A Levels or IB: What is the right choice for you?

16/12/20208 minute read
A Levels or IB: What is the right choice for you?

If you want to study an international curriculum, chances are you have a variety to choose from. Recognised globally for their rigour, it is not easy to decide which curricula is right for you. Here we help you compare the most commonly studied international curricula - the A Levels and International Baccalaureate (IB).

A Levels and IB 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.

A Levels vs IB: Course Overview
CurriculumTraditional Age RangeSchool YearNumber of subjectsExams
A Levels16-18Year 11-12 AUS / Year 12-13 NZ4-5 (minimum)External, offered 2-3 times a year
International Baccalaureate 16-18Year 11-12 AUS / Year 12-13 NZ6 subjects plus 3 papersOne cumulative external exam at the end of 2 years with some internal weightage

3 Key Differences between the A Levels and IB you need to consider

1. The A Levels and IB curriculums are structured differently

The International GCSE pathway is fairly straightforward and starts in Year 11 or earlier with students sitting up to six subjects. These subjects are structured as first introductions to the specific topic areas that they cover.

In Year 12 students move on to the A Levels that are further broken down into two parts: the AS Level, called “Advanced Subsidiary”, (usually done in Year 11 AUS/Year 12 NZ) and A2 Level (typically done in Year 12 AUS/Year 13). Traditionally, students take 4-5 AS Level subjects and then go on to take 3-4 of those subjects at the A2 Level. Students can add on a research program with the EPQ.

The IB Diploma is for students aged 16 to 19 and has 9 compulsory components to graduate. Students have to take six subjects with three or four at Higher Level (HL) and the rest at Standard Level (SL). In addition, all students have to study Theory of Knowledge (ToK), Extended Essay (EE) and Creativity, Activity & Service (CAS) Project.

IB is a very structured course. Students must study six subjects from at least 5 subject areas: English, a second language (mother tongue for non-English native speakers), Mathematics, a Science, a Humanities type subject and then either an Arts type subject (e.g Music, Visual Art) or a 2nd science or humanities. A Levels are less prescriptive. Students can choose any combination of subjects. They can take a very specialized course (e.g. Mathematics  and 3 sciences) or a very broad course.

Learn more about our A Level Programme

2. The A Levels and IB use different assessments components

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. There are usually two exam dates in the year giving students flexibility based on their schedule. Plus, this gives students the opportunity to resit exams if they feel they have underperformed.

The IB Programme is different 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.

3. The A Levels and IB are graded differently

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 determine the student’s final grade. International GCSEs are graded from 9 - 1 and A Levels from A*-U

A similar process is used to produce IB grades with the key difference being that internal assessment components are added to the examination components to produce final subject grades. Each academic subject is scored out of 7, with 7 being the highest possible score. 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 and up to 3 points from the Theory of Knowledge (ToK), Extended Essay (EE).

What are some advantages and disadvantages of each curriculum?

A Levels vs IB: Advantages and Disadvantages
A Levels- 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 cumulatively over two years - Lack of flexibility

A Levels vs IB vs AP: Final Thoughts

Which programme is most recognized globally?

While both 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.

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

Top universities in both countries recognize both 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 provides a programme that requires students to study a wider range of subjects and includes compulsory elements like ToK and the EE that go beyond just studying academic subjects. 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.

Which programme is right for you?

The program 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. They also allow more freedom of subject choice with a variety of exam dates available throughout the year. On the other hand, if you are looking for a more demanding program, then the IB is the right choice.