This is a question that is often asked. It is not easy to answer. It is never sensible to make A level or IB course decisions solely on the basis of a possible Oxford application for a particular degree course. You may change your mind about the course you want to apply for. Or you may find yourself being advised in good faith that ‘all things being equal, history is a good thing to do if you want to apply for PPE’ (which is true), and taking it simply because you want to study PPE, when you have no aptitude for history, or really hate the period you’re studying, or don’t get on with the teacher (or the teacher doesn’t get on with you), or any number of other things which means you end up without an A grade, and therefore without an offer, or without a place. Oxford tutors will usually be quite cautious in the advice they offer, and if they make general advice available to you, you should discuss that advice with those who know your particular context – with your school, your parents, and so on – before deciding how best to apply it to your own case. Again: please do not make your decisions based solely around a possible application to Oxford.
There will, of course, be absolutely specific advice that can be offered to those with an interest in applying for particular degrees. For Mathematics and Philosophy, as much mathematics at as high a level as possible; for Physics and Philosophy, the same advice as for mathematics, with physics added in for good measure. For some degrees, the precise course you follow will depend on what background you come with. For example, it’s not essential to have studied classical languages at A level or equivalent in order to be admitted to the Literae Humaniores degree, but if you want to come to Oxford to read for Classics in any degree and do have the chance to study classical languages before you apply it would be well worth taking.
For some degrees which involve philosophy, the standard advice is that certain subjects will be likely to prove helpful. This help may not necessarily be for philosophy, but for other aspects of the degree. Mathematics is clearly of assistance in studying economics, and developed skills in the study of history ought to prove readily transferable to aspects of the politics papers within PPE. For other degrees there really aren’t any obvious specific guidelines. Philosophy and Theology is an example, where people come with a very wide range of backgrounds indeed.
This is all standard advice, but requests for guidance in the past few years have often asked for more. The best advice, beyond what has been said about specific subjects, is to get a good education. Traditional academic subjects at A level or equivalent are likely to prove the best route to this. We have no list of ‘less well regarded subjects’, but we do hope that candidates and their teachers will be able to recognize those subjects which will offer the kind of demanding educational environment within which the skills we are looking for can be nurtured and developed. Some subjects appear less good than others at developing the sorts of skills we require. A non-philosophical example: given that psychology at Oxford is perceived as an experimental science, scientific study that emphasizes hands-on experimental work will be a good preparation, and if the psychology syllabus on offer at your school down-plays this, and there is a choice to be made, biology or chemistry would be likely to prove better alternatives (as well as keeping other degree options, at Oxford or elsewhere, open to you). Some subjects create problems for us not because they lack value in themselves, but because their value as indicators of likely success on a philosophy course at university is very low; Fine Art is one example. For specific advice on such matters it would be worth contacting a college to whom you might submit an application, to seek the advice of tutors on your intended or actual combination of subjects.
So, if in doubt, one rule of thumb is that it’s likely that the more traditional subjects will help to prepare you better. Mathematical and scientific study, historical and literary subjects, foreign languages; a good body of these, studied alongside each other, would serve any candidate well. Some more essay-based subject is always useful for degrees involving philosophy, but we recognize that this may not always be possible, especially for candidates applying for Physics and Philosophy, and sometimes for Mathematics and Philosophy candidates too. Given the intensity of study at Oxford, the bare fact that a candidate is studying a number of demanding subjects alongside each other gives a very good indication of his or her quality.