This month we spoke to A-level tutor James about how to choose A-level subjects, his top revision tips and what he’s learnt from his own A-level journey.
Which subjects do you teach at A-level and what advice do you have for students taking these subjects?
I teach philosophy and ethics, and English literature. First and foremost, it’s very important to read the key texts for English and have a good understanding of the basic arguments for philosophy. Getting this grounding is vital, as it can be supplemented later by quotes and ideas from commentators and critics.
Literature and philosophy are actually very similar subjects. Both require careful analysis of language and an open mind. In order to really progress, a certain amount of introspection is required – when you come across an argument or idea that resonates with you, it’s the perfect opportunity to be creative and think about your own reaction to the topic. For top marks at A-level, a certain amount of originality is required in your writing.
What did you study and where? Would you have done anything differently now with hindsight?
I studied philosophy and ethics, English literature, and economics at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School. I knew by the time I had finished my GCSEs that I was not naturally scientifically minded, but I very much enjoyed asking ‘big questions’, and so essay subjects appealed to me more.
I absolutely loved all of my subjects. Philosophy and literature gave me the opportunity to explore some fantastic pieces of writing, whilst economics grounded me in the world of current affairs. I would have liked to learn a language, but ultimately, I don’t know which subject I would have been willing to sacrifice.
After school I studied law at Oxford, which I also enjoyed. Even though there was no particular congruity between my A-level subjects and my degree, it was great to do something new. I wouldn’t study anything else if I were an undergraduate now, but I’d certainly study more!
Where should students start when making their A-level choices, and who can they go to for help?
It’s always a good idea to do a bit of research before you make a final decision. Ask yourself what kind of direction you would like to head in: do you prefer sciences or humanities? Do you like creative arguments with greater scope, or right answers? Once you’ve narrowed down a few options, have a look at a syllabus for an A-level course online and try to determine whether it takes your fancy (although try not to worry too much if there are parts you do not yet understand!).
Once you have a few subjects in mind, talk to your teachers, or a friend in the year above, to get a better sense of what studying the subject would be like.
What do you think are the most important factors to consider when selecting A-level subjects?
Enjoyment has to be the main factor, as you’re more likely to perform better if you enjoy your studies. It will encourage you to think about the subject differently and pursue avenues you wouldn’t have previously thought of.
You should also think about how the subjects you’ve chosen will help you in higher education, if that’s the path you choose to take. If you know what you want to study at university, it’s best to take that subject at A-level if you can. And if you want to study economics or sciences, it’s always a good idea to take maths at A-level. Other than that, however, universities tend to be fairly flexible in accommodating diverse A-level choices.
How should students that don’t know what they want to study at university approach their A-level choices?
Again, unless you want to go into a specialist career – in the sciences, medicine or computing for example – you have the freedom to study what you want. Employers will not be prejudiced against you simply because you studied theology and want to work in the financial sector – it’s far more important how well you do at university.
Career opportunities will often be more forthcoming if you enjoy the subject you’re studying; you’ll involve yourself in circles where chances present themselves, and your passion for the subject will show at interviews.
It is worth bearing in mind what kind of skills you want to develop, as well as what interests you. For example, if you want to go into journalism you might want to look into subjects that involve more personal research, or allow you to develop essay writing and reading skills.
What are your top tips for A-level preparation and revision?
Sleep. Not too much. But enough so that you don’t feel tired during the day. Also, plan your revision around your sleep schedule so that you study no fewer than two subjects a day. Say you’re studying French on Monday evening, continue with it on Tuesday morning and then move onto physics on Tuesday afternoon. Breaking up a subject with a night’s sleep will help you remember what you were revising the day before. If you just study one subject a day and don’t refresh your memory the next morning, you’ll learn less.
Listen to classical music. This will help you concentrate and stop your mind wandering. If you get into the habit of listening, your brain will associate music with study time. It will also make revision slightly more enjoyable. But it has to be classical music or else you’ll get distracted – at the very least you’ll have broadened your music tastes and have a few classical composers you can name-drop at parties!
Revise in different places if you can. Sometimes staying in one place will be unavoidable, but try to move locations every few hours. I find it helps reset my brain and helps my concentration. If you find you’re not working well at home, try going to the library.
Do you have any advice for year 10 and 11 students about to embark on their A-level journeys?
Try not to worry about assessments or exams, or to think about them as you’re studying. Exams are important but they rarely go awfully, and they never do if you’ve prepared.
Enjoy studying if you possibly can. There’s so much variety out there that there’s bound to be something that suits you. If you’re lucky enough to have already found a subject you like, keep pursuing it and it might turn into a life-long passion.
Read as much as you can. Anything you want, but a lot of it. Getting into the habit of reading will not only help you in your studies (no matter what subject you’re studying), it will broaden your mind and entertain you in ways you won’t be able to foresee.