Choosing A-level subjects: what do universities want?

Dear Oracle

I'm currently at secondary school deciding which subjects to take for my A levels. I'm hoping to join the legal profession in the future, so I want to choose subjects that will impress recruiters as well as admissions tutors. What should I pick to give me the edge?

The Oracle replies

The first thing to say is that, surprisingly enough, it is not necessary to study law at A level. In fact, it would probably be wise not to include law in your choices if you want to apply to competitive universities. This is because no competitive universities list A-level law as a requirement, even for those wanting to start a law degree, so making this one of your choices will not improve you as a candidate in the eyes of admissions tutors.

The best subjects from a university admissions perspective are known as 'facilitating subjects' because so many universities and degree programmes list them among their 'required' A levels. This means that choosing facilitating subjects keeps your options open and enables you to choose from many different universities and degree courses. Examples of facilitating subjects include English, maths, the sciences, languages (modern or classical), history and geography. These are the more traditional, rigorously academic subjects - widely respected qualifications which will give you the opportunity to learn vital core skills that you can use in a large number of different careers. If you are interested in a potential career in a highly academic profession such as law, it is a good idea to study at least one facilitating subject at A level. Some universities may specify A-level subjects they require (for example, English Literature) while others look for a broad spread of subjects, so it’s worth checking for each university you are interested in applying to.

There are also many other rigorous and respected subjects to choose from which do not fall into the 'facilitating' category because not many university courses specifically require them. This gives you a bit of wiggle room to choose a subject such as religious studies/philosophy or music, if that is one of your interests.

Of course you should never choose subjects just to impress admissions tutors. People do much better in subjects that they are actually interested in, so it’s important to pursue A levels which you think you will enjoy. And if law is something which appeals to you, you will probably be reasonably interested in the academic side of education anyway. Don’t forget that A level is about studying interesting subjects and developing key skills - specialist legal training comes later.

Another point to note is the importance of achieving good grades at A level. Law is an intellectually demanding career and as such there are usually very high minimum academic requirements for training contract and pupillage applications - you should really be aiming for As and Bs. Opting for subjects that you enjoy and excel in will give you the best chance of passing with flying colours. This also means that it is far preferable to get As and Bs in three subjects then Bs and Cs in four, so don't give yourself too much to handle - although if you can study four subjects without your performance and enjoyment suffering, then you're a better student than the Oracle and good on you!

Finally, it's great that you are thinking about your career at such an early stage. You've got a head start over some of the competition, so take full advantage - start now with your research into the profession and try to gain some work experience in law firms and/or sets of chambers. To help start off your research, read our Beginner's Guide to a Career in Law.

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