A-levels or IB? A Totally Unbiased Discussion

I’ve heard a lot of discussions over the past few years that discuss A-levels and IB. I even had to go through this discussion with my parents, teachers, tutors and junior students (students in the years below me).

I’ll get this out of the way, I’ve done A-levels myself. 4 A-levels actually. And the new ‘linear’ A-levels where you give external exams at the end of year 13. I went to an international British school that taught both A-level and IB at Sixth Form (high school level).

Now, I haven’t done both and I don’t know anyone who has. You either do one or the other (or an equivalent degree if you are from a different country with a different system).

I’ve made this guide because I just wanted to clear stuff out of the way. There are a lot of ‘myths’ that I hear and I just want to debunk them.

IB is harder than A-level?

When it comes to difficulty, you cannot really assume one is harder than the other. Nobody has done both qualifications, but some teachers do and have taught both programs to students.

First off, both A-levels and IB are not ‘easy’. Regardless of which one you do, you will face challenges in terms of workload, external exams, organisation, time management and content understanding/memorising.

In terms of time availability, at my school, students who did 3 A-levels had around 11 ‘free periods’ every week. That would come to around 10 hours of free time, during the school hours. Students doing 4 A-levels and IB only had under 2 hours of free time available per week, during school time.

It is therefore evident that with 3 A-levels you can expect to have more ‘free time’ available (time you’re not in classes). However, if you don’t utilise your time effectively and productively, it won’t really matter.

If you do struggle with time-management, you should opt for 3 A-levels as you will have more time-out of classes- to organise yourself. 4 A-levels and IB do seem rather close in terms of work load and time management although we can’t know for sure can we?

In terms of subject difficulties, you can expect IB HL subjects to be quite close to A-levels. Although the syllabus and content may vary, it is also said that some HL IB subjects can be more difficult than A-level in terms of style of questions and answers. But you should speak to a teacher before making a claim like this.

Some universities prefer IB?

Alright, I’ve heard this many times and it winds me up quite a bit. I can see why people say it and why they believe this (because IB is an international program and all that) but I can’t say that it’s true.

Unless a university specifically says on their website: we prefer students who do IB, then you have a point. But I haven’t come across a university that does this; the majority of universities have IB requirements and A-level requirements.

I would recommend that you go ahead and check university requirements for whatever university you want to apply for and see for yourself. Depending on where you study, you may be asked to do SAT/ACT, IELTS or STEP which are tests used for university acceptance; once again cutting into your busy schedule.

Sometimes universities will accept things like a minimum of level 4 in IB English to meet the university english requirements but you should always check the university website first.

Key differences between A-levels and IB

The IB program first off, has a numbered grading system between 1 and 7 for each subject. The maximum points you can get for IB is 45 points (42 for 6 subjects and 3 points for the ‘core’) whereas the A-levels on the other hand, give you letter subjects, the maximum grade being A*.

Also, the IB program has something called TOK (Theory Of Knowledge) classes which explore cultures, thinking, reasoning and different kinds of knowledge (yeah I don’t know much about it). In addition to this, IB students must write a 4000 word essay on an independently researched topic, related to a subject that they study.

Although A-levels students do not have TOK classes or an Extended Essay, there is a choice to do an EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) at A-levels. This will take up a considerable amount of your ‘free periods’ so doing 4 A-levels and an EPQ is really really difficult. With 3 A-levels, an EPQ is manageable.

IB students also have to do something called Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS) in which they have to do participate and lead activities/projects related to a creativity (music, photography, art), activity (usually sports) and service (benefitting the community). These will usually be activities going on after school.

Now at A-levels, there is no CAS but you as a student have to go out and make this happen for yourself because universities are looking for your extracurricular activities and projects.

I was doing 4 A-levels and I still had time to participate in extracurricular activities like tennis, cricket, volleyball, making go-karts, programming, tutoring/mentoring other students and service activities. It’s also important to take up leadership roles in your school to make your university application easier and attractive.

One final thing, the IB program has something called IAs (Internal Assessments) for each subject. These can be essays, projects or lab sessions that you must complete with a deadline so it gets assessed and it counts for 20-30% (varies per subject) of your final mark.

This does not occur with A-levels unless you do coursework subjects (like DT, Art or Computer Science). Most A-levels grades are completely based on an external exams after two years.

The most general advice people give

There is somewhat of a consensus that goes: “if you don’t know what you’re doing at uni, do IB. If you know what you want to become in the future, do A-level”. There is a high chance you’ve probably heard something like this before.

It is understandable to see where this statement is coming from. IB allows you to do 6 subjects and if you don’t really have an idea for what you want to study at the higher level, dive into 6 subjects to broaden your horizons and keep your options open.

Although, IB does have SL and HL so if you do enjoy particular subjects or you do know what to study later on, HL is your option.

The fact that IB offers 6 subjects and A-levels only gives 3 would suggest that IB students are well rounded. However, you can choose 3 or 4 A-levels that offer breadth as well. For example, Maths, English and Physics. You could choose to do a science, a humanity or English/Maths with art/music/DT.

The question comes down to: do you prefer to specialise in a few subjects or go for a broader range?

Despite this, it’s still possible to narrow in on a certain course at university with IB. You need to first check the university website for the requirements.

For example, if you were doing engineering you would make sure you choose:

  • HL maths
  • HL Physics
  • HL Chemistry

If you were to do medicine, HL Chemistry or HL Biology may be required.

Also, your ‘extended essay’ in IB can prove your interest and expertise in a certain subject- this is great to talk about when applying to a university.

Important note: Always check university requirements (on their website) to see what subjects are suitable for a degree’s entry requirements.

Why students prefer IB over A-levels

Students could choose the IB program because they enjoy studying a multitude of subjects and would not want to focus in on a bunch of subjects like the A-levels.

Also, IB students may be interested in the TOK classes, the CAS program or writing an essay that explores their subject in detail.

It does seem like the IB program comes with a full package in mind both academically focused as well as creating a well-rounded students (via CAS, TOK and extended essays). With A-levels, you get the academic side but have to put in your own way to structure your extracirriculars.

Of course, with CAS in IB, you still have to participate in activities after school but at A-level you have to find your own way to do this.

Why students prefer A-levels over IB

I had to once make a decision for myself of whether I wanted to do A-levels or IB. Personally, I did not choose IB because:

  • I had some vague idea of what I wanted to do at university: it was either a science or engineering degree
  • I did not want to study English or a foreign language simply because it was not in my interests to do so, I would rather study maths, science and one humanity

One of the main reasons why students don’t choose IB is because they have to select subjects from certain categories, for example: you have to do math, english, foreign language in IB whereas at A-level you don’t.

Other important reasons to take into account

There are a few things that you should consider before making a decision between the A-levels or the IB.

Schools vary

It is true that the quality of IB and A-level education varies from school to school. Some schools teach the IB very well while other schools may specialise in A-levels.

If you are going to do IB, make sure you are content with the facilities of the school. There are quite a few schools that teach only IB, and that is for a reason, their facilities and teachers suit it.

Tuition fees

It may be more expensive to do one program over the other. This is something that should be discussed with your parents or anyone else who can give you financial advice.

Your future

I might have touched on this before but knowing what you will do after the programs really does matter. I would recommend that you research about universities and contact people who are already there and ask about their experiences.

Once again, make sure you check the requirements on university websites.

The conclusion

The IB program and A-levels are both excellent programs that will prepare you for your academic life ahead. In the end, the decision comes down to you as a person, do you want your education to be structured and include subjects from categories you must do? Or do you prefer a more specialized approach with the responsibility on you to structure your own extracurriculars?

Over recent years, IB has become more and more popular but the A-level program still seems an equally valuable program. I would suggest that you discuss all further options with teachers and parents before making a clear decision.

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