How Many GCSEs Should You Take?

01 Jan, 2024 | Blog Articles, Get the Edge

For many high school students, choosing their GCSE subjects can feel like a daunting process. However, the most important thing is to make a decision that aligns with your interests and goals, strengths and long-term aspirations. Some worry about taking too many GCSEs and later becoming overwhelmed, while others worry about taking too few to qualify for their intended course or degree.

With this in mind, here are some of our best insights into selecting the perfect number of GCSE subjects!

What Are GCSEs?

The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is an academic qualification in a range of subjects, typically taken over a period of two or three academic years by students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

GCSEs represent a key stage in a student’s academic development, and are highly valued by prospective colleges, universities and employers. 

At GCSE level, students typically cover a set of core academic subjects, including Maths, English Literature, English Language and Sciences. Students then have the option to choose from additional subjects like History, Geography and Art.

When Do Students Choose GCSEs?

Students typically make their GCSE subject choices around the age of 14, falling between Year 9 and Year 10.

Designed to serve as a preparatory year, Year 9 marks the transition between Key Stage 3 in Year 8 and Key Stage 4 in Year 10.

Students then spend their final two years of secondary study preparing for the GCSE examinations at the end of Year 11.

What Is the Average Number of GCSEs Students Take?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of GCSE subjects available to choose from. However, the average number of GCSEs can vary between schools and individuals depending on factors like school policy and student preferences.

The average student in the UK takes between eight and ten GCSE subjects, but there’s certainly no “right” or “wrong” number to take.

What Should You Consider When Choosing Your GCSEs?

As you explore your passions both in and outside of the classroom, you can start to tailor your GCSE choices to subjects you genuinely enjoy. 

Get excited about all of the possibilities!

I. Quality over quantity

When choosing your GCSEs, it’s important to emphasise that the quality and relevance of your chosen subjects matters much more than the quantity taken. 

There are a variety of benefits to focusing on a manageable number of subjects and excelling in them. In particular, students can nurture their passions, and become more familiar with their future field.

GCSE preparation takes up a large chunk of your final years of secondary school, so it’s important to choose subjects that are reflective of your interests and passions.

II. Exploring core vs. additional subjects

All GCSE students must take the core subjects. These are compulsory and include:

  • Maths
  • English Language
  • English Literature
  • Welsh (for students living in Wales)
  • Science: Biology, Physics and Chemistry (students can select either single, double or triple sciences)

In addition to the core subjects, students are required to take a set of foundation subjects, including:

  • Computing
  • Physical Education (PE)
  • Citizenship

Additional compulsory GCSE subjects can differ between schools, so check with your teachers if you’re not sure.

Additional GCSE subjects vary from school to school, but students are typically required to take at least one subject from the following four thematic groups:

  • Arts
  • Design and Technology
  • Humanities
  • Modern Foreign Languages

These additional subjects are an ideal way to develop your understanding of topics that may be relevant to your future career or university degree. 

With that said, it’s quite common for Year 9 students to want to keep their options open at this early stage in their careers and, beyond English Language and Maths, few universities will require specific GCSE subjects.

Oxford Scholastica student on a river boat, giving a thumbs up to the camera

III. Considering long-term goals

GCSEs are also a great way to support your longer-term goals. While your goals are sure to change over time – and nobody expects you to have your whole life planned at 14! – your GCSEs can provide a solid foundation for future college or job applications.

Specific GCSE subjects can be very relevant to certain professions, so if you have a real passion for a certain field, then absolutely pursue relevant subjects at GCSE! 

For example, if you’re interested in pursuing an undergraduate degree in Classics, you might decide to take a few modern foreign languages to satisfy the GCSE requirements. This would prepare you for further study, while also introducing you to a potential professional career. 

An effective way to ease anxieties surrounding GCSE subject choices is to gain a deeper understanding of your passions and interests. Extracurricular courses, internships, and academic summer schools are all great options to explore different disciplines during high school.

Try not to panic if making subject-related decisions feels daunting at these early stages of your academic career. While GCSE selection is important, it is by no means the be-all and end-all. There are various ways for students to prepare for later academic and professional endeavours, both during and after secondary school.

IV. Balancing workload and wellbeing

The final thing to consider is the importance of maintaining a balanced workload. While it can feel tempting to take as many GCSE subjects as possible, the quality of your work is far more important than the quantity!

Preparing for your GCSE exams is often a brand new experience for students, so it’s important to manage your workload effectively. 

Here are a few suggestions to help you maintain a healthy work-life balance:

  • Take regular breaks – especially those that allow for some fun
  • Split larger tasks and study materials into subtasks
  • Set achievable deadlines, and know your own limitations
  • Prioritise tasks according to deadlines
  • Build a usable timeline, which is flexible to change
  • Allow room for changes and adjustments throughout the study process

It’s really important to carry on pursuing your personal interests and hobbies alongside your GCSEs! Not only will they complement your academic success, but they’ll also provide a great outlet for stress management.

Two Oxford Scholastica students playing foosball and laughing

Who Should You Ask If You’re Not Sure How Many GCSEs to Take?

With so many factors to consider when choosing how many GCSEs to take, it may feel daunting to make a final decision on your own.

Teachers, parents and external mentors can all provide excellent advice and guidance in choosing your GCSEs subject selection, so make use of their past experiences and knowledge.

The selection of GCSE subjects can be an exciting yet daunting stage of your academic journey, bringing up lots of questions and uncertainties. Before choosing, take the time to consider your longer-term plans, your personal passions and your own preferences. 

Last but not least, it’s always possible to change your GCSE subject choices if your initial decisions don’t meet your expectations. 

Your interests, goals and hobbies are always changing and refining, and your GCSE choices may well do the same. Be kind to yourself, and make informed decisions that are right for you – the world is your oyster!


By Adam Kluge

Adam (he/him) recently completed his MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Oxford. His research exists at the intersection of law, politics, and history – and he welcomes opportunities to further explore these areas through personal and pedagogical practices. He completed his undergraduate degrees at Columbia University and will begin a PhD in Criminology at Oxford this autumn.

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