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  • Dr Kate Nickson

Subject Combinations Matter For STEM A Levels


When it comes to making A Level subject choices, particularly for students taking STEM subjects, combinations really matter. All too often, the advice that students get tends to focus on choosing subjects that they enjoy and that are their strengths. Whilst, this is important, students taking a STEM subject need to be aware that the combination of subjects that they take with it can be make or break. There are a number of reasons for this, all of which typically lead to better outcomes in terms of attainment and future opportunities. In my book, this is win win, and is something of which any student considering taking a STEM subject should definitely have an awareness.


  • Taking more than one STEM subject helps to develop the scientific way of thinking

  • Maths is a really important supporting subject for all STEM A Levels

  • Certain university courses prefer specific A Level combinations

  • Taking classic subject combinations keeps doors open for future study and career options


Taking more than one STEM subject helps to develop the Scientific way of thinking

The STEM subjects require a certain analytical way of thinking. Experimental based questions and data analysis are a key part of all three of the classic Sciences. Approaches to honing in on key words and structuring answers to questions are common to all of them. Learning styles are also very similar. The more you practice these skills, the better you become at them. So it is common sense that taking more than one STEM subject pays dividends in terms of outcomes. Taking a single Science A Level, e.g. Biology, just because a student enjoys it, is particularly ill-advised with the more conceptually challenging current specifications. Students often find they need extra support if taking a single Science subject, in order to achieve the grades that they want.


Maths is a really important supporting subject for all STEM A Levels

Maths was always important for the Physical Sciences. But it used to be a bit more wish list for A Level Chemistry or A Level Biology. However, the Maths content of the current specifications has significantly increased - 40% for A Level Physics, 20% for A Level Chemistry and 10% for A Level Biology. This is something that has changed since parents took their A Levels, and as such they may not realise quite how important it is now to have Maths as a supporting subject. As a former Head of Chemistry, turned Chemistry Tutor, I see all too often the difficulties that students encounter when they do not take Maths with A Level Chemistry. Even for the least mathematical of the Sciences - Biology it really helps. You can read more about it in my Blog post here. I would go so far as to argue that if a student does not like Maths enough to take it for A Level, I would advise that they think very carefully about whether STEM A Levels are appropriate.


Certain university courses prefer specific A Level combinations

For students who have a set university course in mind, then it is well worth researching the preferred A Level subjects before making choices. I would advise really taking heed of the recommendations rather than going for the “possibles”. Popular courses at top universities will have considerable competition, so why reduce your chances by taking an unusual subject combination. For example, the classic Biology, Chemistry and Maths combination is well advised for medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry etc. For anyone considering options like engineering, then Further Maths as well as Maths and Physics is a prerequisite for many of the more competitive courses. Any pure Science degrees will almost certainly require more than one Science and often Maths. Most Chemistry courses at top universities require Maths A Level and those that don’t, tend to require an additional Maths Course to be taken alongside the Chemistry. Biological courses without Chemistry A Level are difficult both in terms of the background understanding and being accepted onto them. That's not to say it is impossible - of course there are exceptions. But if at all possible, students might as well make things more straight forward for themselves if they do decide to take an unusual subject combinations they should go into it with their eyes open.


Taking classic combinations keeps doors open for future courses

Many students, myself included, begin their A Level studies unsure of what they want to do after school. While others, might have an idea in mind, but this often changes when they discover a love or aptitude for a particular subject, or if they do not achieve the predicted grades needed. I have come across many students over the years who take A Level Biology without A Level Chemistry because they did not intend to pursue a Biological degree. However, along the way they discover a love of the subject and decide they want to take it further. But without the Chemistry, their choice of courses is very limited. Some have to pause at this stage and begin Chemistry A Level in order to access a particular course on which they have set their heart. I would always advise taking Chemistry with Biology. If at all possible, I would advise taking Further Maths, as well as Maths, with Physics and Computer Science A Levels. It is common sense to take combinations that will keep options open rather than reducing them.


If having read this, a student is still determined to take an unusual subject combination involving a STEM subject, at least they will be aware of the potential difficulties and prepared for them, as opposed to being in blissful ignorance!

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