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Pick your player: IB vs A Level

Finding the most appropriate course to follow during the final two years of your high school career is no easy task. Both the International Baccalaureate and A level courses are academically excellent and extremely competitive. Whichever one you decide to undertake, you will be faced with challenges and frustrations, yet both will allow you to achieve a similar outcome via slightly different paths. In this article we have noted a few factors to consider when making your final decision.


Everyone finds the curriculum they undertake to be ‘the most difficult’. This is the most common argument we hear with students from both disciplines claiming their course is the most challenging. However, we hold the unpopular opinion that this is not necessarily the case. The way I see it, by the time you have finished high school you should have a certain amount of knowledge and both A levels and IB deliver that, just in different ways.

When breaking down the IB course, generally it is agreed that the standard or lower level courses are targeted at a level just beyond GCSE or Year 11 (Grade 10) content, closer to an AS level standard. You will be learning new information at a slightly more complex level than you have done before but these courses will not be too demanding. The higher-level subjects are considered to be a significant jump compared to your GCSE content; they certainly are challenging and will require lots of hard work and revision outside of your lessons so choose these wisely.

The A level course requires you to choose only 3 or 4 (maximum) subjects however you are expected to learn these to a greater depth than within any of the IB courses. This is to be expected as you are focusing on fewer subjects but being taught over the same period of time (2 years). It can be argued that because of this A levels give you a deeper insight into the subjects you choose but by reducing yourself down to a smaller subject choice you could be limiting your university options for the future. This is something to consider if by the start of Year 12 you are still not 100% sure what you would like to study at university.

Compared to A levels, HL subjects are approximately the same difficulty however the content reduced so that you have enough time to also study for your SL subjects.

Numbers of subjects:

This is one of the biggest factors you need to consider. When choosing your IB subjects, you have to select six subjects in total; three of these are to be taken at a higher level and the other three are taken as a standard level. It is recommended that you take your most academic subjects as HL and three other subjects you enjoy, and can equally score highly in, as SL.

Further to this selection process there are six subject groups that you have to consider when making your choices; Studies in language and literature, Language acquisition, Individuals and societies, Sciences, Mathematics and the Arts. It is required that you choose one from each of these categories. There are different courses within each group that you can choose from, but the range of choice is highly dependent on what is available at your school.

With A levels however, most students take three subjects, with a select few choosing to take four. These subjects are largely at the student’s discretion but can be influenced by a few other factors such as previous Year 11 results, future desired degree, timetabling etc.

When choosing A level options, it is important to consider subjects that allow you to display a variety of skills to a university administrator, we will delve further into this topic in an upcoming post.

Creative thinking and application:

The IB programme generally allows for more application of knowledge. This is achieved through the variety of additional tasks that students are expected to undertake whilst studying the IB programme. This includes: theory of knowledge (TOK), extended essay (EE), creativity, arts and service (CAS) as well as internal assessments (IAs) which must be completed for every subject – HL and SL. These elements are not ‘taught’ explicitly at school but instead require the student to think creatively and independently, with a small amount of guidance from their teachers.

These are all fantastic ways to demonstrate a variety of skills and interests to potential university administrators as well as to refine expertise in a certain area, another huge advantage when it comes to potential university interviews. Lastly, all of your hard work in these areas does not go unnoticed as each element is individually graded and will contribute to your final IB score.

It is slightly more unusual to be asked to complete and submit coursework when studying an A level or International A level qualification. As a consequence of this, you will need to put in a little more effort to demonstrate particular skills outside of your course domain to your universities. Fear not however, as there is a task you can complete that allows you to show proficiencies aside from your subjects and is accepted by A level examination boards.

An EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) is an additional course that students can optionally undertake during the first year of their A levels and is equivalent of 50% of an A level qualification (what used to be referred to as an AS) which is certainly not something to dismiss. The idea of an EPQ is for the student to explore any topic they find interesting, create their own essay question and conduct appropriate research, if necessary, to be able to answer that question. It is no small commitment however as you are expected to write approximately 5000 words or 10 pages. Now, if your topic is chosen wisely this can become a very enjoyable and beneficial task. Ideally you want to write about something relevant to the university course you are looking to study or at least within a field of significant interest. By conducting your own research and analysis you will naturally be able to discuss topic confidently and in extensive detail if asked for a specialism during any university interviews.


Choosing your A level subjects needs significant consideration as typically you are going from 10 – 12 GCSE subjects down to just 3 or 4. For example, choosing a combination of subjects like English Language, French and Politics will blend perfectly together however, they will significantly reduce your chances of being able to study anything science or mathematics based at university. Your subject choices largely dictate what you can study further, as mentioned above we have a more detailed post on this coming up.

On the other hand, as the IB course allows you to maintain six subjects (albeit at different levels) you are not reducing your options for university quite as significantly as with A levels. Some courses, such as medicine, engineering, journalism etc. will require certain subjects to be taken at a higher level but this is not always the case. If you have displayed a strong standard level score you could also be considered on these courses – however, in this case you may potentially need to dedicate some time over the summer to familiarising yourself with the higher-level content.

The Decision:

So, what does all this mean for you?

Nobody expects you to have your career planned out at the end of Year 11, most people still don’t know this when they are 40!

If you do know what you would like to study at university by this stage then that is excellent, think about the subjects you feel would be most beneficial to this path and that can be your starting point. Potentially if this is the case, then A levels could be the right choice for you – the qualification will give you an in-depth understanding of the subjects you require for your career and make you a competitive candidate.

However, if this is not the case for you do not feel as though you are being left behind. Start by making a list of the subjects you look forward to and the subjects you have scored highly in previously –are there any over laps? Then have a look at some online taster courses, aside from university websites, there are thousands of websites that will give you an idea of different university courses available.

Maybe look into some disciplines you might not have considered before; politics, law, finance, nutrition, toxicology etc. These little snippets will give you an idea of what the courses will entail and you can choose your options from there. If you feel this scenario defines you best then perhaps the IB route is a good one for you to consider; it allows you to keep your options open by maintaining 6 different subjects as well as show expertise in areas with the additional IA and EE requirements.

If in doubt, always choose the path that you feel, in the words of the wonderful Marie Kondo, ‘bring you joy’. You are going to dedicate two years of your life to these subjects so make sure whichever path you choose (IB or A level) the subjects within them are ones you enjoy – I guarantee THIS will be the biggest contributing factor to your success.

Both courses are recognised globally as being incredibly prestigious and choosing one over the other will never put you at a disadvantage. They are both challenging and demanding in their own way but just require you to apply yourself slightly differently.


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