GCSEs & early choices

How important are GCSE choices when it comes to university?

By Andy Gardner (Careers Adviser) - 20 June 2014

Students at work in the library

Uni, a degree and a career may seem a long way off when you make your GCSE option choices in Year 9, but your choices are important – because they can directly impact which paths are open to you later down the line.

Here’s what you need to know. We're also revealing how important your GCSE grades are.

Note that if you're starting GCSEs in September 2015, you'll be taking new-style GCSEs in English (language and literature) and maths, which will be graded on a 9-1 scale - with nine equivalent to a very good A* grade. All your other subjects will still follow the older A*-E grade structure (new-style GCSEs for other subjects will be rolled out later). Regardless of which type of GCSE you're taking, the choices you make will matter.

Your GCSE choices 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.

Don’t panic, though. Maths and English are the GCSEs mentioned in the majority of cases – and you don’t get the option of dropping these. So whatever you choose, you’ll still have a broad range of unis to make up your mind over (if you get the right GCSE grades, that is).

Of course, there are a few exceptions to that rule…

GCSEs to keep your university options open

While most unis require English and maths GCSEs, some specific courses, involving biology, chemistry, physics, history, geography, foreign languages, music and art and design, may also ask for particular Advanced level (A-level, Scottish Highers and so on) choices.

Work it back and you’ll realise how important your GCSE choices are – because you’ll need the GCSE in order to take the A-level, to then meet the university course requirements!

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 subjects and typical A-level requirements will help get you thinking. 

The GCSE science conundrum

GCSE science is another compulsory option, but you can choose to study it in different ways. This can limit which science A-levels - and therefore science-related uni courses – you can take later on.

A university course such as Nursing may require or prefer you to have a science A-level in chemistry, biology or physics. But:

  • choosing a single science GCSE (core, not additional), could affect your chances of being able to take a science at A-level or equivalent - and from 2016, the option of a single science course at GCSE will disappear anyway
  • some universities don’t consider the BTEC Applied Science First Certificate as equivalent to a double or triple science GCSE
  • taking double award science (core and additional) or triple award science (biology, chemistry and physics) GCSEs will keep your options open.

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 as you don’t necessarily need to take a subject at A-level to study it at degree level. Examples 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.

If you were applying for a BSc in Psychology at the University of Sussex, for instance, you’ll typically need AAB at A-level, and a maths grade B (not just a C) at GCSE – but you don’t specifically need any qualifications in psychology.

Making 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 think you might fancy doing a science-related course later on, choose at least double award (core and additional) science
  • 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 not last and the inspirational 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 university and work back from there.