Choosing Your GCSEs and A Levels

Choosing your GCSE and A Level subjects is a coming-of-age milestone for students but how do you know you’re making the right decision?
Choosing Your GCSEs and A Levels
By Carli Allan
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You’re in Year 9 and you’ve reached an important crossroads in your education. For the first time, you have the opportunity to choose the subjects that you want to study as you take those initial steps towards your GCSE exams in Year 11 and A Level exams in Year 13.

Choosing GCSEs feels serious – and it’s natural to feel nervous. Now that you’re 13 or so, you may know what you’d like to do by way of a job in later life. Or, you may have no idea at all and still feel undecided about what to study at university (or even if you want to apply). Both of these situations are normal. While it is important which subjects you study, your life is not mapped out from this day. But with the deadline looming for choosing GCSE subjects – most UK curriculum schools ask students to select their GCSE options by the spring term – it’s time to start making some big decisions.

Fast forward two years and you will be in the same situation all over again – this time choosing your A Level subjects. You’re likely to have a clearer idea aged 16 of what you like, what you’re good at, and what you want to be. But that doesn’t make it any less challenging. It is the final hurdle in your journey towards a university place or that first job so, as many college students will tell you, it feels just as overwhelming.

How do I make the right choices for my GCSEs?

There is not one simple, easy answer but it does help to keep your options broad and balanced. To help you do this, it really helps to find a school that can offer you a wide choice of subjects. Some schools may have limitations on GCSE subjects (more obscure or vocational subjects, such as law and electronics, are less likely to be offered at smaller schools, for example), and there is no guarantee that students will be allocated all their preferred subjects due to potential timetable clashes. However, many independent schools in the UK can (and do) offer more than 12 different subjects; having the specialist teachers and facilities, as well as smaller class sizes, really helps.

You’ll also find that some fee-paying schools in the UK will offer IGCSEs (the international equivalent) as an option in certain subjects; these are considered by some to better prepare students for A Levels (or the IB Diploma Programme) as they have more challenging content and less assessed coursework. 

Most schools teach GCSEs in Years 10-11, so you will need to choose your options in Year 9. 

What subjects can I study at GCSE?

In reality, when choosing GCSEs, there are restrictions on the amount of choice you actually have. English (English Literature and English Language or a single English GCSE), maths, and science (combined, double or triple) are all compulsory subjects, and in most schools you also need to take a modern language, humanities (history or geography), and an arts or technical subject. Whichever science or English GCSE you take, you’ll cover the same subjects, but there is a difference in the depth of study and the number of individual GCSE qualifications you come away with.

That still leaves you the freedom of as many as three subjects. In recent years, we’ve seen the introduction of newer subjects such as computer science, and practical subjects such as design & technology. A new Natural History GCSE could be taught to students from 2025. Schools may also introduce subjects that have not previously been taught as part of the curriculum, such as psychology, business, and film studies. 

At state schools in the UK, many students are encouraged to take the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects at GCSE (English, maths, a humanity, science, and a language). The EBacc is used as a performance measure by the UK government of how many students achieve grades A*-C in these five core subjects. While the EBacc does give parents more information about the academic rigour of a school, it is criticised for putting pressure on schools to focus on the EBacc’s more traditional academic subjects and for overlooking 'softer' subjects such as art and design, drama, and music. 

Remember that you will be studying as many as 10 or 12 different subjects: these subjects involve different learning styles (compare learning history to art, for example), and they will have different forms of assessment (some are far more coursework based than others). Also, you are likely to be studying non-examination courses such as PE, life skills and PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) throughout the two years. Take all of this into consideration and take advantage of all the choices available at your school.

How will GCSEs affect my A Level and university choices?

The truth is that while GCSEs will help you in your future career, they are not final. Some schools and colleges will look for good grades at GCSE for you to take the same subject at A Level, but you can also do certain A Levels without having studied the subject before.

Universities may want to see a particular GCSE grade in English, maths or science for certain degrees. However, bear in mind that you don’t get the option of dropping these subjects, so whatever GCSEs you choose, you’ll still have a range of universities to choose from (if you get the grades, of course).

Even if you do regret choosing a particular subject it is not likely to be life-changing.

How do I choose my A Levels?

GCSEs will pass in a flash, and two years later you may be choosing your A Level subjects. There are some key differences in this decision-making process. Whereas breadth is the name of the game at GCSE, you will now choose to narrow your scope of subjects by choosing just three (and sometimes four) A Levels. If you’re planning to study medicine you will need to focus on separate sciences, whilst linguists will opt for modern languages, and engineers will choose mathematics and physics.

In 2019, the Russell Group ditched its list of "facilitating subjects", which listed the preferred A Level subjects for the UK’s most selective universities. Today, it directs students to its Informed Choices website, which helps you understand which subjects open up different degrees, from media studies to sports science, history of art to economics.

Should I do an Extended Project Qualification?

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is studied by A Level students in state and independent schools and colleges across the UK. Time-consuming and challenging, yet highly regarded and rewarding, the EPQ is an optional, standalone qualification that develops the independent learning and research skills demanded by universities and employers.

The number of students taking up the EPQ has grown substantially since its integration into the UK curriculum in 2007; this year, around 38,000 students took the EPQ in the UK. It’s not only seen as excellent preparation for university, the EPQ is now included in offers by some universities. 

Read more: Click here to read Should I do an Extended Project Qualification?

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