IB or A-Levels: Which is right for you?

22 November 2023

The IB Diploma and A Levels have spent decades trying to convince UK students that they each offer the best preparation for success at university. 

Both have histories, and strong advocates in places of educational and political influence. Understanding the real differences between the IB Diploma and A Levels is key to being able to make the right choice.

So, what is the difference between the IB and A levels?

IB Diploma

The IB Diploma is an alternative to A Levels for students aged 16-18 and requires no specific preparatory classwork, so can be undertaken directly from GCSEs. It offers a broad curriculum made up of six subject groups – students usually study three at a higher level and three at a standard level.

The six subject groups are Studies in Language and Literature, Language Acquisition, Individuals and Societies, Sciences, Mathematics, and the Arts. Each subject is graded on a scale of 1 (minimum) to 7 (maximum). To pass the IB Diploma requires a minimum score of 24 points (260 UCAS points), and the successful completion of the DP Core requirements which carry an additional 3 points. The maximum score achievable by any student is 45 points.

Importantly, the main aim of the DP Core is to broaden students’ education experiences and challenge their application of knowledge and skills. The Theory of Knowledge asks students to reflect on the nature of knowledge; Community, Action, Service (CAS) requires students to take part in a range of activities and projects such as music, sports or fundraising; while the Extended Essay is an independent piece of research, culminating in a university-level 4,000-word paper.

Read more about the IB Diploma Programme here >


A-Levels (short for Advanced levels) are UK national curriculum school-leaving qualifications that are taken by many students in the UK. Students usually choose three or four subjects, and take two years to study for these A-levels between the ages of 16 and 18. Pass grades are A* (the top grade), followed by A, B, C, D and E. One similarity between the IB Diploma and A Levels is that both qualifications are assessed by exams at the end of a two-year study period.

The Extended Qualification

All pupils taking three A Levels will also take an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). The EPQ is optional for those taking four A Levels. The EPQ offers students the opportunity to complete a significant piece of self-directed research to encourage more critical, reflective and independent learning. The EPQ is valued by universities and is often explicitly mentioned in university offers to pupils studying the A Level programme.

Reforms to A Levels have been underway since September 2016, resulting a fundamental change to how the programme is delivered.

Under the old system, students studied A/S levels in Year 12 and took exams in May/June which counted towards 50% of the overall A-level qualification. Under the new system, all A-level exams will take place at the end of Year 13, with no marks from A/S levels contributing to the overall final grade.

There will also be less coursework and fewer practical assessments under the new system, meaning that that exam revision becomes even more important. The mathematical content of many subjects has increased and assessment is intended to be more challenging. Grades will continue to be awarded on an A*-E scale.

You can find out more about changes to A Levels on the Gov.uk website here >

In Summary

The IB Diploma offers a different assessment method and an alternative philosophy to how Sixth Form should be approached. The A-Level programme is made up of specific, separate subjects and extra-curricular activities. The IB Diploma programme is different in that it centres around a set of core competencies, skills and values which are important to the development of every student. The IB’s approach is a holistic one, requiring students to study a broader range of subjects and consider the links between them, within an international context.

Where the A-Level benchmark has been adjusted and continues to undergo change, the IB has remained a tried and tested system.

So which one is right for me?

The IB Diploma is suited to pupils who wish to maintain breadth in their choice of subjects, and who are willing to work hard in a structured environment, and tolerate addressing areas of weakness. The A Levels are a good option for pupils with a very clear focus on a particular subject area, who want to play to existing strengths, and are self-disciplined enough to work in a less structured environment.

How do UK universities rate the IB Diploma?

As a group of leading IB schools, we wanted to find out what UK universities really think of the IB Diploma, and how they rate it against the traditional A Levels. We commissioned a piece of research with the IB and the IB Schools and Colleges Association (IBSCA) to survey 80 UK university admissions officers (representing almost half of universities in the UK) to find out which entry qualification they preferred. Perhaps surprisingly to many British families, these universities clearly indicated the IB Diploma was the better preparation for university and the workplace.

The IB Diploma is consistently rated as the best post-16 qualification, providing students with the skills they need to thrive in higher education.

In light of rising UK university fees and the continued globalisation of work and employee aspirations, it is important to recognise that the IB Diploma is also a highly valued entrance qualification at universities throughout Europe and around the world, and rated for its academic integrity, range, and the high level of study skills required to succeed.

Ultimately, deciding between the IB Diploma and A Levels must come down to what a student wants to achieve, both academically and in life. Both A Levels and the IB Diploma benefit students who have decided on a specialist degree path. The IB Diploma can be advantageous in keeping options open and providing a broader education, preparing students well for university study and the workplace. Developing all round knowledge on a wider level of subjects until the age of 18 undoubtedly provides a highly valuable skills set for the future, and the experiences that the additional DP core elements deliver can give a student that critical competitive edge in their race to get into the university of the choice.

Further reading: 

A-Level Reforms: what they mean for you, Which University Website >

The IB learner profile >

The IBCP Programme

The IBDP Programme

Windermere School is the Lake District’s leading Day and Boarding School for children age 3-18. The school offers Sixth Form students an award winning International Baccalaureate programme, with holiday courses and a summer school programme, as well as short term immersion courses for international pupils. Join the adventure today >