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IB vs A Levels: What’s the Ultimate High School Curriculum for Your Future?

POSTED ON 05/31/2024 BY The Red Pen

The Ultimate High School Curriculum for Your Future

Choosing the right curriculum in high school can have a profound impact on your academic trajectory. Amidst the many options available, ranging from the national and state boards to international curricula such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) and A Levels, the decision of which to choose can be overwhelming. To date, a staggering 1.2 million students worldwide have graduated with the IB Diploma Programme (DP) and the Career-related Programme (CP),  while almost 800,000 students undertook the A Levels. If you are trying to decide, it is worthwhile to delve into the intricacies of each programme so that you can determine which one will best support your goals and aspirations.

Understanding the International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate (IB) offers globally recognised programmes tailored for high school students, including the IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) and IB Career-Related Programme (IBCP). Over 5,700 schools across 160+ countries offer the IBDP. Christoph Guttentag, Director of Undergraduate Admission Duke University, remarks, “One of the advantages of an IB curriculum is its structure and quality. It is a coordinated program, well-established, well-known and well-respected. We know the quality of IB courses, and we think the IB curriculum is terrific.” 

Here are some of its key features: 

1) IBDP comprises six fundamental pillars: 

Through the two-year IB Diploma Programme, students study six subjects chosen from each subject group:

Group 1: Language and Literature

Group 2: Language Acquisition

Group 3: Individuals and Societies

Group 4: Sciences

Group 5: Mathematics

Group 6: The Arts

Students can choose between High Level (HL) and Standard Level (SL) courses, with HL offering deeper exploration and broader coverage. To obtain the full diploma, three HL subjects and three SL subjects are required. Additionally, IB offers non-regular diploma options to accommodate specific academic or career pursuits, such as medicine in India, which may require three science subjects and mathematics.

2) The IBDP core:

To foster a well-rounded educational experience for students, the IBDP includes a core curriculum consisting of three essential components: 

  • Theory of Knowledge (TOK) encourages students to critically analyse the nature of knowledge and its implications across different areas of study.
  • Extended Essay (EE) allows students to independently research and write an in-depth academic paper on a topic of their choice, promoting research and writing skills.
  • Creativity, Activity, and Service (CAS) aims to develop students’ creativity, physical well-being, and social responsibility through experiential learning outside the classroom. 

3) IBDP assessments

Assessments and examinations in the IB program are designed to evaluate students’ knowledge, skills, and understanding of their chosen subjects. Subject teachers conduct Internal Assessments (IA), which include coursework, projects, investigations, and oral presentations. The IB grading system uses a 7-point scale, with seven being the highest score and one being the lowest. The total achievable score is 45, encompassing points from both subject assessments (42 points total possible)  and core components (3 points total possible). 

To be eligible for an IB Diploma, a candidate must satisfy the following criteria:

  • Complete all CAS requirements.
  • Attain a minimum of 24 points overall.
  • Receive grades in all subjects, including TOK and the Extended Essay.
  • Secure at least a grade of 2 in each subject.
  • Earn no more than two grades of 2 (either SL or HL).
  • Have no more than three grades of 3 or below (either SL or HL).
  • Achieve at least 12 points in HL subjects (if registered for four HL subjects, only the three highest grades are considered).
  • Accumulate at least 9 points in SL subjects (for those registered for two SL subjects, a minimum of 5 points at SL is required).

Understanding the A Levels

The A Levels, or Advanced Level qualifications, is a UK-based high school curriculum designed for students in grades 11 and 12. For international students, the course spans two years, with students completing the AS level in the first year. 

Administered internationally by Cambridge Assessment International Education and Pearson Edexcel, this curriculum is pursued by over 175,000 students in 125+ countries. A Levels prioritise in-depth subject knowledge, fostering independent learning, critical thinking, and effective communication skills. A distinctive feature of the A Level curriculum is that it permits students to specialise in only those subjects that align with their interest – there are no required subjects. According to Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “Students we have who have taken Cambridge International A levels do very well at our campus. They are very well-prepared for our curriculum, and we find that they have a lot of confidence, but also that they have a good, deep subject knowledge, [and] the ability to think critically and well”. 

Here are some of its key features: 

1) A Levels offer flexibility: 

The A Levels offer 55 subjects, including English, mathematics, science, languages, humanities, technology, social sciences, arts, general studies and more. Students can select subjects based on interests and academic goals, although availability may vary between schools. With a focus on independent study, this curriculum also gives students flexibility in their time use. 

2) A Levels offer specialisation opportunities

A Levels allow students to specialise in areas aligned with their future academic and career goals. Typically, students choose three to four subjects that are directly relevant to their aspirations, allowing them to focus deeply on these areas and gain a strong foundation of knowledge and skills. This specialisation helps them prepare for university courses and professional paths that require expertise in specific subjects. 

3) A Levels assessments: 

The A Level curriculum prepares students for university through an internationally recognised grading system. Assessment is primarily based on final examinations, with coursework also contributing to grades in some subjects. The grading scale ranges from A* (highest grade) to E, with a U grade indicating ‘unclassified’ for not meeting minimum standards. To achieve an A*, students typically need to score an average of at least 90 percent across all modules in the second year. 

4) A Levels offer the Cambridge International Project Qualification and Global Perspectives & Research:

The Cambridge International Project Qualification (Cambridge IPQ) is a project-based qualification in which students research a chosen topic, showcasing engagement beyond exams. Recommended for academically strong students, it’s worth half of an A Level and earns UCAS tariff points. It is a great way to demonstrate independent learning skills for university applications.

 In addition to their chosen subjects, students have the option to take Global Perspectives & Research (GPR). This skills-based qualification is designed to enhance students’ critical thinking, research, and communication abilities. GPR encourages students to explore global issues, engage in interdisciplinary learning, and understand complex real-world problems. Through individual research projects and collaborative activities, students learn to evaluate diverse perspectives, construct well-reasoned arguments, and communicate effectively. 

IBDP vs A Levels: Differences based on university recognition

Universities worldwide recognise IBDP and A Level qualifications. UK universities typically list minimum entry requirements for specific courses in both curricula, European universities can require particular subject combinations and US universities state more generally that they seek students who have challenged themselves within the context of their curriculum. 

A Levels is renowned for providing detailed and direct preparation for university-level study, whereas the IBDP is valued for exposing students to breadth across HL & SL subjects and nurturing independent inquiry skills. Despite these differences, admissions offices value both pathways, understanding that students from either programme can thrive in higher education.

IBDP vs A Levels: Differences based on university admissions rates

Over 880 universities in the US, including all Ivy League colleges, accept A Levels. According to a study, IBDP students are three times more likely than their A Level counterparts to gain admission to a top-20 university in the UK. However, disparities in admissions expectations between the IBDP and A Levels have been observed across most UK universities.  For instance, Chemical Engineering at Bath University requires 36 IBDP points or 280 UCAS tariff points compared to A*AA in A Levels, equating to 152 tariff points. This discrepancy underscores that universities demand significantly more from IBDP applicants than A Level candidates. UCAS tariff points serve as a standardised “converter” for qualifications, aiding UCAS in comprehending diverse qualifications worldwide.

IBDP vs A Levels: Differences based on performance at universities

A Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) study indicates that A Level students were more inclined than IBDP diploma students to pursue a STEM course during their first year of higher education. After university admission, IBDP students maintain a slight performance advantage over A Level students and are likelier to achieve a first-class degree. Post-university IBDP diploma holders are more likely than A Level peers to pursue further study. In contrast, A Level students are more inclined to enter the workforce earlier than IBDP students.

IBDP vs A Levels: Making the choice

The A Levels cater to students with specific interests by providing subject specialisation and academic flexibility. This curriculum enables you to concentrate on your preferred areas and explore your chosen subjects in greater depth, paving the way for a clear career path or university course. For instance, if you excel in STEM subjects but find languages and humanities challenging, A Levels might be more suitable for you than the IBDP.

Conversely, if you are an all-rounder who thrives on studying a diverse range of subjects, then IBDP might be the ideal path for you. With its emphasis on breadth, international perspective, and compulsory subjects such as science, maths, languages, literature, and humanities, the IBDP is perfect for students eager to explore various disciplines. A Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) study found that IBDP students are less likely to drop out of university than A Level students, indicating a stronger academic foundation among IBDP students. The IBDP curriculum closely aligns with the broad-based curricula at US universities, which typically require students to take classes in various subjects, including humanities and writing-intensive courses, before specialising in their chosen major. 

IBDP vs A Levels: Differences in a nutshell

AspectIBDPA Levels
Subjects6 subjects 3 Higher Level (HL) + 3 Standard Level (SL) subjectsTypically 3-4 subjects
Approach to subjectsStudy a broader range of subjects with less depth, 5 hours per week for HL, 3 hours per week for SLStudy fewer subjects in greater depth, around 10 hours of teaching per subject per week
Grading systemPoints system (7 highest, 1 lowest)Letter grades (A* highest, E lowest)
Maximum achievable score45 points (42 from subjects, 3 from core)Typically, 3-4 A* grades for the highest attainment. 
Flexibility in subject combinationSubject choices within the 6 required subject groups vary by school. Subject choices vary by school, but any combination of subjects is allowed. 
BoardsIBO boardThere are two exam boards for A-Levels: Edexcel and Cambridge.
ExamsExams are conducted twice yearly, in May/June and October/November.

Exams are given more weightage in determining the final grades. 

Pearson Edexcel typically holds exams in May and November. 
Cambridge Assessments holds exams in June, October and January
Each subject is assessed through externally marked examinations and internally marked assessments. They use a weighted system to unify scores, which are subject-specific.

Choosing between the International Baccalaureate (IB) and A Levels is a significant decision with implications for future academic paths. At The Red Pen, we assist students in identifying and choosing a curriculum for grades 11 and 12 after assessing their goals, interests and potential. You may read our blogs on frequently asked questions about curriculum selection and  5 factors to consider before changing your child’s curriculum in grades 11 and 12. If you need help with undergraduate applications, please contact us. Our experts look forward to assisting you.