Change your life and career

Six factors to consider when helping your daughters and sons choose A levels

By Mary Andrews

If your son or daughter has clear ideas about career and what they want to study beyond GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) that’s good news but what if they are overwhelmed about the choice, uncertain about what they really enjoy, or not confident about where their abilities lie? Perhaps they have been knocked off-track by the recent and unprecedented pandemic?

Choosing subjects at A (Advanced) level can be a headache for many students and their parents and objective advice that is both personal and useful can be hard to find. Funding issues might prevent schools from providing high quality guidance despite their best intentions and it’s not unknown for a school or sixth form college to encourage students to take subjects that might make the statistics look good for the institution but that might not actually be the best choice for the individual student.

So what factors should you and your sons and daughters reflect on when trying to decide?


First and foremost, does your son or daughter want to take A levels? Do they see themselves as academic, wanting to write essays or are they inclined toward the more practical/vocational such as apprenticeships, National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) or BTECS? The latter are so called because they were originally awarded by the Business & Technology Education Council. They have been around for about 25 years, are available in over 100 countries and in a wide range of subjects.

If your child is very academic they might want to consider other options such as the International Baccalaureate (wide ranging academic as opposed to A levels that are by definition more subject specific) or the Cambridge Pre-U Diploma which encourages independent research and lateral, contextual and critical thinking in preparation for university.

Are safe options truly safe?

If A levels seem their preferred option, then what subjects? Schools often advise students who are uncertain to take what might be considered solid, safe options such as English, mathematics or a science as these will help keep options open. This can be true but be aware that if your son or daughter is actually quite creative or artistic (and sometimes, let’s face it, we’d prefer them not to be because we worry that their career might not be an easy one) such general subjects might close doors for them.

Similarly, if they end up wanting a medical related career, only one science can be a barrier. So only go with ‘safe’ subjects if they really have absolutely no idea what they want to do long-term.

What makes them get out of bed?

OK so I grant you few students will rush out of bed to study but choosing A levels to reflect what they are interested in or enjoy can only be wise. Therefore, it’s worth looking at what hobbies they have and what they enjoy doing out of school.

If they enjoy Then consider
Drama, gossip, celebrity, designer goods Arts and humanities, especially media studies, drama and English literature
Sport and physical activity Science and technical subjects, factual subjects
Creative activities and have creative flair Design, art, graphics, photography
Following instructions to make things Architecture, textiles, design & technology
News, current affairs, and a healthy debate Politics, history, philosophy
Listening to their friends’ problems and generally being helpful Psychology, history, English literature, sociology
Gaming IT, science, technology, maths, business
Reading (fiction) Arts, humanities, soft science, social science
Reading (non-fiction) Maths, science, technology
Playing and listening to music Music but also other technical subjects like physics and maths

It’s safe to say that the more they enjoy something the more likely it is that they will be motivated toward studying and learning it especially if it gets tough.

What are they really like?

Not how would we like them to be but what are they really like? What sort of personality do they have? Do they enjoy debating and arguing, getting their point across and are they comfortable with subjective fields where there are not necessarily any right answers? This might be suggestive of politics or philosophy, humanities or English literature.

If they are more the detached observer, caring but not wanting to get directly involved, cautious and methodical this might indicate a soft science such as biology or psychology. Organised and disciplined; and not enjoying touchy feely stuff or emotionally charged situations? Then maybe mathematics, science or a more factually based subject like economics, law or business.

Think beyond the obvious

Subjects at A level are usually significantly tougher and often quite different topic or approach wise to GCSE. Therefore, although grades at GCSE can be a useful starting point for thinking about A levels they shouldn’t be any more than this. Always look at the syllabus for the course, what content will be covered and how the A level will be assessed.

Also, if you are considering different providers do check which boards and which syllabus will be followed. For example, you are likely to study different texts in English literature depending on where you study.

Many people study psychology because they are drawn by the question, ‘what makes people tick?’ Unfortunately, psychology, like sociology and media studies, for example, is not always as highly regarded by some universities as it might be. So, if your son or daughter is considering psychology for interest, bear in mind that subjects like English literature and history can also cover why people behave the way they do and might be of higher value.

What about the teacher?

It’s not unheard of for youngsters to choose subjects based on whether or not they like a teacher, and this is not an irrational way to make choices. If someone’s teaching style suits you and you click, it can be a very motivating factor for learning.

But what if that teacher leaves, or your son/daughter doesn’t get allocated to that teacher’s class? They’re then potentially stuck with both a teacher and (more importantly) a subject they might not like. Therefore, do what you can to ensure that first and foremost they choose because they are drawn toward the subject.

In conclusion, sorting through A level options can be a challenging time for both parent and student. But if you pay attention to these six factors, you and your child will be able to make informed choices for their future.

Mary Andrews Portrait

Mary Andrews, MSc, IDC, MBPsS, PMABP, AssocISFCP is a qualified coach and career analyst.

With a background in HR and psychology, since 2011 she has been helping professionals and students find direction and thrive in their careers and life.

Make changes that stick. If you want to move from feeling unhappy and dissatisfied to content and fulfilled, contact me for a free without obligation conversation.