Curricula and Subject Selection • Pre-College Advising

What Are the A Levels and Who Should Take This Exam

POSTED ON 10/31/2022 BY The Red Pen

What are the A Levels and Who Should take this Exam | The Red Pen

In the past few years, the education landscape has changed dramatically. High schools have started offering a plethora of curricula, each with its own abbreviations and philosophy. So, in this world of acronyms, where do the A Levels fall and who should opt for this curriculum?

What are the A Levels?

A UK-based curriculum, the A Levels, short for Advanced Level qualifications, is a high school qualification for students in grades 11 and 12. As part of the Cambridge Assessment, more than a million students in over 10,000 schools across 160 countries study this curriculum. What makes this curriculum stands out is that it allows students to specialise in subjects which interest them.

What is the A Level curriculum?

According to the Cambridge Assessment, the A Levels “prepare[s] learners for university study, which is why universities worldwide value and recognise Cambridge International AS & A Level qualifications.” It exposes students to more in-depth knowledge in areas related to their university courses.

The A Levels are studied across two years, during which students will:

  • Develop in-depth knowledge of particular subjects
  • Learn how to think independently and logically
  • Apply knowledge to various situations
  • Enhance research skills
  • Making informed decisions
  • Present reasoned explanations and arguments

The A Levels offers 55 subjects, including the sciences, languages, business courses, computer science, psychology and more. Every school doesn’t provide all these subjects, but they can individually build a curriculum that appeals to most of their students. Many competitive degrees require specific A Level subjects for entry. Undecided students can choose a wider array of core subjects to keep their options open. The A Level curriculum allows students more flexibility over how they use their time as there is more focus on independent study.

Some popular courses include:

  • English Literature
  • English Language
  • Mathematics
  • Further Mathematics
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • History
  • Economics
  • Business
  • Psychology
  • Law

Over the course of two years, students usually study four subjects; however, a maximum of five is allowed. Since students study a limited number of A Level subjects, they usually select those related to their specific interests and align with the degree they wish to pursue at university.

To complete the diploma, students must take a minimum of three subjects, with approximately 360 guided learning hours, along with coursework for certain subjects. At the end of the two-year programme, students sit for subject-wise final examinations typically held between May and June.

What is the AS Level?

The Advanced Subsidiary (AS) Level refers to the first year of the A Level syllabus. Students must take this exam in all their subjects at the end of year one. Once a student passes, they move on to year two and sit the A Level examinations at the end of the year. The AS Level grades are not factored into the final A Level result.

In the event that a student discontinues a subject they will receive an AS Level qualification. Students may choose to do an AS Level subject to add diversity to their subject mix or if they are unsure about continuing a subject to the A Level.

What is the grading scale of the A Levels?

After the final examinations, students receive their grades in August. Final grades are awarded for each subject, which includes a combination of coursework and the final examination.

A Levels are graded from A*(the highest) to E (the lowest). If you are looking to apply to a competitive university abroad, you should aim for grades that sit in the A or A* band. The following table can give you an approximate of these grades in terms of percentage.

A Level Grading System

Grade Percentage
A* 90% +
A 80-89%
B 70-79%
C 60-69%
D 50-59%
E 40-49%

What is the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)?

The EPQ is an A Level standalone qualification designed to develop a student’s abilities beyond the A Level syllabus. The EPQ allows students to lead their own projects, preparing them for further education. Students can choose interdisciplinary topics for their EPQ, making it an excellent way to highlight their interests in a particular subject. Students plan and conduct research on a chosen topic and must produce a written report or practical project. The EPQ is assessed by teachers and is subject to external evaluation and moderation. The good news is that this exam is recognised and valued by most universities and is worth half an A Level.

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Why Should Students Opt for the A Levels?

The A Levels are recommended if a student is sure they want to study in the UK as it is a UK-based high school qualification. Almost all universities in the country accept this exam, but it is also accepted by over 1,4000 universities worldwide. More than 600 US universities, including Ivy Leagues and schools across China, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Germany and the Netherlands, recognise this exam.

It is ideal for students who want exposure to the rigour of an international curriculum or wish to focus on a few key subjects related to their prerequisites at university.

For example,

  • A pharmacy degree requires prerequisites in chemistry, biology, mathematics and physics.
  • An English literature or language degree requires prerequisites in English literature and English language.
  • A geology or earth sciences degree requires prerequisites in at least two subjects— mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology—in any combination.
  • An economics degree requires prerequisites in mathematics and, at times, economics.

The A Levels is the perfect choice for students looking for a flexible curriculum that allows them to pursue subjects of interest. If you would like to discuss qualification exam options further, feel free to book an appointment here.