How to Choose Your GCSEs: An Expert Guide to Finding the Right Subject Choices for You

Image shows a box, made out of floppy disks, containing coloured pencils.In a previous article, we talked about how to choose the right A-levels for you. This time, we’re going to do the same for GCSEs, which, thankfully, is a somewhat easier process.

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You take many more GCSEs than A-levels, and you’ll be glad to learn that this means it’s much easier to choose. The idea of GCSEs is to give you a broad general knowledge, from which you can then become increasingly specialised through A-levels and then your undergraduate degree (or, more specialised still, a Masters or PhD beyond that). GCSEs are like the broad base of the pyramid, with subsequent qualifications getting increasingly narrow in focus the further up the pyramid you go.

Which subjects are compulsory?

Image shows a painting with the Capulets and Montagues reconciling over the bodies of Romeo and Juliet.
Romeo and Juliet is often studied as part of GCSE English.

Some GCSE subjects are chosen for you, as they’re compulsory. These are:

  • English (English Literature and English Language or a single English GCSE)
  • Maths
  • Science (Core Science, Double Science or Triple Science)

Theoretically, a Modern Language isn’t compulsory, but your school policy may dictate that it is, so check with your teachers. This list will be bad news to you if you were hoping to be able to drop maths! You’ll have to wait until A-level to be able to dispense with these subjects if they’re not your cup of tea.

Questions to consider

Before you make the decision as to which of the non-compulsory options you’re going to choose, there are a few things to think about to help you approach this process logically.

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Your longer-term aims

Image shows Pembroke College, Cambridge.
Some university colleges and departments will require a GCSE in a foreign language.

The start of your career may seem a long way off and therefore not particularly relevant right now, but such considerations should have a bearing on your GCSE choices because you need the right foundation on which to build relevant skills and experience. So, if you can, try to start by thinking long-term and then work backwards. What university degree do you think you might want to do? Work back from there – what A-levels would you need to apply for that degree? And what GCSEs would be helpful for these A-levels?
It’s worth noting that GCSEs are looked at by universities as secondary indications of your knowledge, academic talent and so on. When you apply to university you’ll have your AS grades, but your complete A-level grades are only a prediction. The last concrete evidence of your academic ability comes in the form of your GCSE grades, so they are important. If you have the opportunity to do a GCSE that might prove helpful for a particular degree, then do it.
NB: Don’t worry if you have no idea what you want to do long-term yet. If that’s the case, pick a broad selection of respected subjects that will keep your options open.

Workload

Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. Quality is more important than quantity, so choose a number that you’re confident you can manage to juggle. Don’t forget that the workload for some subjects may be greater than others – requiring more reading, for example – so try not to choose too many high-workload options. Your teachers should be able to comment on whether your proposed GCSE subjects would give you a manageable workload.

Non-compulsory subjects

Image shows someone varnishing a wooden panel.
Studying design and technology at GCSE might be the last time you get to learn skills that are practical rather than academic at school.

Not all schools offer all the non-compulsory subjects, but you should be offered at least one subject from each of these broad groups:

  • Arts
  • Design and Technology
  • Humanities
  • Modern Foreign Languages

You’re not obliged to choose one subject from each of these groups; you can choose more from some than others according to your interests. At GCSE level, a varied selection of subjects is desirable, as this keeps your options open. Note that a GCSE in a particular subject isn’t always necessary to take that subject on at A-level. With some A-levels, while you don’t need to do the subject at GCSE, but it would certainly give you a headstart over someone who hadn’t done it before; for other A-levels, doing the GCSE is essential. It’s worth looking into A-level subjects you might want to do straightaway, so you can check what the requirements are.

Introducing some of the main non-compulsory subjects

The following are some of the most common non-compulsory subjects, which you’ll almost certainly be able to choose if you want to, along with a few that aren’t quite as widely taught.

History

Image shows protesters against the Vietnam War.
GCSE History can cover the US wars in Vietnam and Korea as well as the world wars.

GCSE History tends to cover the World Wars and other 20th century events, so if your historical interests lie further back in time you may be slightly disappointed by this syllabus. Nevertheless, the skills you’ll learn will be invaluable should you wish to take on History in the long-term. History is quite a challenging subject that requires a good memory for dates and issues, and an analytical mind. You learn to question the reliability of sources, which makes it good for developing critical thinking skills that will be essential once you get to university.

Modern Languages

Languages are invariably a good thing to have on your CV – employers love them – so taking one at GCSE is strongly advised. A GCSE in a language may also be required for some degree courses, such as English. A Modern Language at GCSE may be compulsory at your school, though it’s not officially a compulsory subject. If it isn’t, it’s well worth taking one anyway, because languages open many doors.

Geography

Image shows a partially illuminated globe.
Geography is a humanities subject, but with some relevance to Physics and Economics.

This interesting subject covers earth processes and human interactions with the planet. It’s also a fairly straightforward subject and it’s easy to do well in it. The possible downside is that it will involve field trips, so if you’re not one for donning a waterproof and wellies and getting out into the countryside, it might not be the right subject for you!

Law

Law is an interesting subject that gives you a better understanding of the UK justice system and can make you better informed about your own legal options in a variety of situations. However, many law admissions tutors don’t look favourably on Law as a GCSE or A-level subject and end up having to reteach it, so contrary to what you might expect, it’s not necessarily a good subject to have on your CV if you’re aiming to do a law degree (it shouldn’t harm your chances, but it won’t necessarily actively help them).

Psychology

This is a useful foundation for the A-level course, though not compulsory. Psychology is the study of human behaviour, with a bit of biology mixed in (for example, gaining an overview of how the brain works and the effect that certain chemicals in the brain can have on behaviour). It’s a good way to develop a deeper understanding of those around you and the factors that could be influencing both their behaviour and yours.

Music

Image shows someone playing a violin.
It’s generally advised to be at Grade 5 or above in at least one instrument to attempt GCSE Music.

GCSE Music is an enjoyable subject that develops a range of skills, both practical and analytical. It combines elements of performance, composition and listening with the study of the history of music and various different genres of music, from the 17th century to the present day.

Art

Ideal for the more creative among you, GCSE Art allows you to unleash your imagination in a variety of artistic mediums, including things like painting, drawing, sculpture and photography. You build up a portfolio throughout the course, which will be submitted for assessment at the end. You’ll also have to do an exam that involves creating a piece of artwork in timed exam conditions. Because of the focus on coursework throughout the course, it’s not a subject that you can leave to the last minute, so it requires your complete commitment right from the start.

Design and Technology

The ‘Design and Technology’ umbrella covers a number of individual topics, each of which constitutes a GCSE in its own right. These are Food Technology, Textiles Technology, Systems and Control, Electronic Products, Graphics and Product Design. Such subjects provide useful knowledge for those wishing to go into business or manufacturing, but are largely less relevant to traditional academic subjects that you might be aiming to study at university.

Religious Studies

Image shows the stained-glass windows of Sante-Chapelle in Paris.
Religious Studies is compulsory in many faith schools.

This subject teaches you about the world’s religions, and you’ll tackle such big topics as God, death, prejudice and war. As a GCSE subject it’s very relevant to the real world, as you learn about the beliefs that underpin many of the issues you’ll see on the news everyday.

Business Studies

Business Studies arguably isn’t viewed as one of the more ‘serious’ GCSE subjects, but it’s nevertheless an interesting introduction to the world of business, and one that’s likely to stand you in good stead come the start of your career. You’ll cover how to set up and grow a business, as well as aspects of business such as finance, manufacturing and marketing.

General advice

Image shows a microscope against an orange background.
The experiments you get to do in GCSE sciences will be a step up from what you’ve done previously.

If you’ve made it this far into this article, you probably now have a better idea of the kind of subjects that capture your interest. Here are a few more words of general advice to bear in mind as you make your final decision.

  • Choose subjects that you find interesting – you’ll do better at them if you’re genuinely curious about them.
  • If you’re more of a scientific person, and you think you might end up doing a degree in a scientific subject, more science subjects will better prepare you for this.
  • The same goes for those of you who tend more towards the humanities – naturally, more humanities subjects will stand you in good stead for a degree on the arts side of things.
  • If you don’t have a preference, or you’re not sure what you want to do long-term, balance the humanities and science subjects to give yourself a broad range of knowledge and skills, as this will keep your options open.
  • Tempting though it may be, don’t select a particular subject just because you like the person who teaches it. Your GCSE choices should be based on what’s best for your future, rather than the short-term enjoyment of a particular teacher’s company! That’s not to mention the fact that that teacher might leave and be replaced by one you don’t like so much.

Before we end this article, there’s one more thing you should be aware of…

Changes to GCSEs from 2015 onwards

Image shows a typical exam room.
The structure of exams is changing.

There’s a shake-up of GCSEs in the offing that you should know about, as it’s going to affect the qualifications from 2015 onwards. The aim is to make certain GCSEs more challenging, amid accusations every year that GCSEs are getting easier. What this means is that GCSEs in English, Maths, the Sciences, Geography and History are going to get harder, with less coursework, and the majority of the exams taken right at the very end of the two-year course, rather than module by module. What’s more, if you’re predicted to attain an A or A* in Maths or Science, you’ll have to sit an extra exam. The style of the exams is changing, with harder, essay-style questions replacing many of the simpler questions on current papers. And, for many subjects, the distinction between foundation and higher tier papers will be a thing of the past, meaning that all candidates sit the same exam. You won’t really appreciate the difference between the old GCSEs and the new ones, as you won’t be able to compare the two, but it’s worth being aware of these changes from the point of view of being unable to rely on past papers, and so that you can mentally prepare yourself for the challenges that lie ahead!

What other support is available to help you choose?

You don’t have to make this decision on your own. There are plenty of sources of support (in addition to this article!), which include:

  • Teachers, who should be happy to tell you more about what the courses involve.
  • Information evenings at your school.
  • Careers advice – this can help you work towards a specific career goal, so that you can be well-prepared as early as possible.
  • Parents – it’s worth getting their opinion, as they will have a different perspective to you and may have suggestions that you hadn’t considered.

Ultimately, of course, the decision should be yours; your instincts should lead you to the choices that are right for you. But as with any decision, approaching it fully-informed will reassure you that you’re making the most sensible choices.







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Image credits: banner; Romeo and Juliet; Pembroke College; design and technology; Vietnam protest; globe; violin; church; microscope; exam room