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Choosing between IB and A level: 5 key differences

If you are at the stage in your life where you have to choose between pre-university options you have probably heard about the IB (the International Baccalaureate diploma) and the A-levels (GCE Advanced Level exams).

Either of these programs lasts for two years and offers a valid approach to pre-university preparation, and most parents and students are probably familiar with both.

However, they do focus on different aspects of students’ academic development. To decide which one is the best path for you is not as easy as it may seem.

This article discusses *five key differences* that differentiate the IB program from the A-level program and hopefully will help you make an informed decision about which path is more suitable for you.


1. Grading system is the number one difference between the IB and the A-levels.

The most noteworthy difference is the number of subjects students are required to take in order to complete the programmes.

A-level students usually choose three subjects, with the exception of those students who are planning to study Medicine or Further Maths (those students typically pick four subjects.)

By comparison, IB students must choose six subjects from six core areas - Language Acquisition, Maths, Language & Literature, Sciences, Social Sciences, and finally the Arts.

Students must choose three Standard Level subjects and three Higher Level subjects.

In addition to all this IB students are also required to complete additional components of the IB course.

These are:
Theory of Knowledge module (which develops their soft skills and encourages critical thinking)
- Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS) module (which may include artistic activities, sporting activities and community service).

IB students must also write a 4000-word essay on any topic they would like, as long as they have researched this topic independently.


2. IB exams vs A-level exams.

When it comes to IB assessment, in case of most courses, the written exam at the end of the course constitutes the basis for assessment.

In several areas the coursework completed by the student during the course is also assessed externally to make sure that a very high degree of objectivity is maintained at all times. The grades students receive range from 7 (the highest) to 1 (the lowest).

Best score a student can achieve is 45, however, this is very rare and usually 39 – 40 is enough to be accepted into a prestigious university (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge etc.).

Students receive separate score for each course and those who receive a combined score of at least 24 are awarded the IB diploma.

By comparison the grading system of the A-level exams is based on the alphabet. Students may receive grades ranging from A (the highest) to E (the lowest grade required to pass the exam).


3. How does passing A-levels or getting an IB diploma affect university admission?

According to the report prepared by the Higher Education Statistics Agency in 2016 the likelihood of those students who hold an IB diploma to attend one of top 20 universities in the UK is 57 % higher.

What’s more, according to the statistical analysis IB programme students are also more likely to earn a first-class degree and continue studying towards their Master’s degree or even a PhD.

This relative success of the IB students may possibly stem from the fact that the IB programme takes a more comprehensive approach when it comes to developing the students’ soft skills (including critical thinking).

Nevertheless, the A-levels still enjoy favorable reputation, and are still considered by vast majority of universities worldwide to be the gold standard of the western education system.


4. Different approach to the learning technique.

If you are used to the teachers spoon-feeding you all the information during the class then you might find the IB programme difficult to swallow. The learning in the programme is typically student-led.

They are expected to take charge of the situation, which is yet another way to spark motivation and develop their leadership skills. That of course does not mean that the A-level course is relatively easy.

Not at all.

Both programmes require you to show initiative and be in charge of your own destiny. But perhaps one requires it a bit more than the other.


5. Broader approach vs narrower path.

Once you have chosen your three A-level subjects the choice of university degrees you may acquire becomes significantly narrower.

So those students who would like to get A-level qualifications had better know in advance what they would like to study at university.

Otherwise they might find out at the end of the course that they spent two years of their life studying some irrelevant subjects.

On the other hand the IB programme provides a more well-rounded education. The students who are interested in a broad range of subjects have an opportunity to satisfy their academic curiosity.

And the wider selection of the subjects they have to study also means they have more choices when it comes to picking the university course.

Considering how undecisive some students might be during their teens this extra time is most welcome. In addition, universities now tend to prefer candidates who have been involved in a wide range of activities, especially if these activities include developing soft skills.

Critical thinking and leadership skill may just be the thing that makes the most difference in student’s path to success.


Choosing between IB vs A-levels

To conclude, the differences between the IB diploma and the A-levels are not insignificant.

However, if you manage to complete either of these programmes with relatively high marks you can be sure that you will be accepted into the university of your choice, whatever it may be.

So the main task at hand is choosing the programme that best suits your personality and work ethic.

Interested to know more? Here are additional informative articles:

Ultimate Guide to IB Tuition in Singapore

10 Hard Truths about JC life you need to know

6 Key Strategies to score A for GP

Theory of Knowledge: The Arts as an Area of Knowledge

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About Author

Tutor City's blog focuses on balancing informative and relevant content, never at the expense of providing an enriching read. 

We want our readers to expand their horizons by learning more and find meaning to what they learn.

Resident author - Mr Wee Ben Sen, has a wealth of experience in crafting articles to provide valuable insights in the field of private education.

Ben Sen has also been running Tutor City, a leading home tuition agency in Singapore since 2010.