No surprise: Students do what they like!

New research published today by Europe’s largest assessment agency shows that students choose A level subjects they think will be enjoyable and interesting, without much input from the so called “experts”.

The 98 page report from Cambridge Assessment, "A Level subject choice in England: patterns of uptake and factors affecting subject preferences”, reveals for the first time the authentic voice of today's student when it comes to choosing which subjects to take at A Level. More than 6,500 students took part.

In general, students choose their A Level subjects because they think they will be enjoyable and interesting, useful for their future, or because they did well in the subject at GCSE. By contrast, the myths that students choose subjects because they are 'easy' or because their friends are taking them turn out not to be true. Nor are other factors like school pressure very influential.

However, although students have many sources of advice, it is parent and teacher opinion that counts - not any of the formal mechanisms Government has put in place to raise aspirations.

Sylvia Green, Director of the Research Division at Cambridge Assessment, said: "The research gives us the authentic voice of the A Level student, whose choice of subjects is governed by interest and future career opportunities.

"And the myths that choice at A Level is about picking the 'easy' option or allowing the school to dictate the subjects, in an attempt to rig the league tables, are exploded.

"Given the developments of new routes through the 14-19 qualification system, including the development of national Diplomas, the research also demonstrates to policy makers that there is a need to ensure that students not only have the advice they need, at the time they need it, but also the necessary skills to make use of it."

Choosing subjects

The most important factor in A Level choice, chosen by over 80 percent of students, is that they think the subject will be interesting. Next most important (79 percent) is that the subject 'will be useful for my future career'.

The way students make their choices varies according to the type of school or college they attend and their social background. Overall, around 78 percent of students state that they choose a subject because they will enjoy it. This figure is higher for students from high social class backgrounds. Alternatively, more students from lower social class backgrounds choose a subject because it is new and exciting, because it fits well in their timetables or because they needed to choose another subject to make up the number of subjects they have to study.

Conversely, the reasons with least impact prove to be pressure from schools to make up the numbers and also pressure from friends.

The findings indicate that college students are more likely to choose subjects they think will be useful in their future careers while grammar/independent schools are less likely to pick a subject because it is new and exciting, fits well into their timetables or because they need another subject to 'complete numbers'.

Reason for choice %

  • I thought it would be an interesting subject 80.3
  • I thought this subject would be useful for my future career 79.2
  • I thought I would enjoy this subject 78.0
  • I was good at GCSE in this subject 69.1
  • I thought I would do well in this subject 68.8
  • I thought this was a good subject to have 67.2
  • I was good at AS Level in this subject 62.2
  • This subject is a requirement for the university degree I want to study 54.8
  • It was a new subject for me and sounded exciting 46.1
  • I like the teacher / The teacher was good 34.2
  • I was advised to take this subject 26.5
  • I thought it would be an easy subject 17.7
  • This subject fitted well in my timetable 17.4
  • I needed this subject to complete numbers 11.9
  • The school put pressure on me to take this subject 8.8
  • My friends were taking this subject 7.4


Formal careers education and guidance appears to have less influence on choice than family.

The findings highlight to Government the need to improve the advice offer to young people, with only 10 percent of students' reporting that they had benefited from conventional guidance.

Many students mentioned the 'Connexions Advisers', a public service that provides information, advice and support for young people. The advisers appeared to have been influential in some cases but not all students believed Connexions had been helpful (there were actually some comments saying the complete opposite).

Some students also mention that it is not the amount of information they receive but the timing of it that is wrong.

As one might expect, parents are the most frequent source of advice with 43 percent of the students acknowledging they receive some kind of advice at home. Teachers come a close second with 38 percent of children receiving guidance from them.

Sources of advice % students

  • Parents 42.5
  • Teachers in your secondary school 37.9
  • Other students/friends 21.1
  • Brothers and/or sisters 16.1
  • Interview at the sixth form centre 15.0
  • Internet (e.g. university admission requirements) 14.0
  • Open day / Career events 11.7
  • Guidance at this school/college after starting courses 10.5
  • School leaflets 8.4
  • Speakers from higher education institutions 6.6
  • Speakers from employment 4.7
  • University admission tutors 4.6

The findings in 'A Level subject choice in England: patterns of uptake and factors affecting subject preferences', refer to the subjects taken by the students who completed the questionnaire, to the students' perceptions of their own subjects and to the reasons for their own choices.

6597 students within 60 schools (which included comprehensive schools, grammar schools, independent schools, further education, tertiary and sixth form colleges) took part.

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