Choosing subject combinations

Some science, technology, engineering and maths courses and careers require you to have the ‘right’ combination of subjects at A level/Higher or equivalent, but others are more flexible. There is no golden rule but doing a little research can help you make smart choices.

Here’s a quick guide, but it’s important to find out the exact entry requirements for any course you are considering – talk to people in the know, including Admissions Tutors, and look at up-to-date prospectuses, course and career handbooks and websites, such as the UCAS website.

You’ll obviously want to choose subjects that you’re good at and that you’ll enjoy, but you also need to find out what’s available. Apart from AS/A levels or Highers, you may have the opportunity to take a more work-related programme (or a mixture of both). This would give you a vocational slant, and, possibly work experience, but should still allow you to apply to higher education (HE).

As a starting point, it’s a good idea to consider the ‘core’ subjects of maths, physics, chemistry and biology. If you do not have a clear idea of which HE STEM course, or courses, you are interested in applying to then studying two of theses ‘core’ subjects will help keep your options open. This is fine if the subjects you’re eliminating are not ones that you are likely to need or be interested in.

  • Maths is required for most HE courses in maths, statistics, physics, engineering and technology. Maths also supports lots of other subjects, such as economics and computing and can be valuable for subjects such as the biosciences as well. As maths may be difficult to ‘pick up’ later, think very carefully before dropping it at A level/Higher – it is relevant to more subjects than you may think, particularly statistical analysis.
  •  Physics is required for many HE courses in the physical sciences, engineering and technology. Physics may also support chemistry and some biological subjects.
  •  Chemistry is important for entry to HE courses in chemistry, chemical engineering, veterinary science, pharmacy and many biological, medical and biochemical subjects.
  •  Biology is often needed for HE courses in biological sciences (e.g. plant science, marine biology, microbiology and zoology) and may be required or preferred for training in certain health professions (e.g. midwifery, podiatry, physiotherapy, and speech and language therapy).

Maths and physics is a good combination for many HE courses, including engineering, geophysics, astronomy/space science, nanotechnology, naval architecture, materials science and meteorology, to name just a few. Chemistry and biology are good combinations for areas such as biotechnology, medicine, genetics, dentistry, forensic science and dietetics.

Taking a more general science subject at A level/Higher, such as economics, geography, psychology, geology or computer science, may be an option if they are of particular interest to you. Entry requirements for these kinds of subjects at HE-level are normally flexible but do remember to ask which subjects will be useful for the course as well as those that are stated as needed for entry.

For many careers and courses, you can gain entry with a broad range of subjects, so you could combine maths or science with social sciences, arts or humanities and these will help broaden your skill set.

It may be very useful or occasionally necessary for certain careers and HE courses to offer an arts/science combination. For instance, music with maths and physics may be required for sound recording, history and chemistry for art conservation work, arts combine well with science for architecture, and a foreign language is useful with science or maths for any work overseas, patent work etc.