Choosing Study Subjects

See also: Supporting Children's Formal Learning

At some stage in their school career, every child has to make choices about what subjects they wish to study.

The choice may be earlier or later, depending on where they live and the school system in which they are studying, but at some point they will have to decide on a direction for study.

It is, of course, up to these young people to make their own decisions. But it is also reasonable that parents consider that they have a big influence on young people. In fact, after teachers, most parents put themselves as the biggest influence on their child. So what can you do to help your child choose wisely and well?

Whose choice is it, anyway?

Research by Future Morph and Family Lives, UK organisations working with children and families, suggests that 81% of parents would encourage their children to study maths and science after the age of 16.

But let’s just remember one thing.

As parents, it’s not your choice. You don’t have to do the work. Your child does.

It is up to them, not you, to decide what they want to study. It is actively wrong to push them in a particular direction because you think it will give them better career options/regret that you didn’t study that subject when you had the chance/want to score one over your sister or friend.

Yes, of course you have a role in advising them. But that’s all. Once they’ve decided, your role is to support them in their decision.

Advise or Support?

As many parents will confirm, it is often enough simply to suggest a course of action to a child or teenager for them to do precisely the opposite.

It therefore seems unlikely that ‘advising’ your child about what subjects are likely to be ‘useful’ is going to be a productive course of action.

Instead, it may be helpful to support them to think through their options, and where these may take them, with a series of questions.

There is more about this approach to parenting more generally on our page Coaching at Home, and you may find it a helpful way of working with your children.

Asking the Right Questions

Suitable questions to help your child to think through their options include:

What subjects do you have to take?

Most schools are likely to mandate at least a few subjects up to age 16, such as maths, English (or local language), and at least basic science. If five subjects are mandatory, that leaves fewer options open for selection, so this is an important first question.

As a sub-question, you may want to ask about whether there is any flexibility in the compulsory subjects. For example, children may have to study science, but they might be able to choose whether they study chemistry, physics and biology separately, or a single ‘combined sciences’.

How many subjects are you allowed to take?

Again, this is an important constraint on the decision, so your child needs to hold this at the front of their mind.

Have your teachers given you any advice yet?

Teachers may gently steer a child away or towards a particular subject, or give them advice about how many subjects to consider. And while teachers’ recommendations are not absolute, this is all important information.

Teachers will also be able to provide information about the syllabus and course content for their subject. This may be a useful pointer to whether the subject will be enjoyable to study. For example, a child who enjoys practical learning may not be so interested in a science syllabus that is heavily based on theory and not experimentation.

What subjects do you really enjoy?

This is probably the most important question of all.

Why? Because we all do better when we’re doing something that interests us.

Your child is going to spend two or three years, at least, studying this subject, depending on precisely when they make their choices. They really need to like the subjects that they’re choosing, as otherwise everyone is going to end up unhappy.

It’s also important that your child’s choice of career is driven by what interests them, not what they think they should be doing. For example, if they say they want to be a brain surgeon, but actually the subjects that really interest them are languages, that should probably ring some alarm bells.

Do you have any idea yet about what career or job you might want to consider and/or what subject, if any, you may want to study further?

If you ask this question, try not to suggest that they should already know what they want to do.

Plenty of adults still have no idea what they want to do, even when they’re already working.

The question is only important if they already have a clear idea, because some careers require you to study particular subjects from quite an early stage.

For example:

  • If you want to study medicine in the UK, you need to have studied chemistry and at least one other science and/or maths at a high level. Doing ‘combined science’ at GCSE is probably not going to be enough.
  • Engineers need to study physics, if possible, and again, joint science may not be enough.

If you know what career or job you want to pursue, are there any fixed requirements for it? And are there any subjects that are really helpful?

This is quite a hard question to answer, but there are some ways that you can help your child to find out more. For example:

  • Ask the teachers at school.
    Teachers usually have a very good idea of the subjects needed for particular courses of study, or even careers, and, if they don’t, they will help you find out where to look;
  • Use the UCAS website in the UK to explore requirements for particular university courses or subjects. Although this site is UK-specific, it will nevertheless give you a reasonable idea of subjects that are particularly helpful for particular courses;
  • Ask people you know in that career or job.  They are likely to have a good idea of what is required, and also how flexible that requirement can be. If you don’t know anyone, use your network of friends and colleagues to try to find someone;
  • Research people in the public eye in that career or job. It is usually possible to find details of their career history, which may provide some helpful pointers.

Don’t worry if, when you’ve found out all about the requirements for your child’s apparently irrevocably-chosen career, they say ‘But I don’t want to study any of those subjects’. It is far better for them to follow their interests than worry about what they are going to do with it later.


Choosing the wrong subject at 13 (or whatever age) will not blight your child’s life for ever.

Nor is academic success the only way to success in life, however you choose to define ‘success’.

There are many routes to success, and some of the most ‘successful ‘people in the world have taken some very strange detours on their way. It is better to relax, and allow your child to enjoy their journey in their own way.