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Five ways to help your child make the best A-Level subject choices

Choosing which A Level or IB subjects to take for Sixth Form can be both an exciting and seriously daunting process for students (and their parents!) We speak to Dr Victoria Sherwood, Head of Professional Guidance at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, on the most important things to consider and how they can best make informed and careful decisions about their future.

Keep an open mind

The key is that your child should try to be open-minded. I worry more about those students who are dead set on what they want to do than those who really don’t know. This is because students can set their hearts from a young age on something like Medicine, only to find that actually their strengths don’t really lie in the sciences. It is so important for students to choose subjects that play to their strengths and which, most of all, they enjoy. Choosing a subject they don’t enjoy or already struggle with at GCSE is likely to lead to a stressful Sixth Form experience and, if they are finding a subject hard at GCSE, it is probably the case that they would find the related degree a struggle, too.

Ask the right questions

Encourage your child to try to start from a blank slate and make a list of what matters most to them: working with other people, career stability, financial reward, academic challenge, being able to travel, etc. Which subjects do they look forward to the most? Which lessons do they love? Which homework do they find the most engaging? If the school offers new subjects in the Sixth Form, like Economics or History of Art, then they should offer taster lessons, and it can be really helpful for your child to talk to current students studying them or ask if they could look through their notes.

Do proper research

It is also important for your child to do their own research, or seek specialised advice at school, rather than relying too much on hearsay. Sometimes well-meaning friends or relatives can give outdated advice. Common misconceptions include, for example, that they have to take Maths to study Medicine, or History to study Law, that you have to do the IB to study in the US, or that competitive universities always want applicants to take four A Levels. Obviously, there are some key specific subjects that must be taken to keep certain degree or career paths open – Chemistry for Medicine, Maths for Economics or Computer Science, for example, and this is where a comprehensive careers provision starting in Year 7 is key.

Broaden their horizons from early on

It is actually this careers provision for all year groups that probably matters more than the discussions taking place about Sixth Form subjects in Year 11. The more ‘meaningful encounters’ your child can have with a wide variety of different careers, the more empowered and informed they will be to make important choices about subjects, higher education or alternatives such as apprenticeships or creative qualifications and, ultimately, careers. They can do this by attending talks, visiting workplaces, workshops or careers networking events. Knowledge is power; the more careers a student has the opportunity to learn about, the more freedom and breadth of choice they ultimately have.

It’s OK to get it a bit ‘wrong’

Finally, it is also worth emphasising that it is not necessarily an absolute disaster if your child makes the ‘wrong’ choice. There are often ways around changes of mind. For example, there are foundation degrees, taking an A Level subject in a gap year, or graduate conversion courses. If students have access to excellent and varied careers provision from Year 7, and if every student is given clear, detailed, informed and unbiased guidance about what subjects are needed for which degree courses, apprenticeships or careers, then the overarching advice of doing the subjects they enjoy and are strongest at is likely to be the most successful strategy.

A focus on wellbeing, enjoyment, individual strengths and personal values should go hand in hand with aspirations and ambition. If the former are nurtured and promoted, the latter will thrive.

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