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A Levels vs Foundation: Which One Should You Choose?

06 Aug, 2020
A Levels vs Foundation: Which One Should You Choose?

A-levels and Foundation programmes are both pre-university level courses taken by students as they finish high school and prepare for degree level study in the UK.

Are you thinking about applying to university and need to obtain an officially recognised qualification to gain entry to your chosen degree? It’s likely that either A-levels or a Foundation course will be your best option.

Here, we will explore the differences between the two qualifications and give you the knowledge and understanding to help you make the best choice on what is right for you.

We’ll be covering:

  • A-levels: the What, Why, and How
  • Advanced Level Foundation: the What, Why, and How
  • A-level vs Foundation: Side by Side comparison
  • Which one is better for you?

In this article, we will specifically be focusing on the Kings Advanced Level Foundation, rather than other generic pre-university foundation courses that are available in the UK.

Table of Contents

A Levels: The What, Why & How Behind Them

Advanced Level Foundation: The What, Why & How Behind It

A Levels vs Foundation: Side-by-Side Comparison

Which One is Better for You?

Now Over to You

A Levels: The What, Why & How Behind Them

What are A-levels?

A-levels — short for Advanced Levels — are the ‘gold standard’ qualification for entry to top ranked universities in the UK, and the rest of the world. They are taken by most students in the UK at the age of 17 – 18 as they finish Year 13.A-levels are a subject based qualification, with students usually taking 3 – 4 different A-levels over the course of 1 – 2 years. A final grade for each subject is then assigned based on results obtained in a series of end of course examinations, and sometimes also coursework or other ongoing assessment.

What does A-levels stand for?

A-levels is short for ‘General Certificate of Education — Advanced Levels’. A-levels have been the main school leaving qualification taken by students in the UK as they progress onto higher education since they were first introduced in the 1950s.

Which A-level subjects should you take?

A-levels provide great depth of study in a few specialist subjects. You will choose 3 – 4 subjects to study, with the flexibility to choose any combination out of the range of subjects available at your school.

It’s important to note that some degrees may have specific A-level subject requirements for entry onto their undergraduate programmes. You should do some research into the entry requirements for the courses, subject area or institutions that you are interested in to check whether they ask for particular A-levels. For example, if you would like to apply to a medical degree, you will always need two sciences — Biology is compulsory, and Chemistry is the preferred second science.

At Kings, the A-level subjects that we offer are Art and Design, Biology, Business Studies, Chemistry, Economics, Geography, Government and Politics, History, Mathematics, Further Maths, Physics, Chinese, Russian, English Literature, and other subjects are available on request.

How many A-levels can you take?

Most of the top universities in the UK require students to complete 3 A-levels in order to be accepted onto an undergraduate course.

At Kings, we also offer the option for students to take the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) alongside their A-levels.

What is the EPQ?

The Extended Project Qualification, or EPQ as it is more commonly referred to, is a qualification that is highly valued for progression to university and carries UCAS tariff points equivalent to half an A-level.

Through the EPQ qualification students will complete a research project to explore an area of their own interest. At Kings this is usually directly related to their ambitions for further study at university and may be in a subject not offered at A-level.

By following an EPQ, students will develop and demonstrate a wide range of transferable skills, which can include:

  • project management, planning, research, critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, decision-making, problem-solving, evaluation and presentation skills
  • critical, reflective and independent learning
  • creativity, initiative and enterprise
  • responsibility
  • e-learning skills and the use of technology

Students can choose any subject that they like for the EPQ, but generally it offers them an opportunity to start to focus on an area they are interested in studying at university.

How is the EPQ graded?

The EPQ is assessed through a final project, report, dissertation and a presentation, or a physical project and a shorter written report. The qualification is graded A* – E and carries UCAS points equivalent to half a full A-level.

Where are A-levels accepted?

A-levels are accepted by all of the very best UK universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, and most medical schools only accept students with outstanding A-level grades. A-levels are also widely accepted by top universities and other educational institutions around the world.

At Kings, we offer a medical pathway through a foundation course, as well as A-levels. Read more here.

Read more about the universities that recent Kings A-level students have progressed onto here.

How are A-levels graded?

Your final A-level grade is based on end-of-course exams. Each A-level subject is graded from A*, A, B, C, D or E. When you apply for your degree course, universities will usually offer you a conditional place. This means your place is dependent on you achieving the A-level grades they require, for example ABB.

Many universities now make ‘dual offers’ to include an alternative offer for students with an EPQ. For example, Queen Mary University may provide a dual offer of ABB at A-level or BBB with an A in the EPQ. You can learn more about the possibility of reduced offers with the EPQ here.

How hard are a levels?

It’s difficult to determine how “hard” you will find A-levels as this would depend on many factors and on your subjective opinion of what you find difficult.

Generally, A-levels are considered to be a challenging qualification that require hard work and dedication to achieve top grades. If you have previously studied GCSEs in the UK or elsewhere, you may find A-levels easier than a student who has completed high school in another country and is experiencing the UK education system for the first time when beginning their A-level course.

However, with the right support and the right attitude, it is possible for academically strong students from all backgrounds and countries to do well in their A-levels.

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Advanced Level Foundation: The What, Why & How Behind It

What is the Advanced Level Foundation course?

The Advanced Level Foundation (ALF) Is a rigorous one-year pre-university programme that bridges the gap between completion of 11 – 12 years of high school in another country and starting an undergraduate degree in the UK.. It is based on A-levels and assured by Pearson — an external awarding body who review the programme annually and assure it as preparation to study at degree level in the UK.

The Advanced Level Foundation is an intensive one-year course, with programme content that is similar to an A-level course, but tailored specifically to the needs of international students. The syllabus is designed to be more accessible for international learners as it doesn’t require the cultural expectations that A-levels do.

The Advanced Level Foundation is deliberately named as such to differentiate it from more generic foundations that can be geared towards a particular subject only and/or specific universities.

What is the Advanced Level Foundation equivalent to?

The Advanced Level Foundation is equivalent to A-levels and other high school completion qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) which are accepted by universities for entry to degree-level programmes.

Which subjects will I take on my foundation course?

Just like with A-levels, the Advanced Level Foundation course allows you to pick your own subjects and combine them in any way to suit your goals and interests.

Students can choose three different subjects from a number of different electives. These elective modules can be combined in any way, just like A-levels. Available elective subjects are Art and Design, Biology, Business Studies, Chemistry, Economics, Geography, Government and Politics, History, Law, Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology.

Depending on the degree that you are aiming for, we can recommend specific ‘pathways’ built from a combination of subject modules that will best prepare you for that particular degree. For example, if you would ultimately like to study Architecture at university, the specific subject modules that we would suggest might be Mathematics, Art and Design, and Further Mathematics.

Alongside these, all students will take two core modules — Communications and Study Skills (CSS) and Data Handling and Information Technology. These compulsory modules will give students the skills they need to successfully acquire subject specific knowledge.

What does the CSS module involve?

This subject focuses on academic English, and it also offers IELTS preparation support, as well as important elements of academic English for university, namely writing longer essays and also presenting in front of groups.

What is the Data Handling module?

Data handling focuses on the ability to analyse and store numerical and non-numerical data, focusing on students’ ability to present work in various graphical formats, as well as building competency to use generic computer packages such as Excel.

Where is the Advanced Level Foundation course accepted?

The Kings Advanced Level is accepted by a broad range of top UK universities. These universities understand the quality of the foundation courses, and of the students who complete it successfully.

In the past, Kings foundation students have been accepted to institutions such as University of St Andrews, Durham University, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), University of Warwick, and many more. You can view the latest results here.

Many other pre-university foundation courses offered in the UK prepare students for one particular university or group of universities. The key advantage of the Kings Advanced Level Foundation is that all doors and possibilities remain open — you can apply for whichever universities you like.

How is the Advanced Level Foundation graded?

Final results for the Advanced Level Foundation course are given as a percentage out of 100. Typical university offers are based on their normal university A-level offers. Many Kings students achieve grades equivalent to A*A*A* at A-level.

Typical A-level offer

Typical Kings Foundation offer

A*A*A*

80%

AAA

75%

AAB

70%

ABB

65%

BBB

60%

CCC

50%

How to apply for the Advanced Level Foundation in the UK?

Applying for a place on the Advanced Level Foundation course is straightforward — simply complete and submit an Application Form, and submit this to our Admissions team alongside your proof of identification, and details of your education history and grades achieved so far.

International students from most countries will need to obtain a visa to study in the UK, and you may also need to obtain some officially recognised proof of your English language level — such as IELTS — before you travel.

Find out more here.

Is a foundation year worth it?

If you are an international student who wants to study at undergraduate degree level in the UK, a foundation course — or an alternative pre-university qualification such as A-levels or International Baccalaureate — is essential. A foundation course will bridge the gap between high school and university.

The Kings Advanced Level Foundation is specifically designed to help international students achieve outstanding grades, receive offers from the top UK universities, and also to equip students with the skills they need to succeed at undergraduate level.

As the Kings ALF is not affiliated to any one institution, it offers you the chance to spend a year in the UK with time to research your options, visit potential universities, and explore different places yourself before you make a final decision on the next steps. With a choice of over 150 universities in the UK, the process of deciding where to apply can be overwhelming when you are overseas.

The compulsory CSS and Data Handling modules have the additional benefit of developing the study skills and academic English language ability that will ensure a smooth transition to university and help you to thrive during your degree.

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A Levels vs Foundation: Side-by-Side Comparison


Whilst A-level and Foundation courses are equivalent in terms of being highly regarded pre-university courses that are accepted by top ranking institutions, there are a few key differences between the two qualifications that you should be aware of.

Here, we list the 5 main differences.

Difference #1: Length

The Advanced Level Foundation course is completed in one-year, whereas the A-level programme, for most students, is taken across a two-year period.

Although an accelerated one-year A-level programme is available at Kings for high-achieving students, the majority of students, both at Kings and elsewhere, take their A-levels over 2 years.

A foundation course — excluding any additional terms of English language preparation that may be added on at the beginning of the course — is completed in one academic year by all students.

Both A-level and Foundation courses are offered on a full-time basis here at Kings.

Difference #2: UK student or International student

A-level qualifications originate in the UK and are taken by a majority of UK Year 13 students in order to gain entry to university.

Foundation programmes, on the other hand, are generally taken by international students only.

The Kings Advanced Level foundation is tailored specifically to the needs of international students who may be unfamiliar with the UK secondary school syllabus and do not speak English as their first language.

Difference #3: Acceptance

Although the vast majority of top UK universities accept both A-levels and international foundation programmes for entry to their undergraduate programmes, it’s important to note that some of the elite universities require students to have taken A-levels (or their international equivalent) for entry.

The Kings Advanced Level Foundation is recognised and accepted by all the top UK universities other than University of Oxford, Cambridge University, Imperial College London and University College London.

Typically, medical schools will also only accept A-levels, however at Kings, our specialist Medical Foundation is accepted by 6 universities in the UK and Ireland. This includes Keele University Medical School, which is ranked #3 in the UK. Read more about medical pathways at Kings here.

To summarise, A-levels are universally accepted by all universities, whereas foundation courses may have some limitations in terms of where students can apply.

Difference #4: Assessment system

Students taking A-level courses will be assigned their final results in the format of a grade from A* – E for each subject that they take. Advanced Level Foundation students will receive their final results as a percentage out of 100.

A-levels are accredited by different external exam boards, which will vary according to subject, and the exam boards that your school chooses to use. The 5 main exam boards in the UK are AQA, CCEA, Pearson Edexcel, OCR, and WJEC.

The Kings Advanced Level Foundation is validated by Pearson (the awarding body that owns Edexcel, the exam board). It is also externally modified by an external panel made up of Education Specialists. These external assessment measures mean that it is accepted by all but the top 4 UK universities.

At the same time, the evaluation process is quicker and so Advanced Level Foundation students will have their final results — and therefore start their university offer confirmations — up to a month before A-level students.

Difference #5: Cost

Another difference to consider is the cost of both programmes. Foundation programmes are generally cheaper than A-level courses. This is due to the fact that A-levels usually have a higher number of hours of tuition per week and are often taught in smaller class sizes.

If you are academically gifted, it would be worth contacting the school that you are applying for to check whether they have any scholarships available.

Details of fees for Kings’ academic courses can be found here.

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Which one is better for you?

Deciding which option is best for you between an A-level course or a Foundation can be difficult and is ultimately a very personal choice.

Here are a few things you should consider whilst deciding:

  • Are you aiming for (and likely to get into) Oxbridge or certain medical schools? If yes, A-levels is probably the best option for you and will keep all doors open.
  • How long do you want to spend studying? For most students, an A-level course will take two years, whereas a foundation course will only take one. If you have already studied for 12 years in another country, you may not want to study for another two before entering university.
  • Are you considering studying your degree in a country other than the UK, such as the United States, Canada or Australia? If yes, A-levels will give you more options as is it a well-known and internationally accepted pre-university qualification.
  • Is this your first experience of studying internationally? If yes, a foundation programme may be your preferred option as it is specifically designed to meet the needs of international students.

If you do decide to take a foundation course, the second step is to decide between a generic university foundation, and the Kings Advanced Level Foundation. Generic foundation courses typically mean a student has to take set subject choices and so narrows their options for progression down quite early in the process. At Kings, a key USP of our ALF programme is the wide choice of subjects on offer. Studying a range of subjects at foundation level ensures you keep your undergraduate degree options as open as possible.

To help you make a final decision, we would recommend speaking to a Kings advisor who can give you more detailed information about the options available and the best study plan for you.

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Now over to you

Here, we’ve learnt more about what A-level courses and Foundation programmes are, the key differences between the two, and how to decide which is best for you.

At Kings, we offer both the Advanced Level Foundation and one and two-year A-level courses at our 4 colleges in the UK — Kings Brighton, Kings Bournemouth, Kings London, and Kings Oxford.

For students who already know the subject area that they’d like to focus on in the future, we also offer a number of specialist foundation courses:

Get in touch today to let us know about your future goals and find out how we can help you achieve them.

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