Deciding what optional subjects to take at GCSE is a difficult decision. It is the first time you have been given a choice regarding the direction of your education. The decision is personal to each student and something you must decide for yourself. It's a great opportunity to think about what you would like to do in the future and what you are interested in.
This article covers everything you need to know about the options available for GCSE and how to make an informed decision. We will include a background to the GCSE qualification, list the compulsory subjects at GCSE level and the options you can pick from e.g. subjects such as History. We will explain when you need to choose the subjects you want to study for GCSE and advice for making this decision.
What are GCSEs?
GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education. The qualification takes two years to complete in secondary school, starting in year 10 and finishing with final exams taking place in year 11. It is the main academic qualification taken by students aged 14 - 16 years old in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Scottish equivalent in state schools is called the Scottish Qualifications Certificate (some private schools in Scotland choose to use the GCSE system).
Most schools will expect you to take 9 subjects at GCSE, possibly 10 depending on the curriculum.
GSCEs are a well-known and respected qualification that can be taken at school, college or by distance learning. Some adult students study for GCSEs on a part-time basis alongside work and family commitments. The type of work required varies depending on the subject: some subjects are more focused on essay writing and presenting arguments, such as English Literature and History. Other subjects are more creative and expressive, such as Music or Drama. You will be assessed via a mixture of written examinations and coursework, the latter including projects to complete, artwork and experiments.
When students complete their GCSEs, they can leave school education or continue and study towards the A-Level qualification. Students are required to stay in education until they are 18 so if they decide to leave school, they will have to undergo further education or training. For example, if a student decides not to study for A-Levels, they could take an apprenticeship course as a paid job.
How many GCSE subjects are compulsory?
There are certain subjects that are compulsory at GCSE level. Science, English and Maths are core subjects and certain related subjects are also required. English Language is compulsory at GCSE and the majority of schools in England also require students to sit English Literature. If your school is in Wales, you are required to study Welsh as a subject.
You can choose to split Science into two subjects for 2 GCSEs or three subjects for 3 GCSEs. This is known as Combined Science / Double Science and Triple Science respectively. Double or triple science both study Biology, Chemistry and Physics with Triple Science treating each as a separate subject and dedicating more time to their study.
The Maths GCSE is split into Higher Maths for the higher achieving students and Foundation Maths for all other students. Higher Maths students are tested on a larger syllabus. Foundation Maths can achieve a maximum grade of 5 while Higher Maths can achieve the highest grade of 9. Your assignment into Foundation Maths or Higher Maths depends on the set you are placed in. If you need support to improve your Maths standard in advance of year 10, you can find a Maths KS3 tutor.
There are also foundation subjects that you have to take:
- Physical education (PE)
Some schools will make other GCSE subjects compulsory. For example, grammar schools typically require you to learn a foreign language, such as French. It's worth checking with your school about any additional subjects that you may be required to study for GCSE.
What optional subjects can I take?
The optional GCSE subjects available to select from are different for every school. Some options are available, some may not be offered, while other subjects may be compulsory. You should confirm the optional subject list below with your school.
There are four categories for optional subjects: Arts, Design and Technology, Humanities and Modern Foreign Languages:
- Art and Design
- Film Studies
- Media Studies
- Computer Science
- Design and Technology
- Food Technology
- Physical Education - PE is a compulsory subject at GCSE You can also select it as an option, which will focus more on sports science.
- Religious Studies
- Modern Foreign Languages - The most common languages taught are French, German and Spanish. Learning a modern foreign language is sometimes compulsory, such as at grammar schools:
It's a good idea to consider your future education and even possible career when considering your options. For example, learning a modern foreign language is a must if you want to work as a translator. Understandably, most year 9 students won't know yet what they want to do with their future. In this case, it's best to keep your options open by studying a range of subjects offering a wide skill range.
When do I need to choose my GCSE options?
Normally, you need to choose your subjects for GCSE in year 9 at the end of the year. The academic year varies by school and in some situations, this may happen in year 8. This is unlikely but it's still a good idea to start thinking about your options as early as year 7.
The period in the academic year when you are asked to pick your options varies depending on the school. You will be given plenty of time to make your decision. Your teachers will also give you a lot of guidance and support. This may include their own suggestions for suitable options based on their experience teaching you.
How to choose your GCSE subjects
Before we get started, it's worth exploring bad reasons for picking a subject:
- The subject is easy - It's understandable to pick a subject that has a high pass rate and is considered "easy". That said, you're far more likely to get a good mark in a subject you find interesting and enjoy. You will concentrate better in lessons, put more effort into homework and this will show in your final exams. Following your interests will also reap benefits in the future when you consider career opportunities.
- Your parents want you to take it - For the reasons mentioned above, it's important to choose a subject you are interested in. Your parents have your best interests in mind but only you know best where your interests lie.
- Your friend is doing it - You need plenty of guidance when choosing your GCSEs, but ultimately this is an independent decision. If you take your time and weigh all the pros and cons carefully, you are far more likely to pick the right option than to follow what your friend is doing. Not least because your friend may be in a different class than you.
These are our suggestions for choosing your GCSE options:
- Find out the available subjects - Imagine taking your time carefully deciding your GCSE options only to discover that one or more subjects aren't covered by your school. Finding out the available options at your school should be the first step. These subjects will normally be listed on the school website.
- Go to a GCSE options meeting - Your school will host at least one meeting for students and their parents/guardians to discuss GCSE options. Ask questions about the subjects you're considering, including the topics covered and how you will be examined. For example, History is a subject where the historical periods focussed on will play an important role in a student's interest and engagement.
- Ask for advice - Try to get advice from your parents/guardians and check with your teachers. You can talk with friends and any siblings who may have recently completed their GCSEs. This information can be very helpful in making your final decision.
- How is the subject assessed? - Some subjects will focus on essay writing, while other subjects are more factual. Some subjects may have a stronger focus on coursework - such as a portfolio in Art - while others put more weight on final exams. Consider your own strengths in relation to this: are you better at taking exams or coursework?
- What career do you want? - If you have an idea of what you want to pursue as a career, it's worth considering the GCSE options that are most suitable. For example, if you are interested in sports as a career, Physical Education is a crucial option. It focuses more on sports science at GCSE, which will complement the sport/s you compete in.
- Keep your options open - If you aren't sure what you want to do as a career - which is very common in years 8 - 9 - it's a good idea to keep your options open. If you study a range of subjects, this will give you a good awareness of different topics and develop a wide range of skills. Learning a variety of subjects will also help you to narrow down future career possibilities, based on the GCSE subjects you enjoy most and/or are best at.
What if I change my mind?
If you're unhappy with a GCSE option you have chosen and are certain it's not for you, it is possible to change subjects. Your health and happiness should always come first and there is certainly no harm in asking.
It's easier to change a subject if you are early into the course - you are far more likely to be allowed to change subject if it's early in year 10 rather than at the end of the academic year. You will need to make a request to the head of your year, who will make the final decision and notify your guardian or parents. They will typically talk to the leader of the subject you want to switch to and confirm if you will be able to catch up on any missed work.
Make sure you consider any effect a new subject will have on your A-Levels and higher education like university. If you have an education pathway in mind, will the change in subject affect this? It's also worth checking that the subject you want to switch to isn't going to clash with any of your other subjects.
Schools have different policies about changing subjects during the year. If you are unsure about your GCSE options, we recommend finding out the policy of your school before starting year 10.
Most popular GCSE options
The subjects below are the most popular optional GCSE subjects. Mandatory subjects - including those that are compulsory depending on the school, such as a modern foreign language - have been excluded. This list is based on subject take-up by year 10 students in 2023.
- Geography - Focussing on the environment, the skills you develop in Geography include working in the field. It is a good subject for students interested in issues facing the world, such as climate change. There are 3 written papers to sit and topics covered include the physical environment and human environment. The exams are not essay based and it is more important to share key information than developed arguments. It is a popular subject with many students, in part due to trips for fieldwork. The pass mark is lower, with 72.1% of students receiving a 4 or higher. GCSE Geography is the study of the physical and human environment. It tests and develops the skills of memory, problem-solving, and working in the field. It’s good for people who are interested in the issues the world faces and learning about different countries.
- History - This is a useful subject if you're thinking about pursuing higher education and/or a career in Law of Politics. GCSE History tests your knowledge and ability to develop a clear argument. There are 2-3 exams that will cover four historical periods/themes - each exam is essay based and you will need to present facts to prove your argument. There is no coursework. It requires a lot of memory retention for historical facts. 70.4% of students received a 4 or above in History.
- Religious Studies - A wide range of faiths are studied in Religious Studies, including how they interact with the world. This interaction includes consideration of philosophy and ethics, which would complement Philosophy as a subject in A-Levels. There are 2 equally weighted written assessments - the first is about religious beliefs and the second focuses on themes. You need to write an essay for both exams. There is no coursework. It is regarded as one of the easiest GCSEs and has a high pass rate, with 76.7% of students receiving a 4 or above.
- Art & Design - There are two parts to Art & Design: you create a portfolio (60% of the total grade) and complete a set assessment (40% of the total grade). There are no written assessments, although the coursework does require you to write annotations about the artists you studied and about your own work. Unsurprisingly, Art & Design requires creativity. It has a high pass rate, with 81.4% of students receiving 4 or above.
This post was updated on 01 Aug, 2023.