A level choices and science degrees - advice needed (long, sorry)

(70 Posts)
SunnySunday Sun 25-Sep-16 17:03:51

My DS is now in Year 11. He is pretty clear that he would like to go to university, but really isn't sure what subject he will want to study. When I ask him what subjects interest him, he says he tends to get interested in whatever he is doing. I think that's a reasonably truthful answer. When he chose his GCSE options in Year 9 there were no subjects that he actively wanted to drop, it was more a case of having to prioritise because it was impossible to continue with everything. For GCSE he opted for triple science, French, German and drama. Maths, English and RE were compulsory.

At my DS's school, his year group will be asked to choose 3 subjects at A level. DS would be up for doing German at A level. That is probably his best subject relative to his peers, ie he consistently comes top in German, and I have no doubt that he would be capable of doing it at A level. He is also similarly capable at French, but has shown less enthusiasm about taking that on to A level. Whilst DS enjoys learning languages, he is not at all into reading novels for pleasure, so I don't think a "traditional" degree in a MFL would suit him. Other subjects he has considered for A level are maths, physics and chemistry. At the last parents' evening, the teachers in all these subjects were of the view that DS would be A level material in these subjects. DS is good at these subjects, but not the top student. He never comes top at maths, but (in a decent comprehensive) is consistently in the top half of the top set, sometimes but not always in the top 10. Similar in physics and chemistry, though he would on average come closer to the top in those subjects than in maths.

I have been inclined to advise DS that doing some kind of science degree would probably be the best option, on the grounds that in a competitive jobs market, a science degree equips you both for jobs that specifically require a degree in that subject and those that just require a degree. But I don't know whether the right advice is that if he wants to go down the science route at a good university, it is best for all 3 A levels to be in maths and/or science subjects, ie no room on the timetable for German. I have a vague memory of reading that if you are doing A level physics, you really need to do A level maths too in order to cope with the maths in physics A level. Would welcome views on whether that is true, and whether the same also holds true for chemistry.

I would also welcome views on what advice you would give to an A level student about choosing a science-based degree. I dropped maths and science after O levels, so do not feel at all well equipped to advise. I know there will be posters thinking that my DS needs to make all these choices for himself. I agree, but he is pretty unsure what to do for the best and would welcome some advice. Any thoughts on A level choices and ultimate degree choices welcome!

Miiow Sun 25-Sep-16 17:43:10

I think it's still quite early to be trying to pin down his subjects. I'd see how it goes for a while and see how it goes. He will get more advice from his school and he can wait and see how his GCSEs are going.
At a later stage he could look through the different A level syllabuses and see what he likes the look of. You could also order a few University prospectuses for him to browse through at home.

Look up Headstart courses and, if you live close to London, you could look up the London Taster Days.

InTheDessert Sun 25-Sep-16 17:52:52

Look at the degree courses he might like. I doubt you will find a physics degree which doesn't want some a level maths (certainly, I took up maths a month into my A levels as I suddenly realised physics at uni would be off the cards without it, but we are talking 2 decades ago).

hellsbells99 Sun 25-Sep-16 17:55:41

Will he have the option to start with 4 subjects and then drop one?
Both my DDs did the 3 sciences and maths in year 12 and then 1 dropped physics and 1 dropped biology. I know there is less of a choice now in some schools because of the restructuring of A levels.
DD1 said that doing all the sciences was actually easier as her brain stayed switched on to maths etc.

Felascloak Sun 25-Sep-16 17:56:04

Geology is a good choice for applied science (covers aspects of physics chemistry and biology). There is also an out doors field work aspect if he likes that? And it tends to be a bit less competitive, he can get a place somewhere with 2x science and German.
Having a European language would be so useful. I wish I hadn't stopped French after gcse

yeOldeTrout Sun 25-Sep-16 17:58:38

Need math for physics degree, deffo.

It's not really quite early to be pinning down, is it? The English system makes them try to decide at end of yr11. My DD is agonising over which way to jump, & she's only yr10.

German is quite handy for engineering degrees, btw. Scientists need to communicate, so I don't think something like math-physics-German would be a lousy combo for someone who wants to go into science.

DixieWishbone Sun 25-Sep-16 18:07:26

If he isn't quite sure what he wants to do but knows it is something in the science/engineering field maybe have him look at chemical engineering.

I am a 'jack of all trades' type person and enjoyed my degree as it covered everything from welding to computer simulation of the inner workings of distillation columns, from metallurgy to business studies. It is one of the hardest degrees to take (probably because it is so wide ranging) and he would definitely need maths, physics, and chemistry for an adequate preparation.

ErrolTheDragon Sun 25-Sep-16 18:19:10

Restricting to 3 A levels from the outset is pretty limiting for kids who aren't sure what they want to do. Maths is one of the most generally 'facilitating' and is essential for any sort of engineering, physics, maths (obv) and I would assume economics, and I wouldn't want to do chemistry without it.

Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but Ive heard that A level languages are a very different matter to GCSE - some kids who ace that find the A level a lot harder.

goodbyestranger Sun 25-Sep-16 18:20:47

Very, very similar situation to that of my youngest DS - and identical GCSEs bar one - although in his case his cohort was encouraged to do four, which allows more latitude. His position in the maths/ science classes was broadly the same too, I'd have said. He's now applying for a science degree with maths, chemistry and biology and a completely random other subject which he refuses to drop, plus further maths at AS. German would be a very good subject for all sorts of reasons so if it's a strength, how about chemistry, maths and german (maths is either strongly encouraged with chemistry or a requirement), or physics, maths and german with further maths as a fourth, if that's possible?

goodbyestranger Sun 25-Sep-16 18:23:31

Errol the MFL curriculum for GCSE has been a joke latterly, so yes A Level is a big step up.

Aftershock15 Sun 25-Sep-16 18:41:44

We are just doing this for ds2 having been through the same process last year with ds1.

We are asked for the first choices by the end of November - although there is a chance to swap later if the timetable allows, so people saying it's too early to decide are not correct for all schools.

What are his grades likely to be? School showed use graphs of GCSE grades against A level grades - if you go in with less than a A* in science and maths you are most likely to come out with a C at A level - slightly fewer pupils get B or D but only a tiny number get A/A*. The picture for humanities and arts subjects was slightly better, but our school won't take you on to A level science or maths courses without the A* at GCSE.

Ds1 is taking maths, physics, economics and history in lower 6th. When making his option choices school were very clear that maths and physics alone wouldn't be good enough for most science/engineering courses. Ds1 wants to study law or economics so that's OK, but if your son takes maths, physics and German he may find it hard to get on a science course.

Do the school offer any careers guidance at this stage. My boys both did various computer tests which they did find helpful - didn't change their minds overall, but did make them think about the sort of work environment they would like to help clarify ideas. Ds2 will pick maths, further maths, physics and chemistry I think, although has a few more guidance events at school before the final choice is due.

Miiow Sun 25-Sep-16 19:20:08

We are asked for the first choices by the end of November - although there is a chance to swap later if the timetable allows, so people saying it's too early to decide are not correct for all schools

I don't think anyone said it was too early to decide. confused I did however say that he still has time and doesn't need to rush. Even if he has to give his choices to his school in a couple of months time I'd be suprised if he couldn't switch them later if he changed his mind. Presumably some students have to switch their choices after their GCSE results.

How about looking at the schools A'level results? My DCs school had much better results in some subjects compared to others.

goodbyestranger Sun 25-Sep-16 20:11:29

Won't take you for science or maths without A* at GCSE Aftershock!! My own DS is almost certain to disprove your school's graph, or at the very least be an exception to the 'rule' (didn't get an A* in maths GCSE and has just got full ums in all maths papers at AS and an A in further maths - that graph of your school's seems draconian and very offputting to perfectly capable mathematicians and scientists).

user1474361571 Sun 25-Sep-16 20:25:03

if you go in with less than a A star in science and maths you are most likely to come out with a C at A level

This is simply not true nationally. Look at page 18 of


It is however true that very few students who got less than an A star at GCSE manage an A star at A level.

hellsbells99 Sun 25-Sep-16 20:26:18

Aftershock my DD1 only got 1 A* at GCSE and that was for art! She did all 3 sciences and maths at AS level and then dropped physics for A2 (after getting a B at AS) and also studied AS further maths. She certainly disproved your school's graph too!

bojorojo Sun 25-Sep-16 21:49:04

I am fairly certain that you can do an Engineering degree at some universities where the third year is taught abroad in the target language. My DDs friend took French lessons at university and spent his third year in France at a Grande Ecole studying Mechanical Engineering in French. I suspect German would be available too. He had an A* in French GCSE, but not A level. This was at Bristol but I would imagine other universities have similar programmes. This keeps the A levels for Maths and Science but ensures the student is well versed in another language during their degree. Perhaps something like this might be of interest?

ErrolTheDragon Sun 25-Sep-16 21:55:15

A school which won't admit students to a-level maths without an A* gcse sounds unusual and overly restrictive because maths is so useful across the board. The single maths is (I've been told) pitched to be appropriate for a wider range of students... The most able can do FM too. Actually that sounds bloody awful, if pupils with an A at maths gcse aee excluded from the most generally useful subject.

A levels choices surely shouldn't be calculated just on what you can get the best grades in.... It should be about what do you actually need to learn. And a heck of a lot of disciplines need maths.

ErrolTheDragon Sun 25-Sep-16 21:59:17

Heres an example (first hit i got from a quick google) of the sort of thing bojo mentioned https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/prospectus/courseDetails.do?id=H3R22016

bojorojo Sun 25-Sep-16 22:03:59

That is exactly the sort of course I was thinking of, Errol.

SunnySunday Sun 25-Sep-16 22:05:49

Thank you all for the very helpful responses. I gather the school are clear that it is three A levels only. I remember noticing that students are asked to give an indication quite early on of what their intentions are. This could be particularly key in relation to German, as that is a subject which I could foresee being at risk of being dropped as an A level option altogether if numbers are low. My DS's year were one of the last years to be offered German. The school now only offers French and Spanish to the lower years. The German A level is offered in partnership with another local school.

I have already had a look at the Headstart website. They don't appear to offer any courses for boys in Year 11, but I shall definitely bear in mind for Year 12.

I agree I should probably look in a bit more depth at the school's A level results.

Re the jump from GCSE to A level for MFL, I am confident my DS would be able to make the jump. I have a much better understanding of MFL than I do of sciences, and I can see that my DS has an aptitude for language learning, and doesn't just rely on learning passages off by heart and regurgitating them parrot fashion.

ErrolTheDragon Sun 25-Sep-16 22:10:35

There are similarly 4 year chemistry with language degrees. The ones ive had a quick look at only require gcse language. So i guess that means that a kid who likes languages and science could do maths and two science a-levels ( which keeps more doors open as to exactly which science or eng) but then pick up on the language again at degree level...might be more appealing if they dont like literature?

raspberryrippleicecream Sun 25-Sep-16 23:19:16

My DD is about to start uni doing MPhys.

You definitely need Physics and Maths for Physics degrees, Durham said it is more important to do well in the Maths.

You can choose what you like for the third A level. DS did Further Maths and Geology. Further Maths is also very useful, even if only to AS.

Boosiehs Sun 25-Sep-16 23:27:09

Definitely need maths for chemistry at degree level. I only had as maths and really struggled. 😟

Decorhate Mon 26-Sep-16 06:28:54

Only taking three subjects right from the start is going to be hard on those who don't know yet what they want to do after school or want to keep their options open. My ds would ideally want to do maths, history and some sciences. If he can only pick three he has to decide on only one science and this could restrict his options later if he picks the "wrong" one.

I've been looking around too for suitable uni taster days but can't find anything available until Y12. Which is too late when you need to pick your subjects now.

We may just have to go to some local uni open days next June so he can find out more about different courses.

ErrolTheDragon Mon 26-Sep-16 08:31:52

I would definitely recommend going to a few uni open days after GCSEs for the kids to get a flavour of the courses. I'd say pick places likely to be of the level your DC might be applying even if thats not particularly local. Don't bother with the accommodation tours etc, just do a selection of department talks and lab tours, talk to admissions tutors about A level combinations, talk to students. Even if your DC have a pretty good idea of what they want to do, it can make it all more real, excite and motivate them.

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