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What is it? The study of just about anything. The subject is divided into three areas: culture, society and science. Under society, you might look at homelessness or political ideologies; under culture, you might compare religions or discuss rap music; under science, astrophysics or environmental pollution might be on the agenda. The key is to be able to form opinions about all these topics – and back them up coherently.

Why do it? Often you won't have the choice. Schools and colleges tend to enter whole year groups for the subject, or not offer it at all. A good grade can often supply those vital extra UCAS points to ensure students get on to their chosen university course. It is also very good for developing analytical skills. "It makes students think laterally and join things up," says Pat Turton, chair of examiners for general studies at OCR. "A good grade is an excellent indicator of a student's final degree outcome."

What skills do you need? The emphasis is on critical thinking. It helps if you have an open mind and the ability to play devil's advocate with your own beliefs. Unsupported views, however strong, will not go down well with examiners. The ability to structure your arguments well is also vital.

How much practical work is there? None, unless you do experiments as part of your science coursework.

Ratio of coursework to exams: There is the option of doing coursework at both AS and A2-level. If you are with the OCR board, it is worth 20 per cent. With Edexcel, it counts for a third of your final mark.

Is it hard? "It's rigorous," says Turton. "Students have to answer questions in all areas, so science students may struggle in the arts-based topics and vice versa. As far as the exam is concerned, it's not so much a case of revising as preparing. You must read a good newspaper throughout the course. You can't do a two-day wonder before the exam. This subject is a marathon, not a sprint."

Who takes it? As whole-year groups are often entered, there is an even split of boys and girls taking the course. It's very popular at independent schools.

How cool is it? It's up to you. If you study the Edexcel syllabus, you have a free choice for your coursework topic, so you could write about anything from rap culture to gay marriage to human cloning.

Added value: With the help of this subject, you need never lose an argument again, and you can become the champion of the pub quiz.

What subjects go with it? All of them – but geography, sociology and biology are especially helpful.

What degrees does it lead to? General studies gives you the opportunity to dip into philosophy, psychology, law and sociology while you are still at school. Many students decide to take these subjects at university as a result.

Will it set you up for a brilliant career? Tim Akrill, chair of general studies examiners at Edexcel says: "Because it is wide-ranging and develops skills rather than knowledge, it fits you eminently well for the modern world."

What do the students say? "I enjoy the society topics," says Fraser Hamilton, 17, an A2 student also studying sociology at Branston Community College, Lincolnshire. "We have guest speakers every week. The best talk so far was by someone from Save the Children, about children's rights. But general studies is not that popular with my classmates, because not enough universities will accept it as an A-level."

Which awarding bodies offer it? AQA, Edexcel and OCR.

How widely available is it around the country? It's very widely available. General studies is currently one of the most popular A-levels.