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The difference between the IB diploma and A levels

Course guide 26 July 2016

If you’re currently researching different pre-university options, you’ve probably heard a lot of arguments for both the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma and A levels. In truth, however, the best path for a student largely depends on their individual personality and goals.

Both programmes take equally valid approaches, but focus on different aspects of a student’s education. It’s for this reason that CATS offers both the IB Diploma and A level options, allowing us to provide unbiased advice to both students and parents in helping them make the right choice for their needs.

The key differences between A levels and the IB diploma are:

  • Both studied over 2 years, A levels comprise of 3 to 4 subjects studied in depth, whereas in the IB takes a more holistic approach with 6 subjects.
  • The IB includes other compulsory components that are a part of the core diploma, such as Theory of Knowledge, an Extended Essay and CAS (Creativity, Action Service) activities.
  • A levels are graded A* to E, with A* being the highest grade, whereas the IB uses a numerical 1-7 grading system, with 7 being the highest.

Some see the IB as the world’s fastest growing qualification, and the best choice for today’s students, while others still firmly believe that A levels remain the gold standard in global education.

Read on to find out more about each programme, and learn which path is right for you.

What is the IB diploma?

The IB Diploma students is a programme of study that focuses on a much larger breadth of topics. Students must choose 3 Higher Level subjects and 3 Standard Level subjects from each of the 6 compulsory core areas: Language & Literature, Language Acquisition, Sciences, Maths, Social Sciences, and the Arts.

They must also complete additional components of the course. This includes a Theory of Knowledge module, which promotes critical thinking, as well as participating in at least 3 hours-worth of arts, sport or community service activities as part of their Creativity, Action, and Service (CAS) module. They must also complete an Extended Essay, an independently researched 4,000-word essay on a topic of their choice.  

Each subject receives a grade between 1 and 7, and all grades are summed to provide a total number out of 45. To pass the IB, students must achieve at minimum a 24, meeting certain grade thresholds in their higher and standard level subjects, as well as passing the additional components.

IB diploma students complete a range of components as part of their study, including sports

IB diploma students complete a range of components as part of their study, including sports

Why should you choose to study the IB?

The IB diploma offers a well-rounded education. This makes the course particularly suited to students who are interested in a broad range of subjects, but haven’t chosen what they would like to study at degree level yet.

Universities increasingly look for students who have been involved in a wide range of relevant activities. The essay and Theory of Knowledge components of the IB programme also provide ideal preparation for university education, giving students a solid grounding in critical thinking independent research skills.

How are A levels different to the IB?

The most obvious difference between the two programmes is the amount of subjects students are required to take on. A level students usually pick 3 subjects, unless they are doing Further Maths or a Medicine pathway when they will choose 4. Students can choose any combination of subjects on offer, though their choices are all usually closely related to each other.

This is because A levels allow students to explore a smaller range of fields in more depth, providing more specialised preparation towards further study. For example, a student who is more focused on maths or science-based study might find struggle with some of the less technical subjects on the IB programme, bringing their final grades down.

They also may not be able to study the right number of technical subjects needed for them to specialise at this stage, which can impact their application to university. As such, it’s not a question of which is better, but which is best for your learning style, and your study choices at degree level.

Students who are more focused on specific areas like science might find A levels more suitable.

Students who are more focused on specific areas like science might find A levels more suitable.

CATS Colleges focus on the individual needs of international students

While many people argue over which path universities look more favourably upon, the reality is that admissions departments will consider students from both programmes based on their individual merit and the suitability of their preparation for their chosen pathway.  Most universities now offer details on their grade requirements for students from both programmes, making it easier to evaluate which option offers the best chance of success.

At CATS our IB course focuses specifically on the needs of international students. Our IB school in Canterbury is a centre of excellence for language work, offering 26 different native language subjects. Students who do not wish to take their native language can also do a different language instead. Similarly, we encourage A level students at CATS who are aiming to reach a top university to take on additional activities to prove their commitment to their future area of study. 

Contact CATS today to find out more about the courses on offer, and how we can help you to be your best and succeed at university.
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