Are GCSEs (Actually) Hard?

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More than half a million Year 11 students take GCSE exams each year. That’s about 4.6 million exam entries and more than 5.2 million exam papers made. It’s no surprise that many students find this time challenging, but is it really that necessary that Year 11’s stress over these exams? Are the grades that they want really that difficult to get? How hard are the GCSE exams? 

GCSE exams were designed to be challenging, but not impossible. Everyone has their own unique definition of the word “hard”. Therefore, it is impossible to give a straight yes or no answer. It’s also important to mention that everyone takes a different mix of subjects and many students sit a combination of higher and foundation exams. Because of this there are so many factors than can help to understand as to whether a GCSE subject is ‘hard’. 

Seeing as there isn’t a straightforward answer, I recommend you continue reading to get an idea of whether the GCSE exams are (actually) hard. 

What’s the Main Challenge of GCSE Exams?

Students tend to find GCSE qualifications difficult, but why? For the GCSE exams around 9 subjects are studied, some take less, but there are students who take up to 12. The biggest challenge for students is to balance the workload they will face when taking their GCSEs.

GCSEs are the first time in most students lives they will need to learn how to balance schoolwork, after school activities and social life. This is a huge challenge and is part of preparing kids for the adult world. 

When taking GCSEs there is a huge mix of subjects, skills, and knowledge. This can be incredibly difficult to manage. Students struggle to balance enough time to be able to do everything they used to do on a day-to-day basis, as well as including revision.

It is essential to manage your time well, creating a thorough revision timetable is a great way to do this. But the more important part is sticking to that revision timetable and holding yourself accountable to it. Creating a successful revision timetable can be difficult, luckily we have a great article to guide you through creating your own revision timetable, click here to learn more.  

As well as having an effective revision timetable the way in which you actually revise is vitally important to be successful in your GCSE exams. To find more about how to revise effectively check out this article here. 

Are There Any “Easy” GCSE Exams?

Some subjects that can be considered as “easier” than others. Photography, PE (physical education), Music, Drama and also languages (especially if you grew up speaking 2 or more languages) are all potentially on this list. Check out this article to find out more.

Just because some subjects are considered easier than others this doesn’t mean that everyone will find these subjects “easy”. Some subjects like PE, are quite coursework heavy. So, if coursework isn’t your cup of tea, then doing some of those subjects may appear rather tricky. It really is different for everyone. 

Coursework itself isn’t always easy, which is a misconception, so make sure to carefully select your GCSE options with this in mind. It’s useful to talk to teachers about this as they can give you detailed answers about coursework for a subject. If you would like to read more about coursework, then click here. 

As you can see, there isn’t a subject that’s so easy everyone could get a 9. If that were the case, we would all be taking it!  

Which GCSE Subjects Do Students Tend to Find Most Difficult?

This is an overall view on the most “difficult” subjects, but everyone will have a different opinion. Usually, students will immediately respond with either Maths or English. There is a saying that your either an “English person” or a “Maths’ person” but that isn’t to say you can’t be both! If you want to find out if you’re an “English person,” or a “Maths’ person” click here


In 2017, the subject ranked as the most difficult was Modern Foreign Languages (or MFL for short). Many students do find learning another language, such as French, Spanish or German, hard because of the multiple exams and skills that are being tested. A reason for this is that multiple parts of the brain are being used to speak, read, listen, and write. Read more about languages and the brain here (Points 3 and 4 include the most information).

Maths and Science

Students also tend to find maths and the three sciences difficult. Especially physics which relates to maths, not only in working out equations, but also the concepts and the way you are taught the majority of the topics.  

Reasons why science and maths can be seen as difficult is due to the patience and persistence it takes. For many, it is not something that comes intuitively or automatically, it takes plenty of effort. It is a subject that requires students to devote lots and lots of time and energy. A lot of brain power and determination is needed, but simply not everyone has enough. 

People who are left-brain thinkers tend to understand things in sequential bits, making math and science easier to understand, as it’s easier to grasp different concepts. Right-brain thinkers are more artistic and intuitive, making them better at creative subjects. They also tend to find essay-based subjects easier.

Read more about why students find maths difficult here and why students find science difficult here. 

The Humanities

There are two main humanities subjects: history and geography. If the choice of one of these is compulsory in your school, there is always a big debate between students about which one is easier, and even which one is better! 

In history, the amount of subjectivity involved in marking exams (just like in English, and other essay-based subjects) means it can be difficult to score the top grades. One essay might be an amazing grade 9 worthy piece. However, on a bad day with a tough examiner, you may not achieve the grade you hoped for. 

Geography, believe it or not, is also quite heavily based on essays too. There may be short answer questions worth perhaps a mark or two. But there tend to be multiple 6 and 9 markers which require a lot of detailed knowledge to score high marks.  

Geography is well known for its large number of case studies that students have to know a certain depth of knowledge about, in addition to the general content of the course. These factors put all together makes the subject rather difficult for many students.  

As you can see, there are many subjects that can be classed as “difficult,” you may not find all of the ones mentioned above that hard, but I haven’t talked about them all. If you would like to read more about the difficulty of different GCSE subjects check out this article.

What’s the Difference Between Higher and Foundation Tier GCSE Exams?

There are two types of exams that students can sit for a variety of subjects. They are called higher and foundation level tiers. 

Foundation exams are easier, with the highest grade available being a 5. This allows students to be able to still pass without taking the more challenging exam. This avoids the great stress of taking the higher-level papers. Higher exams tend to be more difficult, but you can achieve a wider variety of grades. They include a mixture of questions ranging from a grade 4 up to a grade 9.  

The common misconception is that to achieve a grade 8 or 9, you need to only answer the grade 8 or 9 questions. However, in fact you need to be able to answer all the questions in the paper no matter whether they are grade 4, 7 or 9 to achieve the top grades.  

If you take one subject at a foundation level, e.g., foundation maths, it doesn’t mean that you have to sit every subject at a foundation level. Your teachers will talk with you about the most appropriate tier for you, in order for you to pass the subject. 

Many subjects have foundation level papers, such as maths, science, and modern foreign languages. However, one subject that does not have foundation papers is English. Instead, the papers include a variety of questions at different difficulties, which allows everyone to access the marks available, and get your desired grade.  

What Does the GCSE Grading System Look Like?

The whole specification has changed in the recent years so it’s important to look at how the new GCSEs are graded. The new GCSE are graded on a scale of numbers rather than letters. This scale ranges from 9-1, with 9 being the best. However, grades 1, 2 and 3 are all considered a fail. 

It’s important to keep in mind that wherever you want to go after secondary school, whether that be sixth form college, or an apprenticeship, you have to have a minimum of a grade 4 (a low pass) in English, Maths and Science. Some may even require you to have a grade 5 (which is a higher pass) in these subjects. 

Sixth form colleges usually have subject specific grades for entry. For example, if you want to study Maths, you should expect to have at least a grade 7 at the very minimum. Some subjects, like the sciences, may have more than one entry requirement, e.g., grade 7 in Physics and grade 8 in Maths if you want to study physics. If you want to read more about the new grading system, then click here. 

Who Marks the GCSE Exams?

During the summer, your papers are sent to teachers across the country. Teachers can sign up to be exam markers (they do get paid for this). One condition is that they have to be currently teaching that subject and cannot be a teacher at your school.  

For different exams boards, the markers may need to have different qualifications for example, for OCR markers have to have a degree in the exam paper they’re marking. This is because they will be aware of any variations to the marks scheme and may give you a mark, if your answer is right, even if your answer isn’t on the mark scheme. If you want to read more about who marks the GCSE papers click here. 

What Are the Average GCSE Grades Across the UK?

In 2020, across all subjects, there was a total of 96.9% of students that received a grade E or above. Generally, it can be stated the majority of students passed each subject, with only a minority who didn’t pass per subject. Statistics from above are taken from the spreadsheet that can be found on this website.  

Remember that GCSEs are important to get into sixth form college, apprenticeships, and university. Universities look at your GCSEs when applying, because you won’t have sat, you’re A-Levels yet. Therefore, GCSEs are the only form of real proof from public exams you’ll have at this point in time. This makes them vitally important to try securing your place at university. 

Have a look at the grade outcome of different subjects in each county of the UK here. Also we have an article going into more detail on the average GCSE grade here.

I hope this article has given you some insight as to whether GCSEs are (actually) hard. Check out the article below to help you with any upcoming exams and good luck! 

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