Beyond The Classroom
Getting into university has become increasingly competitive and with thousands of applicants each year, top institutions are looking for those candidates who prove that they can handle an international curriculum workload. But, which classes should you take to get to your dream university?
A-Levels, IB and APs are academically challenging and are considered the highest high school options students can take. The end result for all of them is an independent document certifying that a level of achievement higher than a high school diploma has been reached, helping students to apply to top universities. But despite the similarities there are certainly significant differences between them.
A-levels are developed by the UK government using predominantly British content but adapted for the international market. The IB is an international organization and it aims for its students to be globally aware, using international resources and content. AP courses are an American-based high school curriculum, developed by the US organization College Board with predominantly American content.
|Traditional Age Range
|Number of subjects
|International GCSEs and A Levels
|Year 11-Year 13
|External, offered 2-3 times a year
|Year 12 and Year 13
|6 subjects plus 3 papers
|One cumulative external exam at the end of 2 years with some internal weightage
|Anytime in Grades 10-12
|Varies in addition to high school classes
|External offered once a year
A Levels: Building a Foundation
IB Diploma: A Holistic Approach
AP Courses: Enhancing Academic Rigor
The International GCSEs are 100% externally assessed through a set of examinations at the end of your study. The same is true for most AS and A Level subjects besides arts courses like Drama, Music or Photography. There are usually two exam dates in the year giving students flexibility based on their schedule. Plus, this gives students the opportunity to re-sit exams if they feel they have underperformed.
The IB Programme is unique in that final scores are a combination of internal and external assessment. Internal assessment often takes the form of long-term projects such as papers, reports and presentations and comprise between 15 and 25% of your final IB score for that subject. The rest of the IB is externally assessed, mostly in the form of one cumulative exam at the end of your second year of study.
The APs are completely externally assessed through one standardized examination at the end of the academic year.
During an examination series for the International GCSEs and A Levels, students sit a number of individual exams (known as papers) for a single subject. Each paper has a specific weighting defined in the syllabus of every course. The weighted average of these papers will be the student’s final grade.
Pearson Edexcel International GCSEs are awarded using the new nine point grading scale (9–1), introduced by the UK government to raise standards and recognise top-performing students. As part of this new system, each student’s raw mark is scaled on a bell curve against the performance of all other students taking the exam. Simply put, this means that you don’t have to get 90% of the questions correct to end up getting a 90% on your report card. Your scores are relevant to those of your peers.
In the IB, each academic subject is scored out of 7, with 7 being the highest possible score. The assessed components of the DP Core are scored on an A-E scale. CAS is a Pass/Fail requirement of the IB Diploma. Thus at the end of the IB Diploma Programme you will receive a score out of 45, with 42 of those attributed to academic subjects. Depending on the combination of your scores for ToK and EE, you will receive between 1-3 points, bringing the total possible score to 45.
The British Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has developed a tariff system that helps compare IB scores with equivalent A Level grades. An IB score of 38 points out of a maximum of 45 is equivalent to five 8-9 grades at A-level. A score of 30 IB points reflects 6-7 grades at A level.
AP exams are scored on a scale of 1-5. Many US and Canadian universities give college credit for scores of 3 and above in the AP exams.
|International GCSEs and A Levels
|- Most well-recognized globally - Structured curriculum from Year 11-13 - Flexibility of subject selection - Multiple exam dates through the year
|- Lighter course load compared to IBs - Limited subject selection by traditional schools
|- Globally recognized - Prepares students for university rigour - Well-rounded education with many components
|- Heavy course load - Longer course over two years - Lack of flexibility
|- Get college credit in high school - Boosts university application - Allows students to explore interests
|- Not as well globally-recognised - Not as easy to score on the exams
While all the three curricula discussed above have global recognition, the A Levels are probably the most well-renowned with the widest reach. International GCSE and A Levels are studied in over 10,000 schools by over a million students in 160 countries. Over 1,400 universities worldwide recognise A Level qualifications. They are accepted by every UK university, by 600 universities in the US (including all the Ivy League universities) and in many other major student destinations, such as Canada, Australia, Singapore, South Africa, Germany and the Netherlands. To compare, over 5,000 schools worldwide offer the IB curriculum and AP courses are offered by many US curriculum schools around the world.
Top universities in both countries recognize all three of these curricula. However, there is a level of familiarity that universities might have with their own country’s curriculum. This does not mean that you will not get into US universities with A Levels or IB, or vice versa. If you are looking to challenge yourself, the IB would be the more rigorous. The A Levels, on the other hand, give you a level of flexibility while challenging you and allowing you to score your best due to their exam structure. If your school does not offer an international curriculum, taking part-time AP classes can help enhance your university admissions profile.
The programme that is right for you should be the one where you feel most comfortable as a student. If you are looking for a more flexible curriculum that allows you to pursue a variety of subjects while having multiple exam date choices then the A Levels are the perfect choice for you. On the other hand, if you are looking for a more rigorous programme, then the IB is the right choice. The APs are also rigorous as they are college-level courses.