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Level Up: IB Diploma vs A levels

Updated: Jul 10, 2021

The IB Diploma and A levels are different qualifications offered by separate schooling systems yet both are respectively recognised by universities around the world. What is the advantage of one over the other and how do you support your child to choose? Here we provide you with a handy overview of the differences between them:


A levels, short for Advanced Level, are qualifications for those aged 16-19 year olds and traditionally follow on from the GCSE / IGCSE's as part of England's National Curriculum studies. Students study these in the top two years of secondary / senior school or at sixth form college and they culminate with externally assessed exams, with two or three timed written tests at the end of the two years of study, for each subject studied.

IB Diploma, short for International Baccalaureate Diploma, is a broader qualification that embraces a wider range of subjects for those aged 16-19 years and are recognised as a global programme. Students are evaluated using both internal and external assessments, and the course finishes with externally assessed exams, usually consisting of two or three timed written tests. Students study these in the top two years of secondary, high school or sixth form. Some schools offer IBDP as a the culmination of a full IB programme - IB Primary Years Programme, IB Middle Years Programme and onto IBDP - and some schools offer the IB Diploma as a stand-alone qualification for their graduating years only.


For the A level programme most students study three academic subjects which they decide upon in the academic year before the A level course begins (Year 11 / Grade 10).

Sometimes a student may choose to study four subjects to completion or start with four subjects and drop one after the first year to continue with three subjects for the final year. However unless they have taken an AS level (see later on in the article) there is no official recognition of having studied this additional subject.

The IB Diploma has been designed to address the intellectual, social, emotional and physical well-being of students. Students choose from one subject from each of five different subject groups ensuring breadth of knowledge and understanding across the student's main language, an additional language, social sciences, experimental science and mathematics. Students then choose an sixth subject either from the arts or a second subject from groups 1 to 5. Three of the chosen subjects are studied to a higher level and the remaining three to a standard level. In addition, there are three core requirements: Extended Essay, Theory of Knowledge and CAS (Creativity, Activity and Service).

Student Profile

A levels are well suited to those who have a clear idea of their subject strengths or what career path they want to pursue as it is a narrower choice of subjects with giving students a more 'in-depth' expertise.

IB teaches students to be advanced independent researchers and critical thinkers. It is a world-renowned qualification for students who seek a broad and challenging curriculum that helps them develop all the skills needed for success at university.


A levels are graded A* - E , with A* being the top mark you can achieve.

IB Diploma is graded on a 1- 7 scale, for each subject, with 7 being the highest score. The maximum points that can be awarded to an IB Diploma student is the full score of 45 with 42 points generated across the six subjects and three bonus points derived from Theory of Knowledge, Extended Essay and CAS.

Anything else?

Confusingly and under the same umbrella at A levels are AS (Advanced Subsidiary) levels. They are a qualification in their own right but also coupled with the A2 level (which is the final year of A level) complete the whole A level. AS level exams are external assessments which consist of written tests which take place at the end of the first year. An AS level qualification is only worth 40% of an A level qualification as the second year of study is considered to be more academically challenging.

The IB Diploma also offers the opportunity of obtaining a Bilingual Diploma, where the students have proficiency in two languages. The Bilingual Diploma requires you to either take two language A subjects from group 1 or do either a group 3 or group 4 subject in a language different to your group 1 language. The “regular” IB Diploma only requires you to take a second language from group 2, and your other subjects will be in your group 1 language. Demonstrating bilinguism may serve as an advantage by some universities in its application procedures and offers the candidate more options to attend universities in both languages.

Decision Time

Seek guidance from your school, they will know your child as well as you will and the teachers will have some input as to the right path for your child. Start enquring in Year 10 (Grade 9, age 15) as to which route might suit your child. This coupled with your own knowledge of your child will help you make that final decision. Do you have a child who doesn't perform well at independent critical research? Then the IB is more than likely not suited to them.

Some schools such as Tanglin Trust School in Singapore offer students the option of either pathway in Sixth Form with plenty of support and discussion to help the students make their choice. Other schools such as Kellett School in Hong Kong only offer A levels and others such as Bangkok Patana in Thailand only offer the IB.

So should you find your child is not suited to to the programme that is offered by your current school, when do you make the move into the right system? IB Diploma may be preceeded by PYP (Primary Years Programme) and MYP (Middle Years Programme), although no official qualifications are given in these years. A child can move into the IB system after GCSE / IGCSE's at the age of 16 without prior knowledge of the PYP or MYP system.

So do universities favour one academic excellence over another? Although IB is recognised by universities in almost 90 countries it is however important to note that all universities will look at students equally with either set of qualifications or indeed any other national qualifications for entrance into university.

Still unsure as to which route to take? Get in contact with us here for further guidance.

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