A levels or BTEC – which should I take?

Teenagers studying for A levels and for BTEC
Considering whether A level or BTEC qualifications would suit you best? Explore the differences between them, where they could take you and how universities view BTECs.

If you’re looking into alternatives to A levels, it’s likely that BTECs are on your radar. But what are the advantages and disadvantages of BTEC qualifications compared with A levels? And will a BTEC get you into university?

As a first step towards deciding whether A levels or BTEC qualifications would suit you best, take a look at our article on What are BTECs? to make sure you understand the options available. There are different types of BTEC, at different levels and in different subjects.

In this article we’re focusing on level 3 BTEC qualifications, which are equivalent to A levels. The three main options are the Extended Diploma (equivalent to three A levels), the Diploma (equivalent to two A levels) and the Extended Certificate (equivalent to one A level).

What’s the difference between BTECs and A levels?

Broadly speaking, BTEC qualifications start to prepare you for a specific career, whereas A levels aim to give you a solid academic grounding in a given subject. However, some BTECs can be quite academic too, depending upon the subject and the specific modules that your school or college chooses to teach. BTECs revolve around coursework and – often – work experience, whereas A levels are much more classroom-based and tend to be assessed largely via final exams. Again, see our article on What are BTECs? for more detail.

Is a BTEC easier than A levels?

Don’t choose a BTEC expecting an easy life. The top grade – D* – is treated as equivalent to an A* at A level and the bottom grade – P – is equivalent to an E (a pass at A level). You’ll also have to work very steadily throughout your course due to the continuous assessment methods. BTECs certainly aren’t the lazy way to an equivalent grade in the same subject.

Of course, there may be a subject that you personally would be very good at that’s available as a BTEC but not as an A level. If this is the case, you might find a BTEC easier due to the good match between you and your subject.

To figure out whether you’d find a BTEC easier than A levels, think about what works for you personally in terms of teaching and assessment style, and what motivates you. These are likely to have a significant effect on the grades you get.

In terms of teaching and assessment:

  • Are you happy learning about new topics as abstract concepts, or do you find them easier to get your head around if you have hands-on examples and experiences? A levels tend to be more abstract and BTECs more hands-on.
  • What types of assessment do you do best in? If you score much more highly in coursework than exams, a BTEC may suit you better. If you get your highest marks in exams, A levels are a good bet.
  • What working style would you find easier to stick to – working fairly hard continuously over a two-year period (as you’ll have to do on a BTEC) or having peaks and troughs depending on whether or not it’s exam time (as is the case with A levels)?

In terms of your motivations:

  • What motivates you to work hard and push yourself – a love of learning for its own sake (in which case consider A levels), or feeling like you’re developing skills and knowledge that are directly relevant to working life (which is the focus of a BTEC)?
  • What subjects do you feel passionate about? A BTEC may work for you if there’s only one subject you’re keen on (if you take A levels you’d typically study three) or if there’s a subject you’d love to take that isn’t available as an A level.

Where can a BTEC take me?

After completing a BTEC level 3 course, you can either look for work immediately (whether as an apprentice or in an entry-level job) or go to university before starting your career. BTECs are more practical than A levels and include plenty of work experience, which should help give you the skills and knowledge that employers in the relevant career area look for. If you choose to go to university, and haven’t taken A levels as well as a BTEC, it will probably be to study a subject that relates to your BTEC and is vocational (focused on a specific career – eg nursing or business studies) rather than academic.

Where can A levels take me?

A levels often lead to university and, if you’re strategic about the subjects you choose, can lead to a fairly broad range of degree subjects – see below for more detail. Alternatively they can lead straight to work, either via an entry-level job or an apprenticeship.

A levels vs BTEC – are you ready to specialise?

One key difference between BTECs and A levels is that BTECs are very focused on a particular career area, whereas A levels are broader qualifications that could lead in a number of different directions. Are you comfortable deciding on your future career now, or would you prefer to keep your options open?

For university entry, A levels in academic subjects tend to be the best at keeping doors open to studying a range of different subjects at degree level. You can read more about the facilitating subjects that are popular with universities in our article on A level choices.

If you take a BTEC level 3 Extended Diploma you won’t have much study time for anything else, so be sure that the subject you choose is definitely the field you want to work in. Taking the Diploma would typically allow you to squeeze in an A level too, broadening your options slightly; the Extended Certificate plus two A levels might suit you better if you’re attracted to the idea of a BTEC but don’t want to make a firm career commitment at this stage.

If you’re ready to specialise and choose a BTEC, it’s worth researching whether there will be many relevant jobs available locally – even if you plan to go to university first. If not, are you happy to move to another part of the country?

Do universities accept BTEC qualifications?

Many universities are in theory happy to accept BTEC level 3 qualifications for entry onto undergraduate courses (degrees for those going to university for the first time). However, for courses that are academically focused and/or place a lot of weight on exams, BTECs may not be regarded as the best preparation.

If you’re considering going to university, be aware of the following and do some research into the entry requirements for individual degree courses you might want to apply for before finalising your BTEC choice.

Not all universities are keen on BTEC qualifications. For example:

  • Imperial College London doesn’t tend to include BTECs among its accepted qualifications.
  • LSE states on its website: ‘BTEC level 3 qualifications (BTEC Nationals) are looked at on an individual basis for admission to LSE. Due to the structure and assessment of BTECs, they are not regarded as providing as good a preparation for our degree programmes as more academic qualifications.’
  • Likewise, the University of Cambridge states: ‘VCE A levels, applied A levels, GNVQs and BTECs don’t provide an appropriate preparation for most Cambridge courses, where the emphasis is more academic than vocational.’

Some universities are more willing to accept BTECs for some subjects than for others.

  • For example, Bangor University lists BTECs as being accepted for entry onto its English literature and electronic engineering degrees (among others) as long as you have certain specified A level subjects too (see ‘Will I need A levels as well as a BTEC?’, below).
  • However, for its biology degree it states: ‘Due to the academic requirements for this programme, BTECs, City & Guilds and Access courses are considered on a case by case basis.’

Just because a university says that it accepts BTEC qualifications, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all staff regard them highly as A levels. In practice, when choosing between applicants, some admissions tutors may favour those with more traditional academic qualifications, particularly for more traditional academic courses.

Will I need A levels as well as a BTEC for university?

In some cases you’ll need one or more A levels as well as a BTEC qualification to get into university.

  • Universities typically regard the BTEC level 3 Extended Diploma as the equivalent to three A levels, the Diploma as equivalent to two A levels and the Extended Certificate as equivalent to one A level. So if you’re not taking the Extended Diploma you’ll need to plug the gap with one or more A levels.
  • Even if you are taking the Extended Diploma, some universities like an A level as well. For example, at LSE if you don’t have an A level in a ‘traditional academic subject’ you’ll need to sit a three-hour exam to test your English, maths and comprehension.
  • Many university courses specify that you must have A levels in particular subjects in order to apply. Even if you’ve studied relevant topics in your BTEC, these won’t always be accepted as an alternative. In other cases universities may ask you to list which specific modules you’ve taken, as different schools and colleges teach different ones.

Advantages and disadvantages of BTEC qualifications

If you’re ready to decide your career direction, prefer practical learning to lots of theory and do better in continual assessment than exams, then a BTEC could be a good fit for you. However, if you want to keep your options for careers and/or university study as open as possible, A levels may be the best bet.

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