A Levels, AP or IB: Which Curriculum will help you get into Top Universities?

31/10/202312 minute read
A Levels, AP or IB: Which Curriculum will help you get into Top Universities?

Getting into university has become increasingly competitive and with thousands of applicants each year, top institutions are looking for those candidates who prove that they can handle an international curriculum workload. But, which classes should you take to get to your dream university?

Here, we will delve into three internationally recognized programs – A Levels, International Baccalaureate (IB), and Advanced Placement (AP) – to assist you in navigating your educational journey.

Comparing A Levels, IB, and AP

A-Levels, IB and APs are academically challenging and are considered the highest high school options students can take. The end result for all of them is an independent document certifying that a level of achievement higher than a high school diploma has been reached, helping students to apply to top universities. But despite the similarities there are certainly significant differences between them.

A-levels are developed by the UK government using predominantly British content but adapted for the international market. The IB is an international organization and it aims for its students to be globally aware, using international resources and content. AP courses are an American-based high school curriculum, developed by the US organization College Board with predominantly American content.

Course Overview: A-Levels, IB, and APs
CurriculumTraditional Age RangeSchool YearNumber of subjectsExams
International GCSEs and A Levels14-18Year 11-Year 134-5 (minimum)External, offered 2-3 times a year
International Baccalaureate 16-18Year 12 and Year 136 subjects plus 3 papersOne cumulative external exam at the end of 2 years with some internal weightage
Advanced Placement15-18Anytime in Grades 10-12Varies in addition to high school classesExternal offered once a year

3 Key Distinctions to Guide Your Choice: AP, A Levels, and IB

1. A Levels, IB, and AP: Curriculum Structure

A Levels: Building a Foundation

  • A Levels commence in Year 11, where students delve into a comprehensive selection of subjects, laying a strong foundation.
  • Progressing to Year 12, the curriculum further bifurcates into AS Level and A2 Level. Typically, students opt for 4-5 AS Level subjects and 3-4 A2 Level subjects.
Learn more about our Pearson Edexcel online GCSE and A Level Programme.

IB Diploma: A Holistic Approach

  • Geared towards students aged 16 to 19, the IB Diploma consists of six subjects, with three or four at Higher Level (HL) and the rest at Standard Level (SL).
  • Beyond academics, students engage in Theory of Knowledge (ToK), Extended Essay (EE), and the Creativity, Activity & Service (CAS) Project.

AP Courses: Enhancing Academic Rigor

  • AP courses serve as supplementary, college-level programs. Many students opt to self-study these year-long subjects in addition to their regular coursework, demonstrating their commitment to academic excellence.
Learn more about how you can take part time AP Courses to boost your college applications.
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2. The A Levels, IB, and AP: Assessment Methods

The International GCSEs are 100% externally assessed through a set of examinations at the end of your study. The same is true for most AS and A Level subjects besides arts courses like Drama, Music or Photography. There are usually two exam dates in the year giving students flexibility based on their schedule. Plus, this gives students the opportunity to re-sit exams if they feel they have underperformed.

The IB Programme is unique in that final scores are a combination of internal and external assessment. Internal assessment often takes the form of long-term projects such as papers, reports and presentations and comprise between 15 and 25% of your final IB score for that subject. The rest of the IB is externally assessed, mostly in the form of one cumulative exam at the end of your second year of study.

The APs are completely externally assessed through one standardized examination at the end of the academic year.

3. The A Levels, IB, and AP: Grading Systems

During an examination series for the International GCSEs and A Levels, students sit a number of individual exams (known as papers) for a single subject. Each paper has a specific weighting defined in the syllabus of every course. The weighted average of these papers will be the student’s final grade.

Pearson Edexcel International GCSEs are awarded using the new nine point grading scale (9–1), introduced by the UK government to raise standards and recognise top-performing students. As part of this new system, each student’s raw mark is scaled on a bell curve against the performance of all other students taking the exam. Simply put, this means that you don’t have to get 90% of the questions correct to end up getting a 90% on your report card. Your scores are relevant to those of your peers.

In the IB, each academic subject is scored out of 7, with 7 being the highest possible score. The assessed components of the DP Core are scored on an A-E scale. CAS is a Pass/Fail requirement of the IB Diploma. Thus at the end of the IB Diploma Programme you will receive a score out of 45, with 42 of those attributed to academic subjects. Depending on the combination of your scores for ToK and EE, you will receive between 1-3 points, bringing the total possible score to 45.

The British Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has developed a tariff system that helps compare IB scores with equivalent A Level grades. An IB score of 38 points out of a maximum of 45 is equivalent to five 8-9 grades at A-level. A score of 30 IB points reflects 6-7 grades at A level.

AP exams are scored on a scale of 1-5. Many US and Canadian universities give college credit for scores of 3 and above in the AP exams.

A Levels vs IB vs AP: Advantages and Disadvantages
International GCSEs and A Levels- Most well-recognized globally - Structured curriculum from Year 11-13 - Flexibility of subject selection - Multiple exam dates through the year - Lighter course load compared to IBs - Limited subject selection by traditional schools
International Baccalaureate - Globally recognized - Prepares students for university rigour - Well-rounded education with many components - Heavy course load - Longer course over two years - Lack of flexibility
Advanced Placement- Get college credit in high school - Boosts university application - Allows students to explore interests- Not as well globally-recognised - Not as easy to score on the exams
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A Levels vs IB vs AP: Final Thoughts

Which programme is most recognized globally?

While all the three curricula discussed above have global recognition, the A Levels are probably the most well-renowned with the widest reach. International GCSE and A Levels are studied in over 10,000 schools by over a million students in 160 countries. Over 1,400 universities worldwide recognise A Level qualifications. They are accepted by every UK university, by 600 universities in the US (including all the Ivy League universities) and in many other major student destinations, such as Canada, Australia, Singapore, South Africa, Germany and the Netherlands. To compare, over 5,000 schools worldwide offer the IB curriculum and AP courses are offered by many US curriculum schools around the world.

Which programme can help you get into top US/UK universities?

Top universities in both countries recognize all three of these curricula. However, there is a level of familiarity that universities might have with their own country’s curriculum. This does not mean that you will not get into US universities with A Levels or IB, or vice versa. If you are looking to challenge yourself, the IB would be the more rigorous. The A Levels, on the other hand, give you a level of flexibility while challenging you and allowing you to score your best due to their exam structure. If your school does not offer an international curriculum, taking part-time AP classes can help enhance your university admissions profile.

Which programme is right for you?

The programme that is right for you should be the one where you feel most comfortable as a student. If you are looking for a more flexible curriculum that allows you to pursue a variety of subjects while having multiple exam date choices then the A Levels are the perfect choice for you. On the other hand, if you are looking for a more rigorous programme, then the IB is the right choice. The APs are also rigorous as they are college-level courses.