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If you’re in Year 8 or Year 9 at school, you will soon be deciding on GCSE options that you will study until the end of Year 11. It’s an exciting time for students. This is the beginning of crafting your future education and career prospects, and the first opportunity to decide for yourself what you want to study.

For some students, this can be a daunting task. The subjects you choose will have an impact on your future education and career prospects, but try not to let this cause you anxiety. Choosing your GCSE options and having control of how you steer your education is enjoyable, empowering and rewarding.

So, what are the options for GCSE subjects? And how do you choose which GCSEs you would like to study? In this guide, we detail how to make the right GCSE choices for you, including how many GCSEs to take, and what to do if you are unhappy with your choices once you start.

Remember that this is the start of an exciting journey, view it with positivity and enthusiasm and you will not only enjoy the experience a lot more but are more likely to make the right choices.

How many GCSEs should I choose?

On average, most students study nine GCSE subjects, some less, some more. Remember your GCSE goal is to secure the best grades possible, in order to give yourself the best options for A-levels, university and beyond.

It’s important to note that the more GCSEs you take, the harder it will be for you to keep up with your studies, as you’ll be juggling many subjects at once. This will also leave less time for your other commitments and hobbies, which are important for maintaining good mental health and alleviating stress. If you overload yourself with too many GCSE subjects your grades will suffer so it is ultimately counterproductive.

While GCSE choices and grades are relevant to sixth form and university admissions, they are less critical for the majority of universities. Universities want to see that you can achieve good grades, not that you can get average grades in lots of subjects.

For more demanding degree courses like medicine or veterinary science, universities may have some minimum GCSE requirements. You can find these requirements on the university websites under the relevant course requirements. UCAS has some good advice and recommendations regarding GCSEs and how they impact university admissions and they have produced this guide for GCSE students.

For some students, there is a degree of competitiveness that creeps in when deciding how many GCSEs to take. But this attitude is unhelpful in order to make the right choices. Ultimately, the number of GCSEs you choose is not as important as the grades you achieve, so don’t obsess about this. Focus on what is right for you because it will be you doing the studying, revision and exams, not your peers.

Which GCSE subjects are compulsory?

Compulsory subjects that are mandatory to take at GCSE level are often referred to as the ‘core subjects’. These subjects are Maths, English, and Science. However, depending on your school you may be offered Science as a combined subject (earning you 2 grades). You may also be required to do an additional compulsory subject.

Let’s break it down by subject:

A GCSE in Maths is worth 1 GCSE overall and is compulsory in all schools.

A GCSE in English is a little more complicated: there are 2 separate GCSEs: English Language and English Literature. English Language is compulsory in all schools. The vast majority of schools will offer English Literature as an optional subject, and in some cases may require it as a compulsory GCSE.

Science GCSEs take one of two routes: Separate Science GCSEs (Biology, Physics and Chemistry) – also known as Triple Awards Sciences – will earn you 1 grade in each Science subject taken (or 3 grades if you take all 3 separate Science subjects). The Combined Science GCSE, which combines all three Science subjects into one course, will earn you 2 grades. This means that taking all 3 separate Science subjects is more work than taking Combined Science.

The Government requires students to complete Combined Science as a GCSE subject (earning you 2 grades). However, if your school doesn’t offer Combined Science, you will be required to choose at least 2 separate Science subjects as an alternative.

Different schools naturally have different preferences on what they wish their students to take for their GCSEs. This means schools have the option to make additional subjects compulsory as well as the ones advised by the Government. Common subjects for schools to choose to make mandatory are Religious Studies, History, Geography, and a Modern Foreign Language.

Check with your school to find out what GCSE formats are offered and which subjects are compulsory for you.

10 Tips for choosing GCSE subjects

Once you understand what GCSE options your school offers and which subjects are mandatory, you can then start to seriously consider which GCSEs you’d like to take. For some, this can be a time of anxiety and peer pressure, causing them to be indecisive or to make bad decisions. Remember above all else that your GCSE choices are YOURS.

Consider what you enjoy and what you’re good at. If you are one of the few Year 8/9 students that have a clear idea of what you would like to study in further education, or even know what career you would like to pursue, then this will influence your GCSE options and make your choices much easier.

For most GCSE students further studies and careers are a distant concept. There is nothing wrong with this whatsoever. If you fall into this category, then the tips we give below are even more pertinent and we hope will help you make clear, well-informed choices.

So, whether you know exactly what university course you are aiming for and what job you would love to do, or you feel overwhelmed with choices and have no clear future academic/career route, the tips below will help you make the best decisions that suit you.

Here are our top 10 tips to help you make good GCSE choices:

1) Choose Subjects You Enjoy

We cannot emphasise this enough. There is a strange misconception that examination study should be a chore and should require hard work with no pleasure. The truth is that subjects you enjoy at school are a signal for future career possibilities. It is likely a greater indicator of a passion or a talent than anything else and there is some benefit for future contentment in heading towards something you enjoy. Even if the subject will only ever be a hobby or interest, we all need these too.

Choosing a GCSE subject that you dislike will likely spell trouble ahead, making studies boring and laborious, and making it unlikely that you will go on to study that subject in higher education.

2) Consider Your Future Goals

You may not have a clear route map of where your studies are heading but you will know what subjects you enjoy and are good at, and therefore, what fields of work may be of interest in the future.

Maybe you enjoy the arts or are good at languages. Build on these strengths by continuing to study them. The subjects you enjoy are often the subjects that you will excel at.

If you don’t know what career you want to pursue (like most students at this stage), then you should aim to keep your options open. Studying a range of subjects will provide you with a good overview of different topics and different ways of studying. This can help you identify what subjects you’re best at and will mean different avenues are open to you at A-Levels.

Talk to your school’s career advisor to see if you can get a feel for what kind of career you might like to do.

3) Look at the Requirements of Sixth Forms and Universities

If you do have some ideas about further education, such as what you might like to study at sixth form and beyond, take a look at the requirements for these courses. Most schools, and pretty much all universities, publish on their websites the admission criteria for each course. If you can’t find the information contact the school or university and ask for a copy.

This information can greatly inform your GCSE choices. If you want to study medicine then you need to take a minimum of 2 Science subjects, ideally 3. If you want to study engineering, then Maths and Physics should be your first picks. If you want to become a History teacher, then you will need History GCSE.

4) Strike a balance

All good things in life require balance, and whilst we advise you to choose some GCSE subjects you enjoy and are passionate about it’s also important to strike a balance between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ subjects so that universities can see how varied your abilities are.

A ‘hard’ subject is another way of describing what’s called a facilitating subject – those preferred by universities when applying for a range of degrees. This includes core subjects like Maths and English, but also the three sciences, modern foreign languages, and things like economics and politics at A-Level.

‘Soft’ subjects are generally more practical or vocational, for example, photography, media studies, art and design, drama, and the social sciences. A balance between technical, academic, and practical subjects demonstrates that you’re a well-rounded learner.

5) Consider Workload and Timetabling

You should also aim to strike a balance in workload. Look at the marking scheme for each GCSE subject you are considering. Some GCSE subjects, such as Art and Drama, are based heavily on coursework, so if you find exams a struggle then you may want to balance your GCSE workload with some subjects that do not depend significantly on your exam results.

Be aware that timetabling also plays a part. For example, if Music and Drama lessons take place at the same time, you will have to choose which subject you would rather study. Try to choose subjects that complement each other, in terms of workload and timetabling but also subject combinations that keep your options open for the future.

6) Beware of ‘Non-Preferred’ Subjects

This caused some surprise a few years back when people became aware that some universities, and even some sixth forms, have a list of ‘non-preferred’ subjects that they take into account when assessing admission applications.

This is more of a consideration for you at A-Levels when the subjects you choose will heavily influence your university options and will be scrutinised by university admissions boards to which you apply. However, this can also be an issue for some of the top sixth forms and colleges so it’s worth being aware of.

Some top universities consider certain subjects too ‘soft’, and don’t challenge the skills and knowledge of their students. Examples of ‘soft’ A-Levels include PE and Sport Education, Art & Design, Business Studies and Performing Arts.

Being aware of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ A-Levels at GCSE stage can be very useful. Picking ‘hard’ GCSE subjects could put you in a better position to go on to pick A-level subjects that universities prefer, therefore making it easier to be accepted on a university course.

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

7) Talk it Through With Teachers/Parents/Careers Advisors

Getting advice from others is a thorny topic. You should get advice from a variety of people who are experienced and knowledgeable – such as teachers, parents and careers advisors. It’s not a good idea to take advice from peers – who have no experience with the GCSE process and its future impacts and are just as likely to be confused or unsure as you are.

Teachers’ opinions are valuable, but not without potential bias. Teachers have a certain vested interest in attracting some students to subjects. If the student has an aptitude for a particular subject then the teacher will be extra keen to get the positive outcomes they will bring. Therefore, even though teachers act ethically and in the best interest of students, they are not unbiased. However, it is a good idea to speak to teachers and see if the subject is a good fit.

A careers adviser can assess your interests, skills, and goals, and help you decide what the most relevant subjects would be for you. You might have never considered working in accounting or marketing before, simply because you never knew what they involved. Don’t dismiss career options based on your preconceptions.

Take your parents, teachers and career advisor’s opinions on board but ultimately choose what’s right for you.

Now for some important don’t do’s…

8) Don’t Choose Subjects Because You’ve Heard They’re “Easy”

What’s easy for one person may be difficult for another. Choose your GCSEs based on your strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and take into account the points we’ve detailed above.

Maybe some of your friends think some of the ‘soft’ subjects are easier, but as we have already discussed, this is no way to choose your GCSE subjects and is likely to set you up for future failure rather than success.

Ultimately, the only easy subjects are the ones you enjoy and are good at. Another good reason to choose your subjects is based on your aptitudes and not those of others.

9) Don’t Choose a Subject Based on the Teacher

The chance that you get the same teacher in Year 10 is small. Schools like to give students a variety of different teachers and different approaches.

The personality of a teacher can make a subject more appealing, but choosing your GCSE subjects based on this is a big mistake. You may not have the same teacher next year, and without that teacher, will you still enjoy the subject? Teachers will leave schools, be allocated to different departments, or may not teach you when you change year groups. Bear this in mind when choosing.

10) Don’t copy your friends

Deciding what GCSEs to take is your decision and it will affect how you choose your A-Levels and later your university course. Make sure you are making GCSE decisions based on valid and honest reasoning.

Although taking the same classes as your friends may make your lessons more fun or give you someone to sit next to, having your friends around won’t help you when you have to sit tests and exams in that subject.

It’s therefore important not to choose something simply because others around you are. It also means that when you see your friends outside of lessons, you’ll have more to talk about, and you’re more likely to make new friends in your new classes.

When do I need to choose my GCSE options?

Thinking about what GCSE subjects to study should be done as soon as possible. You may not come to a final decision straight away but giving yourself time to contemplate makes the process less stressful and you’ll have time to research and get advice where needed.  

The deadline date for deciding on your GCSE subjects will differ from school to school. Students usually choose their GCSE subjects in Year 9, although some schools may let students choose their options in Year 8.

The exact time in Year 9 when students have to choose their GCSEs varies between different schools. Find out these key decision dates from your school. It’s important to know when these decisions have to be made, so you can be fully prepared and not have to rush.

What if I’m unhappy with my choices once I start?

If you feel really unhappy with a GCSE subject you have chosen, there is usually a chance to change. But this will depend on your school. Before making any changes, make sure that the subject you want to swap to won’t clash with any of your other GCSE options. And if you already have an idea of what A-Levels or university course you want to take, be sure you aren’t dropping a necessary subject.

It’s important to decide whether you want to continue with a subject or not as soon as possible after starting. This is because GCSEs are a lot of work, and you don’t want to have to start and catch up on a new GCSE subject after completing half of another one.

Remember, no door closes firmly shut just because of GCSE options. There are ways of narrowing focus later in your academic career, so try not to sweat the small stuff. If you’re unhappy with your GCSE choices talk to your head of year about switching before making any firm decisions.

Extra guidance and support

Follow these tips and you are sure to make the right GCSE decisions for you. However, we appreciate not everyone’s GCSE journey is so linear and straightforward.

If you need extra guidance and support JK Educate is here to help you through every step of your academic career. We offer face-to-face and online tutoring for 13+ entrance exams, GCSEs, A-Levels and more. Our services include GCSE revision workshops, mock exam practice, interview preparation, school admissions advice and academic assessments.

Our tutors have a proven track record, are passionate about education and love working with children. Our team is made up of deputy heads, senior managers, subject specialists and class teachers. So, whatever your educational needs JK Educate has the experience and resources to bring out the best in you or your child.

Get in touch with us today to find out how we can help. Call us on 020 3488 0754, or contact us through the website.

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