FOR the 300,000 or so British youngsters putting the finishing touches to university-application forms over the Christmas holidays, it is decision time. Which institutions to choose? Which of the myriad alluringly (and sometimes improbably) titled degree courses? Weighty decisions, no doubt, but evidence is mounting that the more crucial choices were made two years earlier, when students picked which three or four subjects they would continue to study until leaving school.
According to research published earlier this month, many may have chosen the wrong ones, and damaged their chances of getting into a highly regarded university. Policy Exchange, a centre-right think-tank, looked at the A-levels offered by successful applicants to a group of 27 very selective universities–some ancient, some modern–and concluded that, despite the fact that all subjects are notionally equal, in reality admissions tutors think more of some than of others.
A tenth of all A-levels are in art and design, or drama, film and media studies–but only a twentieth of those taken by students who gained places at top universities. They were also less likely than the average A-level candidate to have studied psychology or sociology, and more likely to have studied maths or a science. The think-tank concluded that although only two universities, Cambridge and the London School of Economics (LSE), openly list the A-levels they are less keen on, others have similar, unstated, biases. They should come clean, it said, in order to avoid penalising students whose schools (or parents) are not wise to the unwritten distinction between “hard” and “soft” A-levels.