Choosing School Subjects

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 specifically refers to students taking A-levels or the International Baccalaureate (IB), but the advice about subjects and subject combinations is still essentially true if you are taking other qualifications listed on our entrance requirements page. If you have any questions, do email us for further information.
 


 

Already Know Which Course You Want To Apply For?

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 you check the relevant subject page before you finalise your subject choices at school.

Students taking the IB take six subjects which are chosen from specific subject groups. Normally three subjects are taken at Higher Level and three are taken at Standard Level. Students also complete an Extended Essay, study the Theory of Knowledge and have Creativity, Action and Service requirements. Many Cambridge courses require specific knowledge of certain subjects and we will expect you to achieve grade 6 or 7 in these subjects at Higher Level. Occasionally applicants may be asked to achieve a 7 in a particular subject, depending on individual circumstances, but in most cases we do not specify which subjects your 7s must be achieved in.

IB applicants starting the new IB Mathematics syllabus are expected to take IB Higher Level 'Analysis and Approaches' for any course where Mathematics is a requirement.

Find out more about choosing your subject and see the full list of the courses available to study at King's, from Anglo-Saxon to Theology.
Whether you're studying A-Level, the IB, or any other qualification, find out what our standard requirements are here.

Keeping 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 / science 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 at the University, it can make you a less competitive applicant for Cambridge's broad-based sciences courses.

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

  • a modern language

  • Biology

  • Chemistry

  • English Literature

  • History

  • Mathematics (and Further Mathematics)

  • Physics

Even with the broad curriculum of the IB Diploma Programme, choosing subject combinations that genuinely keep your options open is trickier than you might think. As with A-levels, however, there are certain Higher Level subjects that are considered either essential or desirable for a number of courses at Cambridge. Choosing one or more of these to study at Higher Level will help to keep your higher education options open. These subjects include:

  • Group 1: Language A Literature

  • Group 2: a Language B option, Classical Languages

  • Group 3: History

  • Group 4: Chemistry, Physics

  • Group 5: Mathematics

  • Group 6: Consider taking a second option from groups 1-5.

Other Higher Level subjects that also facilitate course choice at Cambridge include Further Mathematics (normally taken in Group 6, in addition to Mathematics in group 5) and Biology (group 4 or 6).

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.

Not sure which subject to apply for? Read our advice on choosing an undergraduate course which is the right one for you.
Find out more about choosing your subject and see the full list of the courses available to study at King's, from Anglo-Saxon to Theology.

Inclined Towards Maths and Science?

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

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 A-Levels, 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. Another useful combination is Mathematics, Further Mathematics and Physics. Many students who are taking four subjects at A-Level 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 A-Level; for physical sciences or Engineering you should take Mathematics and Physics (required) and we recommend Further Mathematics as well. Other A-Level subject choices such as Computing, Design and Technology, Electronics or Psychology may be useful preparation for some of our science courses.

For students taking the IB, you are advised to take at least two, and ideally three, of Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics at Higher Level. The most natural pairings are Biology and Chemistry, Chemistry and Physics, and Mathematics and Physics. We are aware that it is not possible to take Biology, Chemistry and Physics in the IB curriculum.

  • Group 4: Biology, Chemistry, or Physics

  • Group 5: Mathematics

  • Group 6: A second science from Biology, Chemistry, or Physics

Another useful combination is Physics (group 4), Mathematics (group 5), and Further Mathematics (in group 6), particularly for students hoping to study Engineering. Chemistry may be more useful than Further Mathematics for students hoping to study physical sciences. If you are planning to study Medicine, it is essential to take Higher Level Chemistry.

If you are planning to study Mathematics or Computer Science with Maths, you must take Higher Level Mathematics and STEP papers. Other possible subject choices, for instance Computer Science or Design Technology, may be useful preparation for some of our science courses (though in many cases Biology, Chemistry, or Physics would be more useful choices in Group 4).

IB applicants starting the new IB Mathematics syllabus are expected to take IB Higher Level 'Analysis and Approaches' for any course where Mathematics is a requirement. 

Not sure which subject to apply for? Read our advice on choosing an undergraduate course which is the right one for you.
Find out more about choosing your subject and see the full list of the courses available to study at King's, from Anglo-Saxon to Theology.

Inclined Towards the Arts and Social Sciences?

The arts and social sciences courses 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.

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, Modern 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).

For students taking the IB, Language A Literature, History, a Language B option, Classical Languages and Mathematics are good 'keystone' subjects to study at Higher Level: choosing one or more of these will provide a good foundation for your subject combination.

  • Group 1: Language A Literature

  • Group 2: a Language B option, Classical Languages

  • Group 3: History

  • Group 5: Mathematics

Other good Higher Level choices to combine with these 'keystone' subjects include: an additional Language B option, an additional Classical language, Economics, Further Mathematics, Geography, Philosophy, and sciences (Biology, Chemistry, or Physics). These subjects could be taken either in their normal subject groups or as a group 6 option. Other possible subject choices, for instance Social and cultural anthropology, Music, or Psychology, are useful preparation for some of our arts and social sciences courses.

Not sure which subject to apply for? Read our advice on choosing an undergraduate course which is the right one for you.
Find out more about choosing your subject and see the full list of the courses available to study at King's, from Anglo-Saxon to Theology.

Other school subjects

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 the University of Cambridge. 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.

For students taking the IB, we advise you to take courses at Standard Level that you enjoy and think will be useful. The flexibility of the IB curriculum can be an advantage if your interests change in the course of the Diploma Programme. Many schools will allow you to change from Standard Level to Higher Level, and vice versa, in the subjects where this is possible. Do talk to your school if this may be relevant for you.

Find out more about choosing your subject and see the full list of the courses available to study at King's, from Anglo-Saxon to Theology.
Not sure which subject to apply for? Read our advice on choosing an undergraduate course which is the right one for you.

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