren’t for everyone, which is why there are several options available to students after their GCSEs.
The BTEC National Diploma
BTECs are just one of many qualifications which combine practical learning with academic studies. If you are selecting a course such as Art & Design, IT & Computing or Construction, then A-Levels might not offer you the best route into your desired profession. BTEC National Diplomas are very hands-on and coursework-based qualifications, so they are a great alternative for students who do better in coursework and practical tests then exams. There is a broad range of subjects on offer – anything from Applied Sciences, Dental Technology, Mechanical Engineering, to Music. The BTEC is a great stepping stone for students where you can go onto university or straight into a job as your qualification is recognised by employers across the UK.
The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma
The IB is another example of an alternative qualification which offers students the flexibility of going to university or into a job. Taught over two years, the IB allows students to take 6 subjects from 6 areas (language, maths, arts, science, etc.) ensuring students are taught a range of skills. The IB is only taught at some sixth form schools and colleges so you can research your local IB institute on the following website: www.ibo.org. The IB is particularly worth considering if you are interested in applying to international universities as it is highly regarded by leading international universities.
It is crucial you do your research and find out as much as you can about your post 16 course, the school or college you will be studying at, and where your qualifications can lead you in the future, whether that’s going to university or finding a job.