Which Path to Choose: knowing your way through GCSE, IB and A Level Choices

‘‘I have no memory of this place at all’ said Gandalf, standing uncertainly under the arch. He held up his staff in the hope of finding some marks or inscription that might help his choice; but nothing of the kind was to be seen.’

You don’t have to be a wizard to feel lost when presented with a tangle of different paths to follow. Navigating GCSE, A Levels and IB Diploma choices, and where they might lead, can leave many students and their parents feeling similarly lost in the dark, with hazards, pitfalls (and orcs) seemingly lurking around the corner.

This is hardly surprising, since a great deal can rest on these decisions. Not only can the right choices contribute to higher academic grades, an essential consideration in our current era of grade inflation, but these are also the first moments when students start to wrestle with that larger question of what they might study at university, and where.

As early as it might sound, this begins with selecting a student’s GCSEs. Look at the choice of Combined or Separate Sciences, for example. Many fourteen year-olds delight at the thought of fewer science lessons in their week. But Combined Science is known to be an easier option, so is ill advised for those hoping to pursue STEM subjects for sixth form or beyond. It may also one day hand a humanities tutor, struggling to differentiate between two outstanding candidates, an easy excuse to choose one over the other.

Conversely, humanities GCSEs such as History, Geography or Religious Studies can be a turn off for those who struggle with essay writing. But students who are later drawn to Social Science A Levels or IB Diploma choices may find themselves on the back foot without the essay techniques they develop. Equally, strong writing skills are often valued in subjects not often considered as ‘essay subjects’ at all, such as Medicine.

Then there is the question of required subjects for university degrees. Year 9 may seem far too soon to be considering undergraduate courses. But each subject dropped is unavoidably a path left untaken; an undergraduate application for History, for example, would struggle to get off the ground if the subject had been shunned before GCSE. Students need to be sure of their decisions.

These questions become all the more pressing, of course, when it comes to choosing A Level and IB Diploma options. At this point doors really do begin to close and potential subject areas, at least, necessarily come into focus.

This is most apparent for STEM subjects. Here, the mandatory subjects are usually very clear cut; Chemistry for Medical degrees, Physics and Maths for Engineering, Maths and preferably Further Maths for Computer Science, to give a few examples. However it is also found in a range of other courses; Economics degrees usually require Maths, Psychology degrees usually require a science, Maths or Psychology, Politics degrees usually require at least one humanities subject.

And then, of course, there is the more nuanced question of the combination of subjects to choose. Whilst selecting similar subjects may seem logical, many universities actually advise against taking A Level subjects that are too similar to one another. Counterintuitively, a single science subject may strengthen an application for a social sciences degree, just as a single humanities subject may strengthen a medical application.

Whilst the breadth of the IB Diploma naturally avoids this dilemma, here too there is the all-important question of how to balance Higher Level and Standard Level choices. Standard Level Maths, Global Politics and History may fulfil the requirements for a PPE application, but what story does it tell an admissions tutor if your Higher Level subjects are Chemistry, Spanish and English? Getting the balance right here can be just as difficult.

Finally, there is the controversial topic of whether some subjects are deemed stronger or more academic than others. From 2011-2019, the traditional core subjects of English, Maths, the sciences, languages, History and Geography became known as “Facilitating Subjects”, due to the idea that they kept more paths open through the range of skills they developed. The implication was that these were ‘stronger’ subjects than creative subjects such as Music, Art and Drama or more vocational subjects such as Business or Psychology.

Whilst now officially abandoned, it is undeniable that these subjects do retain a certain clout. However, this does not mean, nor was it ever intended to mean, that creative and vocational subjects be avoided or seen as ‘weaker’. Arguably the point was, and is, that a student needs to consider the combination of subjects they choose and how they hang together as a set. An Engineering application, for example, that requires Maths and Physics could have Psychology as a third option. An English Literature application might have English Literature and History but Drama as a third choice. It is more nuanced than simply ‘strong’ and ‘weak’. Once again, it is the broader context that matters.

So what can be taken from all this? Really, that these decisions need to be considered in the round and given the time and thought they deserve. There are lots of factors to consider, but it is always important to keep half an eye on where you may want to end up.

With schools needing time to build their timetables for the following year, it is usually around this time of year that GCSE, A Level and IB Diploma choices need to be made. So now is the time to get the advice and support that you need.

In the end it is down to each student and their family to make what are very personal choices. With careful consideration, however, the right decisions can often become clear and the best path present itself. And as a wise old fellow once said, after pondering which path to take, ultimately you must always follow your nose.

Ed Ballard, Senior University Consultant, Bonas MacFarlane