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Your options to get a degree

Find out the different ways you can go to uni, including what to do if you don't have A-levels

There's more than one way to get into university. And you don't have to follow the traditional routes. Once you know your options, you can choose the best route for you.

Learning about your options when you're at school can help you choose your subjects wisely and prepare for uni.

How to get into university

Depending which study pathway you choose you'll earn different qualifications, but they can all lead to university study. Your path to university is unique to you. You can follow one of the study routes below or combine different options to suit you. For example, you could start studying vocationally and switch to an academic route later on.

There are 3 main study pathways:

  • Academic study – GCSEs and A-Levels
  • Vocational study – BTECs and vocational courses
  • Work-based learning – Apprenticeships

Qualifications and study levels

Before we look at the different pathways in detail, let's talk about qualifications and study levels. At school and college, you usually call qualifications by their name, like ‘GCSE’ and 'A Level'. The same qualifications are referred to by their level in college, university and employment, such as 'Level 3'.

You'll need to complete studies at Level 3 before you apply to university. Level 3 studies equate to A levels.

All of the Level 3 study options below can make you eligible for university:

  • full-time study at school or college, or with a training provider
  • work-based learning – working or volunteering for at least 20 hours a week and studying part-time
  • an advanced apprenticeship

Find out more about your level 3 choices and what you can do at 16 from UCAS or Career Pilot, or explore work-based learning options with all about school leavers.

Academic study

Traditional academic study involves getting your GCSEs, progressing to A Levels, then doing an undergraduate degree at university.


You'll choose some GCSE subjects to study alongside your core courses at 13 years old. Choosing subjects that relate to the degree you want to do can help you prepare for university, and give you a better chance of getting accepted to the course you want to study. But don't worry if you don't know what you want to do a degree in yet.

Lots of degrees have minimum GCSE requirements in core subjects like English and Maths, but usually don't have requirements for optional subjects.

A Levels

Studying A Levels at Level 3 is a good choice if you want to study a range of subjects and prefer exams to ongoing assessments. You'll study 3 subjects equally and complete some coursework, but most of your assessments will be exams at the end of Year 13.

To study A Levels, you usually need GCSE Maths and English at Grade 4 or above, and you may need Grade 5 in specific subjects you want to continue.

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Vocational study

Vocational courses are great if you learn best by doing things and prefer coursework to exams. You'll study one subject area and gain work experience as part of your course. If you're not sure what kind of learner you are, take our Learning Preferences Quiz.

Vocational study involves:

  • BTECs or other Level 2 vocational courses
  • T Levels or other Level 3 vocational courses
  • Top-up degrees, HNCs or HNDs

You'll be assessed by regular practical assessments, coursework, and some exams on most qualifications. You might choose Level 2 subjects to study between 13 and 16 alongside your core GCSEs.

You'll usually need 4 to 6 GCSEs at grades 4 – 9 including English and Maths in order to do vocational study at Level 3. You can re-take GCSE English or Maths alongside vocational qualifications if you meet all other entry criteria.

T Levels

T Levels are a great choice at Level 3 if you like a mixture of classroom teaching and hands-on, practical learning.

If you choose to study T Levels, you'll study one subject and undertake industry placements during your course. You'll spend 20% of your time in the workplace and the rest of your time in college.

You'll be assessed through a mixture of technical qualifications, similar to apprenticeships, and be tested on specialist industry skills you've learnt in the classroom.

To apply for T Levels, you might need a Grade 5 in specific subjects you want to study.

University-level vocational study

There are several vocational study options which allow you to move into a degree on completion.

Higher National Certificates (HNCs) are equivalent to the first year of study of an undergraduate degree. They usually take 1 year to complete.

Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) are equivalent to the first 2 years of an undergraduate degree. They usually take 2 years to complete.

If you do an HNC or HND, you can start working as soon as you qualify, or you can join an undergraduate degree programme 1 or 2 years into the programme. HNCs and HNDs boost your theoretical understanding and skills for your career.

You can also do a Foundation degree (FdA), which is equivalent to 2 years of an undergraduate degree. Once you finish your foundation course, you can study a top-up degree to reach the same study level as an undergraduate degree.

Entry requirements for most FdAs depend on your subject. Sometimes you'll need specific qualifications or industry experience, but you'll usually be assessed individually when you apply.

Work-based learning

Work-based learning is ideal for you if you have a particular career in mind and want to work and learn at the same time.

Work-based learning includes:

  • intermediate apprenticeships
  • advanced apprenticeships
  • higher and degree apprenticeships

This kind of learning involves studying alongside your job. For example, you study a subject relating to your career and spend 20% of your time at college during an advanced apprenticeship. You complete most of your assessments in the workplace, including coursework units and practical assessments.

You usually need 4 to 6 GCSEs at grades 4 – 9, including English and Maths, to apply for Level 3 work-based learning. If you don't have your GCSE English or Maths, but meet the other entry criteria, you may be able to take a Level 2 functional skills qualification to meet the entry requirements.

Explore the degree apprenticeships and work based degrees you could do at Portsmouth.

Test your knowledge

See if you know your A Levels from your T Levels, and what's true and false about going to uni.

Qualifications and study levels

Drag the qualification boxes to the correct place on the table below to check your knowledge of different pathways and study levels.

Pathways Quiz

There are lots of myths around going to university. Take our Pathways Quiz to figure out if you know myth from reality.

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Applying to university

University study includes full-time undergraduate degrees and other qualifications and study options. You'll use UCAS to apply for most undergraduate courses but you should check how to apply on individual course pages.

Your university study choices include:

  • undergraduate degrees
  • top-up degrees
  • HNCs or HNDs
  • higher apprenticeships
  • degree apprenticeships

You don't have to start university straight away – you can take time out between completing your previous studies and starting your degree. Some students take a year out (known as a gap year) to travel, start working, retake some qualifications or earn some work experience. You can also take a longer break from studying and return as a mature student.

Recognition of Prior Learning

If you've already studied at Level 4 or above, or gained relevant Level 4 experience through work, you can apply for Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) when you apply for your course. RPL converts your university-level knowledge, skills and experience into credits to put towards your new qualification so you can start your course at the appropriate level. This also reduces the credits and time you need to study to complete your course.

Find out more about RPL and how to apply

Hear from our students

Take a look at our Student Ambassador blogs to find out about their GCSE and A level choices, and how they made their uni decision.

More about your choices