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Should You Take 3 Or 4 A Levels When Applying To Medicine?

Should You Take 3 Or 4 A Levels When Applying To Medicine?

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

If you’re planning on applying to medicine, choosing whether to take 3 or 4 A-levels can be a challenging decision.

As a prospective medical student, you need to ensure that you not only have the right qualifications but also ideally stand out from other applicants.

In this article, I’ll be discussing whether taking 3 or 4 (or 5!) A-levels is the optimal choice for your medicine application.

Key Takeaways

  • Three A-level subjects, including Chemistry and Biology, are minimum requirements for most UK medical schools
  • Taking a fourth A-Level may demonstrate your academic aptitude but consider if it will affect your performance in your core subjects
  • Balancing your studies and maintaining high grades throughout is essential; consider alternative options, such as the Extended Project Qualification, to stand out from other applicants

How Many A Levels Should You Take For Medicine?

You may have heard people say “Only students who have at least 4As at A-level get into medicine” or “If you haven’t taken a minimum of 4 subjects universities just throw out your application.”

Considering offers for UK medical schools only ever specify a requirement for 3 subjects (generally AAA or A*AA), these rumours are entirely unfounded.

However, that’s not to say that there isn’t any advantage to taking 4 subjects.

It is true that 4 subjects, with a top grade in each, will look better on a medicine application than just 3.

But, an incredibly important point to note is this: A*AA is better than AAAA.

Universities generally value quality over quantity. A fourth A or B in an additional subject isn’t going to be more valuable to you than an A* in just one of your 3 subjects.

How Many A Levels For Medicine Pixel Infographic

The bottom line is I’d suggest you should only take further subjects if you’re confident it’s not going to impact your performance in your other subjects.

Stretching yourself too thinly because you think “all medicine applicants do at least 4” isn’t going to do you any favours.

Benefits Of Taking 3 A Levels

Here are some of the reasons that you might consider sticking to only 3 A-levels:

More Concentrated Focus

When pursuing only three A-levels, you can devote more time and energy to each subject.

This allows you to develop a deeper understanding of the material, improving your performance in each subject.

By focusing on fewer subjects, you can excel in each one and maximise the chances of achieving top grades.

A strong academic performance across three A-levels is more valuable than mediocre results in four.

Time For Extracurricular Activities

By taking only three A-levels, you’ll have more time to engage in extracurricular activities.

These activities can enhance your university application by demonstrating your commitment and passion outside the academic realm.

For instance, participating in medical work experience, volunteering, research projects or other non-academic pursuits can show admission officers your dedication to the field of medicine.

This can be invaluable when applying to medical school, as universities increasingly value applicants’ extracurricular experiences.

Less Stress

At the end of the day, limiting yourself to three A-levels can contribute to a healthier work-life balance.

With fewer subjects to manage, you’ll likely experience less stress, which can positively impact your mental health and overall well-being.

By maintaining a more balanced life, you can not only perform better academically but also enjoy your time in school.

Pursuing too many subjects at once may lead to burnout, which can negatively affect your performance. Thus, focusing on three A-levels can foster a more sustainable time studying.

Benefits Of Taking 4 A Levels

Here are some of the reasons that you might want to stretch yourself across four subjects:

Standing Out To Universities

When applying to medicine, taking 4 A-levels can make your application stand out to universities.

While plenty of students simply take 3 A-level subjects, having an additional A-level shows initiative, motivation, and strong academic capabilities.

It demonstrates that you are able to balance a heavier workload and manage time effectively, which are essential skills for a successful medical career.

Backup Option

Taking 4 A-levels might also provide you with a backup option in case you don’t get the grades you anticipated in one of your subjects.

If you achieve a lower grade in one subject, having an additional A-level could help you meet the required number of A grades for medical school admissions.

Additionally, should you change your mind about pursuing medicine, having 4 A-levels could make you a more competitive applicant for other fields of study.

Personal Interest

Lastly, taking 4 A-levels allows you to pursue additional subjects based on your personal interests.

Medical schools value well-rounded applicants who demonstrate diverse interests outside of their chosen field.

Studying an additional subject, such as a language, a humanities course, or a creative subject, showcases your intellectual curiosity and can broaden your skillset, both of which are beneficial in your future medical profession.

Further Maths As An Easy Win

If you’re one of those students who is contemplating whether to take a fourth A-level and you’re already enrolled in Maths, then Further Maths can be a bit of an ‘easy win.’

It can act as a less demanding but highly beneficial addition to your application, particularly when compared to incorporating an entirely unrelated subject.

Further Maths typically extends the concepts learned in A-level Maths, offering deeper insight and practice in areas like algebra, calculus, and geometry, among others.

This means that a lot of the foundational knowledge required for Further Maths is already covered in your Maths A-level.

Consequently, the time you’d usually allocate to getting to grips with the basics of a brand-new subject can instead be spent on enhancing your understanding and skills in an area you’re already familiar with.

While a lot of medicine applicants will be studying maths, Further Maths can help you stand out by demonstrating a strong quantitative background.

It’s an opportunity to show your mastery of complex problems and analytical thinking—skills highly sought after in the medical field.

A Compromise: The Extended Project Qualification

The Extended Project Qualification is an independent research project that allows students to dive deep into a topic they are passionate about.

The project can be a 5,000-word dissertation, an investigation, an artefact, or even a performance.

Students go through the process of proposing, planning, researching, and then finally presenting their project, all while being supervised by a teacher.

An EPQ offers students the chance to showcase a range of skills that medical schools find appealing, such as critical thinking, project management, and research aptitude.

It also allows students to explore topics directly related to medicine, offering a talking point during interviews and a unique angle in personal statements.

Here are some of the advantages of opting for an EPQ alongside 3 A-levels:

  1. Less Intensive than a Fourth A-Level: While the EPQ requires dedication, its workload is generally considered to be less than that of an additional A-level subject.
  2. Flexibility: The EPQ allows you to work at your own pace, making it easier to balance alongside A-levels.
  3. Skill Development: The independent nature of an EPQ cultivates skills that are not only useful for university but are also invaluable in a medical career, such as critical analysis and effective communication.
  4. Application Enhancement: An EPQ related to medicine can significantly bolster a medical school application. It’s often seen as evidence of a genuine interest in the medical field, which can differentiate your application from others.
  5. UCAS Points: Though not equivalent to an A-level, a high grade in your EPQ can still contribute to your overall UCAS points, making you more competitive as an applicant.

Final Thoughts

I actually took 5 subjects at A-level, although one of those was Further Maths, so it was really only like taking 4 different classes.

However, I hope from this article you can appreciate that 5 subjects is complete overkill and in no way necessary for a medical school application.

I’ve always just got on well with school exams so was fairly confident that I could take 5 subjects and not drop my grades in any of them.

Loads of students will get an offer for medicine with only 3 A-level subjects every year, but if you’re confident 4 won’t be too much of a stretch for you then I’d say go for it.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.