A-Levels vs. IB Diploma

Updated: Jul 24

It can often be a tough call when choosing between A-levels and the IB diploma programme; and I often find people are poorly informed as to the advantages and disadvantages of each. This is most likely because most teachers teach one course or the other, and only one subject within the programme.


I am in the somewhat rare position of having been an integral part (from beginning to end) of many students' lives who have undertaken both programmes; and, whilst I rarely teach subjects outside of Maths and Science, I do get actively involved with the entire study plans of students and their essays.


As such, I consider myself well-qualified to highlight the disadvantages and advantages of both, though it is worth bearing in mind that what I consider an advantage/disadvantage, may not be considered as such by another person.


If you are short on reading time, I would encourage you to skip straight to the conclusion.



A-levels


Advantages:

  • Far far lesser workload.

As little as 3 A-levels is enough to see you into a good university. For Maths and Sciences these A-levels require zero coursework, making it (at a very rough guess) about 60% of the workload of the IB Diploma Programme.

  • Easier route into UK universities.

I have found that UK universities do not always acknowledge/account for the significantly larger workload that comes with the IB programme. As such, broadly speaking, I consider A-levels a more straightforward route into UK universities. Note: I find US universities equally in tune with the demands of both programmes.

  • Study of subjects to a slightly greater depth.

Think of an A-level as like an IB Higher Level course + approx. 20%. A tonne of material overlaps, but there's no questioning the fact that there's a little more profundity in A-level courses.

  • Possibility to balance a social life alongside study and still do well.

Of course this will vary from student to student. However, from my experience, most A-level students manage to lead healthy and functioning lives and still achieve the grades they hoped for

Disadvantages:

  • Exams more difficult year in year out.

I wouldn't like to comment for definite on humanities and arts courses, but certainly A-level science and maths courses are asking more and more curveball questions every year. These questions aren't really a part of the ;course textbooks; and so do require a heightened ability for general problem-solving. As such, I'd probably stretch as far as to say that natural ability (not just hard work) may be slightly more important in achieving top grades in A-levels than in the IB.

  • Taking maths/science subjects will leave you with no chance to hone your essay-writing skills.

If you opt for maths and science courses (non essay-based subjects), you will be expected to write no essays at any point. You will still need to write longer explanations in exams, but it would be churlish to liken this to the careful planning, structuring, writing and redrafting that comes with the completion of a full essay. This is no doubt a useful skill to hone early on in life and a shame that A-level doesn't always allow for it.

  • You will have to specialise/choose your path sooner.

You could get by with five AS-levels if your school lets you, but at A2-level I wouldn't recommend it (it will inevitably come at the cost of good grades). On the other hand, four A-levels is extremely feasible for a good student, though I would recommend that two of them go hand in hand e.g. Maths and Further Maths.



IB Diploma Programme


Advantages:

  • Invariably graduate as a more all-rounded individual.

Given the way the IB is structured, there is no way you can escape writing by choosing 'numerical' subjects, or, indeed, escape 'numbers' by adopting an opposite plan. Whichever way you try to play it, you need to be able to do a bit of everything in the IB. Your life will certainly be made a lot easier if you're an all-rounder. But if you're weak in certain areas of academic studies, be warned, you will feel like a fish out of water at some points during the IB—though, ultimately, it is for you to decide whether that is a good or a bad thing.

  • Hone essay-writing skills

Every subject demands an 'Internal Assesment'. This is typically an essay/report of approx. 6-12 pages. On top of that, there is the TOK (3 pages) and Extended Essay (8-18 pages), and various written reflections throughout. Whichever way you look, writing tasks will be coming at you during the IB Diploma Programme.

  • Exams slightly easier than A-levels.

I would say the IB exams are slightly more 'textbook-esque' than the A-level exams, making them slightly easier to do well in with the appropriate hard work. That's not to say they're easy (lest we forget they cover six subjects). However, generally speaking, I would say that hard work + reasonable natural ability is enough to achieve good grades in the IB (whereas a strong natural ability is important for top grades in A-levels)


  • Exposed earlier to a workload comparable to university

Be prepared for the IB, in particular the second year. I would argue that the amount of work (when coupled with university applications) isn't far different from the first few years of study at a top university. You'll certainly be no stranger to hard work if you complete it. The question is do you want to be exposed to that much work and stress at such a young age?



Disadvantages:

  • You will likely be consumed by the IB.

There's just no way of putting this lightly: 6 x subjects, 6 x Internal assessments (approx. 6-12 pgs each), 1 x TOK-essay (approx. 3 - 4 pgs), 1 x Extended Essay (approx. 8 - 18 pgs), 1 x CASS... yes, you will be worked to the bone! And that's without even considering university applications. Think very carefully if this is what you want, I've seen a lot of students keel under the pressure of the IB...

  • Forced to complete essays that you may not see value in.

One example is the "Theory of Knowledge" essay. Here you will be asked to write an essay on, loosely speaking, the 'origins and developments of knowledge'. Sound weird? Yes, it is a little, and the guidelines can be somewhat hazy. At the end of the day, it's an excuse for you to practice writing and arguing critically, but the subject topic itself may leave you lost and wondering what the point is at times.

  • Doesn't reach the level of depth reached in A-levels

Becoming an all-rounder comes at a cost: the depth reached in each subject. However, I really wouldn't weigh your decision too heavily upon this as any Higher Level IB course will put you in just as good a stead for university as any A-level course.



Conclusion


I think the fairest way to conclude is to say, honestly, the decision I would encourage my children to take if I were a father.

My default choice would be the A-level system, succumbing only to the IB Diploma Programme under very special circumstances. These special circumstances would be any of: my child really wanted to keep all their options open for a further two years; my child was a very gifted all-rounder; my child had a true and sincere love of academic study and essay-writing.


The overriding reason that I would make this decision is that I believe the IB workload can sometimes consume its students in an unhealthy way. For some students, it is truly unrelenting and unforgiving.


Yes, the A-level student may emerge slightly less all-rounded, but with the extra free time available to them I would encourage them to enrich themselves in other ways—reading, making art, playing music etc.




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