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

Apprenticeships

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

A-levels

A-levels are the most academic option to go for. 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.

TSR 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 mark. Once you’re done, you can use your A-levels to go to university or jump straight into the world of work, whether as an apprentice or in an entry-level position.

If you want to do A-levels but you’re struggling to choose which ones to take, this article should help you decide.

Get advice on preparing for sixth form with our tips on making the most of a sixth form open evening and learn how to write a sixth form college application personal statement. Here are 11 things A-level students wish they’d known before they started studying.

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 want to go to university to study an academic subject
  • 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 TSR 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.

Learn more about Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers with this article.

Take a look at our five top tips for National 5 prelims here, or read about a day in the life of Scottish higher students.

Want to know more about other Scottish qualifications? This article should help.

Ask a question about Scottish Highers in the SQA forum.

International Baccalaureate

The IB is an international qualification. Most sixth forms and colleges won't offer it, so if you're set on taking the IB you'll need to choose where to tale your A-levels carefully.

It's 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. TSR 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.

Learn more about the differences between the IB and A-levels with this article. Find out about what it’s really like to do an IB with this day in the life of IB students.

The International Baccalaureate might suit you if:

  • You’re interested in a very broad range of subjects, and the standard three for A-level isn’t enough for you
  • 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.

TSR 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.

BTECs

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. On 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. 

TSR 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.

Learn a bit more about BTECs with our article on eight things you need to know about them.

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 TSR members here.

NVQs

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. 

T-levels

These are a new kind of technical qualification coming in September 2020. A T-level will be equivalent to three A-levels and will include a mixture of classroom learning and on-the-job experience through industry placements. They’ll be 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 will be 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.

TSR 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 TSR members 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

Apprenticeships

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 you can take, 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. 

The most appropriate types of apprenticeships for you right now 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 TSR member tnai.

You can read this article for an in-depth look at apprenticeships. For more resources, visit our apprenticeship hub and get advice on how to find and apply for apprenticeships, as well as suggestions on how to choose the right apprenticeship for you and tips to help you ace an apprenticeship interview.

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.

Teenager sitting exam

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 have to retake these subjects. If you end up with 1s and 2s you might be better off taking alternative English and maths qualifications. 

Find more information on GCSE retakes in our article on what to do if you're disappointed with your results.

Students and teacher

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 TSR

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

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