A Level choices for US admissions

Posted on 2nd June 2021

One of the main appeals of US colleges is the educational ethos and the flexibility of their undergraduate programmes. While specialisation is the norm in the A Level system, breadth is synonymous with the liberal arts and sciences, and students don’t usually need to declare their major until the end of their second (sophomore) year. This naturally appeals to students who haven’t decided where they want to specialise – or who like the idea of being able to change their minds at college.

You would have thought that such flexibility in terms of curricula would mean that U.S. colleges had fewer subject prerequisites and were thus more flexible about students’ choices of A Level subjects. By and large this is true, but there are important caveats to that statement. Below we’ve summarised the main things to consider:

  1. Build breadth into your A Level choices where possible. The U.S. undergraduate curriculum is built on a foundation of wide academic scope, so if you do have the option to choose a broader range of subjects at A Level, then it might be wise to do so. Studying maths alongside essay subjects, or a language alongside STEM subjects, will likely serve you well when it comes to admissions.

  2. Depth and distinctiveness matter too. The paradox of the US admissions process is that colleges, particularly highly selective colleges, want to see applicants with a distinctive academic and extracurricular profile. So if theatre is your thing, then don’t be afraid to lean into that and take Theatre Studies at A Level alongside English Literature and a language where you will study drama. Similarly, the depth that comes with Further Mathematics shows your commitment to maths and a depth of understanding in the field. Selective colleges will be looking not so much for well-rounded students as looking to build a well-rounded class, so don’t worry too much if your application is “well-lopsided” – you’re more likely to stand out.

  3. Rigour is a factor in admissions. One question your school counselor has to answer about you in the Common Application is how your A Level/Sixth Form programme compares to that of your peers. Colleges want to see students who are able to challenge themselves academically. So if you are setting your sights high and attend a selective school where most students in your class graduate with three A Levels and an EPQ, make sure you meet that threshold as a minimum. If you can manage a fourth A Level without compromising your extracurricular commitments, then that’s worth considering too. But don’t bite off more than you can chew – the most important thing is to get strong predicted grades in your chosen subjects.

  4. Note the letter of recommendation requirements at certain STEM colleges. Some U.S. colleges known for their research in science, maths, and technology, most notably MIT, Caltech, and Harvey Mudd, have a strong element of compulsory HASS subjects (humanities, arts, and social sciences) in their undergraduate programmes, and this is reflected in their admissions process. These colleges want you to submit one letter of recommendation from a maths or science teacher, and one from a HASS teacher. Although technically you could ask a teacher who taught you for GCSE, an A Level teacher will be able to provide a more recent and stronger letter of recommendation. Thus a strong A Level combination for MIT or Harvey Mudd would not be straight sciences but Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Philosophy.

  5. Note the preference for essay subjects to meet admissions requirements at certain universities. Some colleges that have a strong element of essay writing and reading in their undergraduate programmes, most notably Princeton and Columbia, ask for evidence of your aptitude for essay subjects within the admissions process. In the case of Princeton, the application supplement asks you to submit a graded essay; in the case of Columbia, the supplement asks you to list what books you have read both for pleasure and within school in the last 12 months. So if you want to apply to these colleges, you are probably going to need at least one essay subject at A Level for a strong application.

  6. Maths is often recommended for admissions to pre-professional programmes. While entry to most arts and science colleges at the undergraduate level is relatively flexible, some undergraduate pre-professional programmes have undergraduate subjects that are required or recommended. Architecture programmes at Cornell, Syracuse, and Cooper Union, for instance, recommend calculus, which for A Level students means taking Mathematics at A or AS Level. Physics is also recommended for Cornell. Similarly, business undergraduate programmes like those at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton or NYU’s Stern will favour students with advanced mathematics courses, and A Levels in Maths and Physics are strongly recommended for admittance to all engineering schools.

Subject prerequisites can affect broader programmes outside the U.S. too. For instance, Psychology falls within the Life Sciences stream at the University of Toronto (St. George campus), for which calculus is required. Bachelor of Commerce programmes at Canadian universities also require Maths A Level, and many liberal arts programmes at University Colleges in the Netherlands want to see Maths at A or AS Level (or alternatively a minimum score on the Online Mathematics Placement test.

Understanding how A Level choices and subject requisites in the context of U.S. and international admissions can be confusing, but help is at hand. If you would like some expert advice, then please book a consultation with one of our admissions specialists by emailing info@ueseducation.com.

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