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IB Vs A-levels: everything you need to know before choosing

04 Apr, 2024
IB Vs A-levels: everything you need to know before choosing

When it comes to pre-university qualifications, both the traditional British A-level and the International Baccalaureate are highly regarded by universities globally.

This article will review the differences between the two courses, exploring which is best suited to different types of students and what they mean for both university applications and beyond that, career opportunities.

Table of Contents

What are A-levels?

What is the International Baccalaureate (IB)?

How are A-levels and IB assessed?

What are the differences between A-levels and IB?

What are the pros and cons of A-levels?

What are the pros and cons of IB?

Which qualification is more highly regarded by universities?

Other factors to consider when choosing between A-levels and IB

What are A-levels?

Founded over 70 years ago, A-levels remain the traditional choice of pre-university qualification in the UK, and are also delivered in many schools internationally.

  • Short for Advanced Level, A-levels come after GCSEs.
  • They are offered by schools and sixth form colleges for students aged between 16 and 18.
  • They usually focus on academic subjects, with pupils typically taking A-levels in three or four subjects following two years’ study in Years 12 and 13.
  • A-level students are free to choose whichever subjects they wish to study. Subject choices are vast, with more than 50 different options available, though in practice, no one school is likely to offer all of these.

What is the International Baccalaureate (IB)?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) was created in 1968 and was intended from its inception to be an international qualification.

  • The IB Diploma Programme (IBDP), like the A-level, is typically assessed at age 18 after two years of study.
  • It consists of six subject groups, including languages, sciences, and mathematics.
  • Additionally, the IB incorporates the Theory of Knowledge (TOK), Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS), and the Extended Essay.
  • Currently, the IB is taught by fewer than a hundred schools in the United Kingdom, with roughly 5,000 UK pupils sitting it annually.

How are A-levels and IB assessed?


  • A-levels are studied across two years: the AS year (year 12) and A2 year (year 13). A-levels are sometimes described as 'linear', which denotes the fact that A-level grades are determined by final exam results at the end of year 13.
  • At the end of the first year, students take exams in all their subjects. If they are taking a full A-level, these results won't have any impact on the final grade – although they could help shape predicted grades. If they're just taking the subject as an AS-level, this exam will determine the final grade. (Note: in Wales and Northern Ireland, AS-level marks can still be 'banked' to represent 40% of the final A-level grade.)
  • Each A-level subject is graded from A*, A, B, C, D or E. When applying for a degree course, universities will usually offer a conditional place. This means the applicant’s place is dependent on achieving the A-level grades they require, for example AAB.


  • The IB’s structure is a little more complex than A-levels. Students must take six subjects, including at least three at Higher Level (HL) and the rest at Standard Level (SL).
  • In addition, they must complete an essay and presentation on the Theory of Knowledge, write an Extended Essay on a subject of their choice, and perform 150 hours of creative, sporting or social-service activity (known as CAS).
  • The IB divides its subjects into six groups: Studies in Language and Literature, Language Acquisition, Individuals and Society (i.e. humanities and social sciences), Experimental Sciences, Mathematics and Arts.
  • Students must select one subject from each of the first five groups. They may then take a subject from the Arts group, or a second subject from one of the first five. Each of these is graded from 1 (weakest performance) to 7 (strongest). They are then awarded a combined grade for the Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay modules, on a scale of 1 to 3. The top mark available in the IB is therefore 45.
  • There is a higher degree of coursework and internal assessment for the IB than for A-levels (typically around a third of the final grade). The rest is assessed in exams at the end of Year 13.

What are the differences between A-levels and IB?

A difference in scope

There are differing benefits to both A-levels and the IB, and understanding the main differences can help make an informed decision about which route to take.

A-levels provide deeper knowledge in chosen subjects, which gives a solid foundation for specialised degrees.

On the other hand, the IB’s slightly broader approach is attributed to developing skills such as critical thinking and versatility.

A-levels - the path to specialisation

  • A-levels are known for helping students specialise in specific subjects.
  • With A-levels, students typically choose three or four subjects to study in detail over a two-year period. This focused approach allows for a more in-depth understanding of, and expertise in, chosen subjects.
  • For those who have a clear career path or specific university course in mind, A-levels can both provide a solid basis for further study in the field, and demonstrate commitment to the specific discipline.

IB - a more holistic approach

  • It is often said that the IB offers a more rounded approach to pre-university education than A-levels. The IB Diploma Programme consists of six subjects, including a mix of humanities, sciences, languages, mathematics, and the arts.
  • Additionally, it incorporates the Theory of Knowledge (TOK), Extended Essay (EE), and Creativity, Activity, and Service (CAS) components. This approach to education fosters skills such as critical thinking, global awareness, and interdisciplinary connections.
  • For students who enjoy (and are proficient in) a range of subjects, the IB could be the better choice.

What are the pros and cons of A-levels?

In this section, we delve deeper into some of the specific pros and cons of A-levels.

The pros of A-levels

  • Deeper subject knowledge: because students typically focus on fewer subjects at A-level, the course content is more detailed. This means that pupils are likely to gain more in-depth knowledge of their chosen subjects than when taking even Higher Level subjects at IB.
  • A focus on subjects that students really enjoy: with A-levels, being able to select the subjects that bring most enjoyment (and proficiency) not only makes school a lot more enjoyable, and therefore motivating, but also gives students a tactical advantage allowing them to score better in their final exams by dropping their weaker subjects.
  • Very wide availability: as the main pre-university qualification in the UK, A-levels are the primary course offered in most British sixth forms and colleges, and in many other schools globally. Unlike the IB, which is offered by far fewer schools, finding an A-level programme close by will never be a problem.
  • Excellent preparation for the independent study required at university: because A-level students typically have fewer timetabled hours than their IB counterparts, they are forced to learn to be more independent learners and to organise their own time; an essential skill for what is a much more autonomous approach to teaching and learning at university.

The cons of A-levels

  • Early specialisation: while many students have an idea of their academic strengths - and possibly even future career plans - after GCSE, some 16 year olds are still unsure about what area they would like to focus their higher education studies in at this stage. That said, choosing 'facilitating' subjects at A-level, for example, can still give you a very wide range of options when it comes to applying for a university degree course. (Find out more on how to choose the right A-level subjects).
  • Exam focus: some subjects at A-level rely largely on end-of-course exams when it comes to assessment, and therefore many not be suited to those students who feel the pressure of testing environments. That said, special arrangements can often be made for those with specific needs.

What are the pros and cons of IB?

Now, let’s look at some of the pros and cons of the International Baccalaureate.

The pros of IB

  • A broader education: supporters of the IB say it provides a broader and more rounded educational experience. The academic range of subjects studied is wider, and in addition, the Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS) involves taking part in over 150 hours of non-academic activity with a reflective writing component, meaning students really do learn beyond the classroom.
  • A focus on acquiring long-term skills: in the IB, students are arguably tested less on their ability to memorise facts and theories (which could also be said for other curriculums), but rather their ability to understand how facts are presented, and theories applied.

The cons of IB

  • Rewards generalists: some say that a strength of the IB is also its weakness, in that it rewards pupils who are good at everything while those who excel at a few subjects suffer. It means that students who excel in one or two subjects often miss out on their first-choice university, because typical offers usually require a minimum IB score based across all subjects, rather than top scores in particular subjects that students want to pursue at undergraduate level.
  • Not suited to British university system: while the IB complements university courses in countries such as the US, which are typically longer and allow students to specialise later on, one criticism of the IB is that it does not suit the British university system, where students are already expected to have specialised upon entry.
  • The workload can be overwhelming: the heavy workload and deadlines associated with the IB can sometimes be a challenge for students. The IB is likely to be more time-intensive than A-levels.

Which qualification is more highly regarded by universities?

As we have already explored, A-levels and the IB have different strengths, both of which are recognised by universities.

In the University Officers Report 2017, officers assessed that the IB is better at encouraging a “global outlook” and “independent inquiry” in students, while A-levels give students more “detailed and in-depth expertise”.

Study in the UK

  • There’s no way of saying for sure whether UK universities prefer the IB vs A-levels. As a rule, for those who hope to study in the UK, A-levels are the most widely accepted option, but the UCAS tariff points system allows for university admissions teams to accept a variety of pre-university qualifications.
  • Researching specific entry requirements for any prospective institution and course is very important. Some universities or departments may favour A-levels, while others may prefer the IB. In most cases, a preference will not be expressed, however, it's usually possible to find out an institution’s or course’s average intake for A-level versus IB students.
  • It's also important to look into how the entry requirements for any prospective course differ between A-level and IB. There are sometimes slightly higher or more specific requirements for one qualification than the other.

Studying abroad

  • A-levels are a British qualification available in the UK. They are widely taken in both Commonwealth and former Commonwealth nations, as well as at examination centres globally. British international schools situated abroad typically provide British A-levels through examining bodies such as Edexcel.
  • Many countries that do not administer A-levels still accept them for admission into their universities.
  • Many countries across the globe administer the IB as a primary qualification and their universities accept it without the need for converting it. For example, many top universities in the United States specify International Baccalaureate requirements. All major universities in Hong Kong, Australia, Europe etc accept the IB.

Other factors to consider when choosing between A-levels and IB

Alongside factors around university admissions and preferences, it's useful to consider the following aspects when deciding whether to complete your pre university education with A-levels or the IB.

  • Academic strengths and interests: it’s very important for students to consider their academic strengths and interests. A-levels offer subject-specific depth, while the IB provides a broader range of subjects. Those students who excel at specific subjects would arguably be better suited to A-level study, whereas those who consider themselves ‘all rounders’ when it comes to academic study may well be better opting for the IB.
  • Personal goals: students should reflect on their personal goals, such as pursuing a specific career path, or gaining a global perspective. It’s important to consider how each qualification aligns with university aspirations and long-term plans.
  • Workload capacity and learning style: A-levels focus on a smaller number of subjects, allowing for specific yet thorough study, and with the majority of the overall grade determined by end of course examinations. The split between exams and coursework does depend on the subjects chosen, however, with a Humanities course typically having more coursework than the Sciences which are almost exclusively exam-based. IB, with its diverse subjects and additional components like the Extended Essay and CAS, can be more balanced in terms of assessment, yet often very workload-intensive. It’s crucial to think carefully about these varying elements as each student thrives in different scenarios when it comes to learning and assessment.
  • Availability: Far fewer schools offer the IB than A-levels. So, those students who are interested in following this course always need to check if it’s available at their school.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions around A-levels and IB, and how they compare.

Are A-levels harder than the IB?

Both A-levels and the IB can be taxing, but in different ways. While A-levels require students to gain in-depth knowledge of (and competency in) specific subjects, the IB requires a wider range of skills across various disciplines. The workload for IB students is often viewed as more intensive than for those doing A-levels.

Can I switch from A-levels to the IB or vice versa?

Switching between A -levels and the IB can be challenging due to differences in curriculum structure and assessment methods. However, it is possible in certain cases. Bear in mind, a change in courses may also mean a change in schools - particularly if switching from A-level to IB - as the IB is not offered as widely.

What are the benefits of taking A-levels over IB?

A-levels offer a more specialised approach to education, allowing students to focus on three or four subjects that align with their career aspirations or areas of interest. This can be particularly beneficial for students who have a clear idea of what they want to study at university or the career path they wish to pursue. A-levels are also widely recognised and accepted by UK universities, and the grading system is straightforward, with grades ranging from A* to E. Furthermore, the structure of A-levels, with most subjects being entirely exam-based, can be more suited to students who excel in exam situations rather than coursework.

What are the benefits of taking IB over A-levels?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) offers a wide educational approach, promoting breadth of knowledge across a range of subjects. Students study six subjects, including two languages, a science, a social science, maths, and an arts subject or another choice from the previous categories. This broad curriculum can help students develop a well-rounded skill set and keep their future options open.

The IB also includes components like the Theory of Knowledge, an Extended Essay, and the Creativity, Action, Service program, which are designed to develop critical thinking, research skills, and a sense of social responsibility.

University pathways with Kings

In short, both the IB and A-levels are highly regarded qualifications internationally and both lead to excellent outcomes, both academically and beyond. We hope that this article has given you some useful information some of the differences between them, and factors to consider when choosing the best one for your academic profile and future goals.

Of course, just as important as your choice of pre-university programme is your choice of school and the environment and learning it offers. This can also have a big impact on your academic achievements and future success.

At Kings, we offer a range of pre-university programmes at our four UK colleges, from A-levels to specialist foundations for international students, such as the Advanced Level Foundation.

By selecting to study at our UK schools, you will maximise your potential, and be sure of a place at the best possible UK university. Our student-focused approach and small classes ensure that our students win places at all of the UK’s top 30 ranked universities, including the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge.

The multinational and multicultural nature of our colleges also ensures students develop an international outlook and become global citizens.

For those who require English preparation, we also offer a range of English language programmes, from general English tuition to exam preparation courses and specialist English for career success.

If you would like receive more detailed information about the Kings and our programmes, please get in touch with us at