Choosing school subjects (A levels and other qualifications)

Signpost

Credit: Sarah Joy

The subject choices that you make for your last two years of school can have a significant impact on the course options available to you at university. This page provides advice to make sure that the decisions you make when choosing subjects will not unduly limit the opportunities to you should you decide to apply to Cambridge in the future.

When assessing applicants, we consider not only the individual subjects taken, but also the combination of subjects. We generally prefer applicants to have taken certain subjects, or combinations of subjects, because we believe that they are more likely to provide an effective preparation for study at the University.

The information below refers to A level subjects, but the advice about subjects and subject combinations is still essentially true if you are taking other qualifications listed on our entrance requirements page. See the separate version if you're taking the International Baccalaureate. If you have any questions, do email us for further information.

Do you know the course you want to study?

Many Cambridge courses require prior knowledge of certain subjects, which we will expect you to pass, normally with an A or A* grade at A level or equivalent. Occasionally applicants may be asked to achieve an A* in a particular subject, depending on individual circumstances, but in most cases we do not specify which subject the A* must be achieved in. If you have already chosen a course, we recommend that before you finalise your subject choices at school, you check:

You may also wish to do this for the same course (or similar courses) at other universities.

Do you want to keep your options open?

Choosing subject combinations that genuinely keep your options open is trickier than you might think. We often meet students who have chosen to study a mixture of essay subjects and maths / sciences subjects because they believe that it will keep their options open. While such a subject combination does provide a suitable preparation for many arts and social sciences courses (essay subjects) at the University, it can make you a less competitive applicant for Cambridge's broad-based sciences courses.

There are certain A level subjects that are considered either essential or desirable for a number of courses at Cambridge. Therefore, choosing one or more of these will help you to keep your higher education options open. These subjects include:

  • a language
  • Chemistry
  • English Literature
  • History
  • Mathematics
  • Physics

Other subjects that also facilitate course choice at Cambridge include:

  • Further Mathematics (NB. for students in the UK, the Further Mathematics Support Programme offers the opportunity to study Further Mathematics even if it is not offered by your school)
  • Biology

If you want to keep your options open but think you are likely to want to study a science/maths subject or an arts/social science-based course at university, please read the information below. 

Are you inclined towards maths / science subjects?

If you think you would like to study a science course at university but you are not sure which one, then you are advised to take at least two, and ideally three, of Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics. Some pairings of these subjects are more natural than others. The most natural pairs are Biology and Chemistry, Chemistry and Physics, and Mathematics and Physics.

Caution sign

In practice the vast majority of applicants for sciences and maths courses at Cambridge take at least three science / maths subjects at school. Credit: Justin See

Another useful combination is Mathematics, Further Mathematics and Physics. Many students who are taking four subjects take four out of Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Further Mathematics and Physics.

If you are planning to study biological or medical sciences, you should take Chemistry; for Physical sciences or Engineering you should take Mathematics and Physics (required) and we recommend Further Mathematics as well.

Other possible subject choices, for instance Computing, Design and Technology, Electronics or Psychology, may be useful preparation for some of our science courses.

The science courses offered at King's are: Chemical Engineering; Computer Science; Engineering; Mathematics; Medicine; Natural Sciences (Biological and Physical).

Are you inclined towards essay subjects (the arts or social sciences)?

An arch

A keystone is the centre stone at the summit of an arch. Credit: Rebecca Siegel (cropped)

If you think that you would like to study an arts or social sciences course at university but you are not sure which one, then English Literature, History, languages and Mathematics are good keystone subjects: choosing one or more of these will provide a good foundation for your subject combination.

Other good choices to combine these subjects with include: an additional language, Ancient History, Classical Civilisation, Economics, Further Mathematics, Geography, Philosophy, Religious Studies, and sciences (Biology, Chemistry or Physics).

Forest

For many (but not all) arts and social sciences courses,  there is no required set of subjects. Credit: Scott Wylie (cropped)

Other possible subject choices, for instance Archaeology, Citizenship, English Language, Environmental Science, Government and Politics, History of Art, Law, Music, Psychology, or Sociology, as useful preparation for some of our arts and social sciences courses.

The arts and social sciences course offered at King's are: Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic; Asian and Middle Eastern StudiesClassics; Economics; English; Geography; History; History and Modern Languages; History and Politics; History of Art; Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS); Law; Linguistics; Modern and Medieval Languages; Music; Philosophy; Theology and Religious Studies.

Other Cambridge courses

We also offer courses in:

These have not been listed in the sections above because they are difficult to allocate to one of the two groups. Do check the applying section on the relevant subject page for advice on suitable subject combinations for these courses.

Other school subjects

Stage set

A question to ask yourself:  would pursuing some of the things you enjoy outside your school curriculum work better for your university options?  Credit: Hernán Piñera

There are, of course, many other subjects that we have not mentioned at all on this page. The fact that we have not mentioned them does not mean that we think that they are not individually worth taking. However they are either rather specialised in focus and not a good choice if you are looking to keep your options open, or else the way in which they are taught and assessed means that they do not provide good preparation for the courses offers at Cambridge University. If you are thinking of applying to Cambridge, our advice is to ensure that amongst your three or four A level subjects (or equivalent), you are doing no more than one of these other subjects.

Please note that A level Key Skills and General Studies are not required or included in academic assessment. Critical Thinking is worthwhile but not acceptable as a third A level subject for any Cambridge course.

The information on this page is based on the University of Cambridge Subject Matters leaflet.

Entrance requirements | Undergraduate studies | Back to the top