A-Levels vs IB

A-Levels and the IB: What’s really the difference?

10.01.2020

Parents often ask us about the British A-levels and how they compare to the International Baccalaureate (IB). They are both world-class qualifications and highly sought-after at top universities across the world. There are some important differences, however, and considering these carefully will ensure students get the most out of their two years of further education.

The Advanced Levels (A-levels)

The A-levels are British qualifications that students gain at the end of school. A-level students (aged 16-18) choose three-four subjects to study in-depth across two years. The International A-levels (IAL) are comparable to the British A-levels and are available to students studying towards the exams from outside of the UK.

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IB)

The IB Diploma is an international qualification for students aged 16-19. IB students choose from a broad curriculum made up of six subject groups: Studies in Language and Literature; Language
Acquisition; Individuals and Societies; Sciences; Mathematics, and the Arts. Students normally take three standard-level subjects and three subjects at higher-level. In addition, students on the Diploma Program (DP) must complete three other core components:

How do they compare?

The main advantage of the A-levels is that they equip students with deep understanding and expertise in their chosen subjects and topics. For those who know what subjects they enjoy and are good at, or for those who know what they want to study in the future, this can be an excellent opportunity to hone skills and interests. Additionally, studying three-four subjects means that students can really focus on what they are passionate about. As educators, we find that this really encourages a love of learning and helps students to accelerate their grades in their chosen fields.

The IB, on the other hand, sees students selecting six subjects from set groupings across many disciplines. The IB places heavy emphasis on student autonomy and time management. This makes it a good option for students who already love independence and leading their own studies. If you’re a student who enjoys and excels at subjects across the board, from English, to math and sciences, IB allows you the freedom to take on these subjects. 

If, however, you’re a student with a strengths and interests in certain subjects or disciplines, A-Levels might be a better choice. It’s true that studying A-levels, as opposed to the IB, often alleviates some of the stress and pressure students experience at this stage of their studies. This is because students electing their subjects at A-levels are likely to choose subjects that play to their strengths, rather than struggling to perform across all six IB subject groups.

Another important consideration is extra-curriculars. The IB Creativity, Activity, and Service component (CAS) provides a wonderful opportunity for students to try new hobbies, engage in community activities and reflect on their own personal development. Students who don’t already have many extracurricular activities often really benefit from this aspect of the IB program. However, if you’re someone who already has extracurricular commitments outside of school (for example with sports or music), the CAS component can put extra pressure on an already stressful schedule. We recommend that students think really carefully about their priorities over these two years and how they will fit other interests around their tight school timetable.

What about the independent research project?

Both qualifications have extended essay components that are designed to prepare students with university-style study skills. The IB extended essay is a self-directed research project culminating in a 4000-word paper on a topic of the student’s choice. The A-level Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is an independent research project that involves either: producing a dissertation of around 5000 words; or creating a product and writing a shorter essay. The IB extended essay is a compulsory part of the overall qualification, whereas the A-level EPQ counts as a standalone qualification worth up to 28 UCAS points.The EPQ is not compulsory so, if for any reason a student is finding it difficult to manage their workload, they can easily drop the EPQ component to focus on their main studies.

The main takeaways

As previously described, for us at The Learn Academy, the biggest difference is the number of subjects you study. For the A-levels, it’s three-four courses. For the IB, it’s six subjects, plus the Theory of knowledge course, the extended essay, and the CAS project. If you already know which subjects interest you, or where your strengths lie, the A-levels will help you focus on your passions and prepare for life after school. If you enjoy learning a wide range of subjects and flourish through independent study, the IB will be a great fit for you.

Both the A-levels and the IB Diploma are fantastic and rigorous qualifications, designed to prepare students for higher education. Making the right choice will ultimately depend on each student’s interests, academic strengths, and plans for the future.

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