Do you know that there’s a difference between the IB diploma and A-level?

Well, to be exact, there are five.

Though the IB Diploma and A-level both offer internationally recognised certifications, they are very different routes of study.

Their differences can be summarised into the following five areas:

  1. The Examining Body
  2. The Composition of the Final Grades
  3. The Curriculum and Subject Selection
  4. The Make-up of a Successful Student
  5. The Value of the Certification

In this post, we will examine each area and highlight aspects the IB diploma and A-level differ in.

1. The Examining Body

The IB diploma is conducted by International Baccalaureate (IB)- previously known as International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO). As an international qualification, the main providers of IB in Singapore are international schools.

Currently in Singapore, there are 28 schools offering the IB diploma programme. Of these 28 schools, only a few are local schools.

Some of these schools include:

  • SJI International School
  • Hwa Chong International Institution
  • ACS International
  • School of the Arts
  • Singapore Sports School
  • St Joseph’s Institution
  • Anglo-Chinese School (Independent)

However, in Singapore, the GCE A-level is one of the few national examinations accredited by the Singapore Examinations and Assessments Board (SEAB). As such, most local junior colleges would offer A-level.

2. The Composition of Final Grades

Whether it is for IB diploma or A-level, students will be required to take a final exam at the end of their two years.

However, what differs is the weightage of this final exam.

For A-level, the final exam carries the full weightage of the final grade reflected on the graduate’s certificates.

This means that for them, this final exam is the be all, end all. Their academic performance over the school year- no matter how stellar or mediocre- has no bearing on the grades reflected on the academic transcript.

On the other hand, for students taking the IB, consistency in internal assessments and extended essay are key to a good final grade. 

Apart from the final exams, there are additional coursework components that count towards students’ final grades. These courseworks are typically completed over several months and would require students to embark on their own independent research.

In the IB curriculum, there are three types of courseworks:

  1. Internal assessments (IA)
  2. Extended essay (EE)
  3. Theory of Knowledge (TOK)

One of the three coursework components that is counted into the student’s final grades is the IA. The IA is usually completed at the end of their first year and start of the second year.

Over the two years, students will be expected to conduct their own independent research.

The weightage of each coursework can vary across subjects. On average, a student’s IA grade can make up 20-30% of their final grades of the subject.

Table of IA weightage for IB final exam

As the IA forms part of the final grades, students who want to do well in IB must also do well for IA.

The Extended Essay (EE) is a 4,000 words independent research paper that IB students have to complete in their second year. The EE and the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) paper makes up the final 3 points of the perfect IB score of 45.

3. The Curriculum and Subject Selection

The A-level curriculum broadly defines its subjects into two groups: science and arts

Science Subjects Art Subjects
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • Economics
  • Geography
  • History
  • Literature
  • Art
  • Music
  • China Studies in Chinese
  • Foreign Languages

A-level students are required to take five examinable subjects, including a General Paper. Of the remaining four subjects, students have to take at least one subject from the contrasting subject stream.

For a typical JC student, their subject combination can look something like this;

JC students common subject combination

The narrow scope of studies is made up by the intensive curriculum. Being more technical,  the A-level curriculum covers complex topics rigorously.

On the other hand, IB groups its subjects into six broad subject groups:

  • Group 1: Studies in Language and Literature
  • Group 2: Language Acquisition
  • Group 3: Individuals and societies
  • Group 4: Sciences
  • Group 5: Mathematics
  • Group 6: The Arts

To fulfil the IB diploma requirements, students have to study a subject from each of the six subject groups. As the curriculum is more extensive, the IB diploma does not go as deep as their A-levels counterpart. Instead, students are encouraged to develop their understanding beyond the classroom through the IAs.

Besides the IA, students are also required to take core components. These components do not count towards the final grades of the subject, but to the final grade of the diploma. The three components that is compulsory for IB students are the Extended Essay, the Theory of Knowledge, and CAS.

4. The Make-up of a Successful Student

As the two routes of study differ in the way the final grades are calculated, students who are typically successful for A levels may not necessarily be successful when preparing for the IB diploma.

As the A-level curriculum is more intensive, students may find the exam more technical and challenging. This is further reinforced by the structure of the national exam which focuses on accurate application. Hence, exam skills and academic rigour is crucial for students wanting to excel in the A-levels.

However, the same skills may not be as important for a student looking to get a perfect IB score of 45. Due to the extensiveness of IB, exams are not as technical. Additionally, as the IB diploma assigns some weight to the IB core components which are completed over a span of months, time management, independent research skills, and self-directed learning become critical skills for students to do well. 

This is not to say that exam skills aren’t important for IB students; they still very much are. But, unlike A levels where having exam skills is paramount to their final grades, IB students require a host of skills to help them achieve a perfect IB score.

5. The Value of the Certification Alone

Both certifications are recognised by universities in Singapore and abroad. However, because of the curriculum they follow, the value of the certifications are different.

Two things must be considered:

  1. Where are you planning to study?
  2. What course are you intending to study?

For students who are thinking of applying to a local university, having an A level certificate would be enough. This is so as Singapore universities place a relatively higher emphasis on the student’s academic performance. Hence, a good A level pass would suffice.

However, if the plan is to apply for a university overseas, having an IB diploma may be more beneficial. Unlike local universities, foreign universities are less focused on the academic grades of the applicant. Instead, they are on a look out for individuals who participate actively and excel in both academic and non-academic areas.

Another thing to consider is the intended course of study. In an ideal world, all courses would require the same effort to get in.

Unfortunately, not all courses are created equal.

For competitive courses, like medicine and law, most applicants are applying with perfect scores. This means having a good final grade alone is not enough to give applicants a spot in the course.

On top of good grades, applicants must have a diversified portfolio of academic and non-academic achievements. Students presenting with strong academic skills, like research and time management, are also greatly favoured.

As the IB curriculum has a shared focus on exams, self-directed research, and community projects, IB diploma holders tend to have a diversified portfolio. This gives them an opportunity to differentiate themselves from other applicants. 

But, if the course is not as competitive, a diversified portfolio may not be necessary. If so, there is no added advantage of holding one certificate over the other.

Although the A level certificate and IB diploma can both be used to apply to universities both locally and overseas, they have different focuses. 

Let us know if you need additional help in preparing for your IA and EE. With  premium tutors and a rigorous curriculum, we have helped many students ace their coursework.