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Is an English A Level useful?

  1. Oct 29, 2011 #1
    Hi guys, I'm in year 11 (UK) and will be choosing A levels to do in sixth-form next year. I would like to be a physicist and will be choosing physics, maths and further maths definitely. I hope to do four A levels but I can't decide whether to do Chemistry or English Language. Chemistry will have it's uses in the future but I've been told that unis like English A levels a lot. Will an English A Level be more useful than Chemistry? Will it be better to take chemistry to build up my scientific knowledge? Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 29, 2011 #2
    do A level classes count for credit in college? if so, take the english so you won't have to take it in college.. your going to want to take chemistry in college, so you have a good understanding of it when you need to use it in more advanced classes
  4. Oct 29, 2011 #3
    A levels don't count for anything once you're in uni, they're really just for admissions. Fortunately, in the UK we don't tend to do many courses that are completely unrelated to the degree subject, for better or for worse. I've never heard that English is of much use for science students, perhaps the people you're speaking to are looking more at humanities.

    For some university courses, you will be at an advantage for admissions if you have the Chemistry, because it is fairly relevant and some universities prefer you to have that extra knowledge.

    If you wanted to do a 4th subject that was just a bit different, perhaps you could look at Biology or Geography.

    I'm in year 13 and applying for Physics, Last year I did Maths A level, Physics AS, Chemistry AS and Biology AS, and this year I'm doing Physics A2, Chemistry A2 and Further Maths A level.
  5. Oct 29, 2011 #4
    @mdub12 In the UK we don't have credit. In sixth form we just study for a subject, do coursework, take exams and then get given the qualifications (A Levels). I'm basically wondering which do you think would a university prefer for a physics degree, chemistry because of it's connections with physics or english because of it's diversity and overall benefits?

    @nickbob00 Thanks, I'll probably choose chemistry, it will probably be more useful and anyway, I think I will do better overall if I'm doing just science/maths subjects without worrying about doing essays every couple of weeks.
    Last edited: Oct 29, 2011
  6. Oct 29, 2011 #5
    I actually had to choose between Chemistry and English Literature when I started my A-Levels. If I had it my way, I'd have done both. Then again, if I had it my way, I'd also have Further Maths taught in this country...

    Anyway, why don't you just start with all five this year and then drop the one you enjoy doing least. I think it's better to do something you like than something you *think* universities would "like to see". In any case, for Physics in a UK uni, Maths/Physics/FM is enough. If your school timetable won't allow you to do five, do AS English on your own. If you're not willing to go through that, then maybe you didn't like English that much, in which case, it's best you're not doing it!
  7. Oct 31, 2011 #6
    Are you guessing about that nick? Or do you have evidence of this bias in admissions policy? To be honest, from thirty years experience of universities, I don't think it exists.

    Being able to write well and use English effectively is also rather relevant! To be honest, besides physics and maths I don't think it really matters what the other A level is. I'd take the subject you might enjoy the most.

    A levels tend to be rather specialised so ask yourself if you fancy doing *all* science, or having a bit more variety. Are you certain to get high grades in both? English can be a bit tough to get a high grade in because there is no right answer - so if you tend to get As in Chemistry and 'variable' grades in English, Chemistry might be safer.
  8. Oct 31, 2011 #7
    Apparently Further Maths is only available as an AS (Half A level) so I think I'll take Chemistry and English, then drop English to do FM. That way I have all the knowledge from Chemistry and an AS in English to prove I'm capable. I get pretty much equal grades for both though I enjoy Chemistry a bit more because it's very 'physicsy'.
    Thanks guys
  9. Oct 31, 2011 #8
    You don't need a A-Level English to prove your "capacities" at writing.

    Anyway, I think your expected course of action sounds very reasonable. If you like Further Maths, you could look into learning the rest on your own. What modules for the AS are offered at your school? Somebody on here, Fedex Latex I think, is about your age and has been working on A-Level Maths/Further Maths for a while now.
  10. Oct 31, 2011 #9
    Further Pure Maths 1, Decision Mathematics and Statistics 2. I'll have a talk with the maths department and see if I can do the other modules after school or in free periods. I'm doing a FSMQ after school this year on top of my GCSE's so I assume that they will be able to.
  11. Oct 31, 2011 #10
    Somebody who's in the know, feel free to correct me here, but I suspect doing more "pure" and "mechanics" modules would be helpful to you.

    In my experience, A-Level Physics covers a lot of chapters but not in enough detail and what happens is the student does not get a thorough enough grounding in the subject. In the mathematics options, on the other hand, the physics is done "the proper" way. It's about as close to uni physics you're going to get while in high school.
  12. Oct 31, 2011 #11


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    Yes, from what I have seen, it is more helpful to do the Pure and Mechanics modules, but it really depends on what course you're applying for. If you're doing Maths with Physics at Cambridge, it would be helpful to do at least up to M3 and the Mechanics sections of AS and A-level Physics. Although, if you were doing Mathematics and Statistics at Oxford, it would logically be better to do more Statistics modules.

    Given that, for AS FM, the OP has to do D1, FP1 and S2, I'm assuming that he must have to do C1-4, S1 and M1 for A-level Maths.

    C1-C4 will give you a fairly good introduction to calculus. C1 tells you how to integrate and differentiate polynomials using the power rule and some co-ordinate geometry. They also show you basic series and introduce summation notation. Some GCSE stuff is also covered in terms of inequalities (linear and quadratic) including solving quadratics via completing the square, factorising and the quadratic formula. C2 starts to give you some applications with finding minima and maxima. Logs are also introduced, as well as the Binomial Theorem and solving trig equations. Finding areas using integration. C3 introduces more differentiation rules (product/quotient/chain rule) and lots of function work, e.g. composite functions, moduli, graph transformations (e.g. |f(x)|, f(|x|)), -|f(x)|), domain, range, more logarithm work. C4 is arguably the longest unit; vectors in 3D, converting from vector to cartesian equations of a line, solids of revolution (about x-axis and y-axis), lots of integration methods. Solving and forming basic differential equations. More trig. Dot product. Parametric equations and differentiating them, including their applications. Trigonometric parametric equations.

    M1 is tough if you've never done any Mechanics before. Off the top of my head, I remember doing moments, dynamics (particle collisions), statics (finding co-efficient of friction, acceleration up/down inclined plane, etc.), kinematics in 1 dimension, tensions of strings, pulleys, Newton's Laws, vectors, resolving forces.

    S1 is easy if you have done GCSE Statistics. Lots of wordy questions. Venn diagrams, AND, OR and NOT, P(B|A), product moment correlation co-efficient, normal distribution and other things that I can't remember.

    S2 is much better than S1 and a lot shorter. Binomial and Poisson distributions, continuous uniform distribution, normal distribution, probability density function, continuity corrections, sampling, hypothesis testing, critical regions, cumulative density function. Basic knowledge of calculus required from C2 at least, but calculus knowledge from C3-C4 is very helpful. Piecewise functions.

    FP1, if I remember correctly, introduces matrices (adding, subtracting, commutativity principle, inverses, multiplying, matrix transformations (reflecting/rotating/enlargement/translating)), numerical methods (linear interpolation, interval bisection, Newton-Raphson method), complex numbers (modulus, conjugates, solving equations with complex solutions, using Argand diagrams, plotting points, etc.), further series, proof by induction (using matrices, sequences and series). Can't remember what else... oh yes, more parametric equations and parabola. Foci, directrices, loci. Bit boring. Implicit differentiation knowledge from C4 is helpful here but not required.

    D1... ugh, hate it. The content is decent but not given enough depth. The exams? Awful. You get 10-12 mark questions on something as simple as bubble-sort (sorting numbers in ascending/descending order), and, even if you use the method correctly the whole way, but make one slip but continue correctly, there are NO follow-through marks. In other words, if you make a mistake on the first sort, but on the next 9 you do them perfectly, you get 1/10. In my opinion, it's completely ridiculous and ought to be changed. In other words, getting anything wrong, even a slight arithmetic error, could potentially drop you from an A to a C. Just like that. That's how tight the grade boundaries can be.

    Have you heard of the Further Maths Support Programme? You may be able to take A2 FM even if your school does not offer it. If you love maths, you will not regret it. You would just need to take either one of FP2 or FP3 (take FP2 if you like complex numbers) and two more applied modules. One thing I'm really annoyed about though is that, on Edexcel, the boundaries just for 90% can be really high. 72/75 is sometimes needed for an A*, any less and you risk not getting an A* for FM. 72/75 for that grade is becoming increasingly common; it happened quite a few times in 2011. You need an average of 90% across three modules and 80% across the whole thing. Getting 80% isn't hard, but there is little room for error.

    If you like M1, you will love M2/M3 and even M4/M5 if you want to go that far. I would urge you to talk to them and see if you can do M2 instead of that D1 module. If you want to do physics/maths at university, it will be so helpful.

    Chat to me if you want to know anything about A-level Maths/Further Maths. I'm currently in Year 12 and did a few modules for A-level Maths last year (C1-C3, M1). This year I am doing the other 14 modules to gain 3 full A-levels; C4, S1-4, M2-5, D1-2, and FP1-3. You will find that as you become experienced with A-level Maths you'll realise you can learn the content quickly. I learned M2 in about three days -- there are 5 chapters, but they're really short. Similar story for S2, and to an extent, D1 (yawn). At the moment, I have learned all the material for C1-4, S1-2, M1-2 and FP1 and currently churning my way through FP2, D1, S3, M3 and M4.

    What is your A-level Chemistry course? I do OCR Salters B. I can assure you, it is not very 'physicsy'... in the A2 modules there is a fair amount of biology (which I hate). They talk a lot about enzymes when they bring up the topic of catalysts and then protein synthesis, even. Although, that being said, the AS is very theoretical and you'll like it if you like doing a fair amount of maths work. But be aware that it is the second hardest A-level for a reason. The coursework is tough (52/60 for an A). The grade boundaries are almost always high. And there is an awful lot of content. But if you enjoy a challenge, you'll like it.

    I agree. I do Edexcel Physics. It's terrible. I mean, I love Physics, but the textbook sucks. It doesn't even teach all the content. There are barely any questions to test your knowledge so you have to go looking elsewhere to check your learning. And to top it off, the solutions aren't available anywhere unless you have the teacher support pack.

    Now that I think about it, given that you'd be doing D1, S2 and FP1 for AS FM, you will get through that really quickly. S2 and FP1 are quite short modules. FP1 is not hard at all (it's considered the "C1" of Further Maths), and can be done without even covering any modules apart from C1. It won't be a tough workload.

    Remember that, for Maths at university, I haven't seen anything about A2 FM as a requirement. They seem to like Physics. For Physics, it's very similar, except I've never seen AS/A2 FM as a requirement anywhere. Maybe there is a course. You should check on UCAS' website.

    And make sure you speak to your teachers a lot! Persuade them to enter you for other things, like olympiads, and doing extra subjects, or more extra-curricular stuff. If I had not spoken to my teachers at all, I would be sat in an A-level Maths class with Year 12s learning C1, bored out of my mind. You are at the stage where you can really start pushing your limits and seeing what you can do. Sixth Form is like that; it's usually very flexible. Make the most of it.
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2011
  13. Oct 31, 2011 #12
    It's worth it if it's an easy A. If you'll struggle then do chemistry instead.
  14. Oct 31, 2011 #13
    Wow, thanks man that's a lot of great info :smile:
    You've given me a lot to think about, I'm glad I asked you guys.
    I don't think I will have much trouble with the courses and I enjoy a challenge. I did the statistics GCSE so hopefully S1 and S2 will be simple enough. I'm not sure which Chemistry course it is, I'll try to find out.
    It's a shame that some exam boards don't seem to care about students. My year is the first year to do 'controlled assessments' instead of coursework and they don't want to admit that they are wrong about basically everything.

    @Shaun_W I think I'll do Chemistry because I'm a bit inconsistent with English
  15. Oct 31, 2011 #14


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    S1 will be very familiar to you. However, there is some new stuff that you have never encountered before. As for S2, I don't think there is any Statistics GCSE stuff in there apart from the binomial distribution, which is only touched upon at GCSE and you look at it in a lot more detail. Strangely, I think S3 has a tiny bit of GCSE in it, too, with the stratified sampling (though, again, in more detail).

    There's no rush, as you have all of Year 11 to make your decision. You should ideally do some of your AS preparation in your Summer holidays. It will really help you when you start in September, as none of the material will be alien to you.
  16. Oct 31, 2011 #15
    For mathematics courses, doing the full FM A-Level would be more suitable, imo. Many applicants applying to "top universities" have done it and, besides, knowing more math can't hurt you!

    Yes, do start preparing for your AS levels over the holidays - it will make your life exponentially easier.
  17. Nov 1, 2011 #16
    I'm applying this year, and though I haven't seen anything elsewhere, if you want to apply for Cambridge you have to do natural science, so your first year is broad, but it specialises more in years 2, 3 and 4. On their website somewhere I definitely read that they consider Physics, Maths and FM to not be broad enough because you wouldn't have the prerequisites for many of the first year options so you would have less choice, but you would still be considered. Granted being able to write a decent essay is a good skill, but IMO the chemistry is more important.

    Everything FeDeX LaTeX says in this thread is true! Salters Chem is a crap syllabus and Edexcel Physics is crap too! If you do a different board for maths, there will be slightly different stuff in the units though: I did AQA and I covered all the same stuff, just in a different order.

    I can wholeheartedly recommend staying away from D1 and D2 if you get the choice. At my college, they make you do them because they often bring your marks up if you're just not that good at maths, but they're seriously boring! If you're doing Physics AS, at least IMO you should have no problem with M1. On my syllabus, C3, C4, FP2 and FP3 are probably the 'hardest' units, but still perfectly doable.
  18. Nov 1, 2011 #17


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    I should add; earlier I was exaggerating a little bit about the mark scheme of D1. Yes, it is true that it is harsh and there are not a lot of follow-through marks for long questions. HOWEVER, there are some. They just don't occur regularly. For example, I have a paper in front of me with a 6-mark bubble-sort question (doesn't require many 'passes' to complete the sort). There is only 1 follow-through mark that occurs only on the 4th pass. In other words, mess up making a mistake at the beginning, even if it's a really small mistake, you'll get 1/6, whereas if it were any other module you would likely get at least 4/6. This is also partially the reason for the shockingly low grade boundaries in D1 (in the old spec).
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