What can you do after GCSEs? Academic and vocational options for 16-year-olds finishing school

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When your GCSEs are done, what does the future hold?

Choosing what to do after your GCSEs is a really big decision. There's a lot to think about, and it can all feel pretty overwhelming. We've put together a guide to take you through some of the main options and help give you a better idea of what might work best for you. 

Whether you decide to take the academic route with qualifications like A-levels or a more vocational path such as Btecs or an apprenticeship, you’ve got a bit of freedom when it comes to choosing how you’d like to learn.

Here are your main choices, and a few things to think about to help you pick between them. 

Academic routes

Vocational qualifications


Mixed routes

Getting a part-time job

If you don't get the GCSE grades you want

Nine steps to making the right decision

Group of students talking

Academic routes


With A-levels, you’ll pick a few subjects – typically three, although you can do four or five if you’ve really caught the studying bug – and study them over two years.

The Student Room member Mil23333 describes their experience with A-levels. “The teachers generally treat you more like adults, so it is nicer [than GCSEs] in that way. However, the workload is massively increased. I wouldn't say it’s something to worry about though because as long as you stay organised and on top of things you will adjust fine.”

At the end of the two years you’ll take exams to get your final grades. Once you’re done, you might choose to go to university or jump straight into the world of work, whether as an apprentice or in an entry-level position.

A-levels might suit you if:

  • You’re not yet totally sure what you want to do in the future – A-levels give you a broad academic base, so you can keep your options open
  • You’re happy to continue with classroom-based learning, similar to your GCSEs
  • You don’t mind being assessed by exams at the end of two years
  • You can handle a workload that ebbs and flows in intensity depending on the time of year – everything will suddenly feel a lot busier when the exams roll around
  • You’re interested in a few different subjects, and don’t want to have to choose just one.

Visit our dedicated A-level forum to ask questions and chat with other members of the The Student Room community.

If you live in Scotland, you'll take Scottish Highers instead of A-levels. They are the main route into higher education. You choose four or five from more than 60 subjects and they’re usually assessed by a series of exams.

Ask a question about Scottish Highers in the SQA forum.

International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (often referred to as 'the IB') is an internationally recognised qualification. Many sixth forms and colleges don't offer it, so if you're set on taking the IB you'll need to choose your sixth form place carefully.

The diploma is a two-year course, and you have to choose six subjects. This broad range of learning means you can keep your options very open for university. The Student Room member gcsewan says that if you’re struggling to choose between A-levels and an IB, “my advice would be that if you know what you want to study at university, do A-levels, if you don't do IB”.

You’ll be assessed on a combination of exams and your performance within the course.

The International Baccalaureate Diploma might suit you if:

  • You’re interested in a very broad range of subjects
  • You’re happy to continue with classroom-based learning
  • You want to take maths and a language – both are compulsory with the IB
  • You don’t mind taking exams and being continuously assessed on your performance

Go to our IB forum to talk to other students about the programme.

Extended Project Qualification

The EPQ is an extra that can be taken alongside A-levels and involves writing a report and presenting on a topic of your choice. What you’d like to create is up to you – it could be anything from a dissertation or short story to the recording of a song or a piece of art. In terms of Ucas points, it’s worth half an A-level.

The Student Room member allofthestars says, “my EPQ was on something I cared about, it’s the whole point of doing an EPQ – not to boost your profile but for the love of learning and having something different to talk about in interview.”

If it's something you're thinking about doing, read a student's full guide to the EPQ.

An EPQ might suit you if:

  • You’re passionate about something, and you’d like to develop your interest in it further
  • You’d like to work on skills outside of classroom-based learning – for example, independent research, project planning, decision making and record-keeping
  • You want to be able to really show your commitment to a subject in your university application

Talk to other students doing an EPQ in our dedicated forum.

Runners on starting line

Vocational qualifications

For those who prefer hands-on learning, vocational courses combine classroom teaching and practical elements where you can apply your learning to real-life situations.


You can choose to take a Btec that's the equivalent of one, two or three A-levels. You can take them alongside A-levels or by themselves.

For most Btecs you will have to take exams, but they'll be a bit different to A-levels because they'll come in a variety of formats; you might sit a multiple choice exam, for instance, or be given materials in advance. Your final marks won't all be decided on exams either – instead you'll also be assessed continually throughout the two years. 

The Student Room member I'mCookieMonster, who opted for a Btec, says: “the atmosphere is more relaxed and although there are deadlines you only really have one subject to worry about at any one time.”

You can start working, take an apprenticeship or go to university with a Btec qualification. If you go to university, you’ll be more likely to study towards a vocational degree that’s related to your Btec.

Some universities may want you to have taken an A-level alongside your Btec, so if there’s a course you’re dead set on it’s worth checking with the admissions department before you make your final decision. This article on our sister site The Uni Guide explains what it's like to take A-levels alongside a Btec, with tips and advice from students who have done it. 

Btecs might suit you if:

  • You’re set on a general career path, which your Btec qualification will help you towards.
  • You like your work to be a mixture of practical and academic.
  • You can handle a continuous workload.

Talk about Btecs with other members of The Student Room here.


NVQs are competence-based qualifications, which means you’ll be tested on the skills needed for a specific job. You’ll probably be in a work-placement or part-time job while you take an NVQ, and they don’t need to be finished in any set amount of time.

An NVQ level 3 is roughly equivalent to two A-levels, although NVQs aren’t normally accepted by universities as they don’t hold Ucas points.

NVQs might suit you if:

  • You prefer a very practical and hands-on style of learning
  • You have a strong idea of which career path you’d like to take
  • You’d rather be assessed on your skills than on coursework or exams
  • You probably don’t want to go to university


These are a new kind of technical qualification that launched with a handful of subjects in September 2020. More subjects are being added each year, with more to come in 2024 and 2025. 

A T-level is equivalent to three A-levels and includes a mixture of classroom learning and on-the-job experience through industry placements. They are different from apprenticeships because you’ll spend more time in the classroom, and they’re designed for students who already know what future career they want.

A T-level is worth Ucas points, so you will be able to go to university after completing it if that’s what you decide you want to do.

The Student Room member brainzistheword has put together a really helpful guide to T-levels here

T-levels might suit you if:

  • You have a strong idea of your future career
  • You’d prefer to focus on one subject
  • You want to gain practical work experience
  • You’re able to able to learn by both reading about something and actually doing it

Talk about T-levels with other members of The Student Room in our dedicated forum.

Mixed routes

If you're not sure whether you'd rather take an academic route or a vocational one, you could always go for a mixture of the two. You can take Btecs that are the equivalent of one, two or three A-levels so you could, for example, take a Btec that's the equivalent of two A-levels alongside one A-level. 

A mixed route might suit you if: 

  • There's a general career path you're interested in, but you'd also like to learn more about an academic subject
  • You want to keep your options more open than you would on a purely vocational route
  • You can handle learning through a mix of exams and continuous assessment
Engineering apprentices


As an apprentice, you’ll be working for an employer and getting on-the-job training as you go. You’ll also get paid a salary, and many companies keep apprentices on after the apprenticeship has finished.  

There are different levels of apprenticeships, and you’ll come out of it with a nationally recognized qualification such as a Btec or NVQ. Depending on what qualifications you get, you can go to university with an apprenticeship. Or you might choose to move onto a degree apprenticeship.

Following GCSEs, the most appropriate types of apprenticeships are intermediate apprenticeships, which are the same as five GCSE passes, or advanced apprenticeships, which are the same as two A-level passes.

“Apprenticeships are a great way to gain work experience and even earn a degree without going to university. University is studying the theory of a specific subject whereas apprenticeships allow people to focus more on the practical side of things,” says The Student Room member tnai.

Apprenticeships might suit you if:

  • You’re keen to start earning money
  • There’s a specific industry you’d like to work in
  • You’d rather learn skills on the job

Here’s our dedicated apprenticeships forum.

Young man working as barista

Getting a part-time job

You need to be doing some sort of training until your 18th birthday, but that doesn't mean you can't get a part-time job, volunteer or do summer work. 

If you are looking for a job over the summer to see what the working world is like, look at our ultimate summer job guide.

For more careers advice and to ask questions, visit our careers and jobs forum.

If you don't get the GCSE grades you want

You might be relying on your GCSE results to be able to take your next steps. Don’t worry if you don’t get the results you need, though, as there are options still available to you.

Most colleges want you to have grade 4s in GCSE maths and English, so if you miss out on these grades you'll need to retake these subjects. You might also consider taking alternative English and maths qualifications. 

Nine steps to making the right decision

1. Map out all of your options

2. Choose your subjects or route based on what you enjoy

3. Consider how you learn best, whether that's in a classroom or doing practical exercises

4. Research the paths you can take to get there

5. Talk through your options with family, friends and teachers

6. Ask other students for advice on The Student Room

7. Follow your own dreams; don't just do what your friends are doing if it isn't right for you

8. Relax and avoid rushing your decision

9. Remember you can always change your mind later if you need to