Pre-U Subject Choices for UK-Bound Students

Earlier this year, the Russell Group published their 2015/16 “Informed Choice” pamphlet, accompanied by a video, explaining the value and importance of taking facilitating subjects as a dominant part of a student’s Pre-U subject choices. These facilitating subjects, e.g. the sciences, history, maths, further maths, languages, English Literature and geography, as the lobbying group for the 24 research-intensive universities characterised, open up a wide range of options for university entries and career choices. Indeed, across the Russell Group universities and more specifically the top echelon of this group e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, facilitating subjects go far more than mere “opening up wide options”. Their “preferred subjects” reflect their umbrella group’s facilitating subjects, albeit with more restrictions and are seen as subjects to rigorously formulate the skills necessary for different courses at their universities. LSE and certain colleges of Oxford and Cambridge openly publish a list of preferred and non-preferred subjects. Generally, non-traditional ones such as accounting, business studies, sociology fall into the latter group. Indeed, reading the Russell Group’s “Informed Choice” pamphlet and watching their videos will immediately kick this question into your mind – “Why does this seem so aloof of the Malaysian context?” Very clearly, “Informed Choice” is meant for the British audience. Malaysian schools/colleges are shaped very differently, likewise the subjects they offer and the normative biases that parents, peers and teachers tend to have.


Where should I start?

Generally, you will have to consider three things – the prerequisite subjects that your preferred courses have, the preferences your universities/courses have and whether or not you will be able immerse yourself into the joyous journey of learning the subject. While the first two are technically important criteria that you should never forsake, the last one tend to be underrated. I cannot stress how important that is, given that you will be spending more than a year studying that subject, dedicating your soul to the devil just to go to university. You might as well just murder yourself over a subject that you will enjoy.

Let’s deal with the bits where you’re faced with a Hobson’s choice i.e. the first two criteria are relatively simple to fulfil. Go on to the websites of the courses that you are applying to and take note of the required and suggested subjects. For instance, Physics at Oxford requires applicants to have studied Maths and Physics at Pre-University level and likewise, Medicine at Edinburgh will require Chemistry and Biology. In the “Informed Choice” pamphlet, though insufficient and inadequate, there is a generalised list of prerequisites for commonly applied courses. These are essential subjects that you must take to be considered by your prospective universities.

Figuring out which subjects are not preferred by your course also follows a similar approach. Though most universities will not make it explicitly clear that they don’t prefer certain subjects, Cambridge and LSE definitely publishes their own non-exhaustive list. Nonetheless, their list generally applies to the other Russell Group universities, having all collectively expressed that they prefer at least 2 facilitative subjects before releasing their first series of “Informed Choice” guidelines. There are, however, caveats regarding this. The most competitive courses and universities tend to prefer applicants not to have any “soft” subjects e.g. media studies, accounting (even for accounting applicants), law (yes, for law applicants as well) at all. Keep in mind that while not all non-facilitative subjects are soft subjects, all soft subjects are non-facilitative. Indeed, there is hardly any strict definitions of what soft and hard subjects are but the generic implication is that hard subjects formulate the core skills that are useful in undergraduate study rather than specific skills that soft subjects tend to train. Another generalisation that you can take note of is that traditional subjects such as economics, the hard sciences, maths and the ones in the list of facilitative subjects are also considered to be hard subjects. Moreover, there are some statistical backing to this preference. In 2008, Durham University ran a study on the relative difficulty of different A-level subjects and there was an obvious trend that across all 5 statistical models used, “traditional” and facilitative subjects tend to be harder than otherwise. Though more than half a decade ago, deviations hardly were significant across years.

The last bit is fairly straightforward at face value, choose the subjects that you will actually enjoy. Of course, if you’re eyeing on the more competitive universities e.g. Oxbridge, LSE, Imperial, look only at the traditional/hard subjects. However, considering the different circumstances UK-bound Malaysians can be in – being enrolled in a college/school with limited, bundled subject choices, restricted by IBDP requirements or simply limited by the choices available via STPM/Matrikulasi, this is a tricky question to answer.


In the foreseeable future, accessible Malaysian schools/colleges are probably not going to teach subjects like Latin, politics, geography, history and classical studies. And you have just told me that I shouldn’t take accounting, business studies, law and a whole lot of subjects that are bundled together. Just what subjects should I take?

Indeed, unless you have the luck and privilege of being admitted to the more resourceful schools such as KTJ, KYUEM or ISKL, your choices of subjects will be restricted. For one, elite schools like these offer almost every traditional subjects there is, including A-level Geography, Music, History and IB French, German etc. If you are in schools of this sort, you don’t have any problems. Just choose the traditional subjects that you will enjoy and are related to the course that you want to further your studies in. Elsewhere across the board, the hard sciences and maths are often bundled together in for A-level, Matrikulasi colleges and STPM schools. The problem begins for students who wish to take on the social sciences/humanities in competitive universities. Often, traditional humanities/social sciences are bundled together with non-traditional ones e.g. “English Literature, Sociology, Law”, “Economics, Maths, Accounting, Business Studies” for A level, “General Studies, Accounting, Economics and Maths” for STPM.

Under these restrictions, it is important to recall that the social sciences and humanities often don’t require a stringent traditional social sciences/humanities subject combination at pre-university. History degrees don’t even need history as a prerequisite and would see English Literature as an indication of having the sufficient skills to cope with such a reading and writing-heavy subject. Likewise, economics only required maths. Given that, it is perfectly fine filling up the rest of your subject spots with the sciences or any other available traditional subject. Keep in mind that if you are not eyeing at the most difficult universities, it is alright to take the bare minimum of 2 traditional and/or facilitative subjects that the Russell Group universities collectively prefer. Given that, a subject combination such as “Economics, Maths, Further Math, Physics” will work for economics, accounting and similar subjects while “Maths, Chemistry, Biology, English Literature” seems adequate for law, history and accounting.  It is unlikely for IB students to face this problem, making it almost uniquely one for A-level, Matrikulasi and STPM students.

For the latter, where schools tend to be inflexible and under-resourced in terms of subject choices, it is perfectly fine writing to the universities themselves when applying, explaining the restrictive circumstances you are in. Of course, it is unreasonable to make someone who wants to apply for a history course to take a full “Sejarah, English Literature, Ekonomi” combination where that combination is unlikely to exist except in the more resourced urban schools. Likewise, expecting a Matrikulasi student to take that subject combination is also unreasonable given that it doesn’t exist. On top of explaining about the circumstances you are in to the universities, your UCAS personal statement should then be able to immensely display your academic potential in the course that you are applying. In that case, just take whatever that’s available to you e.g. “Science Stream” or “Accounting Stream”; it’s another Hobson’s choice.


Wait, just to be clear, you’re saying that even if I want to be a lawyer, accountant or business manager, I shouldn’t be taking law, accounting and/or business studies if possible? What about taking economics and business studies together?

The short and perhaps, grim, answers are yes and no respectively.

As explained earlier, the three subjects listed in the first question i.e. law, accounting and business studies are soft subjects. They should only be taken, at best, an additional subject. For applicants to the most competitive universities, just avoid them. Lawyers don’t need to do law at A-level (I doubt this subject is an option for other examinations). In fact, building the core analytical and writing skills via a mixture of essay subjects e.g. Literature, History, the social sciences and/or the hard sciences tend to be more preferable at university. Likewise, building up the quantitative, analytical and thinking skills via a mixture of traditional social sciences, mathematics and hard sciences would be more preferable and helpful.

For the second question, economics and business studies are considered to be overlapping subjects. However, economics is a traditional subject while business studies isn’t. Given that, you should either take economics and ditch business studies or take business studies as an additional subject and ditch economics. Generally, however, where economics is available as an option at your school/college, taking business studies isn’t a wise option. For instance, LSE explicitly has this preference.


Just what if I have no idea what do I want to study at university?

That then depends on the extent of uncertainty that you have. We will use a scale with 3 spectrums here – “I can’t decide between studying course A and B”, “I know that I want to study something in, per se, the humanities but I have yet to settle on a particular course” and “I have absolutely no idea”. Notice that this is a more in depth dilemma for A-level students given the immense options that they have. For IBDP, STPM and Matrikulasi students, choosing your subjects along these principles will do.

For the first one on the scale – “I can’t decide between studying course A and B”, it shouldn’t be highly difficult to take up subjects that fulfil the needs of both courses. Of course, this is under the assumption that there are some significant differences between them e.g. PPE and Medicine. Notice that these two are rather extreme but it is not impossible to take up, for instance, Biology, Chemistry, Maths and also History; of course, taking physics as well would be good and it is unlikely that your uncertainty will persist for more than 3 months, whereby thereafter you can drop the more unrelated subject. For more similar choices such as PPE and Economics or Chemical Engineering and Physics, incorporating the needs of both subjects won’t be difficult e.g. English Lit/History, Economics, Maths and Further Maths fulfil the former while a standard Physics, Chemistry, Maths, Further Maths combination works for the latter.

Moving up the scale and we find ourselves in a situation where a student only managed to narrow down to one particular field. The key idea then is to take up traditional and facilitating subjects within that particular field. It is perfectly fine going cross-disciplinary e.g. a mixture of social science, humanities and sciences as long as the field that you wish to be in is reflected in your subject choices. Applicants who might be set on the social sciences but unsure of which particular course to further their studies in might be interested in taking a quantitatively analytical subject e.g. maths and economics, coupled with another more qualitative one e.g. geography to cater for the less quantitative-centric social science courses. On the contrary, while it is generally normal alright to apply for the more maths intensive science subjects e.g. Physics, Engineering with a full natural science with maths combination, that is hardly optimal. The best solution is to decide as soon as possible, preferably within a 3-month period.

Lastly, for the “I have absolute no idea what I want to further my studies in” students who will have a seriously difficult time figuring out which subject combination will be best. The issue with most standardised qualifications is that your options are generally restricted. As per mentioned earlier, you should be deciding as soon as possible before finalising your subject choices, optimally within a 3-month period of starting your course, so that you will be able to catch up with the work done by your possibly new classmates. Generally, in terms of subjects, the idea is to have a mixture of subjects from different fields. Although conventional wisdom is that taking a pure natural science plus maths combination opens up all doors, that isn’t necessarily the case. Most of the humanities and some social science courses will want to see indication of academic writing and reading capability, from which subjects like English Literature, History and the Languages can indicate. Given that, start off with a mixture and then narrow down your course choices and Pre-U subject choices as soon as possible.


So is this the holy book that I must follow?

No, this article is entirely advisory and based on the team’s research, experience and access to various sources of information.

Written by: The CollegeLAH Team


One thought on “Pre-U Subject Choices for UK-Bound Students

  1. safwan says:

    Thank you for the brilliant article . Wish I had stumbled upon this before I made my choice for my subject combination. But I would like to add a few things to this article.

    1. This is a game and ground battle to gain admission to top universities , one should consider which subjects you can better score , more highly than the one you might have more passion in but have relatively lower chances of scoring.

    For example , you might have a deep passion for History and hate physics. But deep down you know you can score better in physics more than history . Because usualy subjective and essays subjects like sociology and history are very hard to score because different examiners have different preferences and they are subjected to their own qualitative opinion in marking your essays. Therefore its quite hard to arbitrary decide whether the content in your essay is ‘ right ‘ or ‘wrong’.

    Science subjects like physics and chemistry are more objective in nature where a wrong and a right is easily identifiable. Put in few study tricks , you can score well in your papers despite not being much passionate in these subjects and have a higher chance to get into your preferred course.

    2. For oxbridge and lse yes they might consider subjects like accounting and sociology as less academically rigour . But Manchester regard accounting as a traditional subject and UCL have clearly stated that Law and Sociology are on their list of preferred subjects.

    I have known few people who got into UCL’s competitive LLB by doing both Law and Accounting at A level . Even some succesful applicants getting into likes of LSE and Cambridge have done Law and sociology as part of their A- Level , without doing the usually preferred subjects like History and English Literature . So long as you have done two other preferred traditional subjects as part of your combination , you will do just fine.

    The point is , make sure that you scored tremendously in your exams regardless the subjects you take, the university will value your application. So far as Malaysia is concern, I dont think the local colleges offer much of those in the non traditional list , and usually colleges will advice students to take both maths and econs coupled with two other subjects, as an ensurity that you will have a strong application into universities.

    3. Sometimes you need to be realistic and analyse the situation very well. Personally I think A level is not the period where you delve into the subjects you are passionate about but rather its about how well you scored . You can enjoy the former during university life and in your advance graduate degrees. Bottom line , know the game , and play by the game.

    Im writing this not because I am right , but because I have been wronged many times especially during my A levels years and suffered a lot. But with god’s will , I have passed the tormenting period of my life with flying colours and currently enjoying my university life. I hope the same will happen to you ( who might read this comment).


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