11 Common GCSE Difficulties and How to Overcome Them

Your academic studies step up a gear when you embark on your GCSE courses in year 10.

You should also read…

GCSEs are the first set of qualifications you’ll undertake that employers will look at and admissions tutors will scrutinise, so they matter. Conscientious students will be striving to attain A* and A grades all round, but achieving these top grades takes some skilful planning and a lot of hard work. In this article we hope to give you a helping hand by explaining how to overcome some common problems encountered by GCSE students. We’ll also show you how to make the most of years 10 and 11 to start building a strong foundation for your future university application.

1. Choosing your GCSEs

Image shows five red dice on a table.
There are better ways to choose your GCSEs…

The first hurdle you’ll have to cross when it comes to your GCSEs is choosing them in the first place. Luckily this isn’t too much of a challenge, as you’ll have plenty of timetable slots to fill. The idea of GCSEs is to give you a good general knowledge of a wide range of subjects. Some subjects are chosen for you, but the rest will allow you to make the decision yourself. It’s generally a good idea to choose a mix of humanities and science subjects, as this will keep your options open and demonstrate a wider range of useful academic skills. We’ve discussed how to choose your GCSEs in more detail in a previous article.

2. Juggling numerous different subjects

You may be studying as many as ten or twelve different subjects at GCSE, and juggling them all can be challenging. This is where you’ll start to develop the time management skills that you’ll find essential throughout the rest of your academic career and into the workplace beyond that. You’ll need to be constantly aware of what deadlines you have coming up, so make sure you have a way of keeping track of these. You’ll also need to find a study method that works for you – a way of making sure that you work productively and that what you learn sinks in. Don’t be afraid to try different study methods for different subjects. You’re studying a range of different subjects, and the same study method may not work equally well for all of them. For example, you might find that you learn better from videos than textbooks for science, while there’s no substitute for lots of reading when it comes to English. Recognising the differences between your subjects will enable you to adapt your learning style to what you’re studying, which in turn will help you switch quickly and easily between many different subjects.

3. Trying to do well in a subject you dislike

Image shows students in a computer room. None of them seem to be paying much attention to the lesson.
Even if you hate ICT, it’s useful to have on your CV.

Unfortunately, some of the subjects you study at GCSE are compulsory, so you have to study them whether you like them or not. It can be difficult to motivate yourself when you really don’t enjoy a particular subject; it’s always easier to learn when you’re interested in what you’re learning. Here are three tips to help you overcome this issue:

  • Think about what you’re working towards – you may not like the subject, but if you do well in it, it’ll be good for your CV and university application and show you to be a good ‘all-rounder’.
  • Try to find the interest even in boring subjects. Sometimes, textbooks present information in a very dry, dull way, which makes them difficult to learn from. You might find you can muster more enthusiasm for the subject by learning in a different way, such as through videos (of which there will be plenty online). A keen presenter who knows their stuff and communicates passionately about it might be all you need to spark your own curiosity in the subject.
  • If all else fails, keep in mind the fact that you can look forward to A-levels, when you can drop this subject in favour of subjects you actually enjoy.

4. Coursework

Coursework might be a new concept to you at GCSE, but it’s one you’re going to have to get used to, as there will almost certainly be coursework elements in your GCSEs, A-levels and university degree. Coursework is a bit like homework, only it’s possibly going to be a bit longer than your normal homework essays and it will count towards your GCSE grade. You usually get to do a first draft (often at home, but sometimes in a classroom with an invigilator), get it checked by a teacher, make final amendments to it and then send it off for either internal or external marking. Coursework can take different forms depending on the subject; for instance, science coursework might involve conducting an experiment and writing up and interpreting the results, while English Literature coursework would be more likely to be your analysis of a particular aspect of a set text.

5. Masterminding GCSE revision

Image shows strawberries in a blue box.
Regular rewards make revision easier.

With so many different subjects to revise for at once, revising for GCSEs can seem a bit chaotic. Just make sure it’s organised chaos, or you won’t stand a chance of getting through everything! A revision timetable is paramount. Start with your exam timetable so you know which subjects are coming up first, and prioritise these without neglecting the subjects that come later. By the time you get to the last exam, your mind will finally be able to focus on just one subject and that will make it seem easier. Colour-code your timetable with a different colour for each subject so that it’s nice and easy to read, and be sensible about how you allocate subjects to timeslots. For example, don’t clump together a group of subjects you don’t enjoy so much. Alternate between subjects you find interesting and ones you don’t, so you ‘reward’ yourself with the subjects you do enjoy and stay motivated.

6. Mock exams and getting used to different styles of exam question

You’ll have mock exams to look forward to before the real thing. These are a useful practise run to make sure that you’re aware of any areas that might need work in plenty of time to get better at them. Familiarise yourself with the different styles of exam question you can expect in each of your GCSE exams. Doing this early on gives you plenty of time to get used to answering these different styles of question, so that nothing comes as a shock in the exams. To this end, do plenty of past papers as you go along. Don’t simply leave all experience of past papers to your mock exams – you want to do well in these, as it will give you a good confidence boost.

7. GCSEs are going to get harder

Image shows a drawing of a monk and a donkey. The monk is trying to read but the donkey is dragging him back.
GCSEs are going to get more challenging.

Bad news: in a shake-up to the GCSE system announced recently, it transpired that GCSEs are going to get harder as of 2015. They’re going to be less dependent on coursework, with a greater proportion of harder, essay-style questions in the exams, and most of the exams in many subjects will now be taken right at the end of the two-year course, rather than splitting them between the first and second year. If you’re predicted an A* or A in Maths or Science, you will be required to sit an extra exam, too. But don’t worry – you’ll be given plenty of guidance from your teachers to help you cross this bridge when you get to it.

8. Choosing which A-levels to take

In addition to all the work you’re doing on your GCSEs, you’ll also need to think about which of your subjects you’re planning on taking to A-level. You probably already have an idea of which subjects you enjoy most, but choosing A-levels carefully necessitates some consideration of what you might want to study at university. It might seem a long way off, but it will come around quicker than you think! We’ve put together a useful guide to help you choose your A-level subjects, so take a look through this before making your final decision.

9. Fitting in a part-time job

Image shows a waitress working in a cafe.
Getting a part-time job now means you can accumulate more experience than your peers.

If you’re 16, you might be starting to think about taking on your first part-time job. This will benefit both your pocket money situation and your future job applications, giving you valuable work experience and transferrable skills, some of which you can’t learn anywhere else. If you’re in the market for a Saturday job, write yourself a basic CV with details of your education and other skills and interests you have, such as your knowledge of blogging or your participation in an orchestra. You can use experience like this to show that you’re capable of meeting the demands of a part-time job; playing in an orchestra, for example, allows you to demonstrate qualities such as effective teamwork and self-motivation. If you’re under 16, you can still do certain kinds of part-time work, such as a paper round.

10. Putting the foundations in place for applying to university

University might seem something that occupies the dim and distant future, but, like A-levels, it’s going to come around sooner than you think. If you want an outstanding university application that will truly make you stand out from the countless other students applying at the same time, you need to start putting the foundations in place now. Things you could be doing now to improve your future chances of securing a place at a top university include:

  • Working hard towards achieving top GCSE grades – that goes without saying!
  • Selecting the best A-level subject choices – as already mentioned, choosing the right A-levels will benefit your university application by supporting you with the right knowledge and skills.
  • Advancing your language skills – you will probably be doing a language at GCSE, so you could either devote more time to doing this one very well, or you could take on an additional language in your spare time. Languages are extremely useful to your career prospects, so you can start improving your language skills now to give yourself a headstart.
  • Image shows a woman reading a book in a garden.
    Getting lost in a good book can help your studies.

    Reading widely – the more books you read now, the better. For instance, if you want to pursue English Literature to A-level and beyond, you could read another book from the same genre as one of your GCSE set texts for comparison. This will help you start thinking about texts in the right way. If you’re interested in science, start reading more scientific articles, books and magazine and keep abreast of new developments.

  • Taking up a hobby, or getting better at one you already do (such as becoming team captain of your hockey team).
  • Getting to grade 6 or higher in a musical instrument, drama or dance qualification (these count towards your UCAS points when you apply for university).
  • Starting – and maintaining – a blog about a subject you’re passionate about. This will be advantageous to you in many ways, as it showcases web skills, and shows that you have the initiative and commitment to share your thoughts and ideas on something you’re interested in, thereby making it attractive to employers and admissions tutors. It takes time to build a successful blog, so if you start now, you can talk about an established blog with plenty of content and readers when you’re applying for university or a job.
  • Getting a part-time job – as we’ve already seen, part-time work provides useful experience and transferrable skills that will benefit you at university and beyond.

To this end, it’s worth setting aside some time each week to devote to improving your long-term prospects in these ways (you don’t have to do all of them!). It’ll give you something different to do that isn’t GCSE work, and make you a more well-rounded individual with multiple facets to show off to admissions tutors and future employers.

11. Finding time for a social life

On top of all these pressures on your time, it’s important to find the time to relax and enjoy a social life with your peers. If you’re organised about studying, you should still have time to relax and have fun with your friends. If it helps, schedule it into your timetable so that you force yourself to stop working for a while. This will allow you to return to your desk feeling happy, rejuvenated and ready to tackle your next homework assignment with the enthusiasm you need to succeed.

Image credits: dice; ICT; strawberries; monk; waitress; reading.