Soft Subjects

There has been a lot written about ‘soft’ A levels. These are subjects that are regarded by universities as not particularly academically rigorous and depending on the course you are applying for, are not as well regarded as the more traditional academic subjects.

Unless you feel very strongly about these subjects (listed below), or they are in the area that you wish to further your studies (e.g. Art, Music, theatre), they should be avoided. Certainly you should not take more than one of them if you are aiming for a competitive course at a leading university. Many universities are not particularly explicit in this area. However students with 3 or 4 ‘hard’ subjects will be looked on more favourably in comparison with students offering softer subjects if the competition for admission is very tight.

The Russell Group, which represents 20 leading universities, including Oxford, and Cambridge published a guide called Informed Choices in 2011. This acknowledged officially for the first time that they favour students who study traditional subjects at A levelor Pre U. In it they define ‘facilitating subjects’ as those subjects required by universities more often than others.

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The facilitating subjects are:

  • Mathematics and Further Mathematics
  • English (Literature)
  • Physics
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Geography
  • History
  • Languages (Classical and Modern)

They state that:

"In general, subjects referred to as being ‘hard’ are more traditional and theoretical subjects, for example: English, History, Physics and Chemistry. In fact all the facilitating subjects listed earlier can be considered ‘hard’ with the addition of others such as Economics and Politics.

‘Soft’ subjects are usually subjects with a vocational or practical bias, for example: Media Studies, Art and Design, Photography and Business Studies. However, there is no set definition of a ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ subject”.

The guide, revealed an overwhelming preference for science and mathematical subjects, even for seemingly unrelated degrees.

The guide states that, by not studying at least two of the following subjects – Maths, English, Geography, History, the three pure Sciences, or a classical or modern foreign language – "many degrees at competitive universities will not be open to you."

Be aware however that if you wish to study music or art at university, advanced level qualifications in music or art are usually required.

Cambridge University has defined their soft A levels (called the B list). They claim that these easier subjects fail to provide "adequate preparation" for the academic rigour of university life.

The University of Cambridge B list includes the following ‘soft’ subjects:

  • Accounting
  • Art and design
  • Business studies
  • Communication studies
  • Dance
  • Design and technology
  • Drama and theatre studies
  • Film studies
  • Health and social care
  • Home economics
  • Information and communication technology
  • Leisure studies
  • Media studies
  • Music technology
  • Performance studies
  • Performing arts
  • Photography
  • Physical education
  • Sports studies
  • Travel and tourism

Sheffield University and Bath University also publish lists that are virtually identical to that of Cambridge.

The list of “non-preferred” subjects as defined by The London School of Economics is:

  • Accounting
  • Art and Design
  • Business Studies
  • Communication Studies 
  • Design and Technology
  • Drama/Theatre Studies
  • Home Economics 
  • Information and Communication Technology
  • Law
  • Media Studies
  • Music Technology
  • Sports Studies
  • Travel and Tourism

As you can see, they are very similar to those defined by Cambridge with the addition of law, and the absence of Dance and Physical Education.

It is claimed that Oxford, Imperial College, University College London, Bristol, Durham and St Andrews admit the fewest students with non-traditional A levels. For example Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Further Maths, and Physics make up almost half of accepted A levels at Bristol and UCL.

Many universities are also opposed to "professional" A levels - such as law and accounting. Many dons say they lack rigour. In 2011, just two out of 738 law entries at Queen's University Belfast took a law A-level. Only six law students took it at UCL and 18 at Durham.

Other subjects such as Psychology, Sociology and English Language are not seen as ‘soft’ but neither are they seen as ‘safe’ or “preferred”. Be careful if you are choosing these, it will be best to combine them with ‘hard’ subjects.

Critical Thinking and/or General Studies are usually better taken only as an ‘extra’, rather than as one of the advanced level subjects on which your university application will be relying. Most universities will not count these subjects in terms of their basic entry requirements.