All about GCSE exams

 GCSE exams – all you need to know

What are GCSEs?

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education. In the UK getting a diploma of secondary education is mandatory. GCSE is given for each subject separately based on the results of the exams. School children prepare for and sit these exams from the age of 14 until 16. GCSE exams are had in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (but not in Scotland). Preparation for GCSEs usually take two years. Foreign students may, however, sometimes have their GCSEs after having been preparing for one year only. 

In order to receive the certificate school children must pass the exams. There are some compulsory subjects and some optional ones.

Compulsory subjects are

maths, English language, English literature, sciences (chemistry, physics, biology). Sciences can be taken as a choice of Double Science or Triple Science where the last gives three different marks for each of the science subjects. Double Science brings one mark for a science of choice plus another marks for Additional Science.

Optional subjects can be chosen from such subjects as

art, design and technology, humanities (history, geography, religious studies), classics (Latin or ancient Greek), computer sciences, drama, music, etc.

In average, there are around 10 subjects but it might be less or more depending on the school policy.

New grading system of GCSEs

In 2017 году British Ministry for Education introduced the new GCSE grading system. In place of traditional As, Bs, etc came numerical system from 9 to 1, where 9 – is a top grade possible. Before 2017 the top mark was A*. At least grade G needed to be obtained in order for the exam to be considered as passed. If the grade given is U (stands for ungraded/unclassified), this means the exam isn’t passed and GSE certificate for this subject can’t be given.  

New GCSE system:

  • 9 – above traditional A*
  • 8 – between A* and A.
  • 7 – equal A
  • 6 – above traditioanl B
  • 5 – between B and C
  • 4 – equal C
  • 3 – between D and E
  • 2 – between E and F
  • 1 – G
  • U – exam is not passed


If a child has firm ideas about a future carrier path it makes a lot of sense to keep this in mind when choosing GCSE subjects. Some schools require that the GCSE subjects chosen are in line with following A-levels. The majority of students, however, do not have a solid idea which course they are going to take at the university (the choice of GCSE subjects is usually made in Year 9 at the age 14). Thus, it is much better to choose GCSEs from a wide spectre of subjects available and keep a lot of open options until A-levels. 

Are GCSEs important?

GCSE is merely a transitional stage towards higher education but often universities look carefully at the grades received for GCSE subjects. A lot of universities will insist on getting grades in the area between А* – С for at least 5 GCSEs (the old marking system). Otherwise, a chance of getting to a desirable course is much lower.  

In order to get admitted to a university it is important to continue studies after GCSEs at school or a sixth form college and take A-level exams or its alternatives. A in A-level GSE stands for advanced level. A-level results are extremely important, for based on those universities make decisions on giving an offer or withholding it.  

How GCSE grades may affect a school student?

GCSEs may define a range of schools children can go to afterwards  

Different schools and sixth form colleges may have different requirements for GCSE marks. Some schools may ask for at least 4 to 5 grades C (the old system) or 4-5 (the new grading system) and B grades for those subjects taken for A-levels. More selective and prestigous schools will ask for at least 6 GCSEs passed with the grade A. It is thought that GCSE results give a good idea about future success in A-level exams. 

GCSEs may help choose future professions  

Some schools may insist on children only taking A-level for certain subjects if they achived at least 6 or 7 for those subjects on GCSE exams.

Another option in that case may be choosing a vocational course, which combined with acquiring professional skills as well such as, for example, BTEC Level 3 qualification. BTEC stands for Business and Technology Education Council and is a special qualification where practical and professional knowledge is combined with the theory part.

GCSE may affect chances of getting to a university 

Regardless of a subject, the majority of universities will require at least C (4 or 5 according to the new GCSE grading system) for such subjects as English language, maths and sciences. Some universities may go further and request a certain grade for some particular subjects. For instance, 

  • University of Leeds (management course) asks for at least B-grade for English language and maths 
  • Psycology course in University of Bath require at least A* (8 or 9 in new grading system) for five exams or at least A received on all GCSE subjects.  

GCSE may affect future carrier 

Some universities may have definite GCSEs requirements for some of their courses:

  • Engineering courses will require chemistry or physics plus maths for all A-level subjects, which, in turn, means getting good grades for GCSEs sciences and maths 
  • Medicine: These very competitive courses usually ask for all GCSEs grades being on the top level. 

When GCSE results are available?

In August

Are there schools preparing better for GCSEs?

What to do if the GCSE results are lower than expected?

First of all it is necessary to speak to the school teachers and carreer councilors about possible courses of actions 

Having another go

To re-sit the GCSEs again for English literature, modern languages and maths is possible in November. If more subjects are to be re-sit the wait will be extended until the following summer. 


If a student is not happy with the results or thinks that they are not correct it is vital to, first of all, have a talk with the school. School children can’t appeal directly, therefore, the decision to appeal remains to be the school domain.