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Undergraduate Study


Are you a student in Year 10 or Year 11 considering university, and could do with advice on which subjects to study at sixth form or college?

The A Level (or equivalent) subjects you choose can often have an impact on what you’re able to study at university. Selective universities, such as Cambridge, often consider not only individual subjects but also the combination of subjects you’re studying, and whether they will effectively prepare you for your chosen course.

We've provided some advice below on useful subject combinations to help ensure you don't limit your course options. While we hope you find the advice helpful, this is by no means intended to be prescriptive.

If you have any queries, or you would like to discuss your options before or after making your choices, please get in touch with the Cambridge Admissions Office or one of our College admissions offices.

Please note that whilst this information refers largely to A Level subject choice, the advice for equivalent qualifications is broadly similar. See Entrance Requirements for further guidance.

I know which degree course I want to study

If you’ve already decided on a degree course you’d like to study, take a look at the course information on our website and on the websites of other universities you’re considering. Try to do this before you finalise your A Level choices to make sure your subjects are appropriate.

It’s also worth noting the entry requirements at this stage, so you know what grades you need to work towards.

I want to do a degree in Arts, Social Science or Humanities

If your interests are in Arts, Social Science or Humanities but you’re not sure exactly what degree you want to study, we’d recommend considering: English Literature, History, languages and Mathematics. Choosing at least one of these, if not more, can provide a good foundation for Arts, Social Science and Humanities applications.

Other good choices to combine with these subjects include an additional language, Ancient History, Classical Civilisation, Economics, English Language, Further Mathematics, Geography, Politics, History of Art, Law, Music, Philosophy, Psychology, Religious Studies, a science subject (Biology, Chemistry or Physics) or Sociology.

For many degrees in Arts, Social Science or Humanities it is extremely important to have an essay based subject. It may therefore seem counter-intuitive to pick a Maths or Science A Level but these can actually strengthen an application, as long as it is not replacing a crucial relevant subject and these are subjects you are talented at, these can actually strengthen an application. Many subjects, such as Law or languages, really value the skills gained from a Mathematics A Level. Others, like Archaeology or Anthropology, benefit from a knowledge of sciences - for example Biology.

I want to do a degree in Maths or Science

If you think you’d like to study a Science or Mathematics course at university but you’re not sure which one, we’d advise you to take at least two, and ideally three, of Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Further Mathematics and Physics.

Science and Mathematics courses tend to be extremely competitive, and applicants who have more relevant A Level subjects (three or more) tend to do better in our admissions process.

If you're planning to study Chemical Engineering, Biological Sciences or Medical Sciences you should take Chemistry. For Physical Sciences or Engineering you should take A Level Mathematics and Physics and ideally Further Mathematics. You can find more advice about Further Mathematics below. Other subjects – for instance Computer Science, Electronics or Psychology – may be useful preparation for some Science courses. If you are contemplating any of these subjects we would recommend checking entry requirements for the courses you are considering.

I want to keep my options open

We often encounter students who have taken a mixture of Arts and Science subjects in the belief that it will help them to keep their options open. While such a subject combination does provide suitable preparation for many Arts and Social Science courses at university, it can make you a less competitive applicant for Science courses. Almost all successful applicants for our Science courses have three or even four Science or Mathematics A Levels.

There are certain A Level subjects that are essential for a number of courses at Cambridge and choosing one or more of these can help keep your options open. These subjects include: a language, Chemistry, History, English, Mathematics and Physics. Other subjects that also facilitate course choice at Cambridge include Biology and Further Mathematics.

We would advise students who want to apply to the most competitive universities to decide whether their interests lie predominantly in the Arts or the Sciences and choose their subjects accordingly.

Should I take three or four A Levels?

It is becoming increasingly rare for students to take four A Levels, which means that most universities, including Cambridge, base their typical offers on three A Levels. We’d rather applicants develop broader and deeper knowledge of the subjects most relevant/closest to their chosen course than accumulate additional A Levels. It is also important to ensure that the three subjects chosen complement each other and combine to form a competitive combination.

If you choose to take four subjects, you won't normally be at an advantage compared with applicants taking three, although competitive applicants for some STEM courses often have Further Mathematics as a fourth subject. This is particularly pertinent to Engineering, Economics, Chemical Engineering, Computer Science and Physical Natural Sciences, although it is not essential.

I'm unable to take Further Mathematics at my school/college

We are aware that not every school offers Further Mathematics, however for students in England the Further Mathematics Support Programme offers the opportunity to study Further Mathematics even if it’s not offered by your school or college.

If you're interested in studying Mathematics at Cambridge, it is compulsory to study Further Mathematics. We would also strongly recommend it for some other courses, such as Physical Sciences (Physics, Engineering, Computer Science) and it can be useful for subjects like Economics or Chemical Engineering. Please note it is compulsory to study Mathematics A Level in order to study Economics at Cambridge.

Are there any subjects I shouldn't be taking?

There are, of course, many other A Level subjects that we haven’t mentioned here, but that doesn’t mean we don’t consider them a valuable part of an application.

Subjects such as Drama and Theatre and Art and Design can be appropriate preparation for certain courses, for example, English or Architecture. However as Cambridge does not typically offer vocational subjects, A Levels such as Business, Photography or Media Studies may not be as appropriate. 

If you are considering a Vocational Level 3 course as one of your three choices, we would advise you to check the entry requirements for your chosen course, as they are not usually accepted. If you wish to take any of these subjects and you want to apply to Cambridge or other competitive Russell Group universities, we’d advise you to take them alongside three academic A Levels, rather than as one of three.

Critical Thinking or Key Skills aren’t considered suitable options as one of your three A Level choices for any course at Cambridge. We welcome candidates with the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), as it helps develop independent study and research skills which are valuable for higher education. However this would be unlikely to form part of a conditional offer.

What else should I be considering besides my A Level options?

When picking your A Level options, you will have probably started to think about which subject you are interested in studying at university. It’s important at this time to try find out more about that subject.

Talk to people who do the job(s) you’d like to do, or to students who have studied the course that interests you. You may wish to do some wider research or reading around your subject. At Cambridge we call this sort of exploration ‘super-curricular’, as it builds on and enhances what you are studying in school. This not only helps you decide what to study, but it can also help you build a strong university application. For further guidance, PDF icon read our super-curricular suggestions document.

It is also useful to have a look at prospectuses and websites to view the range of courses available – you may end up studying something at university that you’ve not previously studied at school. For example, at Cambridge we offer Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic which most students will have never formally studied previously.

When you get to Year 12 (or equivalent) visiting universities and colleges on open days or taking part in their other events, such as masterclasses or summer schools, will help you to work out what you’d like to study and where.