In Year 9 you’ll have to choose the subjects you want to continue studying for the next two years, which will culminate in exams in the summer term of Year 11. GCSEs are the main qualifications you’ll take, but you might also be offered BTECs. 

GCSEs are academic qualifications aimed at giving you a broad general knowledge, from which you can then become increasingly specialised through the courses you take at college and at university, if you choose to go. For more information about how GCSEs work, please see our studying page. 

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

Besides your compulsory subjects, the options available to you will depend on what your school offers, however you 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 you may also be able to study vocational (work-related) qualifications called BTECs in subjects such as construction, computing, child care or engineering. For more information about how BTECs work, please see our studying page. 

Which GCSEs are compulsory?

As mentioned, some GCSEs are compulsory meaning that they have to be studied at GCSE level. These are maths, English and science, while your school may also require you to study these along with specific combinations of subjects, such as a foreign language and a humanity. This is to make sure you have a broad balance of GCSE subjects which will keep your future options open - check what subjects are compulsory in your school. 

What GCSE options should I choose?

There are a number of factors to consider when choosing your GCSE options. Firstly, what do you think you’ll be good at and what will interest you? These are important as you’ll find the work in these subjects easier, you’ll be more motivated to learn, you’ll complete the homework quicker and you’ll be more likely to achieve a higher grade. 

The subjects that interest you are also those you’re probably finding yourself wanting to continue into adult life in your career. However, at the same time, if you find yourself only studying arts subjects, perhaps think about throwing in a subject like History or a modern language into the mix just to show future employers you are not a one trick pony and keep your options open. 

If you’re not sure about what you want to do in the future, and don’t feel as though you have a specific forte, balance is the key. One idea is the follow 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). This set of subjects is a useful guide when choosing your options, especially if you want to continue on an academic path.

One thing to remember is to not choose a subject just because of the teacher - they might have inspired you so far, but there’s no guarantee you’ll have them the following year for your GCSEs. 

Also consider the GCSE syllabus - for example, you might really enjoy History because you’ve been learning about Henry VIII in Year 9, however the GCSE will focus on WW1, and the thought of learning about trench warfare might bore you to death. 

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

How important are the GCSEs I choose?

The decisions you make in choosing your GCSEs make affect your 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 you need to have studied Biology A-Level. In the same way, you 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 you can start some subjects 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. 

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A good balance of GCSEs will give you 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 you study Biology, Chemistry and Physics as one subject and gain one GCSE; double science is where you study Biology, Chemistry and Physics together as two subjects and gain two GCSEs; while triple science offers you the ability to study all three sciences separately. 

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

If you want to study something sciency in the future, double or triple award will keep your options open, and even if you 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 please note that some universities don’t consider this as an exact equivalent, so if you want to go into the sciences, try to get onto the GCSE science programme. Your school and teachers are likely to have a good idea which science route would work best for you. 

How many GCSEs should I take?

Most student study between 9 and 11 GCSEs, including their BTEC equivalents. The thing to remember here is that it’s better to get higher grades in fewer subjects than do more subjects and not do as well overall. In this way, try to not overload yourself, and only pick as many subjects as you can handle.  

Also remember that some subjects will have a lot of reading, for example history and religious studies, so doing lots of these might increase your workload. 

Who should I ask for advice?

  • Teachers - they can tell you about what the GCSE will involve and, if they’ve taught you before, whether they think you are a suitable candidate. In this way, they are well-placed to offer you advice and support. 
  • Information evening - your school should have one of these for yourself and your parents and these evenings should make things clearer about what is available for you to study.  
  • Careers advisor - your careers advisor will be well-trained and prepared to help with your careers and GCSE-related questions, will be able to offer support, resources and info to help with your GCSE choices. This is especially true if you have a specific career goal in mind. 
  • Parents - they might also have an opinion and suggestions that you haven’t considered yet, as well as having your best interests at heart. 

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

How important are my grades?

Although, after ten years working, employers will rarely bat an eyelid at your GCSE grades, they do affect whether you can go on to take A-Levels. Although the entry requirements of Colleges and Sixth Forms generally vary, the basic requirement is usually 5 C grades or above at GCSE. You might also have to have higher grades (a B or higher) in the subjects you want to continue studying.

If you don't achieve these results, it's likely that colleges won't accept you studying A-Levels with them, and will offer you a place studying a more vocational course, perhaps leading to a BTEC level 3. 

Furthermore, GCSEs are important as they are concrete evidence of your ability, and useful for universities. As you apply to university with your predicted A-level grades, GCSEs are a secondary indication of your knowledge and academic talent, while college tutors can use them to predict your A-Level grades. 

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. 

You might well think that you’d find these ‘soft’ subjects easier and more enjoyable, and pick them because of this - you’ll end up doing well, especially if these subjects are what you want to specialise in at a later date. However, also consider introducing one or two ‘hard’ subjects as it keeps your options open.

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