All About the International A-Levels
International A Levels are an educational pathway available in some of the top high schools in New Zealand. Many studying this pathway will go on to gain admission into some of the world’s top universities like Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge.
Most students and parents would have heard about A Levels from one place or another, but I bet very few people actually know exactly what this pathway entails. For starters, did you know that International A Levels come in different “flavors”? The most common “flavor”, or assessment provider of A Levels, is Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE, formerly known as CIE) – run by the University of Cambridge.
But Cambridge is not the only assessment provider out there. Edexcel is an assessment provider for International GCSE and A Levels run by Pearson plc, one of the world’s largest education publishing companies, and the flavor of choice for Crimson Global Academy (CGA), New Zealand’s first and only fully certified online high school.
We’ve already compared the Edexcel content, exams, and global recognition against Cambridge, IB and NCEA in a previous blog series. This blog will provide a deep dive into what the International A Level pathway is all about, the kinds of subjects on offer, how grading works, and how you can use it to gain entrance to NZ and international universities.
To provide some context, the International A Levels are based on the UK high school education system. Edexcel and Cambridge are just two different organizations that provide an internationally adapted version of the British high school education to a global student base.
Edexcel and Cambridge subjects are very well-designed and follow a logical, structured syllabus with all the learning goals a student should expect to master over the course of their A Level qualification laid out. You can easily check out the syllabus of a subject you’re interested in taking by googling “Edexcel International A Level Geography syllabus” or “Cambridge International A Level Physics syllabus.”
The A Level is broken down into two parts: the AS Level and A2 Level:
The first year of your A Level qualification is known as the AS Level with a set of examinations at the end of the year.
The second year of your A Level is known as the A2 Level with another set of examinations at the end of the year.
If you choose to take an AS Level subject and its exams without sitting the A2 Level the next year, you won’t complete the A Level qualification and instead receive just the AS qualification. This can be used towards University Entrance (UE) in New Zealand.
Typically, students take 4-5 AS Level subjects in their second to last year of high school. They will then go on to take 3-4 of those subjects at the A2 Level, often taking extra subjects at AS Level to fill up their timetable (without completing the full A Level) in their final year of high school.
While this is the typical timeline for studying A Levels, if you’re interested in competing for spots at the top US universities, not even 4 A Levels will be enough for you to stand out from the competitive applicant pool.
Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, I was fortunate enough to be in the Macleans College accelerate program where I took 4 Cambridge International AS Level subjects (Maths, English Literature, Chemistry and Physics) in Year 11 (NZ, Year 10 Aus, 10th Grade US) and then studied those 4 subjects at the A2 Level the next year (my second to last year of high school), while also picking up AS Biology.
Because I had finished 4 A Levels already during my second to last year of high school, I was able to finish up A Level Biology, take AS and A2 English Language in 1 year, and pick up AS History for self-interest.
Being accelerated in my studies significantly reduced the stress of my final year - as I knew that I already have 4 A* grades at A Level locked in for University. Meanwhile, my non-accelerate friends were stressing over taking 4 A2 subjects in their final year with those grades fully determining their university entrance.
Having already completed a number of A Levels before my last year meant that, in my final year, I had more time to study for standardized tests like the SATs and ACTs (required for US university admission), study and sit NZQA Scholarships, boost my extracurricular activities and refine my US university applications. I believe the free time gave me a huge lead over other students in the university application process scrambling to finish their A Levels, sit standardized tests and apply for university.
But, accelerate or competency-based learning programs are extremely school dependent and not accessible to all students. Enrolling in Crimson Global Academy’s part time Edexcel A level program can help you boost your academics and reduce the pressure of your final year of high school by spreading your high stakes A Level exams during your last two years of high school. This is especially relevant for admission into some of the top US/ UK universities that expect students to sit 6-8 A Level subjects to demonstrate their academic ability.
Taking 6-8 A Levels is not realistic for most students enrolled in a brick and mortar high school. If CGA was around when I was in high school, a lot more of my friends would have had the opportunity to unlock their full academic potential and pursue university study overseas.
Most students will progress onto the Edexcel/Cambridge International AS or A Level pathway after taking the subject at IGCSE level. This is often the recommended path as IGCSEs give you the necessary foundation for advanced A Level coursework. But this is not required, and bright students may choose to take the AS Level subject without having taken the IGCSE subject before.
However, there is often a big jump in difficulty from Edexcel/Cambridge International GCSEs to AS Level coursework. This is because AS Level demands you to think much more deeply about the content and to synthesize what you have learnt to solve problems in unfamiliar circumstances.
This jump is often not well known to students. I remember in Year 11, the deputy principal held an assembly to warn students to make sure that they’re fully prepared to take AS Chemistry after taking only IGCSE Combined Sciences as students have failed the class in the past due to underestimating its difficulty.
There is not as big of a jump from AS to A2 as most students regard both to be of similar difficulty and A2 is just another year of learning new content as students finish up their Edexcel/ Cambridge International A Level qualifications.
Luckily, there are a wealth of resources readily available for Edexcel/ Cambridge A Levels, including:
Youtube video tutorials
Other helpful websites
These resources are so useful that I often found that I was more productive self-studying at the back of the class at my own pace than following along to teachers that have to cater to a class of 30 kids and were often less informative than the textbooks I was reading. CGA’s flexible online learning model allows for self-paced learning and small class sizes for impactful teacher interactions, something that I wished I had throughout high school.
Assessment and Examinations:
Besides a few arts subjects like Drama, Music or Photography, almost all Edexcel/ Cambridge AS and A Level subjects are externally assessed. Exams are offered in June and November for Cambridge and June, October and January for Edexcel.
While most students sit one set of exams each at the end of AS and A2, you have the opportunity to resit exams at one of the other testing dates if you feel like you underperformed and would like to improve your grade. With three examination dates throughout the year, CGA’s Edexcel International A Levels offers the most opportunities for resits.
During an examination series, students sit a number of individual exams (known as papers) for a single subject. For example, in AS Level Mathematics, one paper would be on “Pure Maths,” which is number and calculus and one paper would be on “Statistics and Mechanics.” For Cambridge International A Levels, you must sit all the papers required of the AS/A2 qualification at every sitting, even if you are resitting certain subjects.
But the Edexcel International A Levels that CGA offers divides up each course into bitesized 4-6 modules (the first 2-3 modules will make up your AS qualification and the latter 2-3 modules will be your A2 – combined they make up the entire Edexcel International A Level) with external exams at the end of each module.
For example, if I’m a student who is very strong in calculus but struggles in statistics and wanted to improve my grade, resitting my AS Level Math under Cambridge means I would have to resit both the Calculus and Statistics papers. But, if I was taking Edexcel AS Levels, I would only have to resit the statistics module.
Also, under Edexcel’s modularized International A Levels, I could sit exams at the end of every module three times a year instead of one marathon set of examinations at the end of the year covering all the year’s content.
Another feature of Edexcel International A Levels is that the mark schemes tend to be more granular than Cambridge International A Levels, giving students a clearer indication of what they need to put down to receive credit for their answers.
For the sciences like Biology, Chemistry and Physics, students must sit practical examinations asking them to complete a number of experiments under exam conditions in Cambridge International AS Level sciences. Edexcel tends to be more theoretical and does not have these practical examinations.
In my experience, schools tend to do a poor job preparing students for practical exams as they do not have the resources to allow students to practice the necessary experimental skills enough. This means that the practical paper of Cambridge A levels tend to drag down students’ grades in their science classes – a situation you won’t encounter with Edexcel A levels.
In terms of grading, Cambridge students receive a percentage grade at the end of their AS Level exams, and a final overall A Level percentage grade that’s made up 50/50 of their AS and A2 Level grades. Note that there are no A* grades awarded for AS Level. They are only awarded for completion of full A Level qualification. Also, you do not receive your separate A2 Level grade, only your combined A Level grade.
Edexcel students receive grades after their examinations at the end of every module according to the table below. Their final average grade is the weighted average of the modules they sit through during the AS and A2 portions by a predefined weighting that you can find in each subject’s syllabus online.
Students receive both a percentage grade and a letter grade on their completion certificates from Edexcel or Cambridge. But it is this letter grade that is most often quoted and used in university admissions.
While the percentage grade boundaries may look intimidating, one of the great things about International AS and A Levels is that you don’t have to get 90% or 70% of the questions correct to end up getting a 90% or 70% on your report card.
How can that be?
Let me introduce you to your new best friend: scaling! Your raw mark will be scaled on a bell curve against the performance of all the other students taking the exam. Due to how the exams are calibrated to account for their difficulty, you’re almost always guaranteed to have your raw mark scaled up to a Percentage Uniform Mark. Both Edexcel and Cambridge use this scaled mark to determine your A*-E grade and this scaled mark will be the one displayed on the certificate of completion you receive from Edexcel or Cambridge.
Don’t believe me? Both Edexcel and Cambridge are required to publish their grade thresholds after every exam sitting for every subject. You can easily find these documents on their respective websites. Due to having to standardize grades across many countries, including many countries with low academic standards, some rigorous subjects like Chemistry or English Literature can have students’ Percentage Uniform Mark be a 20% scale up from their raw marks.
But as our teachers have told us while we were still in school: never rely on scaling to get the grade you need; nothing beats diligent studying and lots of past paper practice.
Think you might want to have a go at taking International AS or A Levels? Luckily, with Crimson Online Academy, you can now study and sit International AS or A Levels online from anywhere. CGA offers both full-time and part-time enrolment options, so whether you want to stay enrolled in your current school and supplement your core studies with additional Pearson Edexcel International AS or A Levels, or you’re looking to join a school where you can take unlimited International A-Levels and can accelerate your learning far beyond your peers, we have an option for you.
With dedicated teaching staff averaging 20+ years of teaching experience and a streamlined online learning platform, CGA will give you all the resources you need to (ed)EXCEL in your schooling. Download our prospectus to find out more about all the IGCSE subjects that CGA has to offer, and talk to us today about whether CGA could be right for you!
If you enjoyed reading this, check out our other blog explaining the ins and outs of Edexcel and Cambridge International GCSEs. Comment below to let us know what you’d like us to talk about next in our blog series!
About the Author
Ben Zhang is a member of the Crimson Global Academy Marketing team and a third year student at Harvard University studying Molecular and Cellular Biology with Statistics. He studied Cambridge A Levels at Macleans College in Auckland, New Zealand, where he was Dux two years in a row, achieving top in New Zealand marks for AS Level Physics, A Level Chemistry and English Literature and top in the world for A Level Biology, along with the "Best Across Three Cambridge International A Levels in New Zealand" award from the Association of Cambridge Schools in New Zealand (ACSNZ). Ben was a NZQA Premier Scholar in the NZQA Scholarship Examinations two years in a row with Top Scholar awards in Chemistry and Physics. Ben also represented New Zealand at the International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO) and International Biology Olympiad (IBO), winning a Bronze Medal in IChO and a Gold Medal in IBO. You can reach Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org any questions or feedback about this blog.