IB or A Levels: Which is the Right Choice?

Choosing the right qualifications and subjects to study for the last two years of school can affect the choices your child has as they transfer to university.

In this article we will look at A Levels and the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB), their similarities and differences, strengths and possible weaknesses, to enable parents and students make the best-informed decision.
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Difference Between IB and A Levels

The main differences between the two routes can be summarised thus:
  • Students studying for A Levels typically choose 3 to 4 subjects, allowing subjects to be studied in greater depth.
  • Students studying for the IB Diploma study 6 subjects, three at the Higher Level and three at the Standard Level, as well as writing an extended essay and studying theory of knowledge.

IB (International Baccalaureate)

The IB Diploma programme is taught in 143 countries around the world.

It aims to develop students who have a breadth and depth of knowledge. Students choose one subject from each of five groups, including two languages, social sciences, experimental sciences and maths. They choose a sixth subject either from an arts group, or another subject from groups one to five. Subjects are studied at either a Higher or Standard level.

The programme includes an extended essay focussed on one of the subjects studied; theory of knowledge focussing on critical thinking and learning across all subjects, and creativity, action, service, combining a range of activities alongside academic study to enhance personal and interpersonal development.

Assessment is a combination of exams and coursework. Each subject is scored from 1-7, with up to three additional points available for Theory of Knowledge essays and the Extended essay. The highest score is 45 points, and a minimum score of 24 points is needed to be awarded the diploma. The British Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has developed a tariff system equating 36 IB points with three A grades at A level.

More information about the IB Diploma programme, the subjects taught and the two levels, is available on the IB site.


A Levels

A Levels are long-standing UK subject-based qualifications recognised for entrance to universities in the UK and many other countries worldwide.

There are no compulsory subjects or pathways. Students are free to choose the subjects that interest them most, or that they feel will benefit them most in their university choices. Students typically study three subjects, although many choose to study four at least for the first year. Assessment is largely by exam, although some courses may have elements of assessed course work. Grades are awarded on a scale of A* to E.

Unlike the IB which is solely run by the IB organisation, there are several exam boards which offer A Levels, the main three being Pearson Edexcel, AQA and OCR.

A Levels can be an excellent choice for students who have a very clear idea of which subjects they prefer, are strongest in, and which university pathway they want to follow.



To summarise, the main difference between the two qualifications is that with the IB students study six subjects including an extended essay and theory of knowledge. At A Level students study fewer subjects, but this does allow focussing with greater depth on areas of interest.

Although there is no extended essay element to A Levels, many schools offer students the opportunity to complete an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), which can not only provide valuable essay writing practise, but can be worth up to an additional 28 UCAS points.

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Should I Take IB or A Levels?

We would recommend first familiarising yourself with the format of both qualifications, as outlined above. Consider your child’s learning style and whether they have clear preferences for STEM subjects, humanities or the creative arts. Consider also the qualifications offered by their school or college. The number of UK schools now offering the IB either instead of, or alongside, A Levels is growing. Initially offered by private and international schools, the IB is now also offered in an increasing number of state schools.

A research report published by the IB Schools and Colleges Association in 2017 found that A Levels enable students to develop in-depth subject expertise, while the IB encourages independent enquiry and a global outlook.

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IB vs A Levels for UK University Admissions

Both the IB and A Levels are accepted for university admissions in the UK.

University admissions are done via UCAS and individual IB subject results can be translated into UCAS Tariff points, in the same way as A Levels and other suitable qualifications. This numerical value is then used by course providers to assess whether a student meets their entry requirements.

It is recommended that students taking the IB take subjects related to what they want to study at University at the Higher level. If a subject is required at A Level for university entrance, it will almost certainly be required at the Higher level of the IB Diploma.

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IB vs A Levels for US University Applications

Universities in the US are familiar with the IB and will accept the IB Diploma. The IB Diploma is a closer match to the curricula at US universities which largely require students to cover a wider range of subjects before specialising. A Levels are also accepted by US admissions authorities.

Grades are key and if a student is likely to do better studying three or four A levels closely related to their subject, then that will carry more weight than lower grades in the IB Diploma. If taking A levels, then an EPQ or extra-curricular classes in other subjects can help demonstrate a breadth of knowledge.

The best way to proceed is to research the requirements from individual universities and subjects, to make the best decision going forward. We have consultants at Ivy Education who specialise in providing advice about US university admissions.

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Other Considerations

Most UK state schools offer A levels as the primary qualification at the end of sixth form. As mentioned above, an increasing number are also the offering IB, especially academically selective grammar schools. The IB Diploma is much more commonly offered within the independent sector.

It is important that you discuss with your child’s school or college what subjects are offered in post-16 qualifications and which pathways, IB or A Level are available.

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As with any major decision, it is important to find out as much information as you can about the options available. Both the IB and A Levels are challenging programmes of study, designed to allow students to show their academic potential.

At Ivy Education we have expert consultants who can help you navigate the process, assisting with choices at sixth form and university entrance. We also have excellent tutors who can help your child maximise their academic performance whichever route they take.

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Advanced Level qualifications (known as A levels) are subject-based qualifications that can lead to university, further study, training, or work. Students normally take three or more and study towards exams over a two-year period. The exams are taken in the last year of school.

Students choose one subject from each of five groups, including two languages, social sciences, experimental sciences and maths. They choose a sixth subject from an arts group, or another subject from groups one to five. Subjects are studied at either a Higher or Standard level.

Universities in the UK and around the world accept the IB Diploma and A Level grades for admission. Both routes are academically rigorous and challenging, and it is important to check the requirements of individual universities and courses.

The IB diploma offers a more holistic approach, with a greater spread of subjects and the inclusion of Theory of Knowledge, an extended essay and other activities to support personal development. A Levels offer more in-depth study of a narrower range of subjects and may suit a student with a very clear idea of what they want to study and a clear preference for humanities or the sciences or maths.

Alastair - Ivy Education - Author of IB or A Levels: Which is the Right Choice?

BY Alastair

Alastair Delafield is the Managing Director and founder of Ivy Education.

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