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What options do I have after taking my GCSE exams?

When you reach 16, you're suddenly faced with some decisions to make. Up until GCSEs, your path has pretty much been mapped out for you. But after all those years of school, you now have some choices. 

The first thing to remember is that, if you live in England, you have to be in some form of education or training until you're 18. 

But even with that in mind, there are still plenty of options. At 16, it can be difficult to know what you want to do in your career and unless you have your sights set on something in particular, knowing what to do next can be tricky. In this article, we’ll explore some of the options that you have after taking your GCSE exams.

'What are my options after I finish my GCSE? Check out this post to find out'

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1. Stay on at school or college

A-level students
A-levels are a good option if you're planning on going to university

If you intend to continue down the academic route and go on to further education, then you’ll need to gain A-level or equivalent qualifications. Although universities will look at your GCSEs as part of their application process, A-levels are what they're mainly interested in. So if you have your heart set on a career that requires you to have a degree, then you’ll need to continue studying for your A-levels.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to stay on at school. Some students decide to study for their A-levels at college, either full-time or part-time. If you feel that you really need a change of scene but you still want to continue studying, then applying to take your A-levels at college can be a good way of gaining some independence while experiencing a different learning environment.

On that note however, most people say that their best years at school were their last two. As an A-level student, you’ll be one of the older pupils in school, which means you’ll be given more responsibility and a bit more freedom in your studies.

Other options

A-levels are a popular option, they're what most students do when they stay on at school or college after finishing their GCSEs. There are other courses you could consider, and many are looked on just as favourably by universities:

  • Other academic options include the International Baccalaureate (IB), which is a popular and well-regarded standalone course, and Cambridge Pre-Us, which can be combined with other qualifications, such as A-levels.
  • Applied courses combine the theory of an academic course with skills-based, work-related learning. The BTEC is probably the most well-known; it comes in different levels, from certificate, which is equivalent to half an A-level, to the extended diploma, which is like studying 3 A-levels.
  • Vocational qualifications such as NVQs, technical levels and certificates, and the new TechBac are a third alternative. These qualifications are geared towards those who are looking to train for a specific role in the workplace.

If you live in Scotland, your main option will be Scottish highers, not A-levels.

2. Apply for an apprenticeship

Science lab apprentice
More and more apprenticeships are becoming available

One alternative to staying on a school is to look for work-based training opportunities. If you have a specific career in mind and you want to earn while you learn, then an apprenticeship could be the best career move for you.

As an apprentice, you’ll have the opportunity to experience working in a specific industry while gaining the knowledge you’ll need progress into specialist roles in the future. Apprenticeships are ideal for students who are ready to start working and know what type of industry they’re best-suited to.

Many apprentices gain a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ), which enables you to work in a particular role. Apprenticeships typically last between one and four years, so you’ll need to be willing to commit to working in that industry for at least this length of time and most probably for some time after too.

It’s worth bearing in mind, that if you’re still unsure about what career you’d like, you may not be ready for an apprenticeship just yet as it may limit your options in the future, unless you want to re-train. There are plenty of high-skilled apprenticeships available as an alternative to university, and some of them even allow you to study for a degree. However, these are usually only available to students with A-levels or equivalent qualifications.

If you're interested in one of these more high-skilled programmes, take a look at our articles on higher apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships.

3. Look for a job

If you’re certain that education isn’t for you, then you could consider looking for a job. Just because you don’t want to stay on at school, that doesn’t mean that you won’t be successful in your future career. Some of the UK’s wealthiest business-people left school at 16, working their way up in a company or starting their own business.

Because you have to be in some form of education or training until you are 18, if you do get a job, it will need to offer vocational training or you'll need to study part-time. 

Making the leap from school to work can sometimes take a bit of getting used to and we’d suggest that you do some research into budgeting, so that you know how to manage your money responsibly.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that just because you choose to start working, it doesn’t mean that you can’t go back to education in the future. People decide to take their A-levels or study for degrees at various ages.

Remember, there’s no such thing as the "right" career path.

If you're still not sure what you want to do next, we'd recommend having a think about what you want to do in your career, and planning your next steps around that. Take a look at our article on What job should I do? for some help with this.

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Image credits

Lead imageA-level students via Thomas Tallis School's Flickr page, Science lab technician via Wikimedia Commons