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How important are GCSE choices when it comes to university?

Choosing your GCSE subjects? While uni, a degree and a career may seem a long way off, they're worth keeping in mind when picking your GCSE options.

Here are some tips to pick the right GCSE subjects...

GCSE options do matter

Dig about a bit into the entry requirements of most university courses and there, sitting quietly alongside the A-level or other advanced course grades you need, will probably be a section on specific GCSE conditions. 

In fact, following changes to A-levels in recent years, universities may well look at GCSEs more when making a decision about your application – especially when it comes to competitive subjects or universities eg medicine, law, Oxbridge etc.

English and maths (sometimes science) are the GCSEs that universities are most likely to be interested in – and you don’t get the option of dropping these. So whatever GCSEs you choose, you’ll still have a broad range of unis to make up your mind over (if you get the grades, that is).

The GCSEs that will keep your uni options open

Keep one eye on your future when you’re weighing up your options. Looking ahead to university courses, it might be that the route you want to go down requires specific A-level or Highers entry requirements

Work back and you’ll realise how important your GCSE choices are. In fact, some schools and colleges will look for a good grade at GCSE in order for you to take the subject at A-level!

If you’re not sure what you want to take at uni – or maybe you’ve got a few ideas bubbling away – our list of degree subjects and the typical A-level requirements they ask for, will help get you thinking.

See where different A-levels can lead you  try our A-level Explorer

The GCSE science conundrum

GCSE science is a compulsory option, but you can choose to study it in two different ways:
  • Triple Award: where you will study three stand-alone GCSEs, one each in biology, chemistry and physics
  • Double Award (or ‘Dual Award’): where you will cover all three sciences combined and get two GCSEs at the end of it
Regardless of which one you take, you’ll cover all three subjects; the key difference is the depth you go into, the number of exams you take and the number of individual GCSE qualifications you come away with.

If you apply to a science subject at university – and by ‘science subject’ we mean medicine, nursing etc., as well as biology, chemistry and physics  the entry requirements for a course are likely to include some specifics around GCSEs.

For example, take a look at these Nursing degrees at different universities and what they ask for where it concerns GCSEs (as of March 2021):

University of Liverpool: 'Science Dual Award is acceptable. Core Science and Applied Science GCSEs will not be considered.’

Note: Applied Science GCSE (either single or double award) refers to a vocational alternative to those highlighted above, while Core Science refers to a discontinued GCSE option.

Glasgow University: 'GCSE English, Chemistry and Mathematics at Grade B or 5.' 

Edinburgh University: 'GCSEs: Mathematics and English at C or 4.'

From looking at these variations, you would want to consider how your GCSE science choice might affect your later university application and make your decision accordingly.

What GCSEs do you need to apply to university? Search and see full entry requirements for a degree course or subject.

Can I still study something if I didn’t take it at GCSE?

Yes, sometimes you can do an A-level without having studied it at GCSE – in the same way you don’t necessarily need to take a subject at A-level to study it at degree level. 

Common examples of this include:
  • law
  • media studies
  • economics
  • psychology
  • religious studies

Opt for these subjects if you’re interested in them and think you’ll do well – but you won’t limit your options if you don’t.

Note that for some degree courses, universities may ask for a minimum grade for English, maths or science at GCSE. 

For example, those applying to study psychology at Edinburgh Napier University will need (as of March 2021) a grade 4 (or C) in GCSE maths, on top of BCC at A-level – but you don’t specifically need any qualifications in psychology itself.

How to make smart GCSE choices

Here are a few pointers or how – and how not – to make the right GCSE choices:
  • Choose your optional subjects because you think you’ll be good at them, and that they will interest you;
  • If you’re not sure what you might want to take at university, ensure you’ve got a good mix of GCSE subjects – you could follow the English Baccalaureate model (taking English, maths, double science, history or geography and a modern or ancient language);
  • Don’t choose subjects because you want to be with a best friend or an inspirational teacher – your friendship may change or that teacher may leave;
  • If you’re already thinking about a particular type of course, take a look at the entry requirements for specific courses at different unis and work back from there.


GCSE choices: tips from current GCSE students

A couple of Year 10 students told us what they were enjoying most about their GCSE choices. What lessons can you learn from their experience when making your own GCSE choices?

Which subjects do you enjoy already? Is there something you want to learn more about?

I find [Triple Science] easy because I’m learning about stuff that I want to know and it’s answering my questions.

Perhaps a certain GCSE subject is linked to your interests outside of school?
I enjoy doing music. It’s just there in my everyday life.
I enjoy doing digital technology as it is my hobby to use photoshop and edit photos.

Could one of your subjects help you in the future eg A-levels, university or even careers? This can motivate you to do your best.
I enjoy the subjects that I do because they link to what I want to do in the future.

Which subjects do you walk away smiling from? Are there any that challenge you in the right way?
[My subjects] are not necessarily easy, but I am having fun.

But be careful: subjects can (and probably will) change and get more difficult.
I regret picking French. I found it easier in Year 9 and I got good grades. But now I’m getting bad grades, as it's harder.

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