Should I do the IB or A levels?

Teenager deciding whether to take the IB or A levels
The International Baccalaureate (IB) is an alternative to A levels – but how does it compare and what are the advantages and disadvantages of the IB programme?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is an alternative to A levels – but how does it compare and what are the advantages and disadvantages of the IB programme?

If you’re wondering whether you should do the IB or A levels, it’s a question of what would suit you personally – both are well respected academic qualifications. In this article we look at the pros and cons of the IB programme as compared with A levels, for example in terms of subject choices, workload, university entry and whether you’d need to move school.

Before you read on, however, make sure you understand what the IB is and how it works.

A levels vs IB – in a nutshell

The main pros and cons of the IB versus A levels are as follows. You can explore these issues in more depth in the rest of the article.

IB advantages

  • You can study more subjects
  • There are extra elements to help make you well rounded.

IB disadvantages

  • You don’t have complete free choice over your subjects
  • To pass the IB there is no choice but to work hard.

A level advantages

  • You can study whatever subjects you like
  • You’ve got more flexibility over how much time you want to spend studying.

A level disadvantages

  • You can’t study as many subjects
  • If you’re not self-motivated, you may end up slacking.

Would A levels or the IB be better for me in terms of subject choices?

With A levels, you are free to pick any combination of subjects you like (as long as your school or college can timetable it). So, for example, if you want to take all humanities subjects and nothing else you can do so. However, your curriculum will be fairly narrow, as it’s normal to take just three subjects and would be very unusual to take more than four.

The IB is designed to ensure students study a broad range of subjects (six in total). However, you can’t choose any combination you like. Subjects are divided into six groups (eg sciences, modern languages and humanities) and you take one from each of the first five groups; your sixth subject can be either from the sixth group, which is arts, or a second subject from any of the other groups. So this won’t suit you if there’s one particular subject group you want to focus on (or avoid!) but could be good if you enjoy a bit of everything.

Would doing the IB keep more degree subject options open to me?

Despite studying six subjects on the IB, you’ll only take three (or occasionally four) at higher level and the other three (or two) at standard level. For university courses that require specific subjects at A level or equivalent, IB students typically need to take these subjects at higher level rather than standard level. So whether you take the IB or A levels, you’ll typically only have three subjects that will help you meet specific entry requirements.

So are there any benefits to studying six subjects on the IB?

Even though taking the IB won’t usually keep more options open to you, you might feel that there are other benefits to studying six subjects rather three, such as:

  • Getting a broader education
  • Keeping up useful subjects (such as maths and foreign languages), even if they don’t directly relate to your future plans
  • Studying subjects you enjoy, even if they don’t directly relate to your future plans
  • Trying out subjects you might want to study at uni. Whereas some degree courses require you to have studied a particular subject at A level or IB higher level (as outlined above), many others are more flexible and either don’t ask for any specific subjects or have quite broad subject requirements (eg ‘a maths or science subject at A level/IB higher level’). So you could study a subject such as psychology at standard level and still take a degree in it if you want.

Is the IB more work than A levels?

Broadly speaking the IB will take up more of your time than A levels.

If you take the IB:

  • You’ll have more teaching time and fewer study periods (and still have plenty of homework and coursework on top).
  • As well as your subjects you’ll have extra calls on your time such as theory of knowledge assignments, an extended essay and ‘creativity, action, service’ commitments.

You’ll need to juggle all this, though you may find that the structure and demands help you get organised.

If you take A levels:

  • In general you’ll have more flexibility over how you use your time, as there’s more focus on independent study.
  • You’re likely to have more study periods during the school day.
  • You will have fewer subjects to juggle.
  • You won’t have to commit to doing anything else with your time apart from study for your subjects.
  • As such, how hard you study as an A level student will be up to you. If getting top grades is a priority for you and you have self-motivation, you’ll probably end up studying just as hard as an IB student. However, if there’s something else you want to make time for – such as playing sport at a high level – you’ll be more able to do so.

Do universities like the IB?

Universities respect both the IB and A levels as academically challenging qualifications, so generally speaking it doesn’t matter which you have as long as you’ve studied the right subjects at the right level.

If I have to move school to do the IB, is it worth it?

Only a minority of schools and colleges in the UK offer the IB, so if you want to take this you may need to move school. Only you can decide whether it’s worth it, but here are some things to consider.

  • Who would your teachers be and what are their academic backgrounds – are they specialists in the subjects they teach? (This is something you can ask about at open days.)
  • How do current students feel about the teachers and the school? (Ask them at open days and/or speak to any contacts you have.)
  • What support structures are in place?
  • What facilities does the school have for the subjects you’re considering?
  • How long would your journey take and would this eat into valuable study time?

Can I make my A levels a bit more like the IB?

If you like the idea of the IB but want to stick with A levels, you could consider:

  • Taking an EPQ as well as your A levels. This is similar to the IB extended essay.
  • Looking into volunteering opportunities or taking up a new interest if you like the sound of ‘creativity, activity, service’.
  • Finding local classes in visual or performing arts if you enjoy these but can’t fit them into your A level choices.

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