At its simplest, choosing your A Levels is a very personal choice and you should pick subjects that you are passionate about and will enjoy studying in depth for two years. This is only slightly complicated when applying for med school, make sure you do your research! University websites list their typical offers as well as compulsory subjects for you to take and this should be used to guide your choices.
Typically this is biology and/or chemistry which hopefully align with subjects you are interested in anyway as a prospective doctor. If you would rather not take one of these, most often I’ve heard prospective students complain about studying chemistry, this is something to factor into picking a university as you can match up the A Levels you want to take with a med school that will accept them.
This article is going to take you through the basics of picking your A Levels with the most common choices, the basic dos and don’ts and some insight of how they will help at med school.
Most universities will insist on either Biology and/or Chemistry as one or two of your A Levels. If only one of these is compulsory a second science subject (Physics, Maths, Biology or Chemistry) of your choosing is often required. The third subject is then left up to your discretion. Picking three sciences is then the safest and most common option to applying to any med school, if you are thinking of doing something different to this check university websites to make sure they will accept your application!
From my experience, getting in without Biology is very rare (even if the subject is not strictly compulsory) and understandably so! The vast majority of your course is comprised of human biology and while it is taught from scratch students without a Biology A Level can definitely expect to work a bit harder to gain that grounding, especially at the start, and to defend their choice in an interview. If Biology is not a subject that you enjoy it is worth considering whether you would enjoy a course and career in medicine.
Slightly less obviously, Chemistry is almost always compulsory for med school and applicants without it are rarely successful. From discussions with my tutor, they argue that though the Chemistry you need for a med degree is rarely above A Level standards it’s easier for a med school to teach the course with all Chemistry as assumed knowledge from A Levels rather than teaching it from scratch. This is especially important as most med school professors won’t specialise in chemistry. True or not, I’d think very carefully before dropping chemistry!
The final core subject, and often the only real choice for most med school applicants is whether to study Maths or Physics as a third subject. My advice here is to go with what you enjoy and think you are better at. Universities statistically don’t seem to mind (though as always it’s worth doing your own research when applying). From experience, both will prove useful, with statistics from maths forming a part of many med degrees, and physical knowledge of pressure and forces allowing a deeper understanding of physiology.
Third or Fourth Subject?
If you decide to only do two sciences and a different third subject, or with permission from your school you decide to go for four A Levels, a question I often hear is what will be the best choice? There is no clear answer here, however, as the sample sizes are small for university entrants who don’t do three sciences. For example, Oxford admissions statistics have shown that History, English Literature and Modern Languages have all proved relatively common as a non-science subject but with so few people getting in each year with these subjects it’s impossible to tell whether it’s just a common choice from applicants or seen as a positive by universities. Ultimately, I’d advise you to do a subject you enjoy as there’s nothing worse than picking an A Level and then wanting to drop it halfway through, especially as we don’t even get an AS Level after one year.
The EPQ is a tempting and can be common as it allows you some independence in really exploring a question that you are interested in. Even better, some med schools will offer a lower offer with an A in EPQ (for example, Sheffield Med School drops the offer from AAA to AAB with an EPQ). As such, this might be worth taking into account if you are doing an EPQ and trying to pick which university to apply to.
My advice with an EPQ is to try and pick a topic to explore that is medically related that you have a particular interest in. Often it proves to be a really valuable insight into university-style learning as well as a great topic of conversation in interviews!
What shouldn’t I do?
Finally, though I am not writing this article to discourage you from picking any subjects, it is worth being aware that some A Levels aren’t counted by universities! Check the websites before committing but broadly, General Studies, Citizenship Studies, Critical Thinking and Global Perspectives are ones to avoid.