The hardest IGCSE subjects that’ll challenge even the smartest students

hardest IGCSE subjects

Many students are familiar with the Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education, better known as IGCSE.

As of 2024, it’s one of the most popular international qualifications in the world for 14 to 16-year-olds, providing a pathway to advanced qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) and A-levels. 

The IGCSE is taken in over 150 countries and nearly 6,000 schools worldwide, offering over 70 subjects in any combination. But not all subjects are created equal.

Some of the hardest IGCSE subjects cover current world events and trends, such as economics, computer science, entrepreneurship, and more.

There are two options for each course:

  • IGCSE Core: The curriculum is within the ability range of most students and provides a full overview of the subject. Students can expect to achieve C to G grades. 
  • IGCSE Extended: Designed for the more academically able, who want to achieve A* to E grades. It contains extra topics and depth that may pose as academically challenging to most. 

Despite these offerings, many have come to the realisation that the IGCSE may be in desperate need of an overhaul. 

hardest IGCSE subjects

The IGCSE was founded over 30 years ago, and it’s about due time for an overhaul. Source: AFP

The IGCSE is an archaic system

“Outdated” is perhaps the most suitable way to describe the IGCSE. At its core, it’s a standardised testing system that uses a one-size-fits-all approach to assessing an individual. 

While the system has paved the way for students to advance academically into programmes such as A-levels and IB, several opposing factors must be considered:

  • Limited recognition 

While the IGCSE is widely recognised around the world, there are some countries that, despite offering it in schools, still have universities or companies that do not accept its results. In such cases, students may face challenges when applying for further education or jobs.

  • Cost

The exams are expensive, averaging around US$380 per subject. This can be a barrier for students who need to retake their exams or intend to take multiple subjects. 

  • Punishing for some

A high-stake test like the IGCSE punishes those who do not have access to an adequate and equitable education. Some poorly-funded schools or rural areas may experience a lack of books, libraries, and other resources such as laboratories and computers.

  • Limited local context

The IGCSE is an international qualification, which means that it may not always include local or national curriculums in its syllabus. It can be difficult for students who want to learn about their country’s history, culture, or current affairs.

  • Heavy reliance on final exams

Results are primarily based on final examinations rather than projects or continuous assessments. This can serve as a disadvantage to students who do not perform well under exam conditions.

Aside from these factors, there has been an argument that an exam at the end of a two-year study period is not the best for personal and professional development. 

An alternative qualification that better measures broader skills would be better preparation, as compared to a narrow range of mostly academic subjects. 

Good grades are commonly viewed as a measure of academic achievement, but the importance of soft skills is increasingly recognised as a crucial factor for professional success. After all, soft skills play a more significant role in shaping one’s career and overall life experience. 

A McKinsey survey reported that companies upskilling empathy and interpersonal skills doubled at the start of 2020. Skills like leadership, adaptability, and management are now a much bigger priority for companies, increasing by 10% yearly. 

Unfortunately, the IGCSE does not emphasise such. Instead, it remains an age-old system that binds young students down to memorising most of their textbooks to pass their exams, causing unnecessary stress and imposing limitations. 

hardest IGCSE subjects

High school is supposed to be the best years of your life, but that can be soured by the IGCSE. Source: AFP

The negative effects of the IGCSE exam on students

When you ask a student about their favourite time in school, it’s likely that they won’t mention their examinations. 

Students will recall meaningful experiences, such as friendships, activities and projects, learning outdoors or carrying out research – all of which still demonstrate and apply their learning. 

The practice of being forced to condense two years’ worth of studying into a single paper is archaic. It can only result in dissatisfaction, stress, and even anger, even more so when it comes to grappling with some of the hardest IGCSE subjects. 

A Reddit user describes the IGCSE as such: “I love how every single one of their exams is nothing but raw memorisation and learning the patterns in questions doing every single possible released paper before your exam.” 

It cannot be denied that high-stakes testing has a psychological toll often, students who do well in their IGCSE pay a steep price emotionally and psychologically. 

Some turn to caffeine or an unhealthy diet, and others suffer from poor sleep quality or go through their days with a form of existential dread. Some might fall sick while exam-prepping, which will inevitably impact their performance during their papers. 

The issues don’t stop there.

On the day of the exam, individuals may experience test anxiety, knowing that their entire future lies in the sheet of paper that lies before them. Girls experiencing their menstruation cycle may suffer from cramps, migraines, nausea or a lack of energy, which further affects their ability to take their exams with a clear head. 

It’s clear that academic pressure plays a significant role in students’ stress. Adolescents, in particular, are a high-risk group in terms of psychological health – anxiety and depression symptoms can be found in one in five students

That statistic, while shocking, also serves as a harsh wake-up call.

We should not be expecting adolescents to be able to navigate their stress easily, especially when people twice or three times their age are still learning more about mental health as a whole. If a grown adult can succumb to burnout and stress, what more can be said about a child?

If you wish to avoid feeling the negative effects of a high-stakes exam, perhaps consider not taking some of the hardest IGCSE subjects available. 

hardest IGCSE subjects

We know that physics, biology, and chemistry are hard. But have you considered art? Source: AFP

The hardest IGCSE subjects that aren’t just science

The term “hardest” can be somewhat subjective – ultimately, it heavily depends on individual strengths and weaknesses. However, some subjects are universally acknowledged for their rigorous content and intricate examination structure, such as science subjects, foreign languages, or history. 

It’s crucial to select the right mix of the hardest IGCSE subjects, as it can significantly impact a student’s academic journey, future prospects, and personal health.


Even the most artistically inclined IGCSE students struggle with art and design. 

The eight-hour-long exam tests a student’s knowledge, understanding and application of creative processes in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional media. Unfortunately, it also has an incredibly harsh grading system, and is known to be extremely subjective. 

A common complaint is that the rigorous coursework and preparation take up so much time that it starts to affect other subjects.

A Redditor even said, “You think you know art? No, you don’t. I got an E in Arts even when I spent my whole life learning art and winning prizes.”

Another said, “When I once loved art, now all I remember is the trauma – it took my life over like a virus.”

Additional Mathematics 

Regular math is already hard. Add math is gruelling. 

Of course, scoring well in this subject will definitely add value to your college and university applications, as well as create a strong foundation for A-level or IB courses. It’s not a subject for everyone, though.  

For the unprepared, the content covers concepts that are difficult to grasp and are only meant for those who are willing to put in a good deal of practice and independent study.

Many students do not usually opt for this subject, as the chances of failing are significantly higher. It’s only recommended for those intending to pursue maths as a degree or a degree that requires having knowledge in math.

hardest IGCSE subjects

Literature will have students exploring Shakespeare’s works, such as Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Macbeth. Source: AFP



Regular IGCSE English is hard enough, even for native speakers, but IGCSE Literature takes it to a new level. 

Even if you’re an avid reader, the course is not a book club – you don’t just read books and talk about them. 

It explores the aesthetic of written language and requires students to explore 16th-century texts, modern prose, drama, and poetry. Students can expect to see Shakespeare’s work and explore themes, characters, and plot development to demonstrate their comprehension of literary texts. 

But the hardest aspect of the subject is the unpredictability of the exam content. They will consist of texts that students have no prior knowledge of and test their understanding of literature’s cultural and historical contexts.

hardest IGCSE subjects

Mandarin is tricky, because one wrong tone and you’ve called your mother a horse. Source: AFP

Modern Foreign Languages

Most students opt for one foreign language for their IGCSE, but some challenge themselves with two. There are a few language options for this module, including Arabic, French, Spanish, German, and Italian, but they may vary depending on regional contexts and your school. 

Some countries make it mandatory for students to take up a language, especially if it’s the national language. Malaysia, for example, requires IGCSE students to pass IGCSE Malay in order to enter university. 

Learning a new language is always difficult, especially if it involves foreign characters like Mandarin. Students will be tested on all four major language skills: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. 

On top of these tests, students have to learn about contexts, such as countries and communities where the language is spoken, or to learn how it’s used in different situations. 

Mandarin, in particular, is challenging – the language is renowned for its complicated characters and tonal nuances, making it a difficult subject for non-native speakers. But it is one of the most spoken languages in the world, and learning it will provide a gateway to diverse cultures and perspectives. 

Computer Science

Even though Computer Science is considered to be one of the hardest IGCSE subjects, it’s still highly popular due to its ever-increasing relevance and scope. Of course, when the average base salary is around US$151,508 a year, it can be hard to pass up. 

The subject involves a lot of mathematics-related content, in addition to an extensive syllabus and pretty challenging questions that require critical thinking, logic and reasoning. 

Of course, coding is involved, and students have to be proficient – the only problem is that the syllabus uses its own code, aptly named IGCSE pseudocode, instead of using Python, which has much more general use.