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IB vs A-Levels - A Comprehensive Guide

IB vs A-Levels - A Comprehensive Guide

5 min Read|April 12 2024
|Written by:

Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa

Contents

As of May 2020, over 4500 UK students take the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. However, this figure is dwarfed by the number of students taking A-Levels: as of 2021, nearly 780,000 sixth formers nationwide took their exams, up from 750000 the year before.

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme was created to provide a more holistic, rounded education., by continuing the multi-subject structure students experienced in secondary school. A-Levels, by contrast, are more specialised, and focus on a few subjects that the student intends to take to university level.

But what are the fundamental differences between the two? Why do some students take the International Baccalaureate (IB), and how does it affect their university prospects? This article will show you the difference between IB vs A-Levels – how they’re graded, how they’re structured, and how they’re perceived by universities – to help you establish which would be the best fit for you!

A-Levels and IB UCAS points

Source

What are A-Levels?

Since 2015, UK students have been legally required to stay in education until the age of 18. A-Levels (or Advanced Levels) are the most popular school-leaving qualifications in the country, and are usually completed between the age of 16 and 18.

A-Levels focus on three or four subjects, which are studied in-depth. No subject is compulsory, but there are more than 50 to choose from! As of 2020, most A-Levels have no coursework, and are entirely exam-based.

What is the IB?

The IB is an alternative school-leaving qualification for students aged 16 to 18. It offers a wide, varied syllabus made up of 6 subject groups – usually, students take three as a more extensive Higher Level (HL) course, and three as a Standard Level (SL).

All students study two modern languages, an experimental science, a humanity or social science, and another subject e.g. arts. Alongside this, they complete a curriculum of extra classes and activities intended to develop critical thinking and study skills. This includes a two-year course called Theory of Knowledge (TOK), an Extended Essay, and a Creativity, Action, Service program (CAS):

TOK: A 1,200-1,600 words on a title (from a choice of ten), followed by a 10-minute class presentation.

Extended Essay: a research project culminating in a 4,000-word essay on a free-choice topic

CAS: 150 hours over an 18-month period in any form of creativity, a social service, a sport or other physical action.

By now, the basic differences between IB vs A-Levels should be clear! The A-Level course is made up of a few, discrete subjects studied in-depth and separately from extracurricular activities. The IB Diploma programme instead focusses on building core skills across a wide range of interconnected subjects, with incorporated extracurriculars.

How Are They Graded?

The IB Diploma programme uses a points-based system. Each course receives an individual letter-grade, but points are allocated for the student’s performance across the entire course. For example: a student will receive an A in Biology, an A in History... but a 38 point IB Diploma score.

This final Diploma score is made up of the combined equivalent points value of each course’s letter grade. You need 24 points or above to be allowed to complete your diploma, and a perfect score is 45 points.

However, A-Levels are simply graded A-E, with A* as the top grade. When it comes to complexity, the winner of IB vs A-Levels is clear; IB results can look impressively confusing!

Is the IB harder than A-Levels?

When answering this question, it’s hard not to overlook the subject demand of the IB. Although there is a case to be made that universities ask for top A-level grades, it's undeniable that achieving high grades in six subjects is more work than three or four, which is why so many students choose to hire a private IB tutor. Just from a sheer time perspective, the IBs are more demanding of their students on a day-to-day basis.

More subjects mean more time spent in class and less time for free periods. Alongside that, many of the IB subjects have a heavy coursework portion of their qualification. That means even more time outside the classroom. While trying to keep up with homework, studying, coursework, and exam prep, six subjects can be overwhelming. Another factor that pushes IB ahead of A-levels when it comes to difficulty is the additional portions.

Moreover, research supports the notion that the IB is a more challenging program. For example, a study by the Higher Education Statistics Agency found that IB students are less likely to drop out of university than A-Level students, indicating that IB students have a stronger foundation in academics. Another study conducted by the University of Cambridge revealed that students who take A-Levels tend to achieve higher grades than those who take the IB.

When we look at the percentage of students achieving the top grade, we see that it's harder to get a 7 in the IB program than it is to get an A* in A-Levels. According to data from the Joint Council for Qualifications, 19.1% of A-Level grades were awarded an A* in 2021, which is a slight increase from the previous year. In comparison, only 12.6% of IB grades were awarded a 7 in 2021, also an increase from the previous year. These numbers indicate that achieving the highest grade in the IB program is more challenging than getting an A* in A-Levels. However, as over a quarter of secondary school students in the UK hire an A-Level tutor, many students do find this qualification tough.

The IB was designed with a full education in mind, the end goal is to produce a well-rounded pupil. Due to this, the Extended Essay, Theory of Knowledge, and Creativity, Action, and Service segments of the IB require additional work. Just focusing in on the CAS, this element requires you to finish an activity that fits into one of the three headings, every single week. You would have to play an hour of sport, take a skill or development class such as photography, and volunteer some of your time each week. That’s all alongside coping with the additional subjects. While A-levels have their own set of difficulties, the extra hours needed to complete the IB really take their toll.

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IB vs A-Levels: Which Do Universities Prefer?

In the University Officers Report 2017 (a survey of the people who decide which students are admitted to uni), officers assessed that the IB is better at encouraging a “global outlook” and “independent inquiry” in students, while A Levels give students more “detailed and in-depth expertise”.

This doesn’t exactly tell you which one universities prefer. That’s because the true answer is entirely subjective; whether you should take the IB vs A-Levels depends entirely on where you want to go to uni, and what you want to study.

Statistics show that students taking an IB Diploma have a 38% higher chance of graduating from university with a Bachelors’ degree. However, this could be because the IB is favoured by private schools: in May 2020, the top performing schools in the IB were King's College School - Wimbledon (average score of 41.7), Godolphin & Latymer School (41.3); Sevenoaks School (40.1); and Whitgift School (40).

In short, there’s no way of saying for sure whether universities prefer the IB vs A-Levels. As a rule, if you’re studying in the UK, A-Levels are the most widely accepted option, and the benchmark against which the course entry requirements will be set. Yet if you’re planning on studying abroad – such as in the US – the IB is the most widely understood qualification.

IB to A-Level Conversion

The easiest way to compare and convert IB performance to A-Level performance is UCAS points. When you apply to university, UCAS converts both A-Level and IB grades into points – that way, they are both equally weighted in meeting course requirements.

As we’ve discussed earlier, the minimum score needed to pass the IB diploma is 24 points. This equates to 260 UCAS points. The standard admission requirement for UK universities is 260 points; a number that can also be reached by attaining 3 C-grade A-Levels. This suggests that a 24-point IB score is equivalent to 3 A-Level Cs.

On the other hand, 3 A*s at A-Level equates to 420 points, which is the same UCAS points value you’d receive for a 43 IB score. The most selective universities – such as Oxford – ask for 360 points on average. This is 3 As, or 38 IB points.

However, most universities’ course requirement pages will specifically describe the number of IB points you need, alongside the A-Level grades. This is because even admissions officers can’t pin down the conversation rates: 72 percent consider an IB 43 to be equivalent to 3 A*’s at A level, when only 3% of IB students achieve this grade, compared to 12% of A-Level students achieving 3 A*s.

How to prepare for the IB and the A-Levels?

Preparing for both the International Baccalaureate (IB) and A-Levels involves strategic planning, diligent study habits, and access to supportive resources. Here’s a guide to help you get ready for both educational pathways:

Find the Right Tutors

  • For IB: Seek out IB tutors, such as qualified IB Maths tutors or IB English tutors, who understand the broader requirements and integrated approach of the IB.
  • For A-Levels: A-Level tutors often specialise in one subject, such as A-Level Maths tutors, or A-Level Biology tutors, providing detailed knowledge and preparation techniques specific to that subject.

Use Quality Study Materials

Develop a Study Schedule

  • Consistent Study: For both paths, regular and consistent study is crucial. Dedicate specific times for each subject and rotate your focus to cover all areas adequately.
  • Balanced Approach: Since IB requires engagement with core components, allocate time for TOK, CAS, and the Extended Essay without neglecting subject-specific studies.

Practice Exams and Feedback

  • Mock Exams: Regularly taking practice exams for both IB and A-Levels can help you identify areas of strength and weakness.
  • Seek Feedback: Use feedback from tutors and teachers to refine your understanding and improve your answers.

Focus on Skill Development

  • Critical Thinking and Analysis: Both educational paths value the ability to think critically and analytically. Engage with materials and questions that challenge your reasoning skills.
  • Time Management: Learn to manage your time effectively during study sessions and exams, as this is critical for performing well under the timed conditions of both IB and A-Level exams.

By understanding the specific demands of both the IB and A-Levels, utilizing specialized tutoring, and practicing diligently with the right resources, you can effectively prepare to excel in both academic pathways.

Conclusion

We’ve come to the end of our quick-fire comparison of the IB vs A-Levels. Having finished this article, you’ll now know everything there is to know about the two qualifications. In truth, there isn’t a real winner of the IB vs A-Level contest – it’s all about which one best suits you and your goals.

FAQ

What are the benefits of taking A-Levels over IB?

A-Levels offer a more specialised approach to education, allowing students to focus on three or four subjects that align with their career aspirations or areas of interest. This can be particularly beneficial for students who have a clear idea of what they want to study at university or the career path they wish to pursue. A-Levels are also widely recognised and accepted by UK universities, and the grading system is straightforward, with grades ranging from A* to E. Furthermore, the structure of A-Levels, with most subjects being entirely exam-based, can be more suited to students who excel in exam situations rather than coursework.

What are the benefits of taking IB over A-Levels?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) offers a holistic educational approach, promoting breadth of knowledge across a range of subjects. Students study six subjects, including two languages, a science, a social science, maths, and an arts subject or another choice from the previous categories. This broad curriculum can help students develop a well-rounded skill set and keep their future options open. The IB also includes components like the Theory of Knowledge, an Extended Essay, and the Creativity, Action, Service program, which are designed to develop critical thinking, research skills, and a sense of social responsibility. These elements can be particularly beneficial for students who enjoy a more varied and interdisciplinary approach to learning.

How does the grading system for A-Levels compare to IB?

A-Levels utilise a straightforward grading system, with students receiving grades from A* to E for each subject. The A* grade represents the highest achievement. On the other hand, the International Baccalaureate (IB) uses a points-based system. Each course receives an individual grade, and points are allocated for the student's performance across the entire course. The final IB Diploma score is a combination of these points, with a perfect score being 45 points. This system allows for a more comprehensive evaluation of a student's overall performance, but it can also be more complex to understand compared to A-Level grades.

Where can I find A-Level past papers?

At TutorChase, we offer a comprehensive collection of free A-Level past papers covering all subjects and exam boards, explore them here:

Where can I find IB study and revision notes?

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What skills are developed in the IB program that aren't in A-Levels?

The IB program is designed to foster a broad range of skills beyond academic knowledge. It encourages critical thinking through the Theory of Knowledge course and research skills through the Extended Essay. The Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) component promotes creativity, physical activity, and community service, fostering a sense of social responsibility and personal growth. In contrast, A-Levels focus more on in-depth knowledge and understanding of specific subjects, with less emphasis on these broader skills.

How can I decide between taking A-Levels or IB?

The choice between A-Levels and IB often depends on your personal learning style, career aspirations, and educational preferences. If you have a clear idea of what you want to study at university or the career you wish to pursue, and those goals align with specific subjects, A-Levels might be the better choice. However, if you enjoy a broad range of subjects, value a holistic educational experience, or are considering studying abroad, particularly in the US, the IB might be more suitable.

How does the workload of A-Levels compare to IB?

The workload for A-Levels and IB can vary significantly. A-Levels focus on three or four subjects, which are studied in-depth, and most A-Levels are entirely exam-based. On the other hand, the IB requires students to study six subjects, complete a Theory of Knowledge course, write an Extended Essay, and participate in the Creativity, Action, Service program. This can result in a heavier workload and more time commitment for IB students.

How do universities view A-Level grades compared to IB scores?

Universities typically recognise both A-Level grades and IB scores, but the way they view these qualifications can vary. In the UK, A-Levels are a widely accepted qualification and are often the benchmark for course entry requirements. However, the IB is also recognised and valued for its rigorous, holistic approach to education. Some universities may have a preference for one over the other, depending on the course of study. It's always best to check specific university entry requirements.

How can I convert my IB score to A-Level grades?

UCAS, the UK's university admissions service, provides a tariff system that converts IB scores and A-Level grades into UCAS points. This allows universities to compare qualifications on a like-for-like basis. For example, an IB score of 24 (the minimum pass grade) equates to 260 UCAS points, which is also the typical requirement for many UK university courses. However, it's important to note that most universities will list specific IB and A-Level entry requirements for their courses, rather than relying solely on UCAS points.

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Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa

Written by: Dr Rahil Sachak-Patwa

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Oxford University - PhD Mathematics

Rahil spent ten years working as private tutor, teaching students for GCSEs, A-Levels, and university admissions. During his PhD he published papers on modelling infectious disease epidemics and was a tutor to undergraduate and masters students for mathematics courses.

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