The traditional route into universities has always been the A Level – it’s the most common method of entry for UK-based students.  Generally, universities up and down the nation will ask for 3 ‘A2’ awards and some will ask for an AS award too.

Well, this has been the traditional method of entry.  In recent years, there has been a big rise in the number of people taking an alternative, which seems to be gaining some interest from universities across the UK.  It is the International Baccalaureate, or IB.

The IB is the latest in a new wave of courses which can help students further their career ambitions and interests.  The format is rather similar to that of A Levels.  For those who are going to study it with the intention of going to university, the near-universal approach is to study for the IB Diploma Programme.

The IB Diploma is made up of six ‘groups’ – students pick one subject from each group and make their own curriculum based on their interests.  The six groups are as follows:

  • ‘Studies in languages and literature’ – students can study literature in their chosen language, a combination of language and literature, or literature and performance – a more theatre-based approach.
  • ‘Language Acquisition’ – student can either study a modern language (to either a beginner or advanced level) or they can opt for a classic like Ancient Greek or Latin.
  • ‘Individuals and Societies’ – here are the humanities-type subjects.  This includes business, economics, geography and global politics – a new one on their list.
  • ‘Sciences’ – students can either study any of the traditional sciences (Chemistry, Biology or Physics) or can study computer science or sport science.
  • ‘Mathematics’ – students are required to take either Maths or Further Maths at either a ‘standard’ or ‘higher’ level.
  • ‘The Arts’ – This is not a compulsory group – students can either take one from this group (including music, film, theatre etc) or they can take any other subject from the first five groups.

Students are also required to complete an ‘extended essay’ on a topic related to one of their six subjects – a 4,000 word essay which is designed to test their research skills.

Students are graded from 1-7 – 7 is the highest score – and three more marks are available around a student’s ‘theory of knowledge’ and their essays.  Therefore, the total that a student can receive is 45 points overall.

Of course, the best way to compare the two sets of routes is to line up one set of marks against the other – this has been done in the past.

  • A Level BBC – 24 IB points
  • AAA – 28 points
  • AAAC – 31 points
  • AAAA – 33 points
  • AAAAB – 36 points
  • AAAAA – 38 points
  • 40 points and above would be considered even higher at A Level – though this is rarely achieved.

This immediately does seem rather unnerving, that AAA at A Level – a key into many great universities in the UK – is only scoring 28/45 on the IB scale – 62% overall, if you work it out as a percentage.  That percentage, overall, would be worth a C in an A Level subject.  Is it because an IB is tougher?  Potentially, the IB website states that the pass rate is 80%, compared to 98% for A Levels.

Perhaps if we look at the entry requirements for a university… I went to the University of Liverpool’s website and found their Mathematics course.  It requires ABB at A Level for entry – around 27 points.  However, they ask for 33 points in the IB, including a 6 in Higher Mathematics.  Why the gap?

I suspect this is bringing up one potential flaw in the IB system – you study more subjects.  Students are only human – so do universities feel that such a broad array of subjects means students won’t get the same in-depth knowledge as that of an A Level?  Certainly appears so – in terms of A Levels, Liverpool is asking for 4 As at A2 when you convert an IB mark.  Somewhere like Cambridge?  They ask for 40-41 points.

So it would seem that universities are making up for the lower percentage requirement by setting the bar higher… perhaps because of the broader education.  However, there is an argument that this is what makes the IB so good – it offers a well-rounded set of subjects to ensure that students get off to the best possible start.  Rather than getting concentrated in a specific line of study, the broad education allows students to keep their options open for as long as possible.

The IB Diploma is also a respected qualification – something you can put on your CV for value that arguably could be greater than that of the more traditional A Level.  Perhaps this is a potential benefit too.

On balance, this is not easy, since it depends entirely on whether you want a broad education that isn’t so focused but a bit different from the norm, or if you want to choose a specific path and are happy with that.  Certainly the broadness of the IB means that students can keep many different options open (whilst still working towards any ideas that they might have) but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of ‘following a definite path’ – I can’t study the three sciences, for instance.  In theory, I could do that at A Level, if I wished to.

The IB has great benefit in that it seems that universities see it as a ‘cut above the rest’ in some respects – they are setting challenging standards for students to try and push them to achieve greater than if they had taken A Levels – all done through their entry requirements.

To answer the original question?  I don’t want to chicken out and stay completely neutral but both routes seem to have their own benefits and drawbacks.  A Levels are perhaps better for those who are certain on their path and want a specific set of A Levels – the IB favours those who want a rounded education and a qualification at the end.





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Laura is a Francophile with a passion for literature and linguistics. She also loves skiing, cooking and painting.