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Top 10 Hardest GCSEs

Top 10 Hardest GCSEs

5 min Read|May 24 2024
|Written by:

Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa


Choosing your GCSEs is like standing at a crossroads, each path leading to a different future. But, have you ever wondered which paths are the trickiest to travel? Well, we've got you covered. With over 5 million students in the UK sitting for their GCSEs annually, the debate over which subjects are the hardest never ceases. The difficulty of a subject can often be subjective, varying greatly depending on individual strengths and weaknesses. In this guide, we're diving into the top 10 hardest GCSEs, shedding light on those subjects that make students and even some teachers break a sweat. Why are these the toughest, and what makes them stand out from the rest?

What are the hardest GCSE subjects?

Certain GCSEs consistently rank as challenging among students, teachers, and educational experts. Factors contributing to a subject's difficulty include the breadth of the curriculum, the depth of knowledge required. In order to succeed in these subjects, students may also require help from an expert GCSE tutor. According to the statistics from Ofqual, these are the hardest GCSE subjects:

1 - GCSE Maths

2 - GCSE Art & Design (3D Design)

3 - GCSE English Language

4 - GCSE Citizenship Studies

5 - GCSE Geography

6 - GCSE Design and Technology

7 - GCSE History

8 - GCSE Psychology

9 - GCSE Business

10 - GCSE English Literature

This ranking is based on feedback from students, teachers, and the overall pass rates. While what makes a GCSE subject "hard" can be subjective, understanding these challenges can help students, parents, and teachers prepare more effectively. These insights can also help the students decide their subjects in their A-Levels or IB Diploma Programme.

Passing rates of the top 10 hardest GCSE subjects

Graph showing the passing rates of the top 10 hardest GCSE subjects

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#1. Mathematics

GCSE Maths stands out as the most difficult GCSE subject that consistently challenges students, drawing on a broad range of problem-solving skills and deep understanding of complex concepts. In 2023, as students returned to the same examination conditions as before the COVID-19 pandemic, the landscape of GCSE results offered a revealing glimpse into the rigour of Mathematics. The following are the statistics for 2023:

  • Total Students: 761,961 students
  • Pass rate: 61.0%
  • % Scoring grade 9: 3.3%

Subject content: GCSE Maths encompasses a wide range of topics, including algebra, geometry, and statistics, demanding both analytical thinking and practical problem-solving abilities.

Here is what an expert GCSE Maths tutor said:

"I've spent a good amount of time teaching and creating GCSE Maths exams. Many people think GCSE Maths is the toughest subject because it's not just about memorising things; it's about learning how to think in a smart way to solve problems. This subject covers a lot of different areas, like algebra, shapes, data handling, and figuring out probabilities. Even though it's seen as hard, doing well in it is definitely possible. It takes a lot of practice, a bit of patience, and a good understanding of the basics. If you're ready to tackle the challenges, you can find a lot of success in GCSE Maths."

GCSE Mathematics demands a robust understanding of abstract concepts and the ability to apply these to various problem-solving scenarios, making it a challenging subject for those who struggle with numerical and spatial reasoning. It is also important to know how to revise for GCSE Maths. Most students also opt for a tutor to help them achieve their potential and have seen significant improvement in their mathematical skills.

#2. Art & Design (3D Design)

GCSE Art & Design (3D Design) is unique. It combines creativity with practical skills, allowing students to explore three-dimensional design ideas across various materials and techniques which many students might find a bit challenging. The following are the statistics for 2023:

  • Total Students: 8,720 students
  • Pass rate: 60.9%
  • % Scoring grade 9: 2.8%

Subject content: This course covers everything from concept development to the final 3D design. Students learn to use different materials and understand design principles.

Art & Design (3D Design) remains a vital subject for those interested in pursuing careers in creative and design industries, encouraging a blend of creativity and technical skill. It requires students to not only possess creativity and imagination but also to understand complex three-dimensional design principles and master a variety of materials and techniques, presenting a significant challenge in balancing artistic vision with technical execution.

#3. English Language

GCSE English Language is notably challenging, requiring diligent study and practice to master. It is the cornerstone of the curriculum, tests students on their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. It's crucial for students to excel in this subject as it lays the foundation for effective communication in both their personal and professional lives. The following are the statistics for 2023:

  • Total Students: 728,210 students
  • Pass rate: 64.2%
  • % Scoring grade 9: 2.6%

Subject content: Includes comprehension, creative writing, essays and analysis of texts, along with spoken language assessment.

GCSE English Language tests a wide range of skills, from nuanced comprehension and analytical writing to creative expression and critical evaluation of texts, making it challenging for students to excel across all these diverse and demanding aspects of the subject. It remains pivotal, ensuring students not only achieve academic success but also develop critical thinking and communication skills essential for their future. The help from a GCSE English tutor proves to be quite beneficial in helping students achieve the grades they desire.

#4. Citizenship Studies

GCSE Citizenship Studies, known for its difficulty, focuses on equipping students with a deep understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a modern society. It encompasses a broad range of topics including politics, law, and the role of the media in society, aiming to foster informed, thoughtful, and active citizens. The following are the statistics for 2023:

  • Total Students: 21,765 students
  • Pass rate: 66.1%
  • % Scoring grade 9: 2.6%

Subject content: Covers political literacy, the justice system, rights and responsibilities, and community involvement.

GCSE Citizenship Studies encompasses a broad spectrum of topics, from understanding complex political systems and legal frameworks to evaluating media influence and societal issues, requiring students to engage deeply with contemporary and historical socio-political contexts. It remains a pivotal subject within the GCSE framework, aiming to develop students' understanding of societal structures and their place within them, thereby encouraging active and informed participation in civic life.

#5. Geography

GCSE Geography, as a subject, presents a unique blend of challenges and learning opportunities, making it inherently difficult yet rewarding within the spectrum of GCSE subjects. The statistics from the 2023 examinations offer insightful revelations about its complexity and the students' performance. The following are the statistics for 2023:

  • Total Students: 279,082 students
  • Pass rate: 64.8%
  • % Scoring grade 9: 4.9%

Subject content: Geography at the GCSE level encompasses a wide range of topics, including physical geography (such as landscapes and natural processes), human geography (covering urbanisation, population dynamics, and economic activities), and geographical skills (like map reading and data interpretation).

The data underscores the challenges posed by GCSE Geography, not only in the breadth and depth of its content but also in the skills required to excel. This subject challenges students with its diverse curriculum that spans physical landscapes, human societies, and their interrelationships, demanding not only memorisation of facts but also critical thinking and the application of concepts to real-world issues.

Number of candidates for the hardest GCSE subjects

Graph showing the number of candidates for the hardest GCSE subjects

#6. Design and Technology

GCSE Design and Technology (D&T), renowned for its difficulty, has shown a notable development in 2023, reflecting the subject's dynamic nature and its critical role in fostering creativity, innovation, and practical skills among students. The following are the statistics for 2023:

  • Total Students: 78,009 students
  • Pass rate: 64.8%
  • % Scoring grade 9: 4.3%

Subject content: It covers a broad spectrum, including product design, textiles, electronics, and food technology. The curriculum is designed to develop a wide range of skills from creativity and innovation to technical and practical abilities.

GCSE Design and Technology combines theoretical knowledge with practical application, challenging students to innovate and problem-solve while managing the intricacies of design processes, materials science, and technological advancements. D&T’s evolving curriculum, aimed at equipping students with the skills needed for the future, alongside the increase in student numbers and pass rates, demonstrates the subject's crucial role in modern education.

#7. History

GCSE History is a challenging journey through time, enabling students to explore a wide range of historical events, periods, and figures. This subject not only provides an understanding of the past but also equips students with critical thinking and analytical skills. The following are the statistics for 2023:

  • Total Students: 293,197 students
  • Pass rate: 63.5%
  • % Scoring grade 9: 5.4%

Subject content: The curriculum covers diverse themes from British, European, and world history, engaging students with both the broad narratives and intricate details of human pasts.

GCSE History requires students to navigate through vast timelines and diverse cultures, demanding a deep understanding of historical events and figures, while also developing the ability to critically analyse sources and construct coherent, persuasive arguments. Despite the difficulty, the subject's prominence within the GCSE curriculum underscores its value to students' education and a lot of students are known to opt for the help from GCSE History tutors, which is known to help boost their grades quite significantly.

#8. Psychology

GCSE Psychology, known for its difficulty, delves into human behaviour and the mind, offering students a glimpse into cognitive processes, development, and the impact of society on individual behaviour. The following are the statistics for 2023:

  • Total Students: 17,986 students
  • Pass rate: 66.6%
  • % Scoring grade 9: 4.4%

Subject content: Psychological theories, studies, and applications.

GCSE Psychology introduces students to complex concepts about human behaviour and mental processes, requiring them to grasp intricate theories and research methods, and apply these to analyse psychological phenomena, making it challenging for those new to the scientific study of the mind.

#9. Business

GCSE Business Studies, recognized for its challenging curriculum, offers an exploration into the world of commerce, covering key concepts such as entrepreneurship, marketing, finance, and the broader economic environment. It aims to equip students with an understanding of how businesses operate and the various factors that influence their decisions. The following are the statistics for 2023:

  • Total Students: 113,458 students
  • Pass rate: 66.7%
  • % Scoring grade 9: 3.7%

Subject content: The curriculum introduces students to the fundamentals of business and management, encouraging analytical and critical thinking about the role of businesses in society.

GCSE Business studies the dynamic nature of the commercial world, challenging students with its wide range of concepts from marketing strategies to financial planning, requiring not only an understanding of theoretical principles but also the ability to apply these in practical and often unpredictable business scenarios.

#10. English Literature

GCSE English Literature ranks as number 10 in the list and is known for its difficulty, examining students' abilities to analyse, interpret, and evaluate a range of texts across different genres and periods. The curriculum focuses on critical reading and comprehension, encouraging deep engagement with literature. The following are the statistics for 2023:

  • Total Students: 594,531 students
  • Pass rate: 73.9%
  • % Scoring grade 9: 3.7%

Subject content: Analysis of prose, poetry, and drama.

GCSE English Literature demands a deep analytical understanding of texts, challenging students to interpret themes, characters, and contexts across a variety of genres and periods, requiring not only critical reading skills but also the ability to express complex ideas effectively in writing. Recognised for its difficulty, GCSE English Literature offers insights into human experiences, cultures, and societies through literary exploration, fostering empathy and critical thinking skills.

Percentage of students who achieved a grade 9 in the hardest GCSEs

Graph showing the percentage of students who achieved a grade 9 in the hardest GCSEs

Best strategies for tackling the hardest GCSEs

Tackling the hardest GCSEs requires a strategic approach focused on understanding content, practising past papers, and enhancing exam techniques. Key strategies include:

  • Understand the Syllabus: Get familiar with the exam requirements and focus on weaker areas.
  • Effective Time Management: Create a revision schedule, dedicating more time to challenging subjects, and don't forget to include breaks.
  • GCSE Tutoring: Consider GCSE tutoring for personalised support and expert guidance.
  • Diverse Study Materials: Use textbooks, revision guides, and online GCSE resources from exam board sites like AQA, Edexcel and OCR for comprehensive understanding and practice. Websites like BBC Bitesize and Khan Academy can also be very helpful.
  • Past Papers: Regularly solve past papers to get used to the exam format and identify common question patterns.
  • Seek Support: Form study groups for collaborative learning and consider tutoring for personalised help.
  • Study Notes: Well-crafted study notes from websites like TutorChase can help understand difficult subjects quite easily.

These strategies aim to balance thorough preparation with mental well-being, setting a strong foundation for success in GCSE exams.

Thinking about what to do after tackling the hardest GCSEs? Discover how our IB tutors and A-Level tutors can guide you in selecting the right subjects to pave the way for success in your higher studies.

Conclusion on the hardest GCSEs

Tackling the hardest GCSEs, such as GCSE Maths, can seem daunting, but with the right approach, it's definitely manageable. The key is to organise your study time well, practise a lot with past papers, and make sure you understand the material by creating detailed notes. If you're struggling, don't hesitate to get extra help, whether from your teachers or a tutor. And remember, taking care of your mental health is just as important as studying hard. With determination and the right strategies, you can succeed in even the most challenging subjects.


Are GCSEs harder nowadays?

There is a widespread perception that GCSEs have become harder in recent years, especially after the introduction of new specifications and a grading system in England in 2015. These reforms aimed to increase the rigour of the curriculum, making exams more challenging to ensure a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Subjects now include more content and demand higher-order thinking skills, such as analysis and evaluation, rather than mere recollection of facts. The grading system, shifting from A*-G to 9-1, also introduced a higher level of differentiation among top performers. These changes, while aiming to elevate educational standards, have led to a debate on the increased pressures on students and the overall difficulty level of the exams.

Can I retake a GCSE if I'm unhappy with my grade?

If you're dissatisfied with your GCSE results, retaking is certainly an option. This is common for core subjects like Maths and English, which are essential for further education and employment opportunities. Retakes for these subjects are available in November and June, offering a second chance to improve your grades. For other subjects, the opportunity typically comes once a year, in June. Planning for a retake involves considering the additional study time required and possibly juggling it with A-levels or other commitments. Schools and colleges often support retake students with additional resources and teaching, but it's crucial to be proactive and dedicated to achieving a better outcome.

Can I study for the hardest GCSEs independently?

Studying for GCSEs independently, including those considered the most challenging, is entirely possible. It demands a high degree of self-motivation, effective time management, and access to quality study materials. Independent study might be especially suitable for mature students or those who need a flexible study schedule. Subjects such as Further Mathematics, Sciences, and Languages require thorough understanding and practice, which can be achieved through textbooks, online courses, and past papers. However, practical assessments in some subjects may necessitate access to specialised facilities or equipment. For exams, independent candidates need to find an exam centre willing to accept private candidates, which may involve additional fees.

What support is available for struggling GCSE students?

Support for GCSE students facing difficulties is multifaceted. Schools often provide extra help through after-school tutoring, revision classes, and study skills workshops. Online resources are abundant, including educational websites, video tutorials, and interactive apps designed to make learning more engaging and accessible. Furthermore, peer study groups can offer mutual support, enabling students to share knowledge and learning techniques. For those who need more focused help, private tutoring is an option, offering tailored assistance and one-on-one support in particularly challenging areas. Educational psychologists and counsellors can also provide strategies for managing exam stress and learning difficulties, ensuring that students have the emotional and psychological support they need.

Why are some GCSEs considered the hardest?

Certain GCSE subjects are often labelled as the hardest due to the depth and breadth of knowledge required, the complexity of concepts, and the rigorous assessment criteria. Subjects like Further Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry demand a strong foundation in mathematical and scientific principles, as well as the ability to apply these concepts to solve complex problems. Additionally, subjects that involve significant coursework, such as Art and Design, can be time-consuming and require a level of creativity and technical skill that adds to the challenge. The perception of difficulty also varies among students based on their strengths, interests, and the quality of teaching they receive. Ultimately, these challenging GCSEs are designed to stretch students' abilities and prepare them for further study in these fields.

Can tutoring help with the hardest GCSE subjects?

Tutoring can significantly benefit students tackling the hardest GCSE subjects by providing personalised attention and tailored learning strategies that might not be feasible in a classroom setting. A tutor can identify specific areas where a student struggles and adapt their teaching methods to address these challenges directly. For subjects perceived as difficult, such as Further Mathematics, Sciences, and Languages, tutors can break down complex concepts into more manageable parts and enhance understanding through practice and feedback. Moreover, tutoring can offer a flexible learning pace, allowing students to spend more time on topics they find challenging without feeling pressured to keep up with the class. This one-on-one support not only boosts academic performance but also builds confidence and fosters a deeper interest in the subject matter. Ultimately, tutoring can be a pivotal resource in overcoming the hurdles associated with the most challenging GCSE subjects.

What are common misconceptions about the hardest GCSEs?

There are several misconceptions surrounding the hardest GCSE subjects that can influence students' attitudes and choices. One common belief is that these subjects are only for "naturally smart" students, discouraging those who may not have an immediate aptitude but are willing to work hard. This mindset overlooks the importance of dedication, perseverance, and the right study strategies in achieving success. Another misconception is that success in challenging subjects requires innate talent rather than effort and practice, undermining the value of consistent study and improvement. Additionally, there's a myth that these subjects offer little practical value, ignoring their critical role in developing analytical, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills highly valued in higher education and various career paths. Understanding that with the right approach and support, anyone can excel in these subjects is crucial to demystifying them and encouraging broader participation.

How do universities view different GCSE subjects?

Universities primarily use GCSE results as an indicator of a student's foundational knowledge and academic potential, especially in core subjects like Maths and English, which are essential for most degree courses. While A-Level grades and the subjects chosen at that level play a more significant role in university admissions, strong performance in GCSEs can complement an application, showcasing a student's breadth of knowledge and ability to excel across a range of disciplines. Some competitive courses and universities might look for high grades in specific GCSE subjects that are relevant to the course being applied for, such as sciences for medical degrees. However, it's also recognised that students have diverse strengths, and excellence in subjects considered 'hard' can highlight a candidate's ability to tackle challenging material. It's essential for students to research specific course requirements and consider how their GCSE choices align with their future academic and career goals.

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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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