GCSEs & early choices

How important are my GCSE grades?

By Andy Gardner (Careers Adviser) - 10 August 2012

Multiple choice test with pencil

It all depends on what you want to do in the future, but the GCSE grades you achieve will shape your next steps.

Here’s why putting the work in now will pay off later down the line. And if you've already got your GCSE results, we're revealing six things you need to know about your A-level choices

1. They could determine the sixth form you go to

Entry requirements for school and college sixth forms vary - ranging from four to five Cs, with perhaps Bs in the subjects you want to study, through to at least six As for the most selective colleges.

Your GCSE performance is usually a good indicator of how well you’ll do in A-level or other advanced studies – in fact, it’s the only real hard and fast evidence of your academic abilities a college has to go on. Many sixth forms use a scoring system, based on GCSE grades, to predict how well you’re likely to do (and from that, decide whether or not to accept you).

For instance, five Bs and five Cs at GCSEs could roughly translate to a predicted CCD at A-level, while straight As and A*s would suggest AAA is possible. The lower your GCSE grades, the lower you’ll be scored - which could limit the number of colleges and sixth forms open to you.

2. They could determine the qualifications you take next

Some sixth forms may say you can’t do a particular subject unless you’ve got an A grade in that subject at GCSE.

If your grades are mostly Cs, studying A-levels or Advanced Highers could be off limits altogether; a sixth form may offer you a vocational (ie a more practical and hands-on) course such as a BTEC Level 3 qualification instead.

3. They could be used to assess if you’re suitable for a uni course

The majority of university courses look for at least Cs in GCSE English, maths and perhaps science. Some university courses go further and ask for specific subjects at GCSE, with certain grades.

A Management degree at the University of Leeds, for example, specifies that you must have at least Bs in English language and maths under your belt, while a Psychology degree at the University of Bristol asks for ‘Maths, English and Science at grade B, but grade A preferred’.

Don’t let a disappointing GCSE performance put you off applying to the university course you really want, though – a good AS-level performance, for instance, could outweigh a set of weaker GCSE results. Students starting sixth form in September 2015 in England should note that the current government is planning to end AS-levels as part of the A-level so you will lose this 'second chance'.

4. They may limit the universities you can apply to

Some of the top academic universities (often belonging to the Russell or 1994 university groups) will be asking for very high A-level grades – AAB or higher - for most courses.

Because of the assumed connection between your GCSE and A-level results, it’ll be down to you to prove you’re able to achieve top grades. Bs and Cs at GCSE are suggestive of Cs and Ds at A-level - which won’t be enough to get into some unis.

The more competitive the university and course, the higher the number of high-achieving students with top GCSE marks applying. Some courses actively state this in the prospectus – the Department of Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) says: ‘Most have already achieved excellent GCSE grades including the majority at A* and A’.

5. They could affect the career you end up doing

A career-related degree may also have subject-specific entry requirements:

  • Engineering courses such as chemical engineering: you’ll usually need A-levels or equivalent in chemistry and maths, and physics for other engineering courses, which in turn means you’ll need to have good GCSE grades - in this case, at least BB in science and a B (if not an A) in maths
  • Medicine: competitive courses like medicine may ask for a whole suite of good GCSEs. The University of Birmingham’s medical school, for example, specifies ‘normally, applicants must offer A* grades in each of English (either English Language or English Literature), Mathematics and all science subjects. Integrated Science (double certificate) is acceptable as an alternative to single sciences. Overall GCSE performance will be considered.’
  • Social work and secondary school teaching: these professions won’t consider you without at least a C in maths and English language at GCSE
  • Nursing and primary school teaching: Cs in GCSE English, maths and science.
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