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IGCSEs vs GCSEs: A Complete Guide

IGCSEs vs GCSEs: A Complete Guide

10 min Read|April 13 2024
|Written by:

Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa


This article provides a comprehensive guide to the differences between IGCSEs and GCSEs, two qualifications that are critical for high school students. While both qualifications share similarities, there are notable differences in the grading system, subject options, and difficulty levels. By the end of this guide, you will have a clear understanding of which qualification is right for you and how to make informed decisions about your future academic and professional goals.

What are IGCSEs and GCSEs?

IGCSEs and GCSEs are two qualifications that high school students in the UK and internationally can obtain. The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is a national qualification taken by students in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland at the age of 16. It is a two-year programme that prepares students for further education, including A-levels, apprenticeships, or employment. In the UK, GCSEs are the most common qualification that students obtain at the age of 16, with close to a million students taking the exams.

The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), on the other hand, is an internationally recognised qualification that is designed for students who live or study abroad. It is offered by Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE) and is available in over 160 countries. Cambridge IGCSE is not the same as GCSE, but there are many similarities between the two qualifications.

The History and Development of IGCSEs and GCSEs

GCSEs were introduced in 1988 by the British government as a replacement for O-levels and CSEs. The GCSE system aimed to provide a single qualification for students aged 14 to 16, as opposed to the separate qualifications that had previously existed. The GCSEs replaced the GCE O-levels and the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE), which were both criticised for being too narrow in scope. The introduction of GCSEs was part of a wider education reform movement in the UK that aimed to make education more inclusive and accessible. The new system aimed to provide a broader range of subjects and a more flexible curriculum, allowing students to pursue their interests and strengths.

IGCSEs were introduced in 1985 by the University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) to provide a more flexible and globally recognised qualification. The IGCSE system was designed for international schools, students, and teachers, and it was based on the British GCSE curriculum. The IGCSEs were initially introduced to cater to students in non-UK countries who wanted to study for a British qualification. The IGCSEs quickly gained popularity around the world and are now recognised by universities and employers worldwide. Today, the IGCSEs are offered in over 160 countries worldwide, with more than 250,000 students taking the exams each year.

Differences between IGCSEs and GCSEs

IGCSEs and GCSEs share many similarities, but there are notable differences between the two qualifications. Here are the key differences:

Grading System

The grading system is one of the key differences between IGCSEs and GCSEs. GCSEs now use a 9-1 grading system, with 9 being the highest grade. IGCSEs use an A*-G grading system, with A* being the highest grade. Previously, GCSEs used to use a letter grading system in a similar manner to what IGCSEs use now.

It is generally agreed that a grade 7, 8 or 9, in GCSE is equivalent to an A or A* at IGCSE. A pass at GCSE is a 4, while a pass at IGCSE is a C. The grading system is important for university admissions, as it is used to assess students' academic performance. Many universities require a minimum grade in specific IGCSE or GCSE subjects, especially in Maths or English.

In 2020, approximately 28% of GCSE entries were graded 7 or above or above, while approximately 40% of IGCSE Maths entries were graded A* or A.

How do A*–G grades compare to 9–1 grades?

How do A*–G grades compare to 9–1 grades?


GCSEs and IGCSEs offer a range of subjects, including core and optional subjects. GCSEs offer compulsory subjects such as English, Maths, and Science, as well as optional subjects such as History, Geography, Languages, and Creative Arts. IGCSEs also offer core subjects such as English, Maths, and Science, and optional subjects such as Accounting, Business Studies, Computer Science, and many more.

The top 10 most popular GCSE subjects in 2020 were:

1. GCSE Maths

2. GCSE English Language

3. GCSE Combined Science

4. GCSE Biology

5. GCSE Chemistry

6. GCSE Physics

7. GCSE History

8. GCSE Religious Studies

9. GCSE Art and Design

10. GCSE French

In comparison, the top 10 most popular IGCSE subjects were:

1. IGCSE Maths

2. IGCSE Physics

3. IGCSE English Language

4. IGCSE Chemistry

5. IGCSE Biology

6. IGCSE Accounting

7. IGCSE Business Studies

8. IGCSE ICT (Information and Communication Technology)

9. IGCSE Economics

10. IGCSE French

These subjects accounted for approximately 60% of all GCSE entries and 50% of all IGCSE entries. However, it's important to note that the availability of subjects may vary depending on the school and location. Some schools may not offer certain subjects due to resource constraints or lack of demand. Therefore, it's important to research the subject options and availability when choosing a school and qualification.

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Which is harder: IGCSE or GCSEs?

The difficulty level of IGCSEs and GCSEs can vary depending on the subject and the student's ability. However, teachers and examiners have suggested that IGCSEs are generally considered slightly more challenging. We spoke to one Maths tutor who has taught both GCSE and IGCSEs at UK and international schools, who stated that.

"In my experience, IGCSEs are bit more difficult than GCSEs. While IGCSEs require students to apply their knowledge to real-world scenarios, which can be more complex, GCSEs tend to focus more on content and memorisation. I think that many of my best students at GCSE may not achieve the top grade in the equivalent IGCSE. "

However as shown in the graph below, in 2022, 22% of GCSE Maths students, and 24% of GCSE English Literature students received a 7, 8, or 9 grade. In comparison, 40% of IGCSE Maths students, and 52% of English literature students achieved the equivalent A and A* grades. This suggests that GCSEs could be more difficult, especially for these core subjects.

Percentage of students achieving top grades in GCSE and IGCSE Maths and English Literature in 2022

Percentage of students achieving top grades in GCSE and IGCSE Maths and English Literature

It's important to note that the difficulty level can also depend on various factors such as teaching quality, student motivation, and preparation for exams. Therefore, students should carefully consider their strengths, interests, and academic goals when choosing between IGCSEs and GCSEs.

Exam boards

IGCSEs are primarily administered by CAIE, which is a division of the University of Cambridge. Pearson and Oxford AQA are other exam boards which offer the qualification.

GCSEs are administered by several exam boards in the UK, such as AQA, OCR, and Edexcel. While the content of the qualifications may be similar, the exam boards may vary in terms of their assessment methods, grading systems, and subject options.

Which is better: IGCSEs or GCSEs?

Both qualifications have their own advantages and disadvantages. In this section, we'll explore the pros and cons of each qualification and the factors to consider when making a decision.

Pros and Cons of IGCSEs

One of the main advantages of IGCSEs is their flexibility and global recognition. IGCSEs offer a wider range of subjects than GCSEs, including vocational subjects such as Accounting and Business Studies. IGCSEs are also recognised by universities and employers worldwide, making them a valuable qualification for students who want to pursue further education or work abroad.

However, IGCSEs also have some disadvantages compared to GCSEs. One of the main drawbacks is their higher cost, which can be a significant barrier for some students and families. The average cost of a full set of IGCSE exams is approximately £1,000, while the average cost of a full set of GCSE exams is approximately £360. Additionally, IGCSEs are often only offered at independent schools in some parts of the world, limiting access for students who attend state schools.

Pros and Cons of GCSEs

GCSEs are recognised by universities and employers in the UK. They are primarily aimed at students in the UK and are recognised by universities and employers in these countries. GCSEs are also less expensive than IGCSEs, making them a more affordable option for many students.

However, one of the main disadvantages of GCSEs is their limited subject options compared to IGCSEs. GCSEs offer fewer subjects than IGCSEs, and some subjects may not be available in certain schools or areas. This can limit students' options and interests when selecting subjects.

In essence, both IGCSEs and GCSEs offer valuable qualifications that can open doors to further education and career opportunities. When deciding between the two, consider your academic goals, financial situation, and where you plan to pursue higher education or employment. To maximise your chances of success, it's essential to utilise the best IGCSE resources and GCSE resources available. Additionally, don't hesitate to seek help from an online tutor. Online tutors can provide tailored support and guidance, making them an invaluable resource in your educational journey.

How to Choose IGCSE Subjects

Choosing the right subjects for IGCSEs is crucial as it can impact students' academic and career paths.

Factors to Consider when Choosing Subjects

When considering IGCSE subjects, students should take into account their interests and future academic goals to ensure that they select the most suitable subjects. Below are some suggested subject choices for students with different strengths:

Mathematics: Mathematics is a compulsory subject for both IGCSE and GCSE, and students who enjoy this subject could consider taking Additional Mathematics or Further Mathematics, which are also available at the IGCSE level. These subjects provide a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts and are highly valued by universities for admission into STEM courses, therefore, it is highly recommended to get help from an IGCSE Maths tutor or a GCSE Maths tutor to guide you along the way.

Sciences: For students interested in sciences, there are several options available at the IGCSE level, such as Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Computer Science. These subjects are highly valued by universities, particularly for science-related courses, and provide students with the necessary skills and knowledge to pursue further studies in these areas.

Humanities: For students who like humanities, IGCSE subjects such as History, Geography, Religious Studies, and Literature are excellent choices. These subjects provide students with a broad understanding of the world, its history and cultures, and are highly valued by universities for courses in social sciences and humanities.

Languages: IGCSEs offer a range of language options, including French, Spanish, German, Mandarin, and Arabic. These subjects can be a good choice for students who enjoy learning languages, have an interest in foreign cultures or plan to study languages at the university level.

Writing: For students who have a flair for writing, IGCSE subjects such as English Language, English Literature, and Creative Writing are ideal options. These subjects provide students with the opportunity to develop their writing skills and can be valuable for students planning to pursue careers in journalism, creative writing, or other writing-related fields. Looking to improve your scores? Our skilled GCSE and IGCSE English tutors are ready to assist you in excelling at any Maths exam you encounter!

It's important to note that while these subjects are suitable for students with these strengths, it's essential to choose subjects that align with their interests and abilities, and that are relevant to their future academic and career goals. Additionally, students should consider the availability of resources and support for the subjects they choose, such as textbooks, teachers, and tutoring.

Moreover, it's essential to consider the future academic qualifications they plan to pursue, such as the IB Diploma Programme or A-levels. Some subjects may be a requirement or preferred for certain courses or qualifications.

Who can help me with Subject Selection?

Students can consult with their school counsellors and teachers for advice on subject selection and their suitability for their academic and career goals. They can also hire a private GCSE tutor or IGCSE tutor to provide advice and guidance. Online resources such as the IGCSE subject selection guide by CAIE can also be helpful. This guide provides information on different subject options, their content and assessment, and the future academic and career paths they may lead to.

The Role of IGCSEs and GCSEs in University Admissions

IGCSEs and GCSEs are essential qualifications for students aiming to pursue higher education. These qualifications provide a foundation for further academic study such as A-Levels and the International Baccalaureate and are recognised by universities worldwide.

In the UK, students are required to have at least five GCSEs, including English and Maths, to pursue A-levels or other qualifications. Universities in the UK also consider a student's GCSE grades when making admissions decisions, as they provide an indication of a student's academic abilities and potential. Similarly, IGCSEs are recognised by universities worldwide and are considered an essential qualification for students aiming to pursue higher education.

Do universities prefer IGCSEs or GCSEs?

Universities in general do not prefer one qualification over the other, as both IGCSEs and GCSEs are recognised by institutions and employers worldwide. Universities also understand that often students don't have any choice in the matter as the qualifications they take are determined by their school.

However, some universities in the UK prefer GCSEs over IGCSEs for certain subjects such as English and Maths. This is because GCSEs are designed specifically for students in the UK, while IGCSEs are more globally recognised and have a broader curriculum. This preference may vary depending on the university and the course of study, and is unlikely to be a deciding factor in university admissions.

Are IGCSEs accepted in UK universities and Oxbridge?

Yes, IGCSEs are accepted by universities in the UK, including Oxbridge. According to the University of Oxford, IGCSEs are recognised by the university for admissions purposes and are considered equivalent to GCSEs. However, some courses may require specific subjects or grades, so students should check the specific requirements of their desired course before applying or consult an Oxbridge tutor.

Are IGCSEs accepted in US Universities and Ivy League, and Harvard?

Yes, IGCSEs are accepted by universities in the US, including Ivy League institutions. IGCSEs are recognised by US universities as equivalent to the US high school diploma. Universities will also require additional qualifications or tests, such as Advanced Placement (AP) exams, the SAT, or the ACT.


In summary, IGCSEs and GCSEs are two essential qualifications for high school students worldwide. While both qualifications share similarities, they also have some small differences, including the grading system, subject options, and the difficulty level. IGCSEs are more globally recognised and have a broader curriculum, while GCSEs are more UK-focused and offer a more in-depth study of subjects. Additionally, some universities in the UK may prefer GCSEs over IGCSEs for certain subjects, while universities worldwide recognise both qualifications for admissions purposes. Ultimately, the choice between IGCSEs and GCSEs depends on a student's academic and career goals, interests, and strengths.


What are the prerequisites for taking IGCSEs?

The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) is typically taken by students aged 14-16. It's designed to be accessible without any specific prerequisites. However, it's important to note that the IGCSE is an international qualification, and the exams are conducted in English. Therefore, a good understanding of the English language is beneficial. Additionally, students should have a basic understanding of the subject matter they plan to study, which is usually gained through lower secondary education.

How can I prepare for IGCSE exams?

Preparing for IGCSE exams involves a combination of understanding the syllabus, regular study, and practice. Start by familiarising yourself with the syllabus of each subject you're taking. This will give you a clear understanding of what you're expected to know. Regular study is key, and it's beneficial to create a study schedule to ensure you're dedicating enough time to each subject. Practice is also crucial. Use past papers to familiarise yourself with the exam format and to test your knowledge. Additionally, consider using revision guides and textbooks that align with your syllabus. Don't forget to take care of your mental and physical health too, as this can greatly impact your ability to study effectively.

What is the exam format for IGCSEs?

The exam format for IGCSEs varies depending on the subject. However, most subjects involve written exams, and some also include coursework, practical exams, or oral exams. Written exams typically include a mix of multiple-choice questions, short-answer questions, and longer essay-style questions. It's important to check the specific exam format for each of your subjects, which can be found in the syllabus.

Can I retake IGCSE exams if I'm not satisfied with my grades?

Yes, it's possible to retake IGCSE exams if you're not satisfied with your grades. You can choose to retake the entire qualification or just specific units. However, it's important to consider the time and cost involved in retaking exams. It's also worth noting that some universities and colleges may have specific policies regarding retakes, so it's a good idea to check this if you're considering higher education.

How does the IGCSE fit into the overall UK education system?

The IGCSE is equivalent to the GCSE in the UK education system. It's typically taken by students aged 14-16 in Year 10 and Year 11. The IGCSE is recognised by universities and employers in the UK and internationally, making it a valuable qualification. After completing IGCSEs, students often progress to study A Levels, the International Baccalaureate, or other equivalent post-16 qualifications.

Are there any online resources to help me study for IGCSEs?

There are many online resources available to help you study for IGCSEs. These include revision websites, online textbooks, educational YouTube channels, and online tutoring services. Many of these resources are subject-specific, so you can find help tailored to the subjects you're studying. Additionally, CIE IGCSE past papers and Edexcel IGCSE past papers and the corresponding mark schemes are invaluable resources for understanding the exam format and expectations.

What is the deadline for IGCSE exam registration?

The deadline for IGCSE exam registration varies depending on the exam session. There are typically two exam sessions each year, in June and November, and the registration deadline is usually a few months before the exams begin. It's important to check the specific deadlines with your exam centre, as late registration can incur additional fees.

How are IGCSEs graded?

IGCSEs are graded on a scale from 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest grade. This grading scale aligns with the GCSE grading scale in the UK. Your final grade for each subject is determined by your performance in the exams and any assessed coursework. The grade boundaries (the minimum marks needed to achieve each grade) can vary between subjects and exam sessions.

Can I take IGCSEs as a private candidate?

Yes, you can take IGCSEs as a private candidate. This means you can study for the exams independently, without attending a school or college. As a private candidate, you'll need to register for the exams through an approved exam centre, which could be a school, college, or dedicated exam centre. It's important to check the requirements and deadlines with the exam centre.

What are the benefits of taking IGCSEs early?

Taking IGCSEs early can provide several benefits. It can allow high-achieving students to progress at a faster pace, keeping them engaged and challenged. It can also provide flexibility, allowing students to spread their exams over a longer period, reducing the pressure of taking many exams at once. However, it's important to consider the individual student's readiness and maturity, as well as the potential impact on other aspects of their education.

How do I choose which IGCSE subjects to take?

Choosing which IGCSE subjects to take involves considering your interests, future plans, and subject strengths. Think about what you enjoy studying and where you excel. If you have a specific career or course of study in mind for the future, research what subjects are required or recommended for that path. It's also important to have a balanced selection of subjects, including a mix of humanities, sciences, and languages.

Can I take both IGCSEs and GCSEs?

Yes, it's possible to take a combination of IGCSEs and GCSEs. This might be the case if you're studying at a school that offers both qualifications, or if you're studying some subjects as a private candidate. Both qualifications are recognised by universities and employers in the UK and internationally.

What is the pass rate for IGCSEs?

The pass rate for IGCSEs can vary depending on the subject and exam session. A 'pass' is typically considered to be a grade 4 or above. The pass rate can be influenced by many factors, including the difficulty of the exams, the abilities of the students, and the quality of teaching and preparation. For most subjects, the pass rate is between 70% and 80%.

How do IGCSEs compare to other qualifications like the IB or GCSEs?

IGCSEs are similar in level to GCSEs, and they're both typically taken by students aged 14-16. The main difference is that IGCSEs are designed to be accessible to students internationally, whereas GCSEs are more focused on the UK. The International Baccalaureate (IB) is a different qualification, typically taken by students aged 16-19. The IB Diploma is more comprehensive and includes a broader range of subjects than IGCSEs or A Levels.

Are there any scholarships available for IGCSE students?

Scholarships for IGCSE students are less common than for university students, but they do exist. Some schools offer scholarships based on academic achievement, including for IGCSE students. Additionally, some organisations offer scholarships for specific subjects or for students from certain backgrounds. It's worth researching scholarships in your local area and in the field of study you're interested in.

How do universities view IGCSEs?

Universities in the UK and internationally recognise IGCSEs as equivalent to GCSEs. They're considered a solid foundation for further study, including A Levels and the IB. When applying to university, your IGCSE grades can be an important factor, especially for competitive courses or universities. However, universities also consider your post-16 qualifications, personal statement, references, and sometimes an interview or entrance exam.

What career paths can IGCSEs lead to?

IGCSEs can lead to a wide range of career paths. They provide a broad foundation of knowledge and skills, which can be built upon with further study. The subjects you choose can influence your career path. For example, studying science subjects can lead to careers in medicine, engineering, or environmental science. Studying humanities subjects can lead to careers in law, journalism, or social work. However, it's also possible to change paths later on, and many careers don't require specific subjects at IGCSE level.

What are the options if I don't do well in my IGCSEs?

If you don't do as well as you hoped in your IGCSEs, there are still many options available. You can consider retaking some or all of your exams. You could also consider vocational qualifications, which are more practical and work-based. Alternatively, you could look into apprenticeships, which combine work with study. It's also worth talking to a careers adviser, who can help you explore your options and make a plan.

Where can I find IGCSE past papers?

At TutorChase, we offer a comprehensive collection of free IGCSE past papers covering all subjects and exam boards, explore them here:

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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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