What A-levels do you need to apply to medical school in the UK?

Such pressure on such young shoulders. Choosing your A-levels can seem like a huge decision; it can feel like whatever you choose now will determine the rest of your life – I remember the daunting process myself. If you’re considering a career in medicine, the task may seem even trickier with every medical school in the UK asking for a different set of subjects and varying grades. Trying to do your own research can quickly become overwhelming but don’t panic! Help is at hand! Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer but there are a few key things you should consider when making your A-level choices and in deciding where to apply once you’ve picked your subjects.

One common mistake is to set your heart on studying at one particular medical school and basing your choices solely on their requirements but it’s a good idea to keep your options open as much as possible. In this blog post, I’ve outlined the 4 key questions you should be asking when considering which A-levels to take.

1. Which subjects are essential?

Whilst it’s true that there is no simple answer for what combination of subjects you should choose, there is some common ground on which subjects most medical schools require. You might naturally first think about Chemistry and Biology and a large proportion of UK medical schools will ask for both so you’re probably thinking along the right lines! If this correlates with where your interests lie there is no reason not to study both of these subjects. Sound good? Then skip ahead to step 2! If not, as you were…

1a. What if I don’t study Chemistry?

“But Chemistry is so hard - can I just not do it?” In short, you probably should. Nearly every medical school in the UK will require applicants to have studied Chemistry to A2 level. So, if you want to keep your options open it’s strongly recommended to take Chemistry, especially If you enjoy it.

There are however a couple of exceptions to this rule (yes!). If you study Chemistry just to AS level, or even if you don’t take Chemistry at all, all is not lost! Some universities ask for either Chemistry or Biology, plus another science (generally Physics or Maths) such as Barts and Keele.

Other schools will allow Psychology as an alternative science subject. See the table below for which Medical schools you could apply to without Chemistry A2 (you can thank us later). Having said this, you will be aware of the recent A-level reforms, so double check what this means for you! Check how this affects your requirements from university and for general information, you can gain more information here.

1b. What if I don’t study Biology?

It’s also very common for UK medical schools to ask specifically for A-level Biology. Aside from simple requirements though, spare a thought for how the subject may actually help you at medical school. An A-level in Biology will give you a good foundation for understanding human physiology - a key aspect of Medicine. However, like Chemistry there are exceptions with a number of medical schools asking for either Chemistry OR Biology and a number specifying just Chemistry and any other science. The table below lists UK medical schools which don’t require Biology to A2 level.

A note on Human Biology… Many schools, such as Aberdeen and Manchester, will consider Human Biology instead of Biology so this could be another option. The schools which state this explicitly in their admissions policies are included in the table below but if you are interested in taking Human Biology instead of Biology then it might be worth checking with any other schools you might like to apply to.

UK Medical Schools NOT requiring Biology to A2 level

Medical School Policy on Required Subjects
  • Aberdeen
    • Chemistry, and at least one from Biology, Human Biology, Physics or Maths.
  • Barts
    • Chemistry OR Biology with at least one other from Chemistry, Biology, Physics or Maths
  • Birmingham
    • Biology/Human Biology and Chemistry.
  • Bristol
    • Chemistry and one other lab-based science
  • Buckingham
    • Chemistry and at least one from Maths or Biology. If Biology is not studied to A2, should have at least a B at AS level.
  • Cambridge*
    • Chemistry and at least one of Biology/Human Biology, Maths, and Physics.
  • Dundee
    • Chemistry and at least one from Biology, Maths, or Physics.
  • Edinburgh
    • Chemistry and one subject from Biology, Mathematics, and Physics (Biology preferred)
  • Glasgow
    • Chemistry and at least one from Biology, Maths, or Physics.
  • Keele
    • Chemistry OR Biology with at least one other from Chemistry, Biology, Physics or Maths
  • Leeds
    • Chemistry
  • Leicester
    • Chemistry and one of Biology, Psychology or Physics.
  • Manchester
    • Chemistry OR Biology/Human Biology and one from Chemistry, Biology/Human Biology, Physics, Maths or Further Maths
  • Newcastle
    • Chemistry OR Biology. If only one of Biology and/or Chemistry is offered at A-level, the other should be offered at GCSE grade A or 7 (or Dual Award Science grade A or 7).
  • Norwich Medical School
    • Biology with at least one from Chemistry or Physics
  • Nottingham
    • Biology/Human Biology and Chemistry.
  • Oxford
    • Chemistry and at least one of Biology, Maths or Physics.
  • Queens Belfast
    • Chemistry plus at least one other from Biology/Human Biology, Mathematics or Physics at A2. If not offered at A2, Biology AS is required.
  • Sheffield
    • Chemistry OR Biology with at least one from Chemistry, Physics, Maths or Psychology
  • St Andrews
    • Chemistry and at least one from Biology, Maths, or Physics.
  • St Georges
    • Chemistry and Biology/Human Biology.
  • University of Central Lancashire
    • Chemistry and one other science subject

What about the third subject?

So we’ve covered the essentials, but what next? What about that remaining subject? Do you have to fulfill the triple science prophecy or is there room for an injection of… (dare I say it)… a humanities subject?!

2a. Science or non-science?

One of the commonest dilemmas future medical school applicants face when choosing their A-levels is whether to study three sciences or to choose a non-science (gasp) subject as their third option. Generally, my advice would always be to think about what you’re interested in; if you really love History then that’s what you should choose. There’s no point nodding off in Physics, wishing you were analysing that excerpt from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ instead. If you are interested in a subject you’re much more likely to be motivated to get the grade you need (more on grades later). Although no medical schools in the UK require three science subjects, their views on it differ.

At Cambridge, each college has slightly different requirement policies but most colleges prefer three sciences. For example, Christ’s College will not consider applicants who do not have a minimum of three sciences at A2 level (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Maths). Churchill College, on the other hand, considers applicants with only two sciences but stresses that in the past three admissions cycles:

  • Just 2% of applicants have offered only two sciences
  • Of these, just 8% have been successful in gaining an offer
  • Of the 98% that have offered three sciences, 30% have received an offer

Make of that what you will. At Oxford, however, they state that:

“Some applicants choose to take just science subjects and mathematics, whilst other applicants choose art or social science subject. Both types of subject combinations are acceptable, and we do not express any preference for one over another.”

Brighton and Sussex Medical School encourage applications from students who have taken a non-science subject as their third A-level. Here’s one for the Shakespeare fans. On their admissions website, they state that:

“We strongly encourage applications from students who study humanities or the arts as we recognise their value in broadening academic horizons”

Essentially, if science is what you really enjoy then a third science A-level subject could be for you, but likewise, don’t be put off from choosing a humanities subject – follow your heart and above all, to thine own self be true!

2b. Subjects to avoid

In general, most UK medical schools will not accept General Studies or Critical Thinking as a third A-level so it’s worth avoiding these if you can. Some schools such as UCLan ask for the third subject to be “Academic” - academic subjects will definitely include things like Psychology, Geography, and English Literature but if you’re not sure about whether a particular subject is ‘academic’ enough as a third A-level, it's worth checking with the school directly.

3. Should I study a fourth a-level?

If you’re looking to study medicine in the future it’s likely that you are an overachiever. Hopefully, you also enjoy learning: it’s something you’ll be doing for the rest of your life as a doctor! These factors leave many future medicine applicants tempted to carry on four subjects to A2 level.

There are no medical schools that require 4 subjects at A2 but there are medical schools that may consider your application to be stronger if you have taken four subjects at A2. At Oxford, for example, they state that:

“Additional qualifications can be one way of demonstrating the academic abilities that will be required for the intense studying of an Oxford degree but they are not essential.”

They also acknowledge that not every school offers pupils the chance to study four subjects to A2 level and suggest that if this is the case it may be worth asking your referee to mention it in your UCAS reference.

As a general rule, however, it’s much better to focus on achieving the grades you need in three subjects. If you do decide to study four you will have less time to dedicate to each subject and this may impact your results. Three excellent A-levels will stand you in better stead than four good ones, as dropping just one grade might drastically limit your options of where you can apply.

4. What grades do I need?

You will definitely have been told “Medicine is very hard to get into” – but what does this actually mean? With entry to medical school in the UK remaining highly competitive, top A-level grades are important to get into all 5-year and 6-year programmes as well as to get into some of the 4-year graduate courses. Typical offers vary between medical schools with some such as Cambridge expecting applicants to achieve A*A*A and some such as Aston, Buckingham, and UCLan allowing entry with AAB. With these high-grade requirements in mind, it’s a good idea to think about where your strengths lie. If you enjoy physics but it’s not your forte, it might be worth considering something else. If in doubt, think about asking your teachers for advice, they might be able to give you a good idea of in which subjects you have the most potential for A-level success.

Even if you don’t make the grades the first-time round, all is not lost. Many medical schools will still accept applicants who have had to retake their A-levels, though may ask for higher grades from re-sitters. Check out our upcoming blog on getting into medical school if you have to resit your A-levels for advice on where to apply and how to get in.

Summary

By considering each of these questions in turn I hope that the confusing world of A-level requirements now seems a little clearer. If there’s anything you’re not clear on please contact hello@themsag.com and we’ll do our best to guide you. For more details on the entry requirements for each medical school in the UK take a look at our UK guidebook which we publish annually.

If you’re looking for more in-depth advice on where to apply for the best chances of success, taking into account your A-level’s as well as the rest of your application, consider a personalised admissions consulting session with Dr Dibah Jiva, MSAG founder, and all-around application guru!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my three key points for making sure you have the A-levels you need to succeed, get into medical school in the UK, and one day become a doctor.

1. Check the requirements: Check, check and check again, Medical schools will update the information on their website nearer the application deadline and if there’s anything that isn’t clear, contact the school directly with your personal circumstances.

2. Think about where your interests lie: If you’re really not interested in Chemistry and Biology it might be that medicine isn’t the career for you. When it comes to your third subject think about what you want to spend the next two years studying, as well as what you will do well in.

3. And finally…Work hard to get the grades you need: A-levels are a big step up from GCSE’s but if you stay focused and put the work in.

Take a sneak peek into our guidebook 
"Get into Medical School for Undergraduates 2019-20"


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