Choosing GCSE Options

Your GCSE subject options will be firmly in your sight if you're in Year 9 right now, or coming up to that stage of life.

We all struggle with choices. So what should you bear in mind when choosing GCSE options? Here's a few pointers.

1. Let the choices be yours

You may have already found that many people will have opinions about your choices. You'll receive advice from parents and teachers - do listen but in the end go for what you'd like to do.

You may also have friends suggesting you do the same subjects as them - choose for yourself.

Ultimately we suggest you choose subjects that you will enjoy. Remember - you will be studying it for the next two years!

Further down the line when workload is heavy you'll appreciate enjoying a subject and looking forward to rather than dreading lessons. It also means you will probably work harder in it and get a higher grade.

It's very easy to then talk yourself out of taking a subject you love.

Instead ask "Why not?". 

Look at both the content of the course and the skills required, and decide if you're interested in the things you will be learning about and whether you can build on the skills you will use.

2. Work out what GCSE subjects are compulsory

Each school will differ on this but there are some subjects where there is no choice at all.

This will always be Maths and English, but then maybe a combination of Sciences depending on the school and probably your Key Stage 3 or Year 9 results.

Some schools may insist on a language, such as French, German or Spanish. Check this at the start. One other area of restrictions may be the timetable but do be prepared to have a chat with teachers about what's possible. 

3. Look at the mark scheme

Some GCSE subjects, such as Art and Drama, are based almost exclusively on coursework, so if you're not keen on taking exams at the end of the year, then you may want to move away from subjects that depend significantly on your exam results.

4. Decide which subjects you are good at

Think about the subjects you are good at, particularly since these are the ones you are more likely to enjoy. Being good at one or more subjects can help you with your workload over the next couiple of years, as you will be able to complete the work more quickly and achieve better results.

Also, those subjects you have a natural flair for might inform your career decisions further down the line.

If you're not sure how good you are at a subject, talk to your teacher(s) and ask for their advice.

5. Think about your career

This is a simple one but very important. It's almost certain that subjects you take at A Level will have to be part of your options at GCSE.

For example, Science may no longer be open to you if you choose a single science at GCSE. Taking double or triple award science (Physics, Chemistry and Biology) at GCSE will help to keep your A level options open

If you want to go on that far, what subjects do you see yourself taking? This long term thinking also applies to university and careers.

It can be scary to think that far ahead but spend a little time dreaming. What would you like to do with your life?

6. Strike a balance

Choose good GCSE options that will look balanced.

If you love the Arts, find a subject like History or a language alongside it. The reason for balance is not to please teachers or planners, it's just a way of keeping your options open.

As your school career progresses you may find you have gifts you never dreamed of. Try to not shut too many doors too soon.

7. Choose the subject not the teacher

We all know sometimes a relationship with a teacher can be hard.

You may be tempted to avoid a topic because the teacher is one you find difficult. Try hard not to let that put you off.

Similarly you may choose a subject because of a great teacher - but think hard. In the long term teachers will change but it's subject that will carry you through.

8. Don't pick what your friends are doing

Try not to just choose subjects that your friends are taking - doing different classes won't effect your social circle, and will give you plenty to talk about when you do meet up!

There's a good chance you will make new mates in your subject classes anyway, which is always a positive.

9. Don't worry about your future salary

At this point, it's not worth looking up the average salaries of various jobs to see what GCSEs will land you the best paid career. This probably also means you don't yet have a good idea of what you what to do once you finish school/college, and are keeping your options open.

Uusualy medical, science/technology, engineering, finance and business careers pay very well. Maths is a compulsory GCSE in the UK, and taking double (or triple) Science will help too, but you have to focus on the subjects you enjoy or are good at when making your choices.

You’ll be at your happiest if your eventual career is one you feel able to do, and one you enjoy at least several aspects of. There’s always the opportunity to receive high pay in most job sectors, and it is likely to increase with experience, whichever career you end up in!

Choosing your GCSE options can be a very stressful time, but remember, you're not the only student to survive this stage of your education, and help will never be far away.

10. Get advice from the right sources

Everyone has an opinion, but try to listen to:

Teachers at your school - they are well-placed to offer you support; so do talk to them if you have any questions about your GCSEs and how it all works.

Careers advisors - they are trained professionals and can prepare you to help you with your career plans and GCSE choices, as well as answer any questions you may have.

Parents - although they might not understand the new points system etc. they are the people that know you best and can offer useful advice.

Friends - they will be going through the same dilemma, and you may want to run ideas past them… but it’s important to remember that the final decision rests with you alone.

Online forums can also be useful, as they contain lots of discussion from GCSE students going through the same decision process. The Student Room is a good place to start.

11. Don't take as many subjects as you can

Both employers and colleges/universities look for high passes in your qualifications, and many higher education establishments may only accept  9-4 GCSE pass grades for their degree courses.

More GCSEs means you’ll have a well-rounded education and lots of variety in what you learn, but it's important not to over-burden yourself, or you will suffer from burnout. Remember that each GCSE you sign up for will mean a significant amount of work.

You may want to consider streamlining the number of GCSEs you take, so you have more time to dedicate to each subject and increase your chances of a good pass.

If in doubt, talk to a teacher about how many you should choose.

12. Universities normally only require core subjects

Most universities require you to have completed English and Maths GCSEs, but these are compulsory, so you don't need to worry about them.

For many undergraduate degrees, GCSE and A-level subjects aren’t too much of an issue. For example, most universities don’t mind which subjects you’ve studied before if you want to do Law. They just want to see that you have done well.

In some cases, you’ll need specific A-levels (and therefore the GCSEs you need to be able to do those A-levels) to get on certain university courses (e.g. the sciences, history or foreign languages).

13. Getting good grades isn't everything

If you want to give yourself a wide range of options after school, getting good grades is (unfortunately) fairly important. Universities and colleges only accept 9-4 GCSE pass grades for most of their courses.

If you think you might struggle to achieve these higher pass grades, ask for support from teachers in choosing a set of GCSE options that will help you focus on your strengths and what you most enjoy.

If you enjoy a subject, you’re more likely to do your best and perform better in it. You’ll still be wanting to get a balance of what you’d most enjoy studying for two years and what will be most ‘useful’, though.

The good news is that there are an increasing number of options out there even if you didn’t get good grades in your GCSEs. For one thing, you could have the opportunity to retake your GCSEs; you can talk to your teacher about that after your GCSE exams.

For another, there are so many more apprenticeships out there nowadays that can be really flexible in their academic requirements. Aim for the best grades you can, but don’t make yourself ill with worry – there are still options out there for you if things don’t work out the way you planned.

14. Beware of 'blacklisted' subjects

Some top universities consider certain A-level subjects a bit too ‘soft', and don't push the skills and knowledge of their students.

In contrast, ‘hard’ subjects – also known as ‘traditional’ or ‘facilitating’ subjects – are seen by both universities and employers as very useful subjects to study because they teach skills that will be useful much later on.

Examples of ‘soft’ A-levels include PE and Sport Education, Art & Design, Business Studies, Accounting and Performing Arts. If you’re hoping to go to universities like Oxford or Bristol, you might find your application is more likely to be rejected if you're taking any of these subjects.

Thinking about ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ A-levels while you’re still picking your GCSE options can be very useful. Picking ‘hard’ or ‘facilitating’ GCSE subjects (like History, Geography, Foreign Languages or Science rather than Business Studies, Home Economics, ICT or Media Studies) could place you in a better position to go on to pick A-level subjects that universities place a lot of value in.

As a general guideline, consider picking mainly ‘facilitating’ GCSE subjects to keep your future options as open as possible, and then perhaps picking a ‘soft’ subject or two because you’re really interested in it, or it specifically matches the direction you want to take in life.

However, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to choosing subjects. Your teachers are there to help you. With their advice and support you can choose GCSE options which are a good fit for you.

15. Stay calm!

Try not to get too stressed out about choosing your GCSE subjects. Remember - everyone else around you is in the same boat, and it's highly likely most people will wish they hadn't picked one or two of their subjects later on. However, these aren't exactly life-changing decisions.

It just means you spend a couple of years studying something less enjoyable or useful than you could have done. No one really knows exactly what their GCSE course will be like until they actually start classes (this is why it's always a good idea to look at the subject content and mark scheme).

GCSEs are an opportunity to better yourself, so the best thing you can do is carry on. If you feel you've made a bid mistake with one of your subject choices, you may be able to speak to a teacher, and ask about dropping it/swapping it with something else if it's early on enough in the year.

It's tough making your GCSE choices, but once you've made a list and settled on your final subjects, you will feel much better going forward.

Best of luck, and we hope our advice has been helpful in making your decisions a little easier!

Further information

For more tips and advice on GCSEs, please see: