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Secrets of Subject Selection

Updated: Jun 24


High school is all about making good choices. Who to be friends with? What sports to play? What extracurriculars to be involved in? But one of the most important choices that you have to make is which subjects to study.

Choosing the right subjects can play a big role in helping you discover new interests, advance your strengths, prepare for university and pursue specific career paths. But there are so many subjects available for students to choose from. 

For example, at CGA, as a fully certified online high school, we offer an impressive selection of Edexcel A Level subjects that you can take (click here to learn more about what A Levels are, and here to learn more about how they compare to other common curricula including IB and NCEA):


· English Literature

· Mathematics

· Further Pure Mathematics

· Biology

· Chemistry

· Physics

· History

· English

· Psychology

· Business Studies

· Economics

· Information Technology

· Languages: French, Spanish

With so many options, how do students even begin to choose the subjects they'll study in high school? Here at CGA, we have compiled the top 5 tips that our students and Crimson alumni – who have gone on to attend some of the world’s top universities including Harvard, Yale, and Duke – wish someone had told them about choosing subjects in high school. 

Define what success means to you

This first tip is pretty self-explanatory. You have to know what you want in order to get it. Too often, high school students follow along a track of what they think they ought to do instead of actually what they want. I have seen too many friends who would have excelled at subjects like music or history choose to load up on science or economics classes because they have felt pressure from others (school advisors, friends, and even parents) to do so. But if we don’t know what success means to ourselves, we can end up choosing a combination of subjects that don’t suit us, ultimately pursuing someone else’s version of success. 

Knowing what success means to you is hard. I know this because it took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to get out of the subjects I was taking during high school. At first, I had pegged success as what my practical Asian parents instilled in me (pick all the science subjects at the most difficult level) and what my school emphasized (academic achievement – getting all A* grades etc). But, as high school wore on, I began to think deeply about what I wanted to get out of my classes at high school. 

I realized that my definition of success did not come from continuing to do what I was good at. It meant pushing myself out of my comfort zone and learning valuable lessons as a result. After completing all three A Level sciences a year ahead of schedule, I deliberately chose not to take more subjects that required analytical thinking like STEM. 

Writing had always been one of my weaker subjects throughout high school. At least in the short term, I realized that success to me meant improving my writing. So, even after having completed A Level English Literature, I picked up AS and A Level English Language in the same year in my last year of high school. The doubly intensive writing load further refined my skills. With English Literature, I had been confined to analyzing Shakespeare and Dickens novels, but with English Language, I had the opportunity to explore other forms of writing like blogs, news articles and short stories and had a lot of fun. 

The boost to my confidence in writing was crucial as I was writing personal essays for US university admissions at this time. By choosing my subjects to be more aligned with my idea of success, I was able to get the most value out of my learning. 

How you can apply this when choosing subjects:

Discovering what success means to you is no easy ask. It might make it less intimidating to think about it in terms of setting specific goals for yourself and why you’re setting these goals. No matter what, the process requires a lot of personal introspection.

Some common metrics of success that could guide your subject selection are:

· Achieving a specific grade (for example, getting at least A in all your A Levels)

· Preparing for a specific field of study/career

· Nurturing interests in different areas

· Meeting the requirements for University Entrance (for more info on achieving University Entrance with the International A Levels, check out our blog here)

Some or all of these metrics might make up your own personal definition of success. What’s most important is that you think deeply about it in order to choose the subjects that best align with your goals. But especially when it comes to subject selection, it can often feel as though achieving one goal means making sacrifices in other areas of your life. That brings us to our next tip…

Finding balance

It’s all well and good to want to do every subject and be the leader of every single club at school. But it's just as important to be realistic about the time and energy we have. Balance is important in our daily lives and cannot be more critical than in selecting your subjects.

We need to find the right balance between ambition and reality, knowing when to push through taking high level, difficult subjects and knowing when to be mindful of your own limits. 

When I was given the opportunity to take AS Level Chemistry one year ahead of schedule, I did not take it up straight away. From talking to friends in the years above, I knew that AS Chemistry was notoriously difficult, especially for someone like me who that hadn't taken IGCSE Chemistry as preparation. I even started out that year in an IGCSE Chemistry class. However, after talking to more teachers, mapping out my course load and thinking back to my definition of success, I decided to go ahead with AS Chemistry because it maximized achieving my ambitions while still being realistic with my ability. 

Students who do not emphasize balance in their subject selection often end up overworked, and may do so poorly on a subject that they have to re-sit it. Or, they end up not meeting their full potential and miss the opportunity to lighten their load during their last year of high school to take extra subjects or NZQA Scholarship subjects. 

Luckily, if you enrol in CGA, you will receive help from our world class team of academic advisors to assist you in choosing the combination of subjects that best work for you.

We also need to choose subjects such that there is a good balance between things we are passionate about and things that are practical for university entrance, further study or career prospects. I’ve seen too many people regret taking the subjects that they took during high school either because they only focused on studying the subjects deemed most useful for their future (like STEM or economics) or they only took subjects they were interested in, realizing too late that they don’t actually meet the minimum requirements for the university degree program that they’re interested in. 


How you can apply this when choosing subjects:

Balance can be a difficult thing to achieve, especially because what balance looks like for you can shift from one month to the next as unexpected events, responsibilities and commitments arise and disappear. 

But here are just a few ways to help you find your balance:

· Talk to teachers, classmates and older students about the balance of classes you’re looking to take

· Book an appointment with your school dean or academic advisor 

· Write down all your extracurriculars and other commitments and see how they fit in around your academic workload

· Carefully check the subject/grade requirements of all university degrees you’re interested in applying for to make sure you meet these requirements

· Don’t give up on your passions while choosing subjects

· Take all advice from others with a grain of salt – nobody has lived through the exact same circumstances as you!

· Quality over quantity – it’s more important to excel in the subjects that you do end up taking than to take an overwhelming number of subjects and achieve mediocre results in them

Broaden your horizon

While it’s important to strike a balance in your studies, you should also set some time and subjects aside for exploration. There is so much knowledge out there to learn that it doesn’t make sense to only take subjects from one specific topic area. High school is the perfect opportunity to explore some of these interests.

All throughout high school, I have been passionate about STEM and loaded up on science subjects (except for English which was required by the school). But I had always been fascinated by history. I enjoyed spending hours reading Wikipedia pages on historical events. 

After putting it off for some years, I decided to broaden my horizon by picking up history in my last two years of high school. I only took the subject to AS Level. Even then, it was a refreshing change from my rigorous science classes. It also disproved the myth that I had that history was all about memorization. 

In AS History, we learnt about historiography and how history is interpreted. Prior to taking history, I had never considered how the exact same historical events could be interpreted in completely different ways depending on the evidence historians select.  

How you can apply this when choosing subjects:

High school is a great time to broaden your horizon by choosing a diverse set of subjects. You should be looking to take on new experiences that will help shape you to be a more well-rounded learner.

Here are some tips to broaden your horizon:

· Take a subject you’ve always wanted to learn more about but never had the opportunity to

· Write down a list of everything enjoy/ don’t enjoy and begin mapping out some avenues for exploring subjects

· Check out subjects that are similar to ones you have taken already and enjoy

· Look for other ways to take subjects that you’re deeply interested in learning more about but your school does not offer (CGA offers a wide range of online A Levels that you can take online in addition to your normal schooling)

Learning how to learn

One thing you will realize is that the content of each subject has very little use after school unless you pursue a specialized university or career path like medicine. We’ve all wondered “when are we ever going to use this in the real world” while learning some obscure concept in high school. 

But the point of high school is not always to learn the subject material to the letter. Instead, it is a process of learning how to learn, developing the good study and retention habits needed to succeed in whatever further study or career path you choose. 

One of the most valuable things I have learnt during high school is how to effectively self-study. Due to having difficult course work and teachers with poor teaching ability, I was forced to essentially teach myself the content in the majority of my classes. The experience helped turn my learning into a self-driven experience. I learnt how to manage my time as well as how to structure my learning. The benefits of learning how to effectively self-study was far more useful to my pre-med studies at Harvard than any of the specific subject content I had learnt during high school. 

So, when choosing your subjects, keep in mind that it’s not only the subject that you’re learning but also:

· Self-study and time management techniques

· Note taking and revision techniques

· Critical and Analytical thinking 

· Essay writing and formulating academic arguments 

· Teamwork and collaboration

Are you rethinking some of your subject choices now? Think you might want to take more International GCSE, AS or A Level subjects to get into your dream university? Luckily, with Crimson Global Academy, you can now study and sit International GCSE or International A Levels online from anywhere in the world.

CGA offers both full-time and part-time enrolment options, so whether you want to stay enrolled in your current school and supplement your core studies with additional Pearson Edexcel International GCSEs or A Levels, or you’re looking to join a school where you can take unlimited International A-Levels to accelerate your learning far beyond your peers and apply some of the tips in this blog, we have an option for you. 

With dedicated teaching staff averaging 20+ years of teaching experience and a streamlined online learning platform, CGA will give you all the resources you need to (ed)EXCEL in your schooling. Download our prospectus to find out more about all the IGCSE subjects that CGA has to offer, and talk to us today about whether CGA could be right for you!

If you enjoyed reading this, check out our other blogs for great insight into the high school and college experience. Comment below to let us know what you’d like us to talk about next in our blog series!


About the Author


Ben Zhang is a member of the Crimson Global Academy Marketing team and a third year student at Harvard University studying Molecular and Cellular Biology with Statistics. He studied Cambridge A Levels at Macleans College in Auckland, New Zealand, where he was Dux two years in a row, achieving top in New Zealand marks for AS Level Physics, A Level Chemistry and English Literature and top in the world for A Level Biology, along with the "Best Across Three Cambridge International A Levels in New Zealand" award from the Association of Cambridge Schools in New Zealand (ACSNZ). Ben was a NZQA Premier Scholar in the NZQA Scholarship Examinations two years in a row with Top Scholar awards in Chemistry and Physics. Ben also represented New Zealand at the International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO) and International Biology Olympiad (IBO), winning a Bronze Medal in IChO and a Gold Medal in IBO. You can reach Ben at b.zhang@crimsoneducation.orgfor any questions or feedback about this blog.

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