A reflection on the IGCSE and IB course selection

Author: Jeffrey Harmon -  Director of University Counselling


With course selection coming to a close for our Year 9 and Year 11 students, I’ve been reminded of the many questions that pop out every year from our families. For the benefit of all our families, I want to recap some of the major questions around the course selection process in three main areas: impact on university applications, flexibility if a student changes their preferences, and how parents can support. 


Course selection is a process
First and foremost, I want to reassure all students and parents that there is a process in place to guide students to understand their options, explore different pathways, and reflect on which choices are suitable for them. This is a collaborative effort that involves not only the University Counselling Team, but also Form Tutors and Heads of Year, our Deputy Head of Senior School (Academics) and IB Coordinator, subject teachers, and older students. In addition to these formal events, students also have the opportunity to reflect on their personal choices through one-on-one discussions, as well.



What is the impact of course selection?
Course selection is an important step in students having control over their education pathway. Universities look at the subjects a student has chosen for Key Stage 4 (IGCSE) and Key Stage 5 (IB Diploma Programme or IBDP Courses) as the first indicator of a student’s academic preparation for further study



At the most basic level, universities look at a student’s achievement in foundational subjects such as IGCSE mathematics, science, and English to make sure they have passed (generally a score of at least C or 5). University admissions officers will also consider IB subject choices and KS4 elective choices because these choices convey a lot of information regarding a student’s interests, goals, and breadth and depth of knowledge.


Many universities will have specific entry requirements based on IB course selection. Such requirements may include a minimum number of total points, points from Higher Level subjects, and even required or recommended Higher Level subjects. 

  • Universities in the UK list explicit entry requirements for all programmes of study and expect students to be aware of them when making IB subject choices. 
  • Universities in Canada, Greater China, Japan, Australia, and the Netherlands tend to list the lowest threshold, but some majors/programmes of study will be highly competitive and may require additional tests, interviews, or higher final IB scores. 
  • Universities in the USA and South Korea, on the other hand, rarely list specific entry requirements but instead assess the full academic record (known as a transcript) for breadth, depth, and rigor across all subjects. These universities, therefore, can oftentimes be the most flexible in admitting students with a wide range of academic performance, but also have the vaguest entry requirements.


What if I change my mind?
It is normal, and in fact expected, that students will change their mind about what they want to study or which professions to pursue as they are exposed to more options. We do not expect students to have fully decided these in Year 11 or Year 9, but we do expect students to invest time in reflection to determine a general direction


Because courses in KS4 and KS5 are two-year courses culminating in an external examination, students cannot make changes to a course selection in the middle of the year. However, our IB courses do not have narrow prerequisites, so students can pick up a new subject in IB. For example, a student may choose to study Geography and Liberal Arts in KS4 and then decide to take Psychology in IB. Subject teachers will provide Year 11 students with feedback about which courses would provide the appropriate level of challenge. 




Students who settle on a new direction in the middle of their IBDP have a few different options. Depending on how drastic the change, the student may need to make changes to which universities to apply. Students who find their IB courses selection doesn’t meet the standard entry requirements may be eligible for a Foundation programme in the UK or a Pathways programme in the USA. These programmes allow students to take classes in areas of weak performance, or that the student was unable to take during the IBDP in order to prepare for university study. 


How can parents help?
There are many ways for parents to positively help in both big and small ways, but here are three top tips.

  • Don’t close any doors too early. While there are many benefits to having a sense of direction, deciding that direction too early can also be harmful. One of the most important things a parent can do is to expose their children to a wide variety of professions, study options, and fields of study. Narrowly focusing classes or extracurricular activities in KS3 or KS4 (and earlier!) can prevent students from developing a well-rounded foundation. 
  • Talk openly with your children. Regular conversation, such as at the dinner table or during downtime in the evenings, is powerful. Share with your children about your professional life and how you continue to learn or upskill. If you attended university or post-graduate studies, share those experiences, too. Even if your children will study in a different environment or a different field, being more aware will only help. These conversations should begin well before Year 11. 
  • Instill a value system. A change in career is almost inevitable for your children; many predict they will change career paths/industries multiple times, let alone changes of jobs across companies or possible entrepreneurial stints. With so much change on the horizon, it is essential to equip our children with the ability to assess options and make decisions based on their own value system. What factors determine a “successful” or “good” life? How important is routine and structure versus freedom and flexibility? Is it assumed your children will return to Beijing for their adult professional life?


In summary, the course selection process is built upon a strong collaboration among students, parents, teachers, and the university counselling team. While this is a significant milestone in the education journey, there are many possible combinations that will lead to success later in life, so students and parents should not get overly anxious. As the popular saying goes, “Change is the only constant.” Therefore, it is important for students (and their parents) to remain open-minded and adaptable as they move on into their adulthood.