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Further reading & research

Lots of extra work? Not really.

The following is meant to be a selection box of ideas to choose from and consult. It is not suggested that you try to read all of them on any subject, but that you select what you think might be interesting. That’s the point really – dip in, experiment and see what grabs you. Hopefully, some of them will inspire your interest even more.

A while ago the Russell Group universities published a list of skills that they wanted to see in students, who applied to them. They included:

  1. Evidence of being an independent learner

  2. Evidence of an ability to do research

  3. Evidence of an ability to write a clear and coherent essay

  4. Evidence of an ability to think critically and solve problems

  5. Evidence of an ability to contribute ideas to a discussion or debate

Following up on the suggestions below will be evidence of independent research and will give you plenty of ideas. Above all, it should show you whether your interest in a particular subject is great enough to want to study it to a much higher level. The lists are by no means definitive. Talk to your teachers and get ideas from them. Talk to students who are taking your subjects at a higher level.

Read each of the sections below for ideas for specific subjects...


Biology covers all of human biology, zoology and botany so you need to decide whether you want to study all aspects of it or just some of it. You might also want to experiment with finding out about specialist areas such as virology, microbiology, marine biology and genetics to see whether you’d like to specialise from the beginning or study more generally before deciding on any more specialist options.

Books to look at – The Chemistry of Life (Steven Rose), anything by the geneticist Steve Jones (note particularly Language of the Genes, Almost Like a Whale andY:The Ascent of Man), Genome (Matt Ridley), The Wisdom of the Genes (Wills), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Daniel Dennett), The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype (Dawkins), Virolution (Ryan), Life Ascending (Nick Lane), The Revenge of Gaia (Lovelock), 50 Genetic Ideas You Really Need To Know (Henderson), Zoobiquity (Horowitz & Bowers), Creation: The Origin of Life (Rutherford), The Sixth Extermination (Kolbert) and Great Myths of the Brain (Jarrett). Read journals such as Nature and New Scientist in particular, but all scientific journals will have biological items in them. For Biochemistry a good Handbook of Biochemistry/Principles of Biochemistry textbook is useful for backup reading as you do topics at A-level. For Genetics familiarise yourself with sex-linked conditions, genetic ratios and for population genetics the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium and find out about case studies. For Zoology look at Taxonomy (the science of classification – what do ‘species’ and ‘genus’ mean?) and at such things as the place of primates within it. TV programmes by David Attenborough and George McGavinare always of interest.

Keep articles from newspapers on medical advances. For web sites try,, Go to Biology websites on Wikipedia and Google ‘Hot’ Biology websites. There are loads on all sorts of topics.


Maths Departments seem to be interested only in the Maths you’ve done, so the more you do the better – further Maths, further -further Maths, STEP level papers etc..

Books of interest, however, might include – Fermat’s Last Theorem (Singh), Does God Play Dice and Nature’s Numbers (Stewart), Easy as Pi (Ivanov), The Music of the Primes (du Sautoy), Just Six Numbers (Rees), In Code (Flannery), Numbers, Sets and Axioms  Hamilton), The Universe and the Teacup – the Maths of Truth and Beauty (K.C. Cole), Algebra and Geometry (Beardon), Hidden  Connections, Double Meanings (Wells), Elastic Fishponds... The Maths that governs our World (Elwes), The Norm Chronicles (Blastland   Spitgethaltes), Our Mathematical Universe (Tegmark).

For websites look at,,,


What you do by way of wider reading depends on the period(s)/topics you want to study or just want to dip into because they sound interesting. A good idea is to choose a couple of topics from your Year 12 work and go into them in more depth as ‘specialist subjects’. Then do the same in Year 13. If both are very 20th century based, read up a few topics on other periods – admissions tutors are fed up with candidates who seem only to know about Hitler and Stalin and are unaware of anything before 1900. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (Mortimer) and The Winter King – Henry VII (Penn) are great introductions to their respective periods.

Arrange with your subject teacher(s) to do one or two term time essays as ‘extended essays’ in preparation for possibly sending them up to university or to have referred to in your application. Look at political philosophy (Machiavelli, Marx, Mill – the ‘Very Short Introduction to... series’ is very good) and/or one or two political biographies. General history books of interest are Long Shadows (Paris) a study of propaganda and attempts to subvert the historical record, Voodoo Histories (Aaronovitch) a look at conspiracy theories over the ages and Virtual History (Ferguson) a look at what might have happened if certain momentous events had turned out differently. Read book reviews – that way you hear what the book says and the views of the reviewer, two for the price of one!

The other key thing, if you are not already, is to become every parent’s nightmare – awkward, argumentative and bolshie. It doesn’t have to be at home – don’t get kicked out! – but get involved in debating and public speaking, take every opportunity in class to argue and express opinions, taking nothing for granted. There is no such thing in History as ‘received wisdom’.

There are loads of History websites (just Google ‘History websites’) and any topics you follow up, no matter how obscure,
will have other links. History Today and the BBC History reviews are among a host of general, as well as specialised, magazines available. Listen to History topics from the radio programme In Our Time (available in iplayer) as they contain good ideas and opinions.


You need to decide whether you are a ‘whole’ geographer or interested more in either the physical side of the subject or the human.
That will determine what you want to specialise in and read up about. Choose two or three topics from your work in Year 12 and go into greater depth in them. Arrange with your subject teacher(s) to write a couple of your Year 12 essays as ‘extended essays’ so that they can be sent or referred to in references for a university.

Books that have been particularly recommended are – Earth, An Intimate History (Fortey), Globalism and Regionalism and Capitalism as if the Earth Mattered (Porritt) Future Shock (Tofler), A Blueprint for Survival (The Ecologist and Penguin books), Population Geography (Jones), The Skeptical Environmentalist (Lomberg – indeed anything by him), Jungle: A Harrowing True, Story of Survival (Ghinsberg), Surviving Extremes (Middleton – he teaches Geography at Oxford), Earth From Space (Johnston), Belching Out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola (Thomas), anything by James Lovelock on Gaia and for the human and cultural side Tribe (Bruce Parry) or anything by the Prof. of Geography at UCLA Jared Diamond.

Read Geography Review for case studies, become a junior member of the Royal Geographical Society and consult for environmental geography. Look at the website of Danny Dorling for lots of excellent statistical material and his book SoYou Think You Know About Britain. You can get other ideas from,,, Keep up to date with natural disasters and their causes!


For wider reading try – The Chemistry of Life (Steven Rose), Chemistry (Brock), Principles of Biochemistry (White, Handler and Smith) as a backup to all your A level topics, Chemistry for Changing Times (Hill, McCreary and Kolb), Materials Science (Ramsden), The Periodic Kingdom (Atkins), Mendeleyev’s Dream – the search for the elements (Strathern), Periodic Tables – The Curious Life of the Elements (Aldersty & Williams), The Disappearing Spoon (Kean).

Also check out the periodicals New Scientist, Nature, Chemistry World and Education in Chemistry. For web sites look at,, Google ‘chemistry web sites’ and there are several on different areas of chemistry and from a number of UK and US universities. Link up with other sites to do with biology and material sciences. Keep brushing up those practical skills too.


You don’t have to be politically committed but, if you are, use all the contacts you can to get work experience, work shadowing etc – of the local council, your local MP, even your Euro-MP. Political autobiographies are interesting, though biased – among recent ones those by Chris Mullin and Jack Straw are to be recommended. In more general terms The Origins of Political Order (Fukuyama), The Spectre At the Feast (Gamble), The Establishment and how they get away with it (Owen Jones). British Politics (Madgwick), Mind The Gap (Mount), if you’re into American politics Barack Obama’s books and George Stephanopoulos’ All Too Human is a study of Clinton’s first election campaign. Sophie’s World (Gaarder) is a general introduction to Philosophy and there is What Philosophy Is (O’Hear).

In terms of actual works of Philosophy, you need to be careful not to dive in at the deep end and put yourself off the subject for life.

Plato’s Gorgias is a very good starting point as it’s short and examines two just key themes, ‘oratory is deceit’ and ‘might is right’. It does so very clearly and is a good introduction to the ‘Socratic method’. You might like to take a theme such as ‘truth’ and look at how different philosophers have viewed it – What is Good? by A.C. Grayling is a very good starting point). You might be interested in taking a look at such ‘isms’ as Fascism, Communism, Totalitarianism etc – this would particularly link with an interest in History. Peter Cave has produced How to Outwit Aristotle. Julian Baggini’s Do you think what you think you think? is excellent and more recent are The Philosophical Life (Miller) and What do we really know? (Blackburn).

For websites look at,, Google ‘Philosophy websites’ and you may be interested in The Philosophers’ Magazine or Philosophy Today. There are hundreds of politics sites, depending on your interests. For Economics see the separate section. Get involved in debating and public speaking and, of course, keep up to date with current political issues. Know who the key members of the Cabinet and Opposition are and what they are proposing. For foreign political awareness choose an area such as US or European politics or the politics of another area that really interests you such as Africa, Asia or South America and familiarise yourself with the key issues there. Keep articles from newspapers on items of particular interest.


The key thing with Medicine is to show that you have the personal qualities they are looking for as well the academic ones. That means getting as much experience as you can of working with others, who are in some way or other requiring help. Your school may have a Special Needs Department, in which case offer to help with younger students who may be on the autism/ Asperger’s spectrum or who have other specific conditions. Use that experience to learn more about how to identify the condition, treat it (if possible) or at least alleviate it. Help with one to one mentoring work to show you have good inter-personal skills. Apply to your local NHS Trust to get experience at a local hospital, clinic or GP’s practice. Ideally get all three and, when you do, milk it for all it’s worth in terms of letting people know that you want to learn and experience as much as possible. Keep a portfolio of all your experiences and follow up on all you see by researching the various conditions you come across and learn more about them. If you are finding it difficult to get contacts within the local NHS Trust, contact your local Rotary Club. It will have practising and retired medics among its members, who will have contacts and be willing to help. Check whether you’d prefer the traditional method of teaching or problem-based learning and whether you’d prefer an intercalated course that would give you the chance to do a research degree as part of your course.

For reading you might like to try – Do No Harm (Marsh), Hippocratic Oaths (Tallis), A very short introduction to Medical Ethics (Short intro’ series), The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine (Le Fanu), NHS Plc – the privatisation of health care (Pollock), Betraying the NHS (Mandelstram), NHS SOS (Davis & Tullis), The Political Economy of Health Care (Tudor Hart), Complications: A surgeon’s notes on an imperfect science (Gawande), Causing Death and Saving Lives (Glover), How doctors think (Groopman), Diagnosis; Dispatches from the Frontlines of Medical Mysteries (Sanders). Keep up to date with and follow up any news items on new medical discoveries and breakthroughs. Join the Junior BMA and read the BMJ (British Medical Journal), look at

For Veterinary Science get as much experience with animals as you can. Contact local vets, farms, wildlife parks, sanctuaries, zoos etc to get experience with more than just domestic pets.

For Pharmacy get experience with at least one pharmacy practice and, if possible, with a pharmaceutical company. Read anything by Ben Goldacre and check out his website as well as

For Dentistry get experience with a dental practice and, if you can, a hospital department which deals with more complicated surgery. Things that show you have good manual dexterity also help. Running a dental practice also involves business skills so involvement in something like a Young Enterprise company would be useful.

For Optometry read A Very Short Introduction to the Eye (Lund), The Eye Book (Grierson) and The Ophthobook (Tim Root).


Most Law books are very intimidating and full of jargon so go easy to start with – The Justice Game by Robertson is an excellent and very readable book by someone who has been involved in some of the leading human rights trials of the last 50 years, Getting into Law (ed. Lygo), The Search for Justice (Rozenburg), Understanding Law (Adams and Brownsword), Law and Modern Society (Atiyah), On Evidence (Murphy – just dip into this), The Rule of Law (Bingham), Bonfire of the Liberties: New Labour, Human Rights (Ewing) – look at general introductions to different areas of law such as Human Rights Law, Contract Law, Tort, Criminal , Land Law etc. and see which areas you find more interesting. Also very good is the Very Short Introduction To... series e.g. Human Rights (Clapham), ... to the Philosophy of Law (Wacks) and the New Penguin Guide to the Law.

Spend a morning or day at the local Magistrates’ Court and tell the ushers why you’re there – they may be able to arrange for you to meet the magistrates. Spend a day at a nearby Crown Court – if you live near London, visit the Old Bailey where there are 18 courts – you will find the ushers very helpful in telling you what’s on and where. Get work experience with a solicitor and/or barrister if you can – get in touch with your local Rotary Club for contacts if neither you nor the school has contacts you can use. Get involved in public speaking and debating and mock trial competitions – if your school only has them for junior students, volunteer to help coach them.

There are two radio programmes that are very good and there are pod casts of them on iPlayer – they are Law in Action and Unreliable Evidence. Useful web sites are,, (for Law Commission reports) and Look at campaign groups such as Liberty and the Howard League for penal reform.

Modern Languages

This is a bit tricky as there isn’t much literature in the A level course these days. Do some literature though, mostly in translation, but as much as you can in the original.

Listen to radio broadcasts, use newspapers and get as much feel as you can for the cultures, politics, economics, social issues and dip into the history as well. Films are usually a good and entertaining way of building up vocabulary. For France, it would be odd not to be able to appreciate its contribution to world history via such as the French Revolution or in the case of Spain the impact of the Spanish Civil War or Meso-American conquests. Where there has been a significant impact on philosophy as well, an introduction to that would be good e.g in French Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Sartre or in German Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche etc.. The Very Short Introduction series is a very good starting point. You might also want to dip into linguistics and see whether that is an option you would like to take up at university.


Build up your own portfolio of artwork, drawings etc and your reading will be dictated by your own tastes. What buildings in the world do most for you and why? Then read around their history and who designed them. There are a number of works comparing English cathedrals for instance – a good place to start because of the design issues that were faced and overcome by builders of a much earlier age. If there are National Trust properties near you, look at their architecture and find out about restoration work and how that is undertaken. Familiarise yourself with different architectural styles and the work of different architects (whose work most inspires you and why?).

Work experience with a couple of different architects would be useful, particularly if they do very different types of work. Contact your local council’s planning department and see if you can do some work shadowing there. If your school is having any building work done, ask to be introduced to the architects and site managers and monitor what goes on. You might even want to design a better school or sixth form centre and submit your own ideas. Do some research on materials science too, sustainability projects and some of the latest research on energy saving and even buildings that have self-regulating and self-correcting control mechanisms. Architects are not people who just work at desks by themselves so any evidence of working with a team and taking a lead role would be useful. The local Rotary Club will have contacts with architects if your school doesn’t.

Useful web sites are –, the ‘best architecture’ web sites, (the Royal institute of British Architects site) and keep abreast of the Stirling awards, the top prize for architecture in the UK.


It very much depends on what you are interested in. Ideally choose one or two novelists, one or two poets (admissions tutors are always complaining that too few candidates have much knowledge of poetry), one or two playwrights and literature from more than one period of history (so that it’s not all 20th century or all Shakespeare).

Experiment and dip into different genres of literature and find out what really excites you to read more. Reading other works by the authors you have for GCSE or for A level will give you different perspectives on their work and allow you to make interesting comparisons. If you are interested in creative writing, build up a portfolio of your own work. If you are thinking about journalism as a career, write for your school magazine or newspaper – if there isn’t one, why not start one?

Local newspapers are usually very pleased to accept copy about events, sports fixtures and things going on in schools so write reports and send them in. Unsurprisingly for English, the advice is ‘read, read, read’ but make it for pleasure rather than it become a burden. There are good discussions of literary topics in the archive of the radio programme In Our Time, which is available on iplayer.


Maths and Physics are the two important subjects here so you need to protect those. You then need to decide whether you want to specialise in one particular area of engineering (civil, mechanical, electrical, aeronautical etc.) or whether you’d prefer to do ‘general engineering’ with an introduction to all of them before deciding how to specialise. Visits to university engineering departments should help that decision and in Jan/Feb of Year 12 sign up for one of the Headstart courses that operate each summer and that give you the chance to go to a top Engineering Department for a whole week in the summer and work on an engineering project. It is a brilliant introduction to what the subject would be like at university, it really tests out whether it’s what you want and it looks really good on an application form.

You may also want to consider the option of a gap year and gaining a placement with a major engineering company for six to nine months between school and college. The Year in Industry scheme helps to organise these and, if they go well, you will probably end up with the offer of a job during college vacations or even a guaranteed job at the end of your course. It’s even been known for companies to be so impressed with the work that was done on a placement that they sponsored some students through university altogether.

For further research check out,, (the Royal Academy of Engineering site) and there are lots associated with the different disciplines within engineering. Keep abreast of major engineering projects such as airport expansion, HS2, motorway widening, new bridges etc.


The Victorian historian, Thomas Carlyle, called Economics ‘the dismal science’ and that leads to the debate as to whether it is a science or a discipline. The further Economics is taken, the more mathematical it becomes so you need to protect your Maths and not taking it for A level will prove a big disadvantage for any top university.

You need to keep up to date with current economic issues and debates – not difficult these days with the emphasis on the problems with the global economy and this will overlap with politics and debates on taxation, welfare, borrowing, public spending, currency crises etc. If you are taking the subject at A-level, pick two or three topics (a combination of macro- and micro- economics) and study them in depth. Arrange for a couple of essays to be done as ‘extended essays’ and marked accordingly and get involved in such as the Bank of England Challenge on controlling inflation. If you are planning to go into Finance or banking, work experience with a bank or financial institution will be important. Give yourself a notional £20,000 each year and see how you would invest it and (hopefully) make a profit – best to make this ‘notional’ just in case!

Good reads are – Freakonomics (Levitt and Dubner), The Lexus and the Olive Tree (a study of globalisation) (Friedman), Small is Beautiful (Schumacher), The Ascent of Money (Ferguson), The Price of Inequality and The Great Divide (Stiglitz), End This Depression Now (Krugman), How the West Was Lost (Mayo), 22 Things They Didn’t Tell You About Capitalism (Chang). The Undercover Economist (Harford), The End of Poverty (Sachs), What Money Can’t Buy; the moral limits of the market (Sandel). The Very Short Introduction to Marx is a good study and look at the ideas of current leading thinkers in economics such as Amartya Sen (his theories on foreign aid creating dependency) and Joseph Stiglitz and of presenters such as Robert Peston and Stephanie Flanders.

Look at web sites such as,,,, (Financial Times site).

Some final advice...

Use local universities and their departments which often have public lectures, go to Open Days and ask for ideas. Hearing from them what current research is going on will always be useful and good to follow up on and show awareness about in your personal statement and, if you get the chance, at interview. The colleges of London University put on taster days and courses each June and July (details are usually published in February/March). They are usually free and will give you really useful insights into what studying certain subjects at university will be like. If your school does the Extended Project Qualification, have a go at it – it is brilliant evidence of being an independent learner, researcher and of being able to write an extended essay. The Sutton Trust offers excellent summer schools at a number of universities and is a non-profit making organisation so keeping the costs down and there are scholarships if the cost is beyond your means.

If you are serious about wanting to aim for one of our top universities (and why not?) ...the challenge I am setting you is this. Get the best results you can in the courses you are currently taking and alongside do three extra things each month that are specific towards reading around and researching what you think you might want to apply for. Over time that will build up to be a really strong body of evidence that you should be given a place. Remember it is a competitive business, but with the right preparation and enthusiasm (that’s hugely important), you should be in with a very good chance. Hopefully, I am only asking you to discover things that you will enjoy doing so it won’t seem like much extra work at all!