If you’re about to choose your GCSEs, you may be thinking ahead to sixth form college and how choosing the certain GCSEs may help you get your place at your desired college. There may also be some of you that are wanting to avoid the hardest GCSEs in order to make your exams more manageable. Either way, knowing each GCSE subject’s relative difficulty could help you make a more informed decision when choosing your options. In this article, we aim to rank each GCSE in order of difficulty using both student polling results and publicly listed pass rate metrics, which can be found over here on Ofqual’s website.
Be advised. The information that this ranking is based off is explained in the below section. If you wish to skip over to the rankings, understand that this list is not definitive. Although we’ve tried our best to use the most appropriate metrics for this ranking, judgements on the difficulty of a GCSE subject are heavily dependent on the individual student. Everyone’s approach to learning is unique and while some may find a particular GCSE subject easy, others may struggle.
Hardest GCSEs: Student Perception vs Pass Attainment Rates
Below you can find the visualisation of GCSE subject difficulty rankings (top – hardest, bottom – 13ᵗʰ hardest). Displayed on the chart are both our own internal polling results and our analysis of pass attainment rates (a grade C/4 or above) for the 2022 cohort.
Click a chart legend (colour key) to filter the ranking by specific metric.
(*) Difficulty perception represents the proportion of students who voted that specific subject as the hardest GCSE during our polling. You can learn more about how we collected this data below.
(**) Pass attainment rates refer to the proportion of students in 2022 who achieved a C/4 or above. This data was collected from both this page of Ofqual’s website and this page from the JCQ.
How were these rankings decided?
For each GCSE subject on this list, we discuss both of the following metrics:
- Our findings through student polling (ranking factor): Over the past few years, we’ve asked thousands of students what their opinion is on the hardest GCSE subject. When we refer to student polling, we are referencing the results of these polls. If you wish to add your vote to the list, please navigate to the questionnaire below.
- Our research on pass rates (based of Ofqual’s data release): As student polling doesn’t always tell the whole story, we’ve added a more quantitative metric to this ranking: the proportion of students who achieve C/4 or above. This also isn’t a perfect metric but in combination with the polling, it should steer the rankings in the right direction.
To prevent the complexity of attempting to combine our polling data and the official pass rates, the rankings for each subject are based solely on the student polling results. However, these rankings aren’t perfect, and students should be taking these with a pinch of salt.
How was the polling data collected?
Between February 2021 and January 2023, we put up a poll, prompting our readers to vote on which GCSE subject they thought was the hardest. Within this timeframe, we collected 1,961 votes, excluding submissions that were disregarded from the data set due to errors or formatting issues.
In an effort to be transparent with our readers, listed below are some key limitations of our polling methods that could’ve swayed results:
- Static ordering of subjects on voting form: A previous iteration of our survey form listed GCSE subjects in the same order each time. It could be argued that this would favour the subjects that were listed at the top. This issue has been fixed in our updated voting form below.
- Voting form displayed only a subset of GCSE subjects: In an effort to increase readability, a previous iteration of our voting form only displayed a small subset of GCSE subjects. This removed any chance of certain GCSEs making it into this ranking. We have since remedied this issue by expanding the size of our subject subset within the voting form.
- Potential bad actors: Despite having anti-spam software in place, it is possible repeated entries were made by single individuals. With respect to privacy, we don’t ask for more information than we need and as a result, it is almost impossible to identify submission users to check if they are unique.
This article is a member of a series of GCSE ranking articles listed on this site. If you find our data and analysis within this article helpful, you may also wish to take a look at this Think Student article to learn more about the easiest GCSE subjects according to polling and student attainment.
Walkthrough of the GCSE difficulty rankings
Continue reading to learn which subjects students have voted as the hardest. This section will explain if there’s a relationship between the hardest subjects and the pass rates as well as explain why students may feel these subjects are hardest.
10. GCSE Biology
4.39% of the poll voted GCSE Biology as the hardest GCSE subject, putting it in 10th place for the most difficult GCSE subject. However, in 2022, 91.9% of students achieved a grade C/ 4 or above. With a pass rate so high, it may seem as though students’ perception of the course doesn’t quite add up.
This is likely due to the fact that if students study GCSE Biology as a separate subject, they very likely take triple science. Schools often place restrictions on who can take triple science, so it will often only be taken by people who were in the top sets in Year 8 or 9.
Due to this, despite the difficulty of the course, these students are more likely to have more academic skill when it comes to science subjects, allowing them to achieve better grades in this course. To learn more about who can take triple science, check out this Think Student article.
Students will often find GCSE Biology as one of the hardest GCSEs due to its content. Having studied GCSE Biology myself, both me and others around me would sometimes struggle to get our heads around the topics and to remember what we had learnt in exams.
9. GCSE English Literature
7.80% of the poll voted GCSE English Literature as the hardest GCSE subject, putting it in 9th place. In 2022, 77.5% of students achieved a grade C/ 4 or above. When considering the ranking, comparing this to GCSE Biology adds up as it does suggest that students find GCSE English Literature more difficult as the ranking shows.
While the pass rate is rather high for a subject considered hard, this is most likely due to the fact that GCSE English Literature is often a compulsory GCSE subject in schools. Due to this, there will often be greater emphasis on this subject, leading to higher pass rates.
Due to the nature of the exams, students will often find GCSE English Literature difficult as there is often so much to remember, this is because you will often need to remember quotes, context and key things about each book, play or poem you study. Students will often also struggle with understanding and analysing the texts as it is a hard skill to learn and texts, such as Shakespeare, can be confusing.
To learn more about GCSE English Literature, look at this Think Student article. While it may one of the hardest GCSEs, getting a 9 is more than possible, click here to find a Think Student article that will tell you exactly how to achieve this.
8. GCSE Computer Science
8.11% of the poll voted for GCSE Computer Science as the hardest GCSE subject, putting it in 8th place. In 2022, 75.2% of students achieved a grade C/ 4 or above.
This once again continues the trend of the higher the ranking in difficulty, the lower the pass rate. This suggests that students really do find it harder than the likes of GCSE English Literature and GCSE Biology.
During GCSE Computer Science, students will study how computers work. This includes learning hardware, software and programming as well as the legal and ethical side of the computing industry.
GCSE Computer Science may be considered difficult due to this as depending on the student, this content, especially algorithms and applying what you’ve learnt to do programming for yourself can be particularly tricky.
It can also be considered difficult as it requires you to be able to put theory into practice and to be able to problem solve, this can be hard to adapt to, especially as you won’t need to do this for many other GCSE subjects. To learn more about how difficult GCSE Computer Science is from the perspective of a former student, check out this Think Student article.
7. GCSE History
9.08% of the poll voted for GCSE History as the hardest GCSE, making it the 7th hardest based on our poll. In 2022, 70.7% of students achieved a grade C/ 4 or above. Fitting in with our trend, once again suggests that students find GCSE History harder than the previous ones.
In comparison to GCSE Computer Science, this may also be in part due to GCSE History being more accessible and more commonly offered, allowing more students to be familiar with how difficult it is.
Similarly, to GCSE English Literature, students will often find GCSE History difficult because of their being so much to remember. The difference with GCSE History is that students will need to remember facts, such as key events and key dates and then use these to explain.
When studying GCSE History, I personally found it difficult when answering the exam questions as there are some different types and formats of them, which require you to do different things each time. This can make GCSE History harder for students as it can be more difficult to get used to these question types.
However, while difficult to do, there are great techniques to get around this. You can learn about them in this Think Student article.
6. GCSE Further Maths
9.79% of the poll voted for GCSE Further Maths as the hardest GCSE subject, which puts it in 6th place. In 2022, 97.8% of students achieved a grade C/ 4 or above. With the pass rate being so high, it would suggest that these results don’t quite match up.
In my personal experience, for qualifications like GCSE Further Maths, there are often restrictions on who can study them. At my school, GCSE Further Maths was only taken by those in the top set of GCSE Maths as it was seen as being too difficult for the other classes. These restrictions may explain why the pass rate is so high.
In GCSE Further Maths, students study much more than the typical GCSE Maths qualifications, covering topics, such as differentiation, binomial expansion and matrices, which otherwise you would see in A-Level Maths or even A-Level Further Maths.
Due to this, students may find GCSE Further Maths one of the hardest GCSEs due to how advanced the content is. My GCSE Further Maths teacher described it as a “bridge” between GCSE and A-Level. You can learn a bit more about GCSE Further Maths (as well as A-Level Further Maths) in this Think Student article.
5. GCSE English Language
10.20% of the poll voted GCSE English Language as the most difficult GCSE, putting It at 5th place. In 2022, 69.8% of students achieved a grade C/ 4 or above. This figure is a lot lower and would possibly suggest that GCSE English Language should be higher up in the ranking.
However, these figures are likely due to the fact that GCSE English Language is compulsory. This means that even if students are completely uninterested in the subject and would rather be doing anything else, they would still have to study and take the exam. To learn more about compulsory GCSEs, check out this Think Student article.
Students may still consider GCSE English Language difficult as unlike GCSE English Language, students won’t have anything to particularly remember for these exams. This makes it a much harder GCSE as students often don’t know what they’re supposed to do to answer the questions correctly.
It may also feel impossible to revise for! However, if you know what to do and what techniques to use, it may even feel easy to revise. Check out this Think Student article to learn more about it.
4. Modern Foreign Language GCSEs
10.91% of the poll voted GCSE Modern Foreign Language as the most difficult GCSE, making it the voted 4th most difficult GCSE. In 2022, 77.4% of students achieved a grade C/ 4 or above in Spanish, 78.1% of students achieved a grade C/ 4 or above in French and 83.5% of students achieved a grade C/ 4 or above in German. While slightly higher than may be expected due to them being voted the 4th most difficult, these figures mostly line up with expectations based on the rest of the data.
The results may also be quite high due to the fact that native speakers of these languages (and others) may also take the GCSE. Due to the GCSE being designed for beginners, this may have helped to increase the pass rate.
GCSE Modern Foreign Languages is considered difficult by students as they have to learn another language to the extent of being able to respond to the language both when speaking and writing. If the student has no experience in this, it can be difficult to adapt to. However, studying a language at GCSE can also come with a range of benefits, which you can learn about in this Think Student article.
3. GCSE Maths
11.12% of the poll voted GCSE Maths as the hardest GCSE, which puts it in 3rd place. In 2022, 64.9% of students achieved a grade C/ 4 or above. With these being the lowest out of what’s considered hardest, it would suggest that students really do find it difficult.
It can seem strange that GCSE Further Maths is ranked lower in terms of difficulty despite having harder content, however just like with GCSE English Language GCSE Maths is compulsory. This means that more students will find this difficult as it may not play to their strengths, whereas for those who take GCSE Further Maths it likely would.
GCSE Maths is also considered difficult due to its content as well as the exams themselves. This is because how some questions are worded can make them confusing and hard to figure out what you need to do. If you would like to find out what the hardest GCSE Maths exam questions are, check out this Think Student article.
2. GCSE Physics
11.42% of the poll voted GCSE Physics as the hardest GCSE, making it the 2nd most difficult subject at GCSE. In 2022, 93.7% of students achieved a grade C/ 4 or above. Once again, for being so hard, these figures appear quite high.
This is once again likely due to the fact that students who take GCSE Physics will be taking GCSE Triple Science rather than GCSE Combined Science. This will often mean that they were in a top set in science at the time of choosing their GCSEs, as mentioned above.
GCSE Physics is considered to be one of the hardest by so many students as its content is often considered quite difficult. Students study topics, such as matter, electromagnetism and waves.
Also, due to its nature, there is quite a bit of maths involved with much more formulas and calculations than the other sciences, which may also lead students to find it harder. To learn more about GCSE Physics and what is studied, check out this governmental guide.
1. GCSE Chemistry
12.09% of the poll voted GCSE Chemistry as the hardest GCSE, putting it in 1st place for what students consider to be the hardest GCSE subjects. In 2022, 92.8% of students achieved a grade C/ 4 or above. Once again, these figures are pretty high, likely for the same reason of triple science students often being more skilled at scientific subjects like these.
In GCSE Chemistry, students learn about atoms, reactions and different chemicals or compounds, they will also be taught about chemistry in the real world, considering both the environment and industry. Students may consider this difficult as GCSE Chemistry covers quite a lot, which can make it difficult to remember things and link these different elements together.