Many of my students study at U.K. boarding schools that offer both the GCE A-Levels and the IB Diploma Programme. So, when both are available, should you pick the A-Levels or the IB? The quick answer depends on your intended university/college destination. Simply put, if your priority is top American schools, pick the IB; if your priority is UK schools only, then pick A-Levels. If you want to keep both options open, pick the IB.
So why should students targeting American universities pick the IB? Well, rigour! At the end of the day, even though the GCE is a very challenging and well-respected curriculum, most students only choose three to four subjects. Students will often choose subjects that they are best at and end up with a combination that leans towards either STEM or the humanities. But remember your American counterparts! The American curriculum makes most students take a well-rounded selection of courses, including English, math, lab science, the arts, and a foreign language. The IB’s structure is a stronger competitor in this context. At the end of the day, the IB requires students to take three higher-level courses and three standard-level courses, not to mention the requirement to complete a highly-regarded 4000-word research essay, the TOK essay and fulfill 150 creative, action and service (CAS) hours! Many American schools actually regard the IB curriculum as one of the most, if not the most, rigorous curricula available.
And remember, American colleges look at the rigour of your courses first and foremost to see if a student is challenging themselves with their chosen courses. So, if you chose A-Levels when your school offers both curriculums, top American colleges will question why you didn’t pick the harder one – which is the IB. Even though American colleges will not disqualify a student for picking the A-Levels over the IB, they will definitely prioritize the candidates who did choose the IB when both options were presented. This is especially true for the top schools. Are there exceptions to the rule? Of course, we’ve worked with students who have done 6+ A-Levels, and that does solve the issue with rigour. But I would definitely rather pick the IB over doing that many A-Levels. At times, some A-Level students may have other things going on in their profile that would particularly attract American colleges. But simply put, as a rule of thumb, pick the IB when it’s available to make sure you are signalling to American colleges that you are challenging yourself when you can.
However, if your priority is to get into a top U.K. university, you should definitely choose the A-Levels curriculum. Focusing on only three to four subjects definitely allows students more time to study and specialize in them. For those aiming for Oxbridge, you must seek to expand your knowledge and spend time exploring your chosen course in your own time. The A-Levels curriculum, requiring students to only choose the courses they are good at, would cater to this need better. The U.K. does not give special consideration to those who have completed a TOK essay or put in 150 CAS hours. At the end of the day, U.K. universities care about students’ academic potential first and foremost, and the A-Levels curriculum aptly allows students to demonstrate these qualities. So, why put yourself through the IB when it’s not really required?
With that said, a rarely mentioned benefit of picking the IB over A-Levels for U.K. applicants is the wider range of conditional offers available to the IB applicants. As you may know, U.K. universities accept students on a conditional basis, i.e. that they will provide an offer of acceptance to a student on the condition that they attain a certain score in their subjects in their final public exams. For those who take the A-Levels, you will see that most top schools give out the standard offer of A*AA. For example, Cambridge, LSE and UCL law all require and give out the same offer of A*AA. This is a bit of a conundrum, albeit a good one when students receive offers from all three of these schools because this means they can only pick one as their firm choice and abandon the rest, as they would be unable to pick them as their insurance. After all, picking an insurance offer with the same conditions as your firm choice completely defeats the point of having the insurance option in the first place. However, this is not the case for students in the IB. Cambridge law requires a total of 40-42 points (in my experience, the standard offer is almost always 42) with 776 in Higher Level1https://www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/courses/law, while LSE asks for a total of 38 points with 766 at Higher Level2https://www.lse.ac.uk/study-at-lse/Undergraduate/degree-programmes-2023/LLB-Bachelor-of-Laws, and UCL requires a 39 point overall score with nothing below a 53https://www.ucl.ac.uk/prospective-students/undergraduate/degrees/law-llb#tab2-ibdiploma. With these differences, a student obtaining multiple offers from these schools can go for firm and insurance choice combinations according to their level of confidence in their own IB results.
What if you’re not sure whether you’d like to apply to the U.K. or the U.S. yet, or you’d like to keep your options open? Then, do the IB! Though there are strategic advantages to picking the A-Levels over the IB for U.K. university applicants, U.K. universities definitely hold the IB in very high regard. Therefore, picking the IB would mean keeping both the U.S. and the U.K. open. When in doubt, pick the harder curriculum unless you have express reasons for not doing so!
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By Antonia Chui, Managing Director