There’s no denying the importance of GCSE examinations. Not only will they determine what your options are for the immediate future, but they can also affect whether or not you can go to university.

While not all GCSE exams are created equal (some are much more important for your future than others), they can all swing the pendulum one way or the other when it comes to whether or not you’re admitted to university.

In this article we’re going to breakdown just how important GCSEs are, how they can potentially affect your future career path, and how they play a role in the university admission process.

What are GCSEs?

Maths equations on a blackboard.
Maths is one of the most important GCSEs to pass.

GCSE, or General Certificate of Secondary Education, refers to a series of exams that students usually take at the age of 15 or 16. It signals the end of secondary school study (hence the name), and acts as a gateway to sixth form.

The subjects for the GCSE exams vary, and there are typically between 5 and 12.

As previously mentioned, the GCSEs bridge the gap between secondary school education and the sixth form, the last stage of education before university.

Getting into Sixth Form

For that reason, it’s important, if you want to continue with your education, that you do well in the exams. The grades required by sixth form at different schools or colleges vary, but it’s likely that you’ll need at least 4 or 5 C grades to get in.

You’ll want to study your A-levels somewhere that is best suited to your educational needs, since A-levels are the main assessment criteria judged by universities when it comes to their entry requirements.

If you fail to meet the requirements set by schools and colleges for sixth form, it isn’t the end of the world, as there are a number of alternative options such as Functional Skills courses, which can bring you up to a pass grade in Maths, English, and ICT.

However, it’s in your - and your bank account´s - best interest to do well at the first attempt of the GCSE exams. Since doing well on your GCSEs can open up more options for where you study sixth form, and ultimately, which university you end up at.

To answer the common question: can you get into college with no gcses? Yes. There are alternative routes to college and sixth form, which include Functional Skills courses.

Why should you care?

The reason so much emphasis and importance is placed on these exams, is because they are solid indicators to schools and universities of how well you are likely to perform - academically-speaking - going forward.

Impress with your GCSE results, and you will prove that you are ready for higher education. Skills such as independent learning, and a strong work ethic, are crucial in convincing universities to take you on at a future date.

Lastly on this point, if you nail the GCSEs, then you have nothing to fear going forward. If nothing else, it's worth proving to yourself that you’re capable of performing well under pressure, and doing well on the exams that really matter.

Even so, if you have no gcses but want to go to university, there are still ways you can make it happen. This includes the unlikely scenario that you are panicking over a lost gcse certificate, since this too can be resolved.

GCSE Lifelines

If you’ve already finished your GCSE exams and you’re reading this guide worrying that your life is over, and your academic reputation is in tatters, don’t fear.

If you are determined to go to sixth form, and university, but didn’t do as well as you’d hoped in the exams, then you have a couple of options.

Resitting exams

Aside from taking a Functional Skills course, which could provide you with the pass grades you need in the important subjects, you can opt to resit the exams.

It sounds like a pain to go through it all again, but it really is worth coming out of secondary school with GCSE grades that you are proud of. Especially if you have your mind set on university, you’ll want to give yourself the best chance possible of getting in, leaving nothing to chance.


Your second option, although not guaranteed to make a difference, is asking your school for a remark. This option should only really be considered if you feel hard done by on an exam, and truly believe that the mark should have been higher.

If this isn’t the case, then resitting the exams you weren’t happy with would be the best option.

Check for tutoring classes in the UK here.

Cheat the system

Books lined up.
English literature and maths are the big ones.

It goes without saying that all of the GCSEs you take on are important, and you should try and get the best grade possible to increase your academic opportunities.

However, if you’re overwhelmed by having to study so many subjects and are struggling to focus, then concentrate your efforts on the most important subjects: English and Maths.

Most universities demand a GCSE pass in both English and Maths. If you have passed all of your other GCSEs, but failed to make the grade for these two subjects, then that could detrimentally affect your university application when the time comes.

That’s why when it comes to studying, be sure to allocate extra time to these two subjects, and you’ll give yourself a great chance later down the line when it comes to applying to university.

Other skills and experience also come into things for university applications, but the first thing the institutions are likely to check is your grades since these are the strongest indicators of how you will get on in further education.

Even if you miss the mark with English and Maths first time round, then you can retake the exams, or have a go at one of the Functional Skills courses, which will count as the equivalent of a C grade should you pass level 2.

How can GCSEs affect the university you study at?

Road sign pointing in different directions.
Which university you go to depends on a series of factors.

We have discussed all the ways in which GCSEs can affect your potential route to university, but it goes deeper than that, and there are even more things to consider regarding the effect of GCSEs on further education.

The grades determine likely A-Level results

Not all universities require the same of aspiring students, meaning some will be out of reach if you haven’t performed as well in your GCSEs as your peers.

For example, Russel group universities, which have a reputation for accepting the best students, have high A-level requirements. This places a lot of importance on your GCSEs, since you will have to show to these universities with these marks that you can attain such high A-level results when the time comes.

The lower your GCSE grades are, the less faith these top universities will have that you can reach their high standards, and meet the A-level results they ask for.

UCAS points also come into the equation, and you can find out here if GCSEs factor into then.

This applies not only to Russell Group universities, since all universities usually have to go on is your GCSE results.

Think of it like placing a bet. Who do you think is most likely to do well in their A-levels? Who are you most likely to put your money on?

The candidate who has proved past success academically through their GCSE results, or the one who got low marks across the board but claims that next time round it will be different.

Again, going to university without gcses is also possible, but much harder to pull off. Especially since university entry requirements can be quite strict.

They can limit your career options at university

Aside from English and Maths, there are other GCSEs that you’ll want to really do well in. These other exams will depend on the person.

If you have a rough idea of which direction your academic career is going, or know what you’d like to do for work, then make sure you get high marks in relevant subjects.

Say you want to become an engineer. At A-level, you’ll probably need a high grade in chemistry for example, as this is relevant to the profession. When you trickle that down to the more broad scope of GCSE subjects, you’ll find that science is the subject most likely to be useful for that career.

To get a clearer idea of what GCSEs will serve you well for your chosen career path, this BBC Bitesize article should shine some light on the situation.

Not that you should do so at the expense of your other subjects, but a good idea in this scenario would be to double down your efforts on the three subjects that matter to you and your future career prospects.

Other degrees at university level will require that you do well across the board in your GCSEs. Medicine is a good example of one such degree.

If you have aspirations of becoming a doctor or nurse one day, then you will need to really step your game up for your GCSE exams, as a lot of universities require excellent grades in all subjects you take.

What does this mean for you?

Put simply: take some time to seriously consider what you would want to study at university, or what career path you’d like to pursue, and then with a bit of research you’ll soon figure out which GCSEs are most important, and what grades to aim for.

In a nutshell, GCSEs are incredibly important to get into university. If you lose your certificates, don’t worry, that can be resolved. So study hard, and resit the exams if you have to, since they could impact your future academic and career options.

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Sam is an English teaching assistant and freelance writer based in southern Spain. He enjoys exploring new places and cultures, and picking up languages along the way.