Rows of desks and chairs in the exam hall

You probably still remember your child’s first day at school like it was yesterday, and now, here they are, all grown up, and having to select the subjects they want to do for GCSE. If you’ve no idea where to start in what sorts of subjects your child needs to choose, or how to help them, here are a few pointers:

What are GCSEs?

GCSEs are academic qualifications aimed at giving your son or daughter a broad general knowledge, from which they can then become increasingly specialised through the courses they take at college and at university. For more information about how GCSEs work, please see our qualifications page. 

The mix of subjects available to your son or daughter will include compulsory subjects, options from those they’ve already studied and also opportunities to study completely new ones, such as business studies, law or sociology. 

Besides their compulsory subjects, the options available will depend on what the school offers, however they should be able to choose at least one from: the arts (music, drama, art); design and technology; the humanities (history, geography, religious studies); and modern foreign languages.  

Alongside GCSEs they may also be able to study vocational qualifications called BTECs in subjects such as construction, computing, child care or engineering. For more information about how BTECs work, please see our qualfications page.

Which GCSEs are compulsory? 

Maths, English and science are compulsory, while your child’s school may also require them to study these along with specific combinations of subjects, such as a foreign language and a humanity. This is to make sure they have a broad balance of GCSE subjects which will keep their future options open - ask you child’s school which subjects or combination of subjects are compulsory for them. 

What GCSE options should they take?

What GCSEs your child should take is determined by a number of factors, including what they think they’ll do well in and what they enjoy. If they are interested in the subject they’ll be more motivated to learn, complete their homework and coursework quicker, and it’s more likely that they’ll achieve a higher grade. 

However, the key idea here is balance. If they’ve a forte and specific interests, then support them in these, however, for example, if they find themselves only studying arts subjects, how about suggesting that they might also want to add a subject like History or a modern language into the mix to show future employers that they have different skills and keep their options open. 

If they have no idea of what they want to do in the future, and even while at college, or feel as though they’ve no specific forte, encourage them to study a range of subjects. One idea is to follow the the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) - this is a measure for schools to see how many of their students gain a GCSE grade C or above across a number of set subjects (English, maths, history or geography, the sciences and a language). The EBacc is a useful guide when choosing GCSE options, especially if your child wants to continue on an academic path.

Also, think about their mix of ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ subjects - employers, universities and colleges will not be too happy about seeing too many ‘easy’ GCSEs in their mix - see 'what's the difference between hard and soft subjects?' below for more information. 

How many subjects should they take?

The ‘right’ number of GCSEs your child can take will depend on their school and their academic ability. If they are academic, it would be wise to do at least nine, although they may be able to do as many as 11. Also remember that the number of GCSEs they otbain is less important than doing well overall and picking complementary subjects, so it’s best to do fewer and obtain grades A-C that do more and obtain grades lower than a C. They might also want to combine fewer GCSEs with BTECs or other qualifications. 


A good balance of GCSEs will give your child plenty of options in the future. Photograph: Students of Perryfields High School Specialist Maths and Computing College collecting their exam results via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What about Science?

Science can currently be studied as a either core science, double science or triple science. Core science is where your child studies Biology, Chemistry and Physics as one subject and gains one GCSE; double science is where your child studies Biology, Chemistry and Physics together as two subjects and gain two GCSEs; while triple science offers your child the ability to study all three sciences separately. 

Note that from September 2016 the option to study core science will disappear, and your child will only be allowed to study science as two or three GCSEs. 

If your child wants to study something sciency in the future, double or triple award will keep their options open, and even if they don’t these are a good basis for any career. 

It’s very common to be offered the BTEC first extended science as an alternative to GCSE science, culminating in the equivalent of two GCSEs, however some universities don’t consider this as an exact equivalent, so if your child is desperate to go into the sciences, try to get them onto the GCSE science programme. 

How much should I influence my child’s options?

Schools normally hold a GCSE options event for pupils and their parents in year 9 letting you both understand how GCSEs work and the syllabus of each subject. Support them in attending this, and speak to teachers about their strengths and whether they think a GCSE in a specific subject is suitable. If they’ve picked a range of subjects that’s played to their strengths then encourage them that the next few years and going to be an exciting challenge, however if you feel their subject choice is too narrow or there are too many ‘easy’ subjects, perhaps see whether they could swap one or two for something entirely different. 

How important are the GCSEs they choose?

The decisions they make in choosing their GCSEs make affect their ability to enter different courses and professions in the future - the trick here is to work backwards. 

University courses have set entry requirements and may require certain subjects at A-level, for example to study Biology at university your child will need to have studied Biology A-Level. In the same way, your child may have needed to study a subject at GCSE level to study it at A-Level, for example, Biology A-Level requires triple or dual science.

However, check this carefully as this is not always the case and some subjects can be started from scratch at A-Level and university, for example Psychology or Economics. 

As well as prescribing specific A-Levels in some cases, most universities also ask for a mix of traditional subjects at grade C or higher, including Maths and English.

At the same time, trades and professions also have recognised routes to qualifying, so, in the same way, it may help to work backwards when deciding what to do next. 

However, most teenagers have no idea what they want to do in the future, so their best option is often to stick to a mix of mainly ‘hard’ subjects which will keep their future options open.


Photograph: Pete - Project 365 #231: 190810 The Proof Of The Pudding via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What’s the difference between hard and soft subjects?

Some top universities consider some subjects a bit too ‘soft’ as they are less likely to push your skills and knowledge. 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 show how hard you can work, as well as teaching skills that will be useful in all kinds of further education courses and careers.

‘Hard’ subjects include history, geography, foreign languages, and the sciences, while ‘soft’ subjects include economics, business studies, law, media studies and art. 

Your child might well think that these ‘soft’ subjects easier and more enjoyable, and they should be encouraged to pick them because of this - they’ll end up doing well, especially if these subjects are what they want to specialise in at a later date. However, also ask them to consider introducing one or two ‘hard’ subjects to keep their options open.