Enquire

IB vs. A-levels

The question over whether to choose A-levels or the International Baccalaureate has faced many students and their parents. We know it can be difficult to understand the differences between the 2, so we hope breaking down the key differences between the 2 courses will help you decide which one is right for you.

Course structure

A-levels International Baccalaureate
3-4 subjects in depth 3 subjects at Higher Level, 3 at Standard level
Optional: Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) Mandatory ‘core’ content: Extended Essay, Theory of Knowledge and CAS
Discrete: Subjects taught separately with multiple exam boards Holistic: Subjects overlap and have the same exam board
A* top grade (A in AS levels) Level 7 top grade (A in EE and ToK, with no grade for CAS)
UK based Global
746,000 students 4,700 UK students/169,000 globally

The key difference between the International Baccalaureate and A-levels is the number of subjects that students have to take. A-level students normally take between 3 and 4 subjects, having the option of taking an AS level in year 12 in one subject and dropping this hereafter. This means that A-level student will study the subjects they take through to A-level in greater depth and can expect to have around 10 hours of teaching per subject per week. By comparison, IB students take 3 subjects at Higher Level and 3 subjects at Standard Level. In their Higher Levels, students can expect to study in equivalent detail to the A-level course, but with around 5 hours of teaching per week; whilst Standard Level subjects cover a smaller amount of content with around 3 hours of teaching per week. This allows International Baccalaureate students to study a greater range of content, perhaps sacrificing some depth in the process.

The International Baccalaureate has 6 subject groups that students can choose from. Students must study MathsScience (or Computer Science), Humanitiesa language and English, and have a free 6th choice which can be within one of the previous 5 groups or an Arts subject such as Drama. This means that IB students graduate with a wide-ranging skill set and competencies across a large number of fields. By comparison, students studying A-levels are likely to be more specialised in 3 or 4 subjects but this may come at the expense of some other skills.

A-level students have the option of undertaking an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) in a subject of their choosing. This typically takes the form of a 1,000 to 5,000-word research project exploring an area in depth. Similarly, IB students must undertake an Extended Essay during their IB Diploma in a chosen subject area. This is a 4,000-word research project, similar to a small university dissertation, but unlike the A-level EPQ is a mandatory requirement of the IB course. Both of these research opportunities enable students to investigate a topic that they are especially interested in and so are good preparation for undergraduate academic research. 

However, students also study Theory of Knowledge (ToK) as part of the IB’s ‘core’ syllabus. ToK asks students to think about the nature of knowledge: It questions how we know what we know within each of the 6 IB subject groups, developing an awareness of our assumptions and an ability to think critically. The assessment takes the form of a Theory of Knowledge presentation on a topic the student chooses and a 1,500-word essay on one of 6 prescribed questions. 

Additionally, IB students also complete a Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS) project. This requires students to be involved in the arts, physical activity and voluntary work over the course of their 2-year IB Diploma. Again, this is an example of how the IB develops students who are well rounded and excel in more than their academic subjects. For a flavour of some of the CAS projects students can undertake, please feel free to read Tim’s article.

If you want more information on how you can effectively transition into the IB or university, we are able to meet in person or via Skype to offer help and advice, having many years of IB & university experience at top universities such as Cambridge, Oxford and UCL. Please contact us for more details.

University applications

In order to compare the variety of Further Education qualifications, the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) convert IB and A-level scores into UCAS points. This means universities can compare applicants with different qualifications directly when they apply. Below is a summary of the UCAS points A-level and IB students can hope to achieve:

A-levels & AS levels

International Baccalaureate

 
 

It is clear that UCAS equate a level 7 at IB Higher Level with an A* at A-level, but weight a level 7 at IB Standard Level slightly more than an A (the top mark) at AS level. A-level students do gain back some ground, with an A* in their EPQ qualification being weighted 4 UCAS points higher than 2As in the IB Extended Essay and Theory of Knowledge. 

If you want a breakdown of the entry requirements for the UK’s top 50 universities, please see our University Entry Requirements article, which looks at the most popular degrees in the UK. We also have the equivalent for Holland, Switzerland and Singapore on the way!

The maximum score for the IB is 45 points and was achieved by 213 candidates in 2019 – 0.13% of those sitting exams. This is the equivalent of 4A*s and an A at A-level. Similarly, the average IB score of 29.63 (with 5s in all subjects and a B in EE and ToK) is the equivalent of 2A*s and an A at A-level. The average IB student appears to do exceptionally well when their IB Diploma is converted into A-levels. Unfortunately, as students can take a different number of A-levels and sit tests under different exam bodies, the equivalent A-level statistics cannot be obtained.

Focusing on specific subjects, we can say that 15.9% of students taking A-level Maths achieved an A*, which increased to 28.8% for those taking Further A-level Maths. By comparison, only 21.6% of IB students taking Higher Maths achieved a level 7. There were mixed results for the number of students achieving top grades in Biology (A-level: 7.9%; IB: 5.6%), Chemistry (A-level: 8.4%; IB: 8.5%) and Physics (A-level: 9.4%; IB: 13.7%); whilst English Literature had 8.7% of A-level students achieve an A* compared with 2.4% of IB students achieving a level 7. Therefore, it appears that A-levels and the International Baccalaureate offer a similar level of rigour in their examinations, with more Maths and English students achieving a top A-level grade than their IB counterparts.* Please click on the following links for a full list of A-level and IB results.

*However, it is worth remembering that, whilst you may have a greater chance of attaining a high grade, this may mean you do not stand out in your university application from other candidates. In contrast, IB students with level 7s in Higher Maths and English do stand out, as they are part of a more smaller cohort who achieve these grades.

Specific Course requirements

Medicine

Almost all medicine courses require Chemistry and Biology at Higher Level or A-level, with a typical IB tariff being 766 for students’ Higher Level subjects or A*AA for A-level. This means Medics are in an equally strong position doing the IB as doing A-levels. They may even be in a stronger position studying the International Baccalaureate as all IB medicine applicants will continue to study Maths.

Joint honours degrees

For joint honours degrees such as Philosophy, Politics and Economics or Spanish and French, it may not be possible to study all of the subjects during further education (sixth form). For example, it is only possible to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at A-level, as you cannot choose 3 humanities subjects doing the IB. However, students undertaking the IB are able to keep their options open by studying 2 languages, as well as a Maths, Science and Humanities. This well-rounded education may be equally as valuable in a joint-honours degree where a variety of skills are used on a daily basis.

It is also important to note that you do not have to have studied your degree subject(s) during sixth form. Indeed, for Oxford PPE, the recommended school subjects are Maths and History; whilst HSPS at Cambridge has no subject requirements. 

Engineering

Engineers may benefit from studying A-levels as they are able to specialise in Maths, Further Maths and Physics. If you are definitely set on studying engineering, this may be the best route. Nevertheless, universities also accept subjects such as sciences, computing or design, which are all available to IB students. Moreover, studying the IB will keep multiple paths open to students who are considering engineering. It may be the case that students choose to pursue alternative degrees away from engineering, or specialise into areas such as chemical engineering, both of which will benefit from the additional subjects you can study as part of the IB. 

Liberal Arts

Students applying to American universities or liberal arts programmes at UK universities may benefit from studying the International Baccalaureate due to the number of subjects you can study. Although not necessary, this will give students a strong foundation in a variety of subjects and help keep open a wide range of module choices.

If you are deciding which school to go to or which subjects to study, we are here to help. Please let us know if you would like to arrange a consultation with one of our team of experts to talk about the best option for you.

Conclusions

The International Baccalaureate and A-levels offer 2 different styles of education but both will give students a firm foundation for university and other careers. Firstly, A-levels are popular within the UK but have limited global reach. Having said this, they do allow a greater degree of specialisation, which may benefit students looking to studying Engineering or Maths at university, and have less components to consider. Both offer an extended project, whilst the IB also incorporates mandatory Theory of Knowledge and CAS into its ‘core’ syllabus. Students studying the International Baccalaureate can expect a holistic approach that links between subjects and challenges them to think critically. It keeps a number of doors open when looking at university courses and has a wider global reach than A-levels. This may be particularly beneficial for students looking to apply to universities outside of the UK.

Please remember that both of these courses will give students a strong education and we wish you the best of luck in whichever course you choose! If you wish to read more articles such as this one, please visit our Resources Page.