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IGCSEs: A Complete Guide

IGCSEs: A Complete Guide

10 min Read|March 05 2024
|Written by:

Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa


Ever wondered what IGCSEs really are and why they're considered so crucial for students worldwide? The International General Certificate of Secondary Education, known as IGCSE, is a globally recognized qualification for students aged 14 to 16. But what sets it apart from other qualifications, and why should you consider it? Is it the breadth of subjects, the flexibility it offers, or its international recognition? As we dive into this guide, we'll uncover the unique aspects of IGCSEs that make them a popular choice among students, parents, and educators alike.

What are IGCSEs?

The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) is an academically rigorous, internationally used, specialised English language curriculum intended for students to prepare them for IB Diploma Programme, A-Levels and BTEC Level 3. Designed for students aged 14 to 16, this qualification provides a broad study programme by drawing from subject areas like languages, humanities, social sciences, mathematics, the creative arts, technical, and vocational studies.

  • Internationally Recognised: Over 10,000 schools in over 160 countries offer IGCSEs.
  • Flexible Curriculum: Students can choose from over 70 subjects, including 30 languages, tailoring their studies to their interests and career goals.
  • Focus on Student Ability: IGCSEs are known for developing critical thinking, inquiry, and problem-solving skills.

IGCSEs' global perspective prepares students not just for academic success, but also for understanding and engaging with the world at a deeper level. This makes IGCSEs not just a certificate of secondary education, but a global passport to higher education and professional opportunities.

Are the IGCSEs hard?

The difficulty of IGCSEs often sparks debate among students, parents, and educators. This qualification is perceived as challenging due to its comprehensive curriculum and the depth of understanding required. However, the level of difficulty largely depends on the student's preparation, study habits, and thorough understanding of the subjects chosen.

  • Varied Subject Difficulty: Some subjects are considered more challenging than others, influenced by individual strengths and interests.
  • Assessment Approach: The mix of coursework, oral, and written exams tests a wide range of skills, from analytical thinking to practical abilities.
  • International Standards: IGCSEs maintain high standards to ensure they are globally recognised, adding to the perceived rigour.

When choosing IGCSE subjects, consider including both the hardest IGCSE subjects for a challenge and the easiest IGCSE subjects to balance your workload. While IGCSEs are demanding, they are also fair, designed to stretch students' capabilities and prepare them for further education. Success is achievable with dedicated study, proper guidance, and a well-chosen subject mix, aligning with the student's future aspirations.

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What are the benefits of IGCSEs?

IGCSEs offer a multitude of benefits that go beyond the academic achievements, making them a coveted choice for students across the globe. Recognised by universities and employers worldwide, these qualifications signify a strong foundation in a wide range of subjects, providing a solid stepping stone for future educational and career opportunities.

  • Global Recognition: Universities and employers worldwide acknowledge the value of IGCSEs, opening doors to higher education and employment opportunities globally.
  • Flexible Curriculum: The ability to select from over 70 subjects allows students to tailor their education to their interests and career goals, fostering a love for learning and self-expression.
  • Skill Development: Beyond subject knowledge, IGCSEs develop key skills such as critical thinking, research, and communication, essential for success in the 21st century.

Experts highlight the role of IGCSEs in promoting a global outlook and intercultural understanding among students, preparing them not just for academic success, but for thriving in a globalised world. This holistic approach to education is what sets IGCSEs apart, making them an invaluable part of a student's educational journey.

An expert IGCSE Maths tutor says:

"IGCSEs are great for your future. They show you can handle tough subjects and think clearly. Doing well in IGCSEs helps you move on to A-levels or other advanced studies. It's about learning more on subjects you're interested in. Getting good at IGCSEs is a big step forward in your education."

What are the IGCSE requirements?

The IGCSE requirements are designed to ensure students are well-prepared for the curriculum's rigour and the examinations. While specific prerequisites can vary slightly between schools and exam boards, some common criteria must be met by candidates.

  • Age Criteria: Typically aimed at students aged 14 to 16, though older students can also take the exams.
  • Subject Selection: You must go through the choose your IGCSE subjects from predefined groups, ensuring a well-rounded education, with some schools requiring a minimum number of subjects.
  • Language Proficiency: A good command of the English language is essential, as it is the primary medium of instruction and examination.

It is recommended that students and parents consult with their respective schools to understand the specific requirements, including any prerequisite courses or grades needed. This preparation helps in aligning with the IGCSE's standards, ensuring students are adequately prepared to undertake this international qualification.

What are the IGCSE subjects?

The IGCSE curriculum is designed to offer a wide range of subjects, catering to the diverse interests and academic needs of students globally. This variety ensures that students can tailor their studies to align with their future goals and passions. Here are some of the popular IGCSE subjects:


  • IGCSE Maths
  • IGCSE Additional Maths
  • IGCSE International Maths



Humanities and Social Sciences:

  • IGCSE History
  • IGCSE Geography
  • IGCSE Economics
  • IGCSE Global Perspectives

Arts and Technology:

  • IGCSE Art and Design
  • IGCSE Music
  • IGCSE Information and Communication Technology
  • IGCSE Computer Science

Business and Vocational Education:

  • IGCSE Business Studies
  • IGCSE Accounting
  • IGCSE Enterprise
  • IGCSE Travel and Tourism

This diverse selection enables students to develop a broad knowledge base, critical thinking skills, and a global perspective, preparing them for further education and their future careers.

How many subjects should I take in IGCSE?

Deciding on the number of IGCSE subjects requires a balance between academic goals and workload management. The IGCSE curriculum allows for a range of 5 to 14 subjects, with students typically opting for 7 to 9 to maintain a manageable study schedule while meeting university prerequisites.

  • Core Subjects: Maths and English are essential for most students.
  • Additional Subjects: Selection should align with future academic and career plans.
  • Balance and Breadth: Include a mix of sciences, humanities, and languages to ensure a well-rounded education.

Focusing on quality over quantity, choosing subjects that match your interests and strengths to optimise performance and engagement.

IGCSE Exam Boards

The IGCSE curriculum is primarily offered by two major examination boards: Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE) and Pearson Edexcel. Each board sets its own syllabi and examination standards, providing a global benchmark for academic excellence.

Number of IGCSE exams administered by Edexcel globally

Graph showing the number of IGCSE exams administered by Edexcel globally

These boards ensure that IGCSE qualifications are recognised and respected by universities and employers worldwide, maintaining high standards of education and assessment.

What's the difference between IGCSE Core and Extended papers?

Understanding the distinction between IGCSE Core and Extended papers is crucial for students when selecting their course level. This choice directly impacts the depth of study and the range of grades available to the student.

  • Core Papers: Aimed at students who are targeting grades C to G, Core papers cover the basic knowledge and understanding required in a subject. They are designed for those seeking a general understanding rather than in-depth mastery.
  • Extended Papers: Extended papers cater to students aiming for higher grades (A* to E) and cover additional topics or more complex aspects of the IGCSE syllabus. This option is ideal for students who have a strong grasp of the subject and wish to explore it in greater detail.

The choice between Core and Extended papers should be based on the student’s academic strength in the subject and their future educational aspirations. Statistics show that students who choose the level that best matches their abilities tend to perform better. This strategic decision plays a significant role in shaping a student's IGCSE journey and future opportunities, emphasising the need for careful consideration and guidance in making this choice.

Tips for studying IGCSEs

Studying for IGCSEs can be challenging, but with the right resources and strategies, students can enhance their learning experience and improve their performance.

  • Organise Your Study Space: Ensure a quiet, well-lit area free from distractions.
  • Create a Revision Timetable: Plan your study schedule to cover all subjects adequately.
  • Use Active Learning Techniques: Engage with the material through summarising notes, making flashcards, and teaching concepts to others.
  • Past Papers: Familiarise yourself with the exam format using past exam papers and identify areas needing improvement using these as practise questions.
  • Seek Clarification: Don’t hesitate to ask teachers or peers for help when concepts are unclear.
  • IGCSE Tutoring: A tutor can provide personalised guidance and support, targeting areas of weakness and enhancing understanding.

Incorporating these tips into your study routine can significantly impact your readiness and confidence when tackling the IGCSE exams.

Best Resources for IGCSEs

Securing success in IGCSEs requires a deeper understanding and leveraging a variety of high-quality resources. These tools not only deepen understanding across subjects but also equip students with essential skills for exam excellence.

  • Revision Websites: Websites like Khan Academy and BBC Bitesize offer comprehensive resources, including video tutorials and practice exercises across many IGCSE subjects.
  • Past Exam Papers: Accessing previous exam papers from Cambridge and Edexcel aids in familiarisation with exam formats and time management.
  • Official Textbooks and Study Guides: Using syllabi-aligned textbooks and guides ensures thorough coverage of course material.
  • Online Forums and Study Groups: Platforms such as Reddit and The Student Room facilitate valuable exchanges of advice and resources among peers.
  • Tutoring Services: Personalised tutoring from TutorChase can address specific needs, offering targeted support in weaker areas.

Incorporating these resources into your study regimen can significantly enhance learning outcomes, as endorsed by educational experts. A balanced approach, combining traditional materials with interactive and customised learning tools, and online resources is key to maximising academic achievement and exam success.

IGCSE Assessment and Grading Methods

The IGCSE grades and assessments are designed to provide a comprehensive evaluation of students' understanding and skills across various subjects. These methods are crafted to cater to diverse learning styles and ensure fairness in assessing students' capabilities.

  • Examinations: The primary mode of assessment is through final examinations, which typically include a mix of multiple-choice questions, short-answer questions, and essay-type questions. These exams are designed to test students' knowledge, understanding, and ability to apply concepts in new situations.
  • Coursework and Practical Assessments: In subjects where practical skills are essential, such as science and art, coursework and practical assessments are integral. These contribute to the final grade and allow students to demonstrate their skills in a real-world or laboratory context.
  • Speaking and Listening Tests: For languages, speaking and listening tests assess students' communication abilities, which are crucial for language proficiency.

These methods underscore the IGCSE's commitment to preparing students for further education and the world beyond, fostering not only academic success but also the development of practical and analytical skills.

Typical Exam Dates for IGCSEs

Typical exam dates for IGCSEs are strategically set to accommodate the global nature of this qualification, ensuring that students from various educational systems can participate without conflict. The examination sessions occur twice a year, each time effectively reflecting the international scope and accessibility of the IGCSE programme.

  • May/June Session: This is the primary examination period for IGCSE candidates. Most subjects are assessed during this window, with exams generally starting in late April or early May and concluding by the end of June.
  • October/November Session: This serves as the second major examination period, particularly beneficial for students needing to retake exams or those in educational systems with different academic year schedules. Exams typically begin in October and finish by late November.

It is pointed out that these two distinct sessions provide flexibility for students, allowing them to choose the most suitable time for their exams based on their academic readiness and school calendar. Data from examination boards indicate a consistent trend of increasing participation in both sessions, highlighting the growing preference for the IGCSE curriculum worldwide. This scheduling also facilitates timely feedback and progression to further education stages, ensuring students remain on track with their academic goals.

Gender distribution across IGCSEs

Pie chart showing gender distribution across IGCSEs

IGCSEs vs Other Curriculums

Understanding the distinctions between IGCSEs, the International Baccalaureate (IB), and General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSEs) is crucial for students mapping out their educational journeys. These curriculums cater to diverse learning styles, objectives, and future aspirations, offering unique benefits and challenges.


  • Global Recognition vs. International Outlook: IGCSEs are recognized globally, offering a curriculum that prepares students for further education worldwide. The IB programme, with its holistic approach, not only prepares students academically but also aims to develop them into well-rounded individuals through components like CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service).
  • Flexibility vs. Comprehensive Curriculum: IGCSE students can choose a range of subjects that align with their interests and career goals, allowing for specialization. In contrast, the IB demands study across a broad spectrum, including languages, sciences, mathematics, and arts, to ensure a well-rounded education.
  • Assessment Methods: While both curriculums include final exams, coursework, and practical assessments, the IB additionally requires the Extended Essay, Theory of Knowledge (TOK), and CAS projects, emphasising research, critical thinking, and social engagement.


  • International vs. National Focus: IGCSEs are designed to be internationally relevant, offering a global perspective, whereas GCSEs are tailored to meet the educational requirements within the UK, focusing on the national curriculum.
  • Assessment Flexibility: IGCSEs often provide more examination sessions and retake opportunities than GCSEs, offering flexibility for international students and those studying outside traditional school settings.
  • Curriculum Content: While both curriculums cover similar core subjects, IGCSEs include additional international elements and options that may not be available in GCSEs, catering to a more diverse student body.

IGCSE vs. American High School Diploma:

  • Global vs. National Focus: IGCSE offers a global perspective, preparing students for international higher education and careers, whereas the American High School Diploma is more tailored to U.S. standards and universities.
  • Assessment Methods: IGCSEs are primarily exam-based, focusing on end-of-course exams, while the American system incorporates continuous assessment, including coursework, projects, and exams.

The choice between IGCSEs, IB, and GCSEs should be based on the student's learning style, academic and career aspirations, and the educational context they are in. Each curriculum has its strengths, with IGCSEs offering flexibility and an international perspective, IB promoting a comprehensive and holistic approach to education, and GCSEs providing a solid foundation tailored to the UK educational system. This diversity ensures that students can find a pathway that best suits their needs, preparing them for success in further education and beyond.

Common Challenges and Strategies for IGCSE Students

IGCSE students face a unique set of challenges, stemming from the rigorous academic standards and the broad range of subjects offered. However, with effective strategies, these challenges can be navigated successfully.

  • Balancing Coursework and Revision: Many students struggle to find a balance between keeping up with ongoing coursework and dedicating sufficient time to exam revision. Effective time management and creating a revision timetable early on are crucial strategies.
  • Adapting to Different Assessment Methods: The IGCSE's combination of written exams, coursework, and practical assessments can be daunting. Familiarising oneself with the format of each assessment type and practising accordingly is key.
  • Language and Terminology Barriers: Non-native English speakers may find the language and specific terminology used in exams challenging. Regular reading and practise in academic English can help overcome this hurdle.

Experts suggest that tackling these challenges requires a proactive approach, including seeking feedback from teachers, using challenging material, utilising past papers for practise, and engaging in group study sessions for peer support. Statistics indicate that students who employ a diverse range of study strategies tend to perform better in their IGCSE exams. This highlights the importance of adaptability and the use of varied revision techniques in achieving academic success.

Career Pathways After Your IGCSEs

Completing IGCSEs opens up a lot of career pathways for students, offering a solid foundation for further education and professional development. The broad curriculum not only equips students with academic knowledge but also develops essential skills for various career paths.

  • Further Education: Most students proceed to A-Levels, International Baccalaureate, or equivalent qualifications, which are necessary for university admission. Specialising in subjects of interest at this stage is crucial for career-specific degrees.
  • Vocational Training: For those inclined towards practical skills, vocational courses offer a more direct route into careers such as engineering, IT, healthcare, and creative industries. These courses often provide hands-on experience and can lead to apprenticeships.
  • Early Career Entry: A small percentage of students may choose to enter the workforce directly after their IGCSEs, particularly in sectors that value practical experience over formal qualifications, such as hospitality, retail, and entry-level business roles.

Aligning one's career pathway with personal interests and strengths is really important. The versatility of the IGCSE curriculum supports a wide range of future options. Statistics show that students who carefully plan their post-IGCSE education pathways are more likely to succeed in their chosen careers, highlighting the value of early career guidance and exploration.

Conclusion on IGCSEs

In conclusion, IGCSEs stand out as a robust and versatile educational qualification, designed to meet the demands of a globalised educational landscape. Offering a wide array of subjects, they cater to diverse interests and pave the way for further education and career opportunities worldwide. The IGCSE curriculum's emphasis on critical thinking, comprehensive knowledge, and adaptable skills equips students for success in a rapidly changing world, making it a preferred choice for those aiming for international academic and professional pursuits.


What is IGCSE equivalent to in the US?

In the US educational system, the IGCSE is broadly equivalent to a high school diploma. The IGCSE prepares students for further academic work including college-level courses, similar to the preparation provided by a US high school diploma. A comprehensive suite of IGCSE courses covers core academic areas as well as career and technical education, offering a wide-ranging curriculum that equips students with the skills and knowledge needed for post-secondary education. With courses available in 59 subjects, the IGCSE's versatility and international perspective make it a valuable qualification for students aiming to pursue higher education or career opportunities in the US and globally

Is IGCSE harder than the American curriculum?

The IGCSE and American high school curricula differ significantly in structure, focus, and assessment methods. IGCSEs are known for their rigorous examination-based assessment, covering a wide range of subjects with a global perspective. The American curriculum, with its continuous assessment through projects, homework, and class participation, offers flexibility and a broad educational approach. The perception of difficulty can vary depending on individual strengths; IGCSE may seem more challenging due to its extensive exam focus, while the American curriculum's varied assessment methods could be seen as more demanding in terms of ongoing work. Ultimately, the choice between them depends on the student's learning style and educational goals.

Is 70% an A in IGCSE?

In the IGCSE grading system, a score of 70% would fall into the B grade range, which covers scores from 70-79%. This grading scale is designed to provide a clear differentiation between students' performances across various subjects. It's important to note that the grading scale may vary slightly depending on the specific subject and examination board.

Is it possible to fail in IGCSE?

Yes, it is possible to fail in IGCSE. The grading system includes an 'Ungraded' category, which indicates failure to reach the minimum standard required for the lowest pass grade. If a student does not achieve at least the lowest grade (G) in the IGCSE grading scale, their performance is classified as 'Ungraded', effectively meaning they have failed the examination. To pass, students must achieve grades within the A* to G range.

Is IGCSE enough for university?

While the IGCSE provides a solid foundation for further education, it is not typically enough for direct university admission. Universities generally require completion of a pre-university program, such as A-Levels, the IB Diploma, or AP courses, for entry. The IGCSE helps prepare students for these advanced studies, equipping them with critical skills needed for success in more specialized subjects required by universities.

Is Cambridge IGCSE American or British?

The Cambridge IGCSE, originating from the UK and developed by Cambridge Assessment International Education, aligns with England's GCSE qualifications, providing a comprehensive and adaptable curriculum, recognised globally. This highly valued British-based qualification equips students for further education and is accepted by universities and employers worldwide, underscoring its international repute and broad academic acceptance.

What happens if you fail an IGCSE exam?

If you receive an 'Ungraded' in your IGCSE exam, it indicates that you did not meet the minimum standard required for the lowest pass grade, which is grade G. However, you can retake the IGCSE exams to improve your grades. You need to resit all the exams for the subject in the same exam session to obtain a new grade​.

Can I switch subjects midway through the IGCSE course?

Switching subjects midway through the IGCSE course may be possible but depends on several factors, including the school's policies, the timing of the switch, and the student's ability to catch up with the new subject's curriculum. It's important to consult with the school's IGCSE coordinator or academic counselor to understand the implications and feasibility of making such a change.

Are IGCSE exams available in languages other than English?

The IGCSE curriculum includes a wide variety of language subjects to accommodate students from diverse linguistic backgrounds. This range ensures that learners can undertake studies in their native language or a second language they're proficient in, fostering a more inclusive and accessible international education framework. Languages offered typically span major global languages, supporting students' needs across different geographical locations and cultural contexts.

Are IGCSE qualifications accepted by all universities?

IGCSE qualifications are widely recognized by universities globally, but acceptance can vary based on the institution and the specific course requirements. Most universities in the UK, the US, and other countries accept IGCSEs as meeting the entry requirements for undergraduate programs. However, it's essential for students to check the specific admission criteria of each university and course they are interested in, as additional qualifications, such as A-Levels or IB, might also be required.

Can I study IGCSEs as a private candidate?

Yes, you can study IGCSEs as a private candidate. This option allows individuals not enrolled in a school offering IGCSE courses to still sit for the exams. Private candidates need to register through a Cambridge exam centre willing to accept external candidates, which might involve independent study or online courses to prepare for the exams. It's essential to contact local exam centres early to understand their registration process, fees, and deadlines.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa

Written by: Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa

Oxford University - PhD Mathematics

Rahil spent ten years working as private tutor, teaching students for GCSEs, A-Levels, and university admissions. During his PhD he published papers on modelling infectious disease epidemics and was a tutor to undergraduate and masters students for mathematics courses.

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