Around the age of 15/16 many students are faced with the dilemma of what courses to pick in their IB Diploma, A-Levels or similar courses of study. All through school, children and then young adults are repeatedly asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and as time rolls by, the answer to this question moves from being a simple exercise to something that can really cause anxiety. 

Not set in stone

To be sure, they are an important set of choices to make. It’s equally important, however, to note that these decisions, at this stage, do not stream a person in an unchangeable direction. In an article for InsideHigherEd, Doug Lederman draws on data from the US Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics that shows almost one third of university students change their majors at least once at university. Even in a direct-entry system (a system that streams students into very focused degree areas in the freshman year) there are a plethora of conversion Master’s degrees that allow students to change direction. Also, there are many graduate entry courses for professional careers. Clifford Chance (a prestigious UK Law Firm) stated that of their lawyers, the split between those who did an undergraduate law degree and those who studied something else was 50:50. What they did indicate as a common factor were high grades in the degrees undertaken. 

Limitations on choices

When picking high school courses students are limited by what is actually available at the school and also what the curriculum allows. For example: the IB Diploma breadth is stressed with students selecting courses from at least 5 of 6 academic areas, with 3 of these subjects at Higher level. Within the A-Level system a student typically focuses on 3-4 subjects. By and large, students themselves have little or no control over which school they attend nor what curriculum is available and, as such, admissions staff at universities understand this when considering future applications. What students can control is choosing courses that they enjoy and in turn will hopefully be motivated to do well in and this is where the admissions staff focus will be. 

The ideal mix

The best advice any educator can give a student is this: “Pick what you love” in the context of the choices available. With the IB Diploma I advise students to choose the best three Higher Level (HL) options that they can and then take what they need to within the rules of the IB Diploma at the Standard Level (SL). HLs are the student’s choice, SLs meet the IB’s demands on breadth. Now, this being said: if a student has a specific and well-developed (and well-researched) career aspiration then that may also dictate what the choices should be. For example; a prospective engineering student would keep the majority of higher education options open by taking HL Math, Physics and Chemistry as these are required by the majority (but not all) of the direct-entry engineering programmes. Not taking these options may limit the early options of a potential engineer. The same with medicine; chemistry is, by and large, a must and biology is highly recommended. In these cases a little research on various university websites can help inform about these requirements. It should be noted however, that a huge range of degrees and career paths have no required subjects (law is a very good example) and therefore choosing three challenging subjects that you enjoy is encouraged. 

Value added

The word “challenging” is used specifically here. It is not recommended to take a subject, particularly at the Higher Level, which is not challenging and might be seen as an easy option by an admissions officer. A classic example would be a language course where a student is a native or near-native speaker and yet takes a course designed for acquisition. Yes, the grade may be high but as it will not be a challenge, the student may be judged to have an unfair advantage and thus devalue their whole academic portfolio in the eyes of the assessing person. It is far better in this case for a student to select a new language to study from the beginning as additional languages are always valued by universities and employers alike. Contrasting this, I have often seen students go the other way with regards to mathematics, believing that Math Analysis and Approaches (AA) is a better option than Math Applications and Interpretation (AI) for keeping pathways open, but the reality is that these are often not choices the student would dream of taking. Both options open a vast range of directions and opportunities and in many cases there is no preference by admissions staff, but the final grade may be very different and thus impact admissibility – for example: a 7 in Math AA SL as opposed to a 5 in Math AI SL creates at least a 2 point difference and this can be significant in highly selective university programmes where math is not a prerequisite subject (such as law). Broadly speaking, the mathematically focused areas (engineering, economics, the classic sciences etc.) do favour (or require) the former with the latter being more useful in the other social sciences and arts where data analysis is key. Doing well in one would be better than doing average in the other in many cases. 

Physical options

One final thing to consider is the primary geographical destination of choice for tertiary education.

Broadly speaking, if a student is looking towards North America as a university destination then their course choices decision, at this stage, is less fraught as the system there is geared towards the Liberal Arts & Sciences philosophy and expects students to be unsure. Those aiming to remain in Hong Kong or are looking at the UK or Europe there is more need to consider the pathways opened or restricted by the choices made at this stage (though there are many options for those who are less sure such as Liberal Arts degrees, the majority of social sciences (including law) as well as a massive number of joint-honours degrees). One of the best guides the author has seen, and one he uses regularly, is that produced by the Russell Group of UK Universities. The guide, Informed Choices, is written specifically for the 15-16 age group and covers those who are sure of their pathway and those who just want to keep their options open. It is a resource I recommend to all students and parents when it comes to these decisions. 

Facilitating subjects?

Old advice used to be that there was a set list of subjects (called “facilitating subjects”) that students should study to keep options open but this is no longer true, as there are so many different pathways, with different skill sets.  The “one size fits all” approach is foolish and patently wrong as all students are different, with different aptitudes, interests and abilities. As the Russell Group itself points out:

We have sometimes heard other people suggest that facilitating subjects are the only subjects pupils should consider to get into a Russell Group university, or that you must take them for any degree. This has never been the case.source.


To conclude; choose subjects that best relate to your planned future (if you have a plan) and/or reflect the subjects you most enjoy from what is available. You typically do better in subjects you enjoy than those you don’t. Do some research if you have specific universities in mind or specific careers. Talk to your guidance counsellors. Pick levels that challenge you and let you grow but also be careful of not over-reaching at this stage, good grades in challenging options will give you the most options you’d want after high school. Remember, it is never too late to change direction if you discover something new and engaging to do. Being great at what you do will make you successful in life, whereas being average (or even poor) at what you do could be a serious threat in the dynamic and ever-changing world. 

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One of my favorite short pieces of advice is that from the late, great Alan Watts, what would you like to do if money were no object?