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Choosing GCSE Subjects: A Complete Guide

posted by Savannah on Friday, 8 January 2021

When it comes to choosing GCSE options, it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed. How do you know you’re making the right choices? What if you’re not sure whether you’d like to go to university, or what career you’re aiming for?

In England, most students will choose the GCSE subjects that they want to study in year nine, at the ages of around 13 or 14. GCSEs are then studied over the following two years leading to final exams. How many subjects do you pick for GCSE? Well, the majority of students will study nine or ten subjects, although some academically advanced and ambitious students may take 11 or 12 GCSEs at a time.

gcse students choosing their GCSE subjects to study

Why does this matter? Well, it depends what career you have in mind. Taking triple science is recommended if you want to become a doctor, but it means you’ll end up studying more than 10 subjects. And universities sometimes favour students who have a wide range of subjects under their belt, to show that they are well-rounded learners.

For mature students looking to retake GCSEs later in life, picking their subjects is usually based on whether they need to achieve better grades, or study a different subject to meet the requirements of a new career. Most further education courses and jobs require you to have grades between 9 and 4 (or A* and C, if you’re used to the old grading system) in a minimum of five subjects. So, whether you’re in school, or an adult returning to learning, we’ve gathered our most relevant advice to help you choose your GCSEs wisely.

10 tips for choosing your GCSE subjects 

1) Figure out which subjects are compulsory  

In the UK, there are ‘core’ and ‘foundation’ subjects that all key stage 4 students must take. MathsEnglish, and science are the core subjects, and IT/computing, physical education, and citizenship are the foundations. In some cases, science can be split into two or three subjects, biologychemistry, and physics, depending on the ability of the student. From there, most students will choose three or four optional courses based on their personal interests and further education plans.

2) Find out what options you have 

There are four categories that all schools must offer at least one subject in. These categories are:

  1. Modern foreign languages. Generally, schools will offer the most popular courses, such as French, German, and Spanish, though some schools might teach more complex languages, such as Mandarin and Russian. You should check whether taking a language GCSE is compulsory at your school, too.
  2. Humanity subjects. This covers historygeography, religious studies, and the social sciences such as psychology and sociology.
  3. Artistic subjects. These include music, drama, art and design, and media studies.
  4. Technical subjects. This could be design and technology, food technology, and computer science.

Some students have the option to choose a work-related qualification, and these are usually new subjects that are not studied at key stage three, for example, health and social care or business studies.

3) Focus on your passions and aspirations 

GCSE art student doing GCSE art

Gaining a qualification in a subject that you don’t enjoy is no use to you if it means your grades suffer as a result. What’s more, if you’re not passionate about the subject, chances are, you’re not going to follow that path in the future. Learning should be a propellor for your personal development and career aspirations, so the most important thing you can do is pick the subjects that you’re interested in! What fuels your curiosity? What motivates you? What ideas and concepts are you fascinated by? It doesn’t matter if you’re not sure what type of work you desire, as long as you understand that certain subjects are pathways into certain industries. For example, if you know you like being around people and think you could work in the social sector, taking a humanities subject, like sociology or psychology, alongside a modern language, such as French, would be useful.

4) Think of good subject combinations and strike a balance 

Now, whilst we just said you should pick the subjects you like, it’s also important to strike a balance between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ 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 natural sciences, modern foreign languages, and things like economics and politics. ‘Soft’ subjects are generally more hands-on, practical, or vocational, for example, photography, media studies, art and design, drama, and the social sciences. Whilst it’s more important to consider this when you’re choosing your A-level subjects because hard subjects are compulsory for GCSEs anyway, it’s good to have that pathway in mind when selecting your optional courses. A balance between technical, academic, and practical subjects demonstrates that you’re a well-rounded learner.

5) Review your skillset and strengths 

left brain or right brain diagram explaining different ways of thinking

Do you feel confident solving problems and equations? Or do you feel more comfortable communicating ideas? Studies have shown that we often use one side of the brain more than the other, and those considered ‘left brained’ tend to be more logical. Whilst people who are ‘right brained’ are more creative. However, that’s not to say that you can’t train the brain to use both these skills efficiently. It simply indicates what style of thinking you’re more naturally dominant in. You can do a fun test here to find out! Knowing your strengths and learning styles will help when thinking about the subjects you’d be good at.

You should also research how different subjects are marked, and ask yourself, ‘Is this GCSE largely coursework based, or exam-focused’? If you’re the type of person that performs better under pressure, a subject marked solely under exam conditions would be fine. However, most students prefer subjects that have a mix of graded coursework and exams, so they can spend longer working on their assignments.

6) Seek guidance from a careers adviser 

We know, we know. If you’re in year nine, or even year eight, then you’re still very young to be thinking about what job you want. And the fact is that throughout life, most adults switch jobs every five years on average anyway. So, we’re not suggesting that you need to have it all figured out, or that what you decide is set in stone. However, it’s good to know your options so you can get a feel for the kind of work you might be interested in.

Seeking guidance from a career adviser for choosing GCSEs

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, marketing, or recruitment before, simply because you never knew what they involved. The best thing to do at this stage is to learn about and consider all possibilities so that you can narrow down the GCSEs that keep your options open. For friendly career guidance, we can book you in for a free chat with one of our course advisers.

If you’re a mature student returning to education to re-take your GCSEs, we’re pretty sure you already have a career path in mind. However, you might not know exactly what qualifications you need to get there. A quick chat with us will help to point you in the right direction.

7) Don’t be influenced by others 

If you’re still at school, it’s easy to be tempted by the subjects your friends have chosen, so you can be in the same classes. But whilst school is a social environment, classrooms are for learning! So, whether the GCSEs you pick are popular or not, they will have a huge impact on your future and your friends should have no influence on your decision. On top of that, don’t let your parents tell you what courses to study either. You’re the one that has to spend two years learning about the subject, and it’s your life that it will impact in the long run.

8) Plan a realistic schedule that you can keep up with  

Some subjects will clash on a school timetable, so you need to check if you can make all the classes for the subjects you’ve chosen. Say you’re taking triple science as well as all the core subjects, and you’ve chosen four other GCSEs, you’ll have twelve different classes to attend across the week. Make sure it’s do-able and achievable; you don’t want to be feeling stressed because you took on too many subjects or you’re having to catch up with missed classes. If you’re going to be online learning, be sure to plan a schedule that fits alongside your other commitments. Plan a timetable that isn’t too overwhelming but realistic to achieve the recommended study hours per course.

9) Think about how your GCSEs will complement your A-level choices 

Some A-level courses will require you to have already achieved the same subject at GCSE level, so that you have the foundation knowledge to develop upon. For example, universities often value students who study A-level languages, such as French, but you’d need French GCSE first – that’s if the subject is not your first language.

10) Understand that nothing is final, and you can still gain further GCSEs later in life 

If there’s one thing we know as an online college, it’s that learning is lifelong! You can study your GCSEs, go on to achieve A-levels, go to university, and be happy in your job for ten years, until you decide you want to become a nurse and you didn’t get a good enough maths GCSE to begin training. So, you find a course and you commit to studying again. Life will take you on many unexpected journeys, but education will only ever propel you forwards. Therefore, remember, nothing is final, and whilst the GCSEs you choose are important, they’re not your only chance at success. Enjoy the ride.


We hope this guide helps you figure out which GCSEs are right for you. If you love the idea of studying your GCSEs completely online in your own time, at your own pace, give our friendly learning advisers a call on 0121 630 3000 or get in touch via the contact form and we’ll get back to you.