Guide to elite entry warns against ‘soft’ A levels

The Russell Group of large research-intensive universities has for the first time published a guide with advice on what A levels its institutions favour, suggesting that students should avoid more than one “soft” subject.

February 4, 2011

The booklet, titled Informed Choices, sets out a list of “facilitating subjects” including mathematics and English that it says will give students the “most options” when applying to university, as well as examples of what are considered softer options, such as media studies and photography.

It asks those not studying the facilitating subjects to think through their decisions carefully and questions whether they are “trying to avoid a challenge”.

The guide, produced in conjunction with the Institute of Career Guidance, goes on to state: “Generally speaking, students who take one ‘soft’ subject as part of a wider portfolio of subjects do not experience any problems applying to a Russell Group university.”

But it also warns: “If you plan to take more than one perceived ‘soft’ subject, some caution may be needed…If you are not sure of what to study at university, why not think about your two favourite subjects from the facilitating subjects list?”

Other A-level disciplines on the list include the three pure sciences, geography, history and a classical or modern language.

The booklet makes public what many schools and career advisers have known for years about which subjects students should study at A level to gain the best chance of entry to Russell Group institutions, including the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

However, its publications may be seen as an attempt to tackle the shortage of students from poorer backgrounds by giving them and their schools explicit advice on what subjects they should be taking.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, which campaigns for greater social mobility, said of the guide: “Subject choice during the sixth-form years is one of the key decisions teenagers make in their lives – determining their future university and life prospects.

“We welcome this new guide and hope that it will help bright non-privileged students in particular, who all too often do not receive the support and guidance they need at this key juncture in their lives.”

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: “It is really important that students do not disadvantage themselves by choosing a combination of subjects at A level which will not equip them with the appropriate skills and knowledge for their university course or which may not demonstrate effectively their aptitude for a particular subject.

“In Informed Choices we’ve tried to make it clear which information is particularly important to note when making subject choices. It should be emphasised, however, that the guide should be used in conjunction with – and not as a substitute for – more detailed information published by individual universities.”

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