Choosing your degree course is one of the most important decisions you will ever make. Your UCAS application is only the beginning of the experiences you’ ll have at university, the people you’ll meet, and even the career you’ll one day choose.
In this article, we’re going to cover the hardest degree subjects, because it is important to have a realistic idea of how challenging your degree will be before you take it.
If you arrive with misconceptions about how easy the material will be, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the course material.
However, if you know what to expect from your course, you’ll be able to look forward to university with excitement at the challenge ahead. When it comes to pursuing your passion, it is important to be well informed, and to give yourself time to prepare well in advance!
What are the hardest degree subjects?
The hardest degree subjects are Aerospace Engineering, Law, Chartered Accountancy, Architecture, Chemistry, Medicine, Pharmacy, Psychology, Statistics, Nursing, Physics, Astrophysics, Biomedical Engineering, Astronomy, and Dentistry.
Let’s dive right in, and look at why these courses are the hardest degree subjects.
Aerospace Engineers study the design, manufacturing and testing of aircrafts. The study can be divided into aeronautical, astronautical, and avionics. Studying aerospace engineering opens the door to many integral careers in today’s society and allows you to work with aeroplanes, jets, missiles, spacecrafts, and satellites.
It is an extremely rewarding subject, but there is a reason it is one of the most difficult degrees. You must be skilled in multiple mathematics principles, including calculus, trigonometry and algebra, as well as having apt design and writing skills. The subject is based in practical applications, so you must also have good critical thinking and problem solving abilities.
To study Aerospace Engineering at a degree level, you will be expected to perform at your best ability even before applying. For example, to study the subject at Imperial College London, one of the top 10 universities worldwide, you would need two A*’s and one A at least in your A levels or equivalent examinations. In your first two years you would need to develop a strong grounding in aerodynamics, lightweight structural mechanics, and flight mechanics and control before tailoring your studies in the following years.
Some modules you may study include aerodynamics, aircraft design, mechanics of flight, management of business, and airframe and flight dynamics. You should also expect to study general engineering principles.
Whilst it is a rigorous degree, Aerospace Engineering is a rewarding and challenging path, and you should be ready to work hard if it is something you want to pursue!
Law is officially the hardest subject to get a first class degree in4, so we all know it’s hard going. If you think you know what it’s like to have a lot of reading, go and talk to a Law student. Except that you probably won’t find any, because they’ll be in the Law library, reading. If you want to study Law, get ready for many, many hours with your nose in Law books.
While you’ll learn fast how to pick up the vital details from masses of text, there are no shortcuts when it comes to Law. You’ll need a detailed understanding of the legislature on different issues in different countries, surrounding, so that you can interpret them well when it comes to exams.
However, Law isn’t just about memorising the details of legislature, enormously useful though this is. You also have to understand how these facts work together to create a system of law, and why this system exists in the first place. While you can enter a wide range of careers with a degree in Law, the path to becoming a barrister or solicitor is extremely competitive, and takes much longer than a three year degree. All in all, it takes six years to qualify as a lawyer in the UK if you study full time, which includes a one year Legal Practice Course (LPC), and a two year training contract with a law firm.
The pressure is really on for getting work experience as a Law student, especially if you want to qualify as a lawyer. Use your summers wisely to get internships at law firms, and if you’re aiming for the Bar, go for as many mini-pupillages (short periods of time where you shadow barristers) as you can. However, if you’re really passionate about Law, most of this process will be very exciting, as you head towards your dream career.
Chartered Accountancy is the realm of accounting that is officially accredited by trusted bodies, including the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. One of the reasons this is a difficult degree to undertake is that it includes a three year accountancy degree, followed by up to three more years of training, or a longer degree that is accredited by the right bodies. Students often say that the hardest part of the process is waiting for the day they become fully accredited,as this can take many years, and there are no milestones along the way to fill the gap.
An accounting degree sets students on a strong career path in business and finance, but in order to gain the benefits, students of accounting must have a comprehensive understanding of the field. You must have good mathematical skills as well as, often, computer science skills. Your degree will require you to have good analytical and problem solving skills, as well as background knowledge– or the willingness to learn– business management and economic principles.
As an accountant you will also be expected to understand tax regulations in regards to individuals and businesses, as this will be an integral part of your career. In accounting, there is no room for mistakes. This, combined with the intense skills required and the longer course length, is why accountancy, particularly Chartered Accountancy, is such a difficult subject. That being said, studying accountancy at degree level opens you up to a world of professional possibilities, and if you are determined to pursue the subject could offer long-term profitable results.
Architecture is one of those degrees that we wish was easy. Who doesn’t want to wander around the city, pointing out a stunning building and saying: “I built that”?. But the truth is, Architecture is extremely challenging, and in some cases, as hard as a medical degree in terms of length and intensity.
Sadly, Architecture is not just sitting around drawing cool design plans. You have to be good at maths, and have enough understanding of geometry, trigonometry and algebra to plan out the dimensions, quantities, volumes and areas of buildings. Not only this, but four years of an Architecture degree is only the beginning of becoming a professional architect.
Once you’ve completed your degree, you’ll need to do a year of practical work experience, another two years’ full time university course like a BArch, another year of practical training and a final qualifying exam. While this might seem daunting, it is worth it if you have a true passion for architecture. There are also plenty of other careers you can use an Architecture degree for even if you decide not to become a fully chartered architect, including a building control surveyor, an urban designer or an interior and spatial designer.
Architecture degrees are known for having substantial workloads, and tasks are very time consuming. You’re likely to spend more time building physical models and designing floor plans in time for deadlines than partying at the student bar. Architectural drawings can take hours to create, which leads to some late night studying. In the US, Architecture college students suffer from the most sleep deprivation, averaging just 5.28 hours a night.
Ben Sweeting, Architecture course leader at Brighton University says: “It’s hard to do very well [at Architecture] and hard to pass. There are no perfect designs or ways of working, but wrong ways of working. It can also feel more personally challenging than other arts subjects, as your creative vision has to work in practice”.
While Architecture is a creative subject, unlike other creative subjects like English Literature, you can’t pick up marks by defending a subjective idea. In Architecture, if your design doesn’t translate to infrastructure that is mathematically accurate and physically sound, it’s a write off.
Chemistry is famous for being one of the hardest subjects ever, so it’s no surprise that a Chemistry degree is fiercely challenging. Just one topic in Chemistry (for example, organic chemistry) is incredibly complex. As well as involving huge amounts of memorisation, organic chemistry covers more than 15 million compounds, and there are an infinite amount of organic chemical reactions to investigate.
Then, take the fact that Chemistry has multiple topics as well as organic chemistry, including inorganic chemistry (which involves learning about molecular orbital theory, acids and atomic structure) and physical chemistry (which you need to be a maths whizz to understand), and you get the picture.
If you were to study Chemistry at a top university like the University of Oxford, your weekly schedule would look something like this: 12 hours of labs, 10 hours of lectures, 1 Chemistry tutorial and tutorials in Maths, Biochemistry or Physics, where you’ll learn things you can apply to Chemistry.
Chemistry is one of those subjects where you have to have an advanced knowledge of maths and physics, because these subjects tie so much into Chemistry. If you struggle with mathematical and logical thinking, Chemistry may be the degree to avoid.
Also, there’s a lot of practical learning involved in Chemistry, which means that when you’re not trying to get your head around macromolecules and redox reactions, you’ll be spending the rest of your time in the lab. This brings with it a whole new skillset, including writing lab reports and carrying out complex experiments, to put your learning into practice.
It’s no secret that Medicine is one of the hardest degrees in the world, not least because courses are so competitive. UCAS figures show that 29,710 people applied to study medicine in the UK in 2022. The number of applicants from the four countries of the UK shot up 3.5% from last year.
With acceptance rates for Medicine at only 12.1% (Oxford University) and, in some cases, as low as 5% (Aston Medical School, Birmingham), the course is undoubtedly rigorous.
The process of training to be a doctor is a long one, and you’ll need the ability and dedication to complete a five year degree in medicine, recognised by the General Medical Council, a two year foundation course of general training, two to three years of core medical training and four to seven years of specialist training, depending on what area of medicine you want to work in.
The sheer volume of medical information you have to learn and assimilate to be responsible for people’s lives is the reason that studying Medicine takes so many years. Not only do you have to grasp the complex science behind medicine and disease and memorise enough medical facts for several lifetimes, you also have to gain excellent clinical skills, so you can work with patients.
Pharmacy is one of the least well known degrees, and one of the most extraordinarily challenging. Not only will you immerse yourself in the complex science and makeup of medicines, you’ll also have to do many hours of clinical placements, to learn how to become an experienced healthcare professional.
Pharmacy is one of the toughest subjects because it encompasses practically every part of science. Just one science subject is hard (we’re looking at you, Chemistry), but for Pharmacy you need an understanding of inorganic and organic chemistry, as well as biology in order to understand human anatomy, and how medicines interact with it.
Not only is Pharmacy very intellectually challenging (get ready for a lot of time in labs and trying to grasp very complex formulas), but it is also a very practical course. If you studied Pharmacy at University College London (UCL), for example, not only would you have lectures, problem-solving classes, clinical seminars and tutorials, you’d also have clinical placements, skills workshops with patients and visits to hospitals.
To qualify as a registered pharmacist in the UK, you’ll have to do more training after your degree. You’ll need to take a year of pre-registration training, and then pass the GPhC’s tough qualifying examination.
Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind, particularly in relation to behaviour and functionality. As with some of the other degrees mentioned, psychology is challenging due to the rigorous academic expectations in a number of fields, not just one. You will need to be skilled and interested in both the scientific and social aspects of psychology, including biology and evolution, social anthropology, politics, philosophy, and sociology.
There are numerous avenues that you can specialise in when studying a psychology degree, and you will be expected to become familiar– at least– with them all, which could include subjects such as Social and Developmental Psychology, Neuroscience and Cognitive Function, and Experimental Psychology.
To study this subject at the University of Cambridge– one of the top universities in the world– you need at least A*AA at your A levels or equivalent. It is possible that a written test will be required for admission, so your background knowledge of psychology and sociology must be at the standard that you could competently answer a case-study related question before even beginning the degree. At Cambridge, the course load would include numerous lectures, classes, and a particular focus on coursework during your three years. As a practical subject, your coursework skills must be excellent, as your final year includes a 7000 word research paper on a topic of your choosing.
Not only is the academic side of Psychology difficult, but the practical application of your degree once you leave school is also challenging. In order to study the subject, and get the most out of your degree, you must be a well rounded individual who is prepared to take on all aspects of the course.
Statistics, or statistical science, is the study of data. A statistician uses mathematical principles to determine what types of data are needed in numerous different scenarios, how to collect such data, and how to appropriately analyse data in order to answer specific questions. If that sounds slightly ambiguous compared to other degree outlines, it’s because it is. Statistics is a degree that is applied across hundreds of careers: data analytics, financial risk analysis, operational research, economics, financial trading, as well as general statistical analysis.
Statistics in itself and how to apply statistics in a useful manner is a hard concept in itself to grasp, and the degree is made harder through the rigorous academic expectations that are set. When studying Statistics you must be adept in calculus, linear algebra and probability, strong computer science skills, analytical and problem solving skills, and matrix methods. What distinguishes statistics from other analytical subjects like computer science is that you also need excellent communication and people skills, as a key part of the practice is being able to accurately and succinctly interpret and convey data on a large scale, often to people who may not be as well versed in data analysis.
Applying to study this subject at university requires high grades, at least three A* at A Level or equivalent with one being in Mathematics. You will be expected to reinforce your mathematics skills in the first year, before expanding and specialising in later years. At the University of Oxford, for example, your typical week in first year would be around 10 lectures a week, with 3 tutorials. First year is identical to a mathematics degree, and you must be prepared for this. In your third and fourth year this could rise to as many as 12 lectures and 4 classes per week, not including hours spent on final year projects.
Statistics is a highly sought after skill, and having a degree in the subject increases your employability in a number of areas. That being said, there is a reason it is one of the hardest degrees, as studying it requires a range of skills from mathematics to communication.
As with Medicine and Dentistry, Nursing is one of the hardest degrees, for good reason. As a nursing professional you would be responsible for the health and care of a number of patients. Good programmes take a rigorous and immersive approach to prepare you for patient care. You will have pressing deadlines, lab skills to master, and essential exams to undertake. It is an exhaustive practice, but highly rewarding.
At degree level you will be required to learn both the practical skills of nursing and the extensive background knowledge. As a nursing student, you must be able to understand the concepts of equity, equality and diversity and how they apply to healthcare. You need to grasp the global context of environmental determinants of health, as well as having the basic understanding of bioscience and its application to nursing. The large amounts of theoretical and practical knowledge highlights the difficulty of the degree.
If you were to study Nursing at King’s College London, the top nursing school in the UK, you would need three B’s at A Level or equivalent, with their preferred subjects being Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Psychology. One of the hardest parts of this degree is the independent work, and collaborative work with colleagues across multiple disciplines– not only will you need to have good background knowledge and quick recall, you also need to be able to confidently identify health problems on your own, and work as a team when necessary.
Nurses are essential to our society, and provide care to the most vulnerable. This is why studying to become a nurse is one of the hardest degrees. Heavily based in practical placements and lab skills, alongside background knowledge in biomedical science, this degree is a challenge you must be ready to commit to.
Physics is an astoundingly rigorous degree. It’s one thing to find the general ideas of Physics interesting (after all, who wouldn’t be interested in a subject which explores the very make-up of the universe, from the mystery of black holes to the waves of the electromagnetic spectrum?). But it is quite another to dive into the mathematical principles, complex formulas and calculations within each area of Physics, and apply them enough to excel in your exams.
There are no shortcuts to understanding Physics, which is what makes it such a hard degree. The truth about STEM subjects like Maths and the Sciences, is that while there is plenty of information, as well as plenty of formulas, to memorise, it’s not enough to know the correct answer to something. You need to understand why and how it is the correct answer. While you might just get away with rote learning equations and formulas in A-Level Physics, this won’t fly at degree level.
One of the most important things to know about a Physics degree is that if you’re confused, you’re doing something right! What this means is that to truly understand Physics (rather than just find out the answers to solutions without understanding their application), you have to sit down and sweat it out over those formulas, and accept that the answer is going to take a long time to come. Allow yourself to make mistakes, and then go back and work out how you got to those mistakes, and slowly, your understanding will grow.
The huge amount of mathematics in Physics can pose a challenge to students. The fact that one wrong calculation can affect your whole conclusion when it comes to Physics problems means that it is probably not the right course for you if you’re not competent at Maths.
Physics is a truly satisfying degree, once you accept that it’s going to take a while to grasp the subject. Researchers work for a decade or more in the field, and just feel like they’re scratching the surface, which is part of the beauty and frustration of this challenging subject.
Astrophysics is the branch of physics that studies objects outside of our solar system, a combination of both Physics and Astronomy that covers subject matter from planets and stars to galaxies and blackholes. Astrophysics specifically looks into the interactions between astronomical objects and their interactions with physical conditions, including gravity.
Astrophysicists must have a good grasp on physics, astronomy, and maths. If one of these subjects is your weak spot, you will find astrophysics difficult, as the interaction between these disciplines is crucial to the subject.
At degree level, you can expect to study in detail: quantum physics and electromagnetism, quantum mechanics and relativity, particle and atomic physics, cosmology, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and specific mathematics techniques in depth including multivariate calculus.
If you were to study Astrophysics at St Andrews you would need three A’s at A Level or equivalent, and two of these must be in Physics and Mathematics. You can expect to be part of multiple schools, at least the schools of Mathematics, Physics, Astronomy, and possibly Statistics.
The complex and at times vast subject matter you will be expected to handle is one of the reasons that Astrophysics is considered one of the hardest degrees. It is extremely specialised, and you must have a passion for the subject and be dedicated to your degree in order to succeed. This being said, there is a reason some of the greatest minds in science chose to study this subject– including Stephen Hawking. Astrophysics explores extremely complicated subject matter, but all to the aim of hopefully understanding our universe better!
Once again, Biomedical Engineering is a degree that requires the study of many subjects all at once. The subject itself requires the problem solving skills of engineering with the aim of developing new technology and equipment to improve human health.
The subject is a combination of biology, chemistry, computer science, physics, mathematics, and medical science. This interdisciplinary field of study requires the ability to tackle medical and engineering principles together– a tricky combination of two subjects that are incredibly hard studied alone.
Not only must you have a scientific mind, but you also need the ability to create and innovate, as you will be working at the forefront of medical discovery. In addition to designing new equipment– such as pacemakers, insulin pumps, and printed organs– biomedical engineers also develop new drugs and treatments for diseases like cancer and heart disease. You must understand the same subjects that would be studied in a medical degree, while also pursuing answers from an engineering perspective.
To study the subject at a top institution such as Imperial College London, you need at least A*AA in your A levels or equivalent qualifications. In the first two years you will be learning both the biomedical background, and taking a module in professional design. You will have the option in your final years to specialise in either Bioengineering, Electrical Bioengineering, Mechanical Bioengineering, or Computational Bioengineering.
It is clear that Biomedical Engineering is an extremely challenging subject. It is also highly rewarding, so if this is the degree you wish to pursue you must be ready to undertake a large interdisciplinary course-load, and have the willingness to adapt to multiple specialties.
An Astronomy degree involves studying one of the most advanced branches of physics (Astrophysics), which gives you a clue as to how hard it is. Like with any hard science, astronomers have to make falsifiable predictions about space and the universe, which they have to test in a controlled environment.
Sciences like Astronomy necessarily involve a lot of failure, as you continually experiment with hypotheses to try and reach a conclusion. It’s not the same as just having an idea: if you can’t follow through with it, it’s not worth much.
There’s also a lot of mathematics in Astronomy, which is enough to put many students off. You’ve got to have the logical skills to do basic special relativity calculations, as well as understanding differential equations and linear algebra.
However, if you love exploring space, stars and the planets and the very complex mathematics and physics behind them, Astronomy may well be the subject for you.
Dentistry, like medicine, is an important profession, and if you wish to study it at university you must be prepared to undertake high volumes of both theoretical and practical work.
You need an interest and background in biology, chemistry, and mathematics, as well as having the fine motor skills required for dentistry.
Dentistry is a hard degree for both its content, and its competitiveness. There aren’t as many universities that offer dentistry as there are that offer medical sciences, so you must be dedicated to the degree before even applying.
King’s College London have one of the best dental schools in the UK, and their entry requirements include A*AA in your A levels or equivalent, with Biology and Chemistry required. The integrated nature of many dentistry courses, including this one, means that your taught science will directly relate to clinical practice, and clinical teaching will be underpinned by scientific understanding.
Some of the hardest classes at dental school include oral surgery, periodontics, and prosthodontics, classes that require– once again– both a firm medical background knowledge and excellent motor skills. To choose dentistry, like choosing medicine, is deciding early on what professional field you will head into after school. It is far more rigorous than a typical degree, and has real world consequences. Make sure you are certain that this is the field you want to pursue before you commit, as there is a reason dentistry has a reputation as a difficult subject.
So, that’s it. The 15 hardest degree subjects of 2022/2023. Each one of these degree courses is fascinating, challenging and rewarding, so if you have the skills and passion to study them, you will no doubt have a very exciting university experience. Don’t be put off by the challenging nature of these degrees: be prepared!