One of the first careers-related decisions you will make is the selection of your option choices around the age of 14. This is your chance to have a say in what you will be doing at school moving forwards and to shape what comes next for you when you finish school.
It’s a very important decision, so it’s essential you understand what your options are and how to make the right choices for you. In this article we will look at some of the things you may want to consider when making your option choices.
What are you choosing?
The options available to you will depend on where you live and what school you go to. Your school will make clear what your options are, which may involve choosing subjects from different ‘option blocks’. You will certainly be studying a set of core subjects, which includes English and maths. Make sure you read the information from your school carefully, so you fully understand what you are choosing and when you have to make your decisions.
It helps to have a clear idea of exactly what you’d be doing in the subjects that interest you. Speak to teachers and current students to get a better picture of each subject. Here are some questions you may want to answer about each subject you’re considering:
- What topics would you be covering?
- How would you be assessed?
- How much homework would you get each week?
- What skills would you be learning?
- What does an average lesson look like?
- What qualification would you end up with?
- What grades did last year’s students get?
It’s really important to ask lots of questions if you’re thinking of taking a subject you’ve never studied before, so you know what it’s really like and whether you’d enjoy it. Do ask questions about subjects you’re familiar with too; studying something at the next level up can be very different. Some subjects might be more practical, whereas others might involve a lot of reading and writing.
It’s important to play to your strengths and pick subjects you are likely to enjoy. When we enjoy what (and how) we’re learning, then we are more likely to do well; picking subjects you like is a win-win!
As well as a choice in subjects, you may have a choice in the type of qualification you will be doing (such as GCSE or BTEC). Different qualifications have different assessment styles (e.g. more exams or more coursework), different grading structures, and different teaching and learning styles.
When picking between different qualifications you should think about how you like to learn and what would most suit you. You can find out about different types of qualifications here:
What should you think about when making option choices?
This article should give you a good overview of things to consider when making your option choices. Make sure you talk to your family, friends and teachers about your choices too. Ask plenty of questions (particularly at school) until you really understand what you are choosing between. Take the time to do some self-reflection and think about where your strengths and interests lie. Consider these questions to get you started:
- What are you good at?
- What do you struggle with?
- What do you enjoy in school?
- What do you enjoy outside of school?
- What do you care about; what matters to you?
- What ambitions do you have for yourself and your future?
Do you have to know what you want to do in your career to make your option choices?
Thankfully, no! You may well have career ideas at this stage, but you don’t have to be able to predict the future to make your option choices. Your choices are designed so you don’t shut down options in the future, which is why you study a range of subjects. The one exception to this is about grades; it’s really important to pick subjects you are likely to do well at. Good grades are the best way to open up lots of career choices! The subjects you are most likely to do well in are those you enjoy and that match your skills. For example, if you enjoy research and reading, and are good at writing, you may do well in subjects like English and history.
If you’re worried that you don’t have any ideas about your future career, you may want to pick a range of subjects in your option choices so you can test out different things and get a better understanding of where your strengths lie. Ultimately, you can just make your option choices based on what you enjoy and are good at now; you don’t have to worry about future careers if you don’t want to.
What if I have future career ideas?
You may have particular subjects you are keen to study moving forwards (e.g. at college or university). If so, then it’s a good idea to pick them as your option choices (if possible), so you can test them out.
If you do have any ideas about what you might want to do in your future career, even if they are quite vague, now is a good time to do some research to find out more. If you know you are interested in a particular university or course, then find out what grades or subjects you might need to to get in. If you are interested in a particular job or profession, then find out what skills and qualifications you might need to do it.
You can look up university courses on the UCAS website and research different jobs ideas here:
Once you’ve found out more about your ideas you will have a better understanding of what subjects might support them. For example, if you are interested in a hands-on job, then you may want to increase your manual dexterity by taking practical subjects. Alternatively, if you are interested in a career as a lawyer, then essay-writing subjects like English literature or history will be helpful to develop skills for legal training.
Whatever your career idea, try to make sure you are picking at least one subject choice that will support you to move forwards. It’s worth noting that you certainly don’t have to make all your choices related to your future career idea. It’s perfectly fine to pick a subject because you enjoy it for now, you don’t have to want to do it forever! You will probably notice that most jobs and university courses ask for good grades in English and maths: there is a reason these are core subjects!
How well do your chosen subjects fit together?
Some people may choose to specialise, such as by taking several creative subjects, whereas others may deliberately choose a wide range of different subjects to keep their options open. Neither approach is wrong, but it is important you think about what you want to get out of this stage of your education.
Are you building up your expertise in a certain area, or trying out as many different things as possible? What knowledge do you want to gain and which skills do you want to develop? What do you want to achieve?
Whatever you decide, make sure you consider what your workload will be like with your chosen option subjects. If you take a number of coursework-heavy subjects, for example, you will have to dedicate a lot of time to keeping up with the workload. Ask teachers or current students for an honest assessment of how many hours (outside of your lessons) it takes to stay on top of everything, then reflect on how manageable that might be for you. How many commitments do you have outside of school? How easy do you find it to motivate yourself to do your homework? Don’t sign up for subjects that require a lot of self-motivation and additional work if you haven’t got the time, energy or appetite for it!
Whatever subjects you pick, make sure the balance is right for you. Your subjects, taken together, should cover all the things you are interested in and allow you to develop skills that will be useful in your future. Your mix of subjects needs to work for you.
What if you get it wrong?
People often worry about getting their option choices wrong, but thankfully decisions made at this stage are unlikely to impact your career in a negative way in the future. It is important to do your research though (in the ways described in this article) before you make your final choices, so you don’t get caught out further down the line.
The most common mistake is to choose subjects that you don’t really enjoy. It’s very important that you make sure you understand exactly what you will be doing in each subject you’re considering (so you avoid any unpleasant surprises!). You should also be honest with yourself about where your strengths and interests lie. Of course it’s fine to take a subject you would like to improve in (that’s the point!), but it generally isn’t fun to study something you’re really bad at.
In terms of interest, it’s helpful to consider whether you would truly enjoy studying something, rather than doing it in your free time. For example, someone may really enjoy being creative when they have complete control over what they are creating, but may not enjoy studying Art GCSE when they have to fulfil a brief they don’t have a say over.
Ultimately, you want to pick subjects you are still going to feel motivated about several years down the line; studying something you care about will help you to give it your all.
What if you get stuck?
If you get stuck make sure you talk to someone; don’t suffer in silence. If you’re struggling to work out what you’re interested in and what you’re good at, then your friends and family should be able to help you out. Other people sometimes see things in us that we struggle to see in ourselves, so ask people who know you well what they think your strengths and interests are. Your teachers will have a good idea about your skills and abilities in their subjects, so make sure to talk to them before you make your decisions. If you’re struggling to picture what it would be like to take a particular subject, then you might want to borrow a textbook or revision guide to have a look at the topics and content you would be covering (although please don’t be put off if it looks difficult!).
Whilst research and talking to people are very helpful things to do when you are trying to decide on your option choices, this is a personal decision and you are the person who knows your own mind best. Sleep on it and then ask yourself this in the morning: what do I really want? Remember you are trying to find the subjects you would most enjoy taking and are likely to be successful at. If you can manage that, then you won’t go too far wrong!
- The options available to you will depend on your school; make sure you understand what you are choosing and when you need to decide
- You may have a choice over the type of qualification you will be taking as well as the subject; make sure you understand all the details so you can choose things that suit you
- If you know you want to study something in the future (e.g. at college or university) it is a good idea to pick that subject as one of your option choices now
- If you have a particular career idea then do your research to make sure you are picking subjects that will help you in the future
- Make sure your subjects balance well together, so you can cover all your interests, but not overload yourself with work
- The most important thing to remember is to try to pick subjects you will most enjoy studying; when we like something, we work harder and do better!
Polly Wiggins, March 2022
As a fully-qualified freelance career consultant, Polly has supported young people with their career choices in schools, colleges and beyond. As well as delivering career guidance, Polly produces resources to support people at all stages of their careers, helping them to make successful choices.