IB, AP and A-Levels- What’s the difference?

IB, AP and A-Levels- What’s the difference?

Although the IB Diploma, the A-levels and APs have all existed for over 50 years, time hasn’t made it any clearer which of the programmes to select as your child’s pre-university qualification. All three options are available at international schools in Bangkok.

IB, A-Levels and APs are academically challenging and are considered the highest high school options students can take. They are offered in public and private, national and international schools. The end result for all of them is an independent document certifying that a level of achievement higher than a high school diploma has been reached, helping students to apply to top universities. But despite the similarities there are certainly significant differences between them.

IB, AP and A-Levels- What’s the difference?

Complete package vs individual courses

First off, the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma is a complete programme where students take six subjects from different subject areas (Two languages, mathematics, individuals and societies, sciences and the arts, though students may replace the arts with an additional subject from one of the other groups). Three subjects are taken at higher level and three at standard level. Furthermore, students must follow a course called Theory of Knowledge, which encourages students to think deeply and critically about the construction of knowledge and evaluate how we know what we know. They must also complete an original research project, culminating in a 4,000 word essay, and participate in CAS, or creativity, activity and service. All these elements must be successfully completed to receive an IB Diploma. Students may opt to not do a full Diploma, instead taking fewer IB courses, or fewer at the higher level, leading to a high school diploma plus IB certificates.

Both the A-levels and Advanced Placement (AP) courses are individual courses and students may choose to take as few or as many as they wish, with any permutations. Students can drop subjects they are not interested in and may specialize in certain areas such as sciences or social sciences. Some schools may stipulate how many a student should take or have specific course requirements and some schools also require service activities, such as The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Awards. However, this is at the discretion of the school. Most universities will require three A-levels for an application. In the last five years the College Board, who run the AP’s, has also developed AP Capstone, a programme which, like the IB Diploma, looks further than content alone and aims to develop students’ skills.


The IB is an international organization and it aims for its students to be globally aware, using international resources and content. A-levels are developed by the British government using predominantly British content, and AP courses are American-based, developed by the US organization College Board (the same organization that run the SATs, more about that later), with predominantly American content. All three programmes are recognized by universities around the world.

IB, AP and A-Levels- What’s the difference?

Enrollment in school

In order to sit the IB exams, students must be enrolled at a school, such as KIS International School, that is authorized to offer the IB Diploma. In fact, a small percentage of the final IB exam grade comes from course work done at school. Though students who take A-Levels and AP courses are usually enrolled at a school that offers A level or AP level classes, students can take the exams at a test centre without being enrolled at a school.

College credit

Colleges in the US and in some other countries may offer college credits for students who have done well on their IB, AP or A-level courses. Universities each have their own weighting system and policy about credits given so it would pay to check with your preferred university.


Both the IB Diploma and A-Levels usually take 2 years. The first year of A-levels is called AS level. Students usually take up to 5 AS courses, then drop down to 3 or 4 courses in the second year, which are called A2 level. IB courses, whether standard level or higher level are usually taught for two years. AP courses are usually a year long.

What’s taught

Both A-level courses and regular AP courses focus on learning subject knowledge, and this is what is tested on in the exams. The IB is broader than that. It focuses on understanding how things work in connection to each other. IB students are expected to be able to apply what they have learned in one situation to another, with less focus on memorizing content. Throughout the 2 years of the IB Diploma programme students are taught skills in areas of self-management, research, problem solving, collaboration, information literacy and so on.

So what about the SAT’s?

The SAT’s are simply standardized tests that test a student’s knowledge in reading, writing, language and maths. The tests are mostly multiple choice. Students register with the College Board and pay to sit the test at a test centre. Many universities, predominantly in the United States, require SAT results as part of the university application. The SATs are not taught as a curriculum in schools, in fact there is no curriculum, so it is difficult knowing what to revise. There are also SAT Subject tests. These are stand alone tests run by the Collegeboard and required for some courses at some universities. These stipulations are specified on the university admission pages.

Anyone fortunate enough to have access to the IB Diploma, A-levels or AP courses will have the opportunity to be well prepared for university.

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