What is the difference between A-Level and IB Diploma Programme?

Both are pre-university qualifications for the 16-18 age group (years 12-13; grades 11-12), offer a large range of subjects, and are examined with a mix of exams, coursework and internal assessments.

There are, however, numerous differences between the two programmes. If you ask IB online tutors, they will share the following differences,

How many subjects do I take?

Some high-performing students may take more than 4 A-Levels, but everyone has the option to take 4. Students typically will start year 12 with 4 A-Level subjects. It is mandatory that all students take at least 3 in the final year. The fourth subject may be dropped at the end of year 12 if the student does not like it or wants to focus on the other 3.

Generally, any combination of subjects is allowed at A-Level. The only guiding factor is that they should be relevant to the degree course the student intends to take at university. This makes it easier to take on a combination that has Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and Maths. You could also take History, Maths, German, Music, as another possible combination when you hire .

IBDP, on the other hand, does not offer quite as much freedom of choice. Firstly, there are 2 levels of subjects: higher and standard. The student must take 3 higher level (HL) subjects and 3 standard level (SL).

There are then 6 types of courses for IBDP, each offering multiple subjects:

  • Language & literature
  • Language acquisition
  • Humanities
  • Mathematics (includes DT and computer science)
  • Sciences
  • Arts (music, dance, film, theatre, etc.)

Students MUST take one of each of the 6 course types, except for arts. If you don’t want to do an arts subject, you can pick a course from the other 5. A possible drawback of this is that students must take a foreign language, a science, and a math course. This could be limiting for students who really dislike one particular mandatory subject.

What is IB Core?

Another principal difference between the two paths is that the Diploma Programme requires the student to complete the ‘IB Core.’ This includes a Theory of Knowledge Project (TOK), an Extended Essay (EE), which is a 4,000 word personal research paper, and a project involving Creativity, Action and Service (CAS).

A-Level, on the other hand, has no such additional requirements.

How are they graded?

IBDP and A-Level are graded differently. The A-Level has a standard E-A* grading system, with students getting grades in each component sat and then an overall grade for each subject. On the other hand, IB scores each subject on a 1-7 basis. This provides a score that is then brought together along with the EE and TOK into an overall IBDP score out of 42.

University offers look different depending on the qualifications. A typical offer for studying Medicine at Cambridge university might be A, A, A at A-Level, but for IB an offer might be 41 overall points, with a minimum score set in some important subjects.

What are the component differences?

With the IB Diploma Programme, the six subjects taken are studied all the way through both years, and are divided into Standard Level (SL) and Higher Level (HL). A student must take a minimum of 3 subjects at HL level, and a 4th if they want. Higher level subjects have more assessment content and more study is required.

A-Level, however, is broken down into:

  • AS-Level (taken at the end of year 12)
  • A2 (taken at the end of year 13)

These, combined, form an overall A-Level qualification with an overall grade for the subject. When someone ‘drops’ a subject from their A-Level roster at year 12, that means they sit the AS-Level exam only and then do not continue with the subject to year 13. This still means the student gets a qualification. However, rather than a full A-level, it will instead be focused on the AS-Level.

Some schools, especially independent ones in the UK, will allow students to sit the AS and A2 exams at the end of year 13 in one big set of exams. This is sometimes preferred, as it can focus the students on building up to one big set of exams.

The big difference here is that a student may drop an A-Level subject to focus more on the other 3. However, with IB, the student must continue with all six subjects all the way through.

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