Exams & Curriculum

Subject Choices: How to Get it Right

There are critical 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 occurs at different times in different school systems and allows the students to generalise or specialise. It 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? How do the different curricula in international schools affect subject choices?

School Subject Choices Overview

Regarding 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), and looking forward to university so as not to close off future options. IGCSEs can be suitable for students who are unsure of what they will ultimately do. This is because they can study such a breadth of subjects. Parents should actively encourage students to take advantage of this flexibility and study a mix of disciplines.

Keeping an eye on the future when making subject choices at IGCSE is also vital. 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.

There are several things to consider when making subject choices within the IB system. First, students choosing subjects to study in years 10 and 11 should bear in mind the subjects they choose as part of the final six subjects they need for the IB Diploma in year 12. For example, studying Physics for the final IB Diploma without a basic understanding of the subject would be possible but might make life more difficult.

Middle school: the first choice

The English system requires students to choose subjects at the end of year 9, around age 14, to sit IGCSE exams at age 16, the international version of the English GCSE exams. However, students in the UK may sit exams in up to 12 subjects, with 5 being the minimum requirement. As a result, most international curriculum students sit around eight exams. This corresponds well to the equivalent number of exams their peers in other international schools study for the Middle Years Programme (MYP).

External examiners assess the IGCSE centrally. Therefore, unlike the MYP exam results, IGCSE results rank students against their peers. This may be useful if the student has ambitions to go to university abroad. In addition, the IGCSE system has worldwide recognition, and it also counts towards credits for most universities.

Year 11: Making your subject choices

At the end of year 11, students must narrow down choices even further and make an arguably more critical 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.

International Baccalaureate (IB) Subject Choices

At this time, students studying for the IB Diploma will choose three subjects at a higher level. Therefore, it is suitable for students to study subjects they will succeed in and genuinely enjoy. Also, look at their track record, such as their predicted or actual grades from the previous stage of exams.

A-Level Subject Choices

Students typically sit exams in 3 subjects for A-Level choices, although some may take 4 or 5. Three subjects at A-Level roughly equates to the same number of IB Diploma grades. However, choosing 3 A-Levels puts slightly greater pressure on students. It means they cannot fall back on three more subjects at the Standard Level for the IB. However, they have the possibility of taking a 4th and sometimes 5th subject in the first year.

Swiss Maturité Subject Choices

In addition to the standard 11 subjects, students choose two options, plus a research project. Generally, in the Swiss system, the choices made at this level will not restrict future chances to study. Instead, what it does is offer preparation for a subject they expect to study. Swiss universities do not necessarily require specific subjects for entry. However, this is different if a Swiss student plans to apply abroad, for example, in the UK or US.

How do subject choices affect your university options?

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. However, there are general principles that should guide everyone through these crucial decisions.

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 essential to be aware of any requirements for studying in different countries to avoid restrictions later. For example, in Swiss universities, you need maths/science at a higher level to study almost any subject. Equally, some universities may not give credits to specific subjects that others deem solidly academic – for example, arts subjects or philosophy. But, again, being aware of the constraints later and keeping doors open is usually a safe strategy.

How do subject choices affect your career options?

It can be daunting to consider that career success hangs in the balance of the decisions made as young as 14. However, it is essential for students making subject choices to have an eye on the area they are most likely to succeed in, what they enjoy, 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. Think about a career path that might interest them, a university subject, or an institution where they might enjoy themselves. This strategy works for those interested in vocational courses and those who wish to leave their options open.

It is important to remember 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. Therefore, it is better to choose something exciting and succeed than decide what you think employers would like to see and fail.

Success is the only thing that interests an employer. It is no use studying maths when social science you love would have given you top marks. A student will usually be successful when doing something they have an interest in and an aptitude. Then it comes down to old fashioned hard work!

How can parents help?

As a parent, you should only apply pressure in the right places. For example, if a student looks like they are unwisely narrowing their opportunities. For parents, knowing when and how to step in is often a delicate balancing act. Teachers can also advise on a student’s aptitude and performance in different subjects. They may also be able to provide suggestions for their future academic plans.

Often needed is an independent voice. One which has no perceived ‘interest’ in the child studying this or that. Professional education specialists can be beneficial in providing this opinion. In addition, they can give great help understanding the higher education system that the child is likely to have to navigate later on.

Sabine Hutcheson, Academic Director, TutorsPlus

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