The IB vs A-Level and US University Choices

The IB vs A-Level and US University Choices

23 Jun 2023

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This informal CPD article ‘The IB vs A-Level and US University Choices’ was provided by UES Education, specialists in international university and school admissions, working with top schools across the UK and Europe to provide a bespoke service for those who want the best possible application support in the UK.

In the UK, most students will be studying either the A-Level or the IB (International Baccalaureate) curriculum. If a student intends to apply to a US university, how should teachers and schools advise them on choosing between and within these curricula? This article outlines a few considerations to keep in mind.

Choosing A-Level

A-Level students can take four subjects, but if they do, they should be sure that they will be able to keep up with the workload, as US universities generally prefer a student to have three A-Levels with excellent grades, than four with lower ones. Another thing to keep in mind is that if it is common at your school for students to take four A-Levels, and a student takes three, this may raise concerns in the eyes of US admission officers. However, if it is not customary at the school to take four A-Levels, admissions officers will not hold it against a student who takes three. Conversely, if a school normally only offers three and a student takes on a fourth, that looks very good for the student.

Most larger US universities with admissions officers dedicated to the UK region will be aware of the Extended Project Qualification. Since it is an individual research project, typically undertaken with a teacher mentor, the EPQ should be viewed favourably as it shows students have the initiative and independent study skills that set them up for success at university. Completing a strong EPQ could also demonstrate to a smaller US university—like a liberal arts college that offers students the opportunity to collaborate on research with a faculty mentor—that a student is a good fit for that type of university.

By selecting A-Levels considered more traditionally academic, students may give themselves more of a choice when it comes to universities: some global universities, like Swiss universities, will require applicants to have studied subjects like maths and science. US high school students will have been required to study a broad range of subjects, including maths and science; however, US universities are unlikely to require international applicants to have studied certain subjects. There are some exceptions: if a student is applying to a business or engineering programme, they will be expected to have taken advanced maths classes. Other colleges, like MIT and CalTech, don’t explicitly require applicants to have taken humanities or social science courses, but they do require a letter of recommendation in this subject area; studying those subjects at GCSE but not A-Level is unlikely to result in a strong enough recommendation.

What is the IB Diploma Programme?

In the IB Diploma Programme, students take a far broader range of subjects than A-Level students do. There are three core elements (Theory of Knowledge; extended essay; and creativity, activity, service, the latter of which is project-based.) Additionally, there are six subject groups: language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, maths, and the arts. Within this, courses are divided into Higher Level (HL) and Standard Level (SL) distinctions. Students take 3-4 subjects at Higher Level, and the rest at Standard Level. For Higher Level courses, students should show higher understanding and skills regarding the subject. Like A-Level students, IB students are assessed by a final exam at the end of their final year.

Teachers and schools advise on choosing between curricula

A-Level vs IB for US University applications

The IB curriculum is a closer match to the broad-based curricula at US universities, the majority of which require students to take classes from a wide range of subjects—including humanities subjects and writing-intensive courses—before specialising in their chosen ‘major’ (course). As such, the IB is viewed favourably by US admissions officers. So, if a student who plans to apply to US universities is able to do well in the IB, this might be the best option for them. However, if a student can achieve higher grades in the A-Level curriculum, it is generally better to take A-Levels and do well, than to attempt the IB and achieve lower grades. If taking A-Levels, a student could demonstrate a breadth of knowledge by doing co-curricular activities or taking external classes in other subjects.

Overall, the broad range of subjects offered by the IB is more similar to the form of education found at American universities, but the IB and A-Levels can both set students up for successful US applications if students choose a curriculum playing to their strengths and achieve high grades.

We hope this article was helpful. For more information from UES Education, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively, you can go to the CPD Industry Hubs for more articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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For more information from UES Education, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively please visit the CPD Industry Hubs for more CPD articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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