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A-levels and AS-levels, explained

Confused about how your As and A-level studies are structured? We clear up what you'll study (and when), what linear A-levels are and more.

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What is an A-level?

An ‘advanced level’ or A-level is a qualification offered across a range of subjects to school-leavers (usually aged 16-18 years old), graded A*-E.

A-levels are studied across two years: your AS year (Year 12) and your A2 year (Year 13).

Usually, students:

  • Study four subjects in their AS year;
  • Drop one, which they achieve an AS-level in;
  • Continue with the other three in their A2 year to achieve full A-levels in these.

You can read more about how A-levels work, below.

A-levels have gone through some recent changes, moving from ongoing module assessments to 100% final exams, and so are termed ‘linear’.

What are linear A-levels?

AS-levels and A-levels have been ‘decoupled’, which means your overall A-level grades now depend solely on exams you take at the end of your second year (for the most part – there are some exceptions).

Previously, marks that you achieved for a subject in your AS year could be ‘banked’ and carried over, to contribute to your A-level grade. For those who aren’t keen on exams, sadly this is no longer the case.

What is an AS-level?

This simply refers to the first year of a full A-level. 

You can study a subject for one year and achieve an AS-level qualification that’s independent from those subjects you carry on with to the full A-level. Most students take this ‘extra’ AS-level in their first year, so they can focus 100% on their A-levels in their second year.

When you decide to continue an AS subject into your A2 year, you’re pursuing it further for the full A-level qualification.

Do AS count as A-levels?

While you will take exams for all your subjects at the end of your AS year, your AS marks can’t be banked towards your final A-level grade under the new system in England.

For the subjects you carry on with the following year: while they aren’t worthless, these marks won’t contribute to your final A-level grades a year later; then, you’ll re-sit different exams (which will count).

For the subject you drop: these marks will decide your grade for what will be your AS-level qualification.

Note, the above only applies in England. In Wales and Northern Ireland, your AS-level marks can still be banked and carried over to count towards (40% of) your final A-level grade.

Your AS-levels do matter 

That AS-level qualification for the subject you’ve dropped is still important in its own way.

Whatever Ucas points this translates to may still contribute to the total points you apply to university with. AS-levels are now equal to 40% of an A-level.

See what your AS and A-level grades (predicted or expected) translate to in Ucas points.

Your teachers will also decide your predicted grades based on your AS-level performance in these subjects, which in turn will impact your university application.

Can I take an AS-level?

Schools and colleges are not legally obliged to offer AS-levels and enter students for the relevant exams, so not all offer them. 

When choosing your A-levels – including whether you want to stay at your school to study them, or go elsewhere – check what options the institution offers.

What A-level subjects can you study?

There are around 80 different subjects available to study at A-level. However, the options available to you will depend on which your school or college offers.

Typical A-level subjects include:

  • ones you’ve studied before: history, music, chemistry etc
  • variations on ones you’ve studied before: eg you could choose between English literature, English language, or English literature and language; or you could take maths and further maths
  • subjects you’ve never had the chance to study before: eg law, philosophy, psychology etc

See where your A-level subjects will lead: enter them in our Explorer tool

What do you need to study A-levels?

Schools and colleges will often look for at least five GCSEs A*-C (or 9-4 under the new grading system), or equivalent.

English, maths and sometimes science are the important subjects to get this in – not just when applying to A-levels, but to university and jobs too – as well as any subjects you plan to study at A-level. 

While a C/4 is a minimum, higher GCSE grades will leave you in a better position.

How do A-levels work?

Your AS year (ie Year 12)

You’ll typically choose three or four subjects to take.

Some students take more subjects, if they’re planning to apply to a competitive university (eg Oxford, Cambridge) or course (eg medicine, law), for example. Most universities’ A-level entry requirements boil down to three A-level grades.

At the end of the year, you take exams in all your subjects. The relevance of your results depend on whether you’re dropping it (if so, this will decide your AS-level grade, if your school offers these) or carrying it on (in which case, this will bear no impact on your final A-level grade, but could shape your predicted grades). 

The grade you achieve in any AS-level will still go on your Ucas application, (along with your predicted A-level grades).

Your A2 Year (ie Year 13)

You’ll continue with your remaining subjects to achieve the full A-level.

At the end of Year 13, your all-important exams will decide your final A-level grades. These will test you on content from both years. 

Depending on the offers you receive, your actual A-level grades will determine whether you’ll be heading straight off to uni, going through Clearing or taking a different path altogether.

You could pick up an additional AS-level subject this year, if, for example, you didn’t take an AS-level in your first year or you need to boost the number of Ucas points when applying to university. Keep in mind that you’ll have to juggle this along with your three A-level subjects in this ‘all-or-nothing’ year. Fast-forward to exam season and you might regret doing this…

Can I study Btecs with A-levels?

Yes, you can. Nearly 3% of 18-year-olds accepted into university in 2016/17 applied with both A-levels and Btec qualifications.

Your decision to study a combination of A-levels and Btecs will depend on a few things, particularly what you plan to do afterwards. While Btecs allow students to acquire practical and vocational skills as part of the course, some universities and courses may have qualification preferences they look for. They’ll state clearly what they look for in their entry requirements. 

Do you still get A-levels with coursework?

A-levels are now primarily assessed by exams, which take place at the end of your second year. You’ll still take exams at the end of your first year, but these won’t count towards your final A-level grades.

Some subjects will be exception to this, including:

  • art and design, which understandably involves coursework projects you work on throughout the year;
  • chemistry, biology, and physics, include a practical element throughout the course.

Regardless of the subject, these non-exam assessments only ever account for 20% or less of your final grade.

Not an ‘exam person’? Get revision tips plus advice to keep calm on the big day.

What can you do after A-levels?

Here are some ideas:

  • Apply for university. Search for a course to see what entry requirements universities ask for and see what A-levels are essential for different degrees. If you’re not sure what you want to study, drop your A-levels into our Explorer to see the full breadth of degree subject possibilities available.
  • Keep your options open with a foundation degree, Higher National Diploma or Higher National Certificate. These are shorter – just one or two years in duration – and can be ‘topped up’ to a full degree later if you wish.  
  • If you want a degree but without the fees, consider the higher or degree apprenticeship route. This combines university study with real work experience in a company.
  • Jump straight into paid employment. You can apply to jobs that offer or support additional training, allowing you to progress further in the organisation. 



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