Do A-level grades matter?

Depends on what you want to do, is the short answer.

The rest of this post is a short motivation followed by a longer but still partial answer*. On Saturday I read an article on that day’s coronation of Charles III, written by an A-level student already worrying about her exams. Students worrying about exams always makes me a bit sad. I like to see students working at learning physics – it was a pleasure to teach a computational physics class last week – but thinking about students hunched over books or laptops revising makes me a bit sad. This raises the question: Is this revision a necessary evil or an unnecessary burden on young people who could be doing more fun and more useful things with their young lives.

So does a grade, in say A-level mathematics, matter? If you want to get one of the very-well-paid and highly competitive jobs in investment banking in London, it does. There is, I think, a widely-held perception that employers in investment banking largely recruit graduates from a select group of universities. One article goes for: “Oxford, Cambridge, London School of Economics (LSE), UCL, Imperial College London and Warwick”. Getting into these universities requires excellent grades, eg entry to BSc Economics at LSE requires an A* in A-level mathematics, the highest possible grade.

So for such highly competitive careers, competition starts early with competing hard to get the highest possible grades. And early means, at the latest, eighteen years old.

A very different career is that of a physics teacher. For example, for the teacher-training programme at the University of Manchester, you require a 2:2 physics degree – from any university. The University of Kent requires B in A-level mathematics to do a physics degree, for example.

So eighteen-year-old aspiring investment bankers have much more pressure on them, than eighteen-year-old aspiring teachers. This is how the world is, one career is much more competitive to get into than the other. And so the answer to the question up top depends on who you are and what career you have in mind.

* And there are related questions such as do grades matter more or less important than what you actually learn, in terms of skills. For example, if you are interested in a data science career then A-level grades and a degree may get you an interview. But it is very likely that a potential employer will want to directly assess if you can write computer code to quantitatively analyse data and draw conclusions from that data. So you need to learn that skill, not just get good grades.

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