A-levels or the IB: How to decide which is best for me


Once you've got your GCSEs out of the way, you'll be looking ahead at what comes next. For many people, that's A-levels - but the International Baccalaureate is an alternative that can help you keep a balance to your academic studies. Here, we take a look at the differences between the two qualifications. 

Firstly, what’s the difference between the two? 

As you may know, A-levels operate under a two-tiered system; AS level, which is essentially half A-levels. AS level is the foundation for A2 level, which is the full A-level. Nearly all subjects are divided into modules, mostly two modules making up the AS, and two modules making up the A2. Therefore, four modules make up your A-level. Only mathematics and science are the exceptions, where three modules make up AS and A2, equaling a total of six. You will generally study four (or sometimes five) subjects at AS and three (or sometimes four, occasionally even five) subjects for A2. You are given complete freedom over the subjects you choose with nothing being compulsory. You’ll be examined at the end of your first year of sixth form and your second year, with AS exams generally starting mid-May and A2 exams starting in June. You can achieve grades A*-E. For more information, why not check out our A-levels hub page

More on TSR: 
Big Debate: Should A-levels be more like the International Baccalaureate?
Check out the reasons for TSR members choosing either A-levels or IB 
Ask study questions in our dedicated A-level forums

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma is hugely different from A-levels, and takes a while to get your head around! Firstly, you have a lot less freedom over subjects you take. As part of the Diploma, you must take six subjects which must be picked from certain groups.

  • Group 1 - You must take a subject from Group 1, which is generally your native language, generally in the form of literature. For most people on this forum, that will be English. However, there’s a great range of native languages available so check with the IBO (the IB governing body) which languages are available.
  • Group 2 - This is language acquisition or more simply modern or Classical languages. There is are number of languages available, including Latin and Ancient Greek
  • Group 3 - You have to study a Group 3 subject from the individuals and societies group, which are generally the humanities.
  • Group 4 - These are experimental sciences.
  • Group 5 - Some students will be asked to take a Group 5 subject, which is exclusively mathematics.
  • Group 6 - Finally, you have the option to take a Group 6 subject, from the arts.

Higher and Standard Level 
Three subjects are taken at Higher Level (HL) and three at Standard Level (SL). 

Extended essays

Extended Essay, TOK & assessments 
In addition to this, you must write a 4000-word Extended Essay (EE) on a topic of your choice (as long as it falls within a subject offered by the IB) and a course on Theory of Knowledge (TOK). 

The IB is marked out of 45 points; your subjects are graded from 1-7, with 7 being the highest. Thus you gain 42 points maximum from your subjects. The remaining three points come from your EE and TOK grades (graded A-E) and the combination of grades you get determines your bonus points (matrix can be found here). 
You sit terminal exams at the end of your second year of sixth form, but there is a lot of continuous assessment in the IB, known as Internal Assessments (IAs). You will sit 2-3 papers per subject, except for Visual Arts and Theatre Arts, which are 100% coursework based. 

You must also take a course of Creativity, Action and Service (CAS), which is 150 hours of artistic, sportive and volunteering activities based around the core IB principles.

So I have to do maths and a language in the IB? No thanks. 
Yes, you have to do maths, but there are options available – three to be precise:

  • Mathematics HL, which is for those of you who will need maths as part of your university degree (i.e. mathematics, physics, engineering, economics and architecture at some universities)
  • Mathematics SL, for those who may need some maths as part of their university degree (i.e. biological sciences, medicine, some economics courses), but not to the same extent as HL.
  • Mathematical Studies SL, which is a level that is between GCSE and AS maths, and is for those who do not anticipate needing maths for their degree. It is very much a “maths in the real world” course, with statistics and financial mathematics being part of the course.

For those who didn't particularly get on with their GCSE language, there is an option to do a beginners course in a language, called an ab initio language course, and aims to help you reach a standard which is just beyond GCSE in the two years. While it’s intensive and by no means an easy option, it gives you another language option if you didn’t enjoy your GCSE language choice. 


But I want to do Engineering or Maths at university, and want to do lots of maths related subjects, IB means I can’t do Further Maths doesn’t it? 

Not at all – or at least, not anymore! Since 2014, there is the option to do HL Further Maths, which is usually done in conjunction with HL Maths. Further Maths covers all the optional subjects offered in HL Maths. Just doing HL Maths means you’d only cover one of these options. Therefore, for all you future mathematicians and engineers, a combination of HL Physics, Maths and Further Maths will serve you just as well, if not better than, A-Level Physics, Maths and Further Maths. 

I want to do maths and all three sciences; I can’t do that in the IB can I? 

Unless you want to do seven subjects, no, you can’t. If you’re passionate about science and want to focus on science in higher education then you will probably be better served by A-Levels, especially for university courses that suggest you are strong in all three sciences. 

Well if I do the IB, surely I won’t have time to play rugby/continue piano lessons/perform in the school play? 

No, the CAS element of the IB fosters participation in extra-curricular activities. You’re also supposed to make links with the IB “learner profile” in the activity reflections that you will complete The IB is therefore suited to people who do play on sports teams, and do play instruments, and are members of the Scouts or the CCF. 

I’m just not a very organised person, I don’t think I’d succeed in the IB. 

If you aren’t organised, you probably won’t succeed in the IB. With all the subjects you’re doing, your Extended Essay and ToK, as well as CAS, you are going to need to be on top of things to do well. That said, I was not at all organised during my GCSEs, and it showed in my grades, which were good, but not as good as they could have been had I been more organised. The IB forced me to organise my life.

The IB isn’t for everyone. You shouldn’t commit to IB unless you’re prepared to put in extra effort and be extremely organized. If you want to do all the sciences and maths, then do A-levels. If you hate maths, and struggling to get a C at GCSE, but excellent at English and essay subjects, do A-levels, as there’s a good chance maths will drag you down beneath your potential. However, if you’re competent at everything, and willing to work and be organised, do the IB. It’ll help you to keep your options open as you contemplate university.

What are the actual benefits of the IB? 

Do not let your school feed you the classic “IB is better than A-levels” nonsense to try and get you to study it. Universities have no preference of IB or A-levels and Cambridge will not take you over someone who did A-levels purely because you did IB. If you still feel unsure there is no reason why you can’t call the university admission offices and ask them about their point of view in terms of IB vs A levels, their feedback is likely to give you peace of mind and help you to make a more balanced choice. 

IB’s quality is in its diversity – it’ll make you more academically rounded. You gain skills and knowledge in a wealth of diverse subjects. You’ll be able to competently speak another language, have a significant mastery of your own language as well as keep up your numerical and mathematical ability. 

Secondly, if you don’t know what you want to study at university level, doing the IB really keeps your options open. I was always determined I was going to apply for law. When it came down to it, I changed my mind last minute to Arabic and International Relations. Had I done A-levels, I wouldn’t have had the language requirement that French SL satisfied for most of the courses I applied to. IB allowed me to keep my options open and change my mind. 

The final key thing the IB offers you is flexibility. Even if you think you want to do something, when it comes down to it you’re always liable to change your mind, like most teenagers do. Doing the IB means you have the option to change. Even if you end up applying for medicine, in addition to having the scientific knowledge you need, you’ll be able to write a good essay in a sophisticated writing style from doing English and the humanity you choose, as well as having the organisational skills fostered by the very nature of the IB.


More on TSR: 
Ask anything about the IB in the International Baccalaureate forum 
Guide to IB retakes and resits

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