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Complete guide to GCSEs

Everything you need to know about your GCSEs, including why they matter, choosing the right subjects and collecting your results.

In this article
What are GCSEs? Why do GCSE's matter?
How do I choose GCSE subjects? What happens on GCSE results day?

What are GCSEs?

GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) are subject-based academic qualifications. Students study towards GCSEs at secondary school over a period of two years, usually in Year 10 and 11.

Students can take anywhere between five and 12 subjects at GCSE (GCSE combined science is a double award and worth two GCSEs).

In England, GCSEs are now graded on a 9-1 scale – the most significant change following reforms in recent years. Below is a guide if you’re still familiar with the A*-G grading system:

In Wales, revised GCSEs have been introduced for over a dozen subjects, plus six new GCSE subjects including English language, mathematics numeracy and Welsh literature. These are graded A* to G.

In Northern Ireland, GCSE students are also graded A* to G; however, they may receive results graded 9-1 if they take exams set by English boards.

In Scotland, the GCSE equivalent is the National 5 (N5), which is graded A to D.

The new GCSEs place a greater emphasis on exams at the end of the second year, rather than at the end of each module, with fewer instances of coursework or controlled assessments (although there will still be some for practical subjects like drama).

Why do GCSE's matter?

They can determine the sixth form or college you go to

Entry requirements just to get into a particular college or sixth form can vary. Your GCSE performance is the only real hard-and-fast evidence of your academic abilities they have to go on, so expect these to be scrutinised. 

Some will look for at least four or five subjects at grade 4 or 5. Some, more selective institutions may go as far as to require six GCSEs at grade 7.

It’s best to check any GCSE requirements directly with a college or sixth form; this way you know what you’re aiming for when you open your results in the summer.

GCSEs determine the qualifications you take next

A sixth form or college may let you in, but they may not let you take a particular subject unless you’ve got at least a grade 6 or 7 in that subject at GCSE.

If your grades are mostly 4s or 5s, continuing it could be off-limits altogether. 

Alternatively, a sixth form may suggest you take a vocational course instead, that’s more practical and hands-on eg a BTEC Level 3 qualification.

Check out our full guide to A-levels.

GCSEs could be used to assess eligibility for a uni course

Regardless of the subject you want to study, the majority of university courses look for at least a 4 or 5 in English, maths and possibly, science.

Some university courses might ask for specific subjects at GCSE, with certain grades – so check directly with the university in question if you're in doubt.

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, particularly if you expand on this in your personal statement.

GCSEs may limit the universities you can apply to

Some of the top academic universities – like those in the Russell group – will ask for very high A-level grades.

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. 

Broadly speaking, grades 4 to 6 at GCSE are suggestive of Cs and Ds at A-level – which won't be enough to get into some universities.

How to choose the right university course.

GCSEs can impact your course (and career) options

Some popular or intense subjects might be out of reach if your GCSE results aren’t as competitive as your fellow applicants eg law or medicine.

Meanwhile, certain professions will have minimum GCSE requirements, which may trip you up when applying to the necessary degree.

Social work and secondary school teaching professions will be on the lookout for at least a 4 or 5 in maths and English language, while nursing and primary school teaching professions will look for the same in English, maths, and science.

And when it comes to your short-term employment prospects – whether it’s that weekend job while you're doing your A-levels or a part-time job at uni – your GCSE grades will go on your fledgling CV, too.

How do I choose GCSE subjects?

Here are a few pointers for how – and how not – to make the right GCSE choices when it comes to your optional subjects:

  • Choose subjects because you think you’ll be good at them, and that they will interest you;
  • If you’re already thinking about a particular degree course – because of a dream job or career you have in mind – take a look at the entry requirements for specific courses at different unis, and work back from there.
  • If you’re not sure what you might want to take at university, ensure you’ve got a good mix of GCSE subjects to keep your options open eg maths, english, science, a modern language, either history or geography etc.
  • Don’t choose subjects just because you want to be in a class with a best friend or an inspirational teacher – your friendship may change or that teacher may leave;

What happens on GCSE results day?

GCSE results are released a week after A-level results day, each August (usually the third or fourth Thursday of the month – but check this date to be sure).

Here are some tips to survive the big day:


How to prepare


Confirm what time your school will open on results day, plus any further instructions to collect your results. Your school should tell you this before you break up for summer, but you can always check this online.

Ideally it's best to make sure you're around on results day, so you'll have the benefit of being able to speak to a teacher if you need to. Sometimes this isn't possible due to family holidays and such. In this case, arrange for your school to post your results to you or find out if your exam boards offer the option to access your results online.

Additionally, a friend or family member can collect your results for you. They will need signed letter from you authorising that you’re happy for them to collect your results on your behalf and a form of ID to verify who they are. 

And finally, make sure your phone is charged (whether you’re celebrating and posting photos online, or you’re commiserating and need a friendly voice to talk to).


GCSE resits


If you don't get the results you were hoping for, don’t panic – it's not the end of the world, even if it feels like it. You have a number of options and paths open to you:

  • Resits for maths and English GCSEs can be taken in November, while retakes for other subjects take place the following summer. 
  • You may be allowed to proceed with your A-levels and take a resit while you do so (although this will be up to your sixth form or college to decide).
  • Remember, you'll need to be fully committed to juggling the required extra study and exams.


Appealing a GCSE grade


If you want to query a GCSE grade – perhaps one is unusually low or you’ve narrowly missed a grade boundary – speak to your teacher for that subject or your head of year. They can contact the necessary exam body on your behalf and an EAR (Enquiry About Results) can be made.

Do this as soon as possible, ideally, on results day itself when you pick up your results.


Changing subjects or courses


If you miss the grades you needed for your college or sixth form to study the subjects you wanted to, speak to them as soon as possible to find out if they will still accept you. They may still accept you, or even offer you alternative subjects or classes.

If you did better than expected in a particular GCSE subject, or you've since been rethinking your next steps, see if you can switch subjects. 

If you’re not satisfied with the options on the table, take a look at other colleges or sixth forms in the local area where you might be able to study the subjects you have your heart set on.

Alternatively, check out our guide to choosing the right degree course.