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How important are GCSE choices when it comes to university?

Uni, a degree and a career may seem a long way off when you make your GCSE option choices in Year 9. Here’s how to ensure you make the right choices…

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, with the recent A-levels reforms, which has seen AS-levels being phased out of final grades at A-level, universities may well look at GCSEs more when making a decision about your application.

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).

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

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 typical A-level requirements will help get you thinking. 

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

How GCSEs have changed

Maths and English GCSEs are now being assessed in a new format, with other subjects to follow in 2018 and 2019. 

This means, instead of the traditional A* to G marking, exams are marked from 1-9:

New GCSE grading system | Which? University

Read more: how GCSEs have changed and how this affects you 

The GCSE science conundrum

GCSE science is a compulsory option, but you can choose to study it in different ways:
  • Core: a single science GCSE, covering biology, chemistry and physics
  • Double Award (or ‘Dual Award’): worth two GCSEs (Core and Additional), covering all three subjects in more depth
  • Triple Award: three stand-alone GCSEs, one each in biology, chemistry and physics
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 BA degrees at different universities and what they ask for where it concerns GCSEs (as of January 2018):

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.  

Glasgow University: 'Applicants who do not possess chemistry as one of their two required science subjects at A-level must have GCSE chemistry at A or B.' 

Edinburgh University: 'Biology at Grade B or 6, or Science Double Award at Grade BB or 66.'

From looking at these variations, your best bet would be to take either the Double or Triple Award to cover your bases and be in the best position later (grades permitting, of course).

View full entry requirements for a course: search now

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. 

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.

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 need (as of January 2018) a grade 5/6 (formerly a B) in GCSE maths, on top of BBC 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 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 different unis and work back from there

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