A collection of articles from The Red Pen team
on wide ranging topics related to studying abroad

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How to select your subjects wisely

by Originally Published in The Hindustan Times Education Supplement

Students in 10th standard are busy preparing for upcoming board exams. But for many, an additional looming turning point is subject choice for the 11thand 12th standard. As I meet students who are facing this decision, I have found that there is a lot of misunderstanding about which subjects you should choose and why.

Subject choice decisions tend to be most difficult for IB and A level students, but even students heading for ISC and HSC need to understand the implications of their subject streams.

The main source of misunderstanding on this topic stems from the idea that at such a young age, students should choose courses of study that will help them in their career, which is arguably five to six years away from 10th grade. Instead students and parents should be asking “what am I good at?” or “what will I enjoy studying for the next two years?” Answers to these questions will guide subject choices in a way that will enable students to engage with their learning and excel in their studies.

Of course subject choices do matter when thinking about college-level studies. The subjects that will impose the highest number of limitations are engineering and medicine and then less restrictive is business or economics.

Students interested in studying medicine in the UK (remember in the US medicine is a post graduate course), will face the highest number of requirements and restrictions in terms of what they should have studied by 10th and 12th. If this is the path you are on, plan early and check the requirements for each college’s medicine course carefully. Among entry requirements you can expect are chemistry, math and biology.

For students interested in studying engineering anywhere in the world it is almost always required to have studied higher level math and physics.  There are some exceptions to this, for example if you want to study chemical engineering you might need to study chemistry also. If you’re planning to study in the UK, entry requirements are clearly listed on the university website including the course and the expected marks. If you do not meet the requirements for the UK courses, you will not be admitted. It is simple. For the US the requirements are less clear only because the requirement are often given according to US high school scheduling norms. So, for example Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering requires students to have one year of biology in between 9-12th grades, but that is a far lower requirement than an IB HL biology subject. So if you had biology in 10th, it may be enough. But again, as a rule, math and physics are safe choices if you are looking at engineering in the US.

If you are interested in studying business or economics the only subject that is really required is math. Even economics is not required to study economics at the best universities in the world. And if you are looking at top programs like Wharton or London School of Economics you must demonstrate a high level of math skill – think HL Math, Additional Math, AP Math, etc.

Besides these courses in medicine, engineering and math, other courses, even at the best universities, do not typically have specific entry requirements. For example you can be a successful law applicant in the UK as long as you have taken challenging classes and done well in them.  Or a successful applicant into history at Stanford as long as you can demonstrate the potential to manage the academic requirements once you arrive on campus. Oftentimes courses, especially in the UK, do not name specific subjects for entry requirements, but they will specify a score – for example you must achieve an overall 39 in the IB with a 7, 6, 6 in higher level subjects.

If you are facing subject choices in the coming weeks, don’t panic. Even if you miss an entry requirement, there are usually course of study which are very close – for example instead of economics you can take economic history, if you haven’t met the math requirements. If you do well in a complimentary course at a good university, you will still likely have excellent career scope in the future.

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