IB or A levels: Which is right for you?

In the final two years of secondary school, most UK students complete A level or IB (International Baccalaureate) qualifications. Both are widely respected as robust certifications for higher education, in both the UK and internationally. However, they differ greatly from one another in a number of aspects. 

It’s important to understand what A levels and the IB offer students, how they work, and their pros and cons so that you can make the right choice for you. It’s not a decision to make lightly as your choice could greatly affect your future.

This article will compare A levels to the IB and break down everything you need to know in order to make an informed decision. 

Don’t forget, The Profs are here to help you make the best decision. We have extensive knowledge and experience when it comes to education, no matter the level or subject. Our forte is equipping students like you with the tools to carve the perfect path for them and achieve top results. In fact, 98% of our students achieve their predicted school grades and 75% of them attain a higher school grade than predicted!

Reach out to our amazing consultancy for advice, or our A level or IB tutors for expert support.

What are A levels?

A levels, or Advanced Levels, are a set of academic qualifications in the UK, typically undertaken by students aged 16-18 in their final 2 years of secondary school (also known as high school or sixth form).

A levels are subject-based and offer in-depth knowledge in specific areas. Students usually choose three or four subjects to study over two years. Successful completion of A levels is crucial for university admissions in the UK, and they are recognised worldwide.

Chat with our expert A level tutors for tailored support.

You can also check out our previous article on A levels in 2024.

What is the International Baccalaureate?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is an internationally recognised educational programme that provides a holistic and rigorous curriculum for students aged 16-19. It consists of six subject groups, including languages, sciences, and mathematics. 

Additionally, the IB incorporates the Theory of Knowledge (TOK), Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS), and the Extended Essay. The IB aims to develop well-rounded individuals with strong critical thinking skills and a global perspective. 

In contrast to A levels, the IB requires students to complete social or community service tasks in addition to their academic studies.

You should note that the IB is taught by fewer than a hundred schools in the United Kingdom, with roughly 5,000 UK pupils sitting it annually.

Chat with our expert IB tutors for tailored support.

How are A levels and IB assessed?  

A levels employ a simple grading structure, assigning students grades ranging from A* to E for each subject, with A* denoting the highest achievement. 

In contrast, the International Baccalaureate (IB) employs a point-based system. Individual grades are assigned to each course, and points are awarded based on the student’s performance across the entire programme. The cumulative IB Diploma score is a reflection of these points, with a perfect score being 45 points. 

While this system offers a more thorough assessment of a student’s overall performance, it can be more intricate to grasp compared to the straightforward A level grading system.

Typically, there are fewer A levels exams than IB exams but your number of exams ultimately relies on your chosen subjects. So, check and compare this.

Need help understanding mark schemes, different exam board preferences and achieving top grades? Look no further. We offer insider information and bespoke support. Contact our team.

Understanding the differences: A Levels and IB

In both the IB and A levels, students enjoy the freedom to select their fields of study for the next two years. While the IB offers a more extensive pathway with a greater number of subjects, A levels provide increased flexibility and the opportunity for specialisation. 

Unlike A levels, IB students do not have the flexibility to study any combination; instead, subjects are categorised into specific groups, such as sciences, modern languages, or humanities, and students must choose one from each group. This is why the IB is better suited for students who exhibit proficiency and confidence across a broad spectrum of subjects. 

In the IB, students typically opt for three subjects at higher level and three at standard level, whereas A level students only choose three A level courses, equivalent to the higher-level IB programmes.

Different scopes

When it comes to deciding between A levels and the IB, both qualifications have their merits, but understanding the differences can help you make an informed decision about which path to take. Let’s explore the unique features of each qualification and consider factors to help you choose the one that aligns with your goals and learning style.

A levels provide in-depth knowledge in chosen subjects, ideal for specialised degrees. On the other hand, the IB’s holistic approach can develop critical thinking and versatility, preparing students for diverse university challenges.

A levels: Specialisation and depth

A levels are known for their specialisation and depth in specific subjects. 

With A levels, students typically choose three or four subjects to study in detail over a two-year period. This focused approach allows for a deeper understanding and expertise in chosen subjects. If you have a clear career path or specific university course in mind, A levels can provide a solid foundation and demonstrate your commitment to specific disciplines.

If you lean towards specialising in a specific group of subjects, the A level programme is better aligned with your preferences. The A level curriculum allows for a more in-depth exploration of their chosen academic focus, equipping them with the requisite knowledge for the intellectual challenges of undergraduate courses.

IB: Broad and holistic education

On the other hand, the IB offers a more comprehensive and holistic approach to education. The IB Diploma Programme consists of six subjects, including a mix of humanities, sciences, languages, mathematics, and the arts. Additionally, it incorporates the Theory of Knowledge (TOK), Extended Essay (EE), and Creativity, Activity, and Service (CAS) components. The IB aims to provide a well-rounded education, fostering critical thinking, global awareness, and interdisciplinary connections.

If you demonstrate proficiency and enthusiasm across a diverse array of subjects, IB is the optimal choice. This educational path not only fosters independent study skills crucial for university success but also instils a sense of social and civic responsibility. 

University and course preferences 

All UK universities accept A levels as well as the IB. However, universities and/or courses sometimes favour one over the other. 

Researching specific entry requirements for your desired institution and course is crucial. Some universities or departments may favour A Levels, while others may appreciate the holistic nature of the IB. In most cases, a preference will not be expressed, however, you can check out the institution’s or course’s average intake for A level versus IB students.

Also, ensure that you look into how the entry requirements for your chosen course differ between A level and IB. There are sometimes slightly higher or more specific requirements for one qualification than the other.

In a recent research initiative led by the IB, results indicated that students who pursued the IB programme were 3x more inclined to enrol in one of the UK’s top 20 universities. Additionally, an independent study conducted by the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) revealed that IB candidates had a 70% higher likelihood of gaining admission to a top-20 university compared to their A level counterparts. 

Although, according to a 2017 survey conducted by the ACS International Schools Group, 94% of admissions officers affirmed that A levels equip students for higher education due to their comprehensive curriculum, whereas only 56% held the view that the IB adequately fosters such preparedness.

Ultimately, if you have high predicted grades (meeting or exceeding the entry requirements for your course) in the subjects required and/or preferred for your discipline, your choice of A level or IB will probably not impact your chances of admission. So, choose the qualification that suits your needs and learning style best.

Need help to achieve amazing final grades? 98% of our students achieve their predicted school grades and 75% of them attain a higher school grade than predicted! Get one-to-one support from our expert A level and IB tutors. There’s no such thing as too early! 

Oh, and if you’re ready to get started on your university application, we have a winning university admissions team who can help you put your best foot forward.

International standing

A levels are a wholly British qualification available in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. When available in other countries, it is an alternative qualification. 

A levels are widely taken in both Commonwealth and former Commonwealth nations, as well as at examination centres globally. British international schools situated abroad typically provide the British A levels through examining bodies such as Edexcel or Cambridge International Examinations.

That said, many countries that do not administer A levels accept A levels for admission into their universities. For instance, most top US universities convert UK applicants’ A level grades into a GPA. 

However, the IB intended from its inception to be an international qualification. Accordingly, pupils from 150 countries sit it every year. 

Many countries across the globe administer the IB as a primary qualification and their universities accept it without the need for converting it. For example, many top universities in the United States specify IB requirements. All major universities in Hong Kong, Australia, Europe etc accept the IB. So, the IB is ideal for international education.

You can view all the countries and universities that recognise the IB programme here.

All in all, you will not be limited by A levels or the IB if you’d like to take an undergraduate and/or postgraduate abroad. However, if you primarily aspire to study and work across the globe, you might find that IB qualifications better equip you for that as they may be well received by a wider variety of countries and universities than A levels. 

Need guidance planning your international future from an academic and professional perspective? We have international scope, presence and experience. Access our expert and dedicated support here. 

8 factors to consider: Making the right choice

When deciding between A Levels and the IB, there are important factors to consider beyond what’s been mentioned already. Think about the following points:

  1. Academic strengths and interests: Assess your academic strengths, interests, and learning style. A Levels offer subject-specific depth, while the IB provides a broader range of subjects and encourages interdisciplinary thinking. Are you an all-rounder or do you excel in specific areas? Would you enjoy choosing 3-4 subjects to master, or dabbling with a wider range of subjects? What option would enable you to achieve your best grades?
  2. Flexibility: Evaluate your preferences for flexibility. A Levels allow you to focus on a smaller number of subjects, while the IB requires a more balanced workload across multiple disciplines.
  3. Personal goals: Reflect on your personal goals, such as pursuing a particular career path, employability or gaining a global perspective. Consider how each qualification aligns with your aspirations and long-term plans.
  4. Future value: There are plans to replace A levels with the Advanced British Standard (ABS). This doesn’t mean A levels will cease to have worth, but A level grades might become harder to understand or process.
  5. Your specialism or options: Maybe you’re sure about your undergraduate discipline and/or career path. If this is the case, you might choose A levels so that you can focus on this early on. Alternatively, you might decide the wider scope offered by IB is better suited to preparing you for these goals. Whereas, if you’re undecided about your undergraduate degree and/or career aspirations, you might favour IB for its versatility in qualifying you for a range of course options.
  6. Workload: A Levels focus on a smaller number of subjects, allowing for specific yet thorough study. IB, with its diverse subjects and additional components like the Extended Essay and CAS, can be more balanced yet workload-intensive. What suits your learning style?
  7. Availability: Not all UK secondary schools offer the IB. So, if you’re interested, you need to check if it’s available at your school. If not, you need to consider if you’d be willing and/or able to move school for the IB.

For personalised advice on making the right choice, chat with our team. If you’ve made your decision already, we can help you along the way so that you achieve the best results possible!

Benefit from our expert guidance

Choosing between A Levels and the IB requires careful consideration of your academic strengths, interests, future goals, and university requirements. Both qualifications have their advantages, and the right choice ultimately depends on your individual preferences and aspirations. 

Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Chat with our experienced team to make an informed decision that best suits your needs and dreams! 

Don’t forget, we have expert A level and IB tutors who offer specialised online tutoring tailored to you. There’s no reason not to achieve the grades you’ve been dreaming of. 98% of our students achieve their predicted school grades and 75% of them attain a higher school grade than predicted! 

Let’s get started together and secure your future success.  


Which qualification is more highly regarded by universities?

Both A Levels and IB are widely recognised, but the preference often depends on the university and the course. 

However, specific universities or courses may have preferences. It is advisable to research the requirements of your target universities and courses.

Does one qualification offer better preparation for university studies?

Both qualifications can provide a solid foundation for university studies. A Levels offer specialisation in chosen subjects, while the IB emphasises critical thinking, research skills, and a broader perspective. The choice depends on your preferred learning style and future academic goals.

Are A Levels more challenging than the IB?

Both A Levels and the IB can be challenging but in different ways. A Levels require in-depth knowledge and understanding of specific subjects, while the IB demands a broader range of skills across various disciplines. The level of difficulty will also depend on your individual strengths and interests.

Can I switch from A Levels to the IB or vice versa?

Switching between A Levels and the IB can be challenging due to differences in curriculum structure and assessment methods. However, it is possible in certain cases, depending on school policies and individual circumstances. It is advisable to consult with your school’s academic advisors for guidance.

Does Harvard prefer IB or A levels?

Harvard University does not explicitly prefer the International Baccalaureate (IB) or A levels. Admissions decisions are based on a holistic review of an applicant’s academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and personal qualities. Both IB and A levels are recognised and valued, so applicants should focus on excelling in their chosen curriculum.

Check out our article on how to get into Harvard as a UK student.

Are the IB or A levels better for Medicine?

The choice between the International Baccalaureate (IB) and A levels for Medicine depends on individual preferences and strengths. Medical schools typically look for strong academic performance in science-related subjects, and both IB and A levels offer suitable pathways. 

Students should choose the curriculum that aligns with their learning style and allows them to excel in the necessary science courses for medical school admission.

You might also research your chosen institutions to find out if they have voiced (or if their admissions statistics reveal) preferences for Medicine applicants.

Read our blogs on the medical application process and the best UK universities for Medicine.