Choosing subjects to study economics at university

Choosing your A-Level, IB or equivalent subjects is often the first step many people take towards preparing themselves to study economics, management or indeed any other course at university. Having done A-Levels personally, my advice will be slightly A-Level-centric but I’ll try my best not to alienate the IB folks :) Oh and please remember this is just what I personally feel, there are no real ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ when picking subjects and what’s below is just putting my thoughts to paper as I try and recollect what went through my mind when I was at this stage little over 2 years ago.

First and foremost, do what you’re good at and what you enjoy! But at the same time, don’t rule out subjects just because you haven’t got a natural gift for them – you’ll just have to put in more hard work and keep at it. Actually enjoying it will just make it a whole lot easier to excel in it – for me economics lessons were more eagerly awaited than my free periods. Ok, I exaggerate, but only a bit!

Maths – do I need it?

For the highest ranked institutions (i.e. Top 20 or Russell Group) you won’t be doing your chances of getting an offer any favours by not taking maths. While at A-Level, there’s not much maths in Economics, many Economics university courses do contain maths (albeit relatively basic in many cases) – this is especially true for BSc and Oxbridge economics degrees.

However, this does vary from uni to uni so be sure to e-mail or telephone your choices to ask what their stance is. Even though some economics courses won’t explicitly state maths as being a required or even desired subject, many will expect you to have it.

Maths exams, at A-Level at least, are usually fairly straight forward if you’re prepared to put in hours of work as the format of exams doesn’t usually change too much from year to year.

If you’ve already chosen your subjects and maths isn’t one of them, reading a book like Mathematics for Economics and Business may help, especially if you can weave in a comment about it in your personal statement to say that you have tried to make up for not studying maths at A-Level. I plan on buying such a book to keep my maths skills sharpened over the summer (me and maths haven’t had the… closest relationship over the last few years).

And what about Further Maths?

This one’s a bit more tough. Statistics for some courses such as Oxford’s Economics and Management show that as many as 9 out of 10 applicants have further maths and while some universities have it down as a desired subject, none (to the best of my knowledge) have it listed as being a requirement.

In IB-Speak, the general consensus is that A-Level Maths and Further Maths = IB Maths HL and Further Maths SL.

My view – if you’re good at maths, go for it. Word of caution however; some unis won’t give it that much weighting so you may be better off by doing an additional subject (e.g. taking Maths, Further Maths and 2 additional subjects as opposed to just 1 more) – again something to ask the uni tutors before you apply or if possible even before you start A-Levels.

Economics at A-Level anyone?

This is one for you to decide on yourself, unless of course your school/college doesn’t offer econ in which case the decision will have been made for you. Don’t worry, this shouldn’t put you at a disadvantage – it maybe worth asking a teacher to mention this in their reference if you had intended to take the subject had it been available.

Most unis don’t ask for economics at A-Level and by speaking to current undergrads or looking at course content material in detail you get the impression that the study of economics at A-Level is a lot different to what you’d do at university level. For starters, there’s hardly any maths involved in A-Level syllabi and it’s more than likely that economics will be taught from the ground up in uni anyway as there will be some who are studying the discipline for the first time.

At A-Level economics is heavily essay based, for example WJEC Economics involves 3 essay-orientated modules for the second year with no short answer questions at all (all questions require at least half to 3-quarters of A4 of writing as a minimum). If your other subjects are, say double maths and Physics, it’d probably be worth taking Economics at A-Level, at least to get some practice writing essays. If however your other subjects include History, Politics and English and your real interest lie in politics, consider taking a subject that’s more science-based instead. Others would also add that taking economics at A-Level shows that you’re committed to the subject and that it’s not just a last minute decision to apply for economics.

Business Studies, does it have street cred with tutors?

Honestly speaking, business studies is seen as a bit of a lighter option and some universities admit not liking it too much, claiming it’s not ‘effective preparation’ for the degree work – lists of other subjects that are thought of similarly can be found on websites for Cambridge and for LSE.

There is a small overlap between what you’ll study in economics with what you’ll study in business studies at A-Level but you’ll approach similar themes from slightly different angles. As for whether it’ll help grasp management theories for management degrees – having only studied biz at GCSE, I’m speaking from what I’ve seen in my friends’ business studies files and coursework but I think it does offer a foundation into the topics you will be studying in management at uni. Do you really need it though? Again no, I opted to spend time on extra-curriculars such as Duke of Edinburgh and reading books covering aspects of business/management such as Thinking Strategically which offers an insight into game theory, providing examples of how its applications are used in business.

So the bottom line is that if you think you’ll enjoy it, go for it. Even if you are doing a business course it probably won’t be required (but check with your target universities about this) and don’t expect it to be valued too highly by unis. Similarly, it’s not a prerequisite to pursue a career.

In my case, it didn’t make sense to choose Business Studies as a 5th subject – rather than studying 5 subjects at A or even AS-Level, I thought it would be more beneficial to spend my time on other things as already mentioned. I couldn’t pick it as a 4th subject either as this slot was taken by Geography. Being as interested as I was, I feel this was a good decision as I still kept up to date with business events without having the burden of an additional subject to study – even though it’s not the most respected subject, it still has quite a significant work burden. Whether or not you take it boils down to what your other subject choices are (you don’t want more than 1 ‘blacklisted’ subject) but don’t think that anyone interested in business has to do business studies to show this interest – there are many more ways of showing this in your personal statement.

The Ideal Combination of subjects, what is it?

Ideally, you want a mix between ‘science’ and ‘arts’ subjects regardless of what course you want to do. If you’re doing just economics or a combination of economics and business or management, then maths is strongly recommended. If however you’re doing a course like economics and politics or economics with a language, it is quite likely that there won’t be as much emphasis on maths. For pure economics or economics and maths/stats courses, further maths is strongly advised.

A brief word on languages and sciences – unis seem to like both these (especially physics and chemistry and provided you’re not taking a language you already speak).

What’s really important is that you have a chat with your prospective unis – see what their stance is on various subjects and get their views as early on as possible – don’t be afraid to get in touch even before you have sat your GCSEs.

What subjects did you take and why?

I took Maths, French, Economics and Geography at A-Level (same combination for AS also).

Maths – While I wouldn’t say I was a natural, it was something I could grasp with time and effort and it made sense to take it.
French – Initially I was reluctant to take French but after strong recommendations from family, friends and teachers I eventually stopped resisting and put it down on my subject choice form – and I’m glad I picked it. It’s been really rewarding and enjoyable, especially the project (where I looked at how internet surfing habits vary between Brits and the French) and oral (where I did a presentation on the Paris Motorshow and basically talked about cars).  If you have the chance to choose a language and you enjoy it, regardless of what you want to do at/after uni, do it!
Geography – I’d enjoyed it and done alright in past examinations. Tied in a bit with economics in terms of development but more than that, it was something I enjoyed.
Economics – I quite like the subject!

Touching on what unis value most once again, to give you an idea – both the offers I’ve narrowed down to are conditional on me achieving A grades in Maths and French – not necessarily economics – giving a good idea of how tutors perceive languages and mathematics.