Subject Choices: How to Get it Right

September 25, 2014

There are key points in a student’s senior school career when they must streamline the range of subjects they study to focus on those they wish to take for their final exams. Choosing subjects takes place at different times in different school systems and can afford the students the ability to generalise or specialise, and opens doors for their ambitions in later academic and professional lives. Equally, the wrong subject choices may narrow a student’s options and even close doors. What should students (and their parents) bear in mind when selecting subjects at each stage and how do the different curricula in international schools affect subject choices?

Middle school: the first choice

The English system requires students to choose subjects at the end of year 9, around age 14, in order to sit iGCSE exams at age 16, which are the international version of the English GCSE exams. Students in the UK may sit exams in up to 12 subjects, with 5 being the minimum requirement; most international curriculum students sit around 8 exams, which corresponds well to the equivalent number of exams that their peers in other international schools study for the Middle Years Programme (MYP).
In terms of a student’s academic goals for the future, there are many reasons why choosing iGCSEs could be the best option. The iGCSEs are centrally assessed by external examiners, which means that, unlike the MYP exam results, iGCSE results rank students against a huge body of their peers. This may be useful if the student has ambitions to go to University abroad, particularly because the iGCSE system is recognised worldwide and counts towards credits for most universities.
In terms of subject choices for the iGCSE, it is best to bear in mind the subjects that a student wants to pursue later, at A Levels or for the International Baccalaureate (IB), as well as looking forward to university, so as not to close off future options. iGCSEs can be good for students who are unsure of what they will ultimately do, because they can study such a breadth of subjects. Students, particularly generalists, should be actively encouraged to take advantage of this flexibility and study a mix of languages, humanities, maths and sciences. Keeping an eye on the future when making subject choices at iGCSE is also important because grades obtained in these exams will also serve as a benchmark to decide whether a student should choose standard or higher level courses for the IB Diploma, or which A Level subjects to sit.
In the IB system, there is scope for students to make some choices at the end of year 9, when they are studying the MYP, but the extent depends on the school. There are a number of things to consider when making subject choices within the IB system. Students choosing subjects to study in years 10 and 11 should bear in mind the subjects that they will study as part of the final 6 subjects they need for the IB Diploma in year 12. For example, studying Physics for the final IB Diploma without a basic grounding from studying it as part of the MYP would be possible, but would obviously make life more difficult.

Year 11: focusing on the future

At the end of year 11, students must narrow down choices even further, and make an arguably more important decision about the interests they will pursue long-term. Students should also have a good understanding of the curriculum, the assessment style and the workload before committing to the curriculum and individual subject choices.
At this time, students studying for the IB Diploma will choose 3 subjects at higher level, keeping in mind the requirements of their likely university course. It is a good idea for students to study subjects that they are genuinely going to enjoy and succeed at, based on a track record such as their predicted or real grades from the previous stage of exams.
For A Level choices, students typically sit exams in 3 subjects, although some students may take 4 or 5. Three subjects at A Level roughly equates to the same number of IB Diploma grades. Choosing 3 A-Levels puts a slightly greater pressure on students as they cannot fall back on 3 more subjects at Standard level as for the IB. However, they have the possibility of taking a 4th and sometimes 5th subject in the first year.
In the Swiss Maturité system, in addition to the standard 11 subjects, students choose 2 options, plus a research project (Travail de Maturité). In the Swiss system, it is generally accepted that the choices made at this level will not restrict future chances to study, but that it offers preparation for a subject they expect to study. This is because Swiss universities, unlike British ones, do not necessarily require specific subjects for entry, although this is obviously different if a Swiss student plans to apply abroad, for example, in the UK or US.

Opening doors and creating opportunities

Of course, each student has different ambitions and interests. This may mean that they desire greater or lesser levels of specialisation or freedom in their subject choices at each stage. However, there are general principles that should guide everyone through these important decisions.
While it can be daunting to consider that career success hangs in the balance of the decisions made as young as 14, it is important for students making subject choices to have an eye on the area that they are most likely to succeed in, what they enjoy and where they would like to study and even work in the future. One way to make sensible choices is to work from the top down, from the type of career that might interest, to the university subject and institution they can imagine themselves enjoying. This strategy works for both those interested in vocational courses (where specialisation is necessary) and those who wish to leave their options open a while longer.
For those who are less sure of the path they wish to take, studying a broad range of subjects is likely to mean you meet the entry requirements of many different degree courses when the time comes to focus your attention on one (or a few) things. While keeping your options open, it is also important to be aware of the requirements for studying in different countries to avoid being caught out. For example, in Swiss universities, to study almost any subject you need maths or one of the sciences at higher level. Equally, some universities may not give credits to certain subjects that others deem solidly academic, for example arts subjects or philosophy. Being aware of the constraints later and keeping doors open is usually a safe strategy.
The irony in keeping an eye on the future at such a young age is that many employers are not particularly interested in which subjects a candidate has studied at iGCSE or even A Level and IB. However, that is not to say that they have no bearing on professional success. Most important to bear in mind is that an employer will be looking for the area the candidate excels in. It is better to choose something that is personally interesting and succeed in it, than to choose what you think employers would like to see and fail in it. An employer will be interested only in your successes, so it is no use studying maths, when a language or humanity you love would have given you top marks and a place at the best university. A student generally is going to be successful only doing something they are interested in and have an aptitude for. Then it comes down to old fashioned hard work!

Making the right choice: a second opinion

In our experience, parents give the best support in encouraging the student to pursue what they are interested in. Pressure should be applied in the right places, for example, if a student looks like they are unwisely narrowing their opportunities or making subject choices they are likely not to succeed in. For parents, knowing when and how to step in is often a delicate balancing act. Teachers are often well placed to advise on a student’s aptitude and performance in different subjects, as well as to provide suggestions for their future academic plans.
It is often the case also that an independent voice is needed, one which has no perceived ‘interest’ in the child studying this or that. Professional education specialists can be very helpful in providing this opinion, particularly with regards to understanding the higher education system that the child is likely to have to navigate later on.
Of course, it is important to aim for future success, but it is also key to enjoy the challenge that the right combination of subject choices can bring.
Sabine Hutcheson, Academic Director, TutorsPlus

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