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How does A Level work in the UK

Posted 29 August 2013
a-level student in the library

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Similar to many other international students in the UK, when I first came to the UK, I was mystified by the educational system here. Things seem to be much simpler where I come from. We only have junior high schools and high schools, with high school diploma being the only ticket to university. We certainly do not have GCSE or A Level or IB. I did not  understand what a Sixth form college was. I jumped head first into an educational system of which I did not have sufficient knowledge.

Similar to many other international students in the UK, when I first came to the UK, I was mystified by the educational system here. Things seem to be much simpler where I come from. In Vietnam we only have junior high schools and high schools, with high school diploma being the only ticket to university. We certainly do not have GCSE or A Level or IB. I did not  understand what a Sixth form college was. I jumped head first into an educational system of which I did not have sufficient knowledge. It certainly did make it more difficult for me to understand many decisions that I was required to take such as choosing subjects as well as how the grading systems work, or how important they were. This post hopefully will provide prospective students with a brief look at A Level in the UK. 

 

What are A Levels?

A Level is the common name for General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (GCE Advanced Level). It is a qualification offered in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for high school and pre-university students. A Level is the standard assessment of applicants for UK universities admission. Moreover, A Level is highly respected worldwide, equivalent to high school diplomas in certain countries and can be used to apply to universities in most. The modern A Level is split into two stages: AS, often taken in lower-sixth (year 12, 13 in Northern Ireland), and A2, taken in upper-sixth (year 13, 14 in Northern Ireland). To complete an A-level, students are required to sit an examination at the end of each year. Generally, students take and complete 3 or 4 A Level subjects, however there is no upper limit to the number of subjects that can be taken by more ambitious students.

 

Subjects and Exam Boards

Exam boards are official awarding bodies, providing A Level subjects educational resources and assessment for students wishing to complete an A Level qualification. There are 6 exam boards offering A Levels: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, CCEA, WJEC, CIE

The choice of exam boards varies from college to college. Some colleges choose only one exam boards for all their subjects; other colleges have different exam boards for different subjects.

The exam boards offer a variety of subjects, ranging from the academic disciplines such as Philosophy, Politics, etc. to the more practical like Product Design and Textiles. Choosing A Level subjects is a difficult decision every Sixth-form student has to make at the beginning of their AS year. Students should have a rough idea of what they want to study in the university and which university they would like to go to. It is rather pointless to choose a combination of Arts subjects when you want to study Medicine. If you want to apply to Oxford and Cambridge, bear in mind that these universities are extremely demanding when it comes to your A Level subjects. A few years ago, Cambridge University published its own list of subjects which it deemed less effective and advised aspiring undergraduates against taking them (the ‘soft’ A Levels list). Certain ‘hard’ subjects, or facilitating subjects as they are often referred to, on the other hand are greatly encouraged: Maths, Physics, Modern Languages to name but a few. ‘Soft’ subjects are more often than not vocational and practical, such as Photography, while ‘hard’ subjects are traditional and theoretical. Furthermore, most top universities do not accept General Studies/Critical Thinking. These subjects should only be taken as extras.

A Level subjects are modular. Most subjects have 4 modules, split evenly between 2 years. Natural Sciences such as Maths and Music have 6 modules.

 

Marking Scheme

A Levels use UMS, Uniform Marking Scheme. This scheme means that you have two kinds of mark: raw marks which would be converted to UMS marks according to the difficulty of the papers and the average ability of the students who take the exam. If your raw mark is low, you UMS mark can be much higher if it is a particularly difficult paper. UMS ensures fair distribution of marks, so that students of one year are not penalised because their exam papers are trickier than those of previous years.

A Levels have 6 passing grades from A* to E, and failing grade E . AS Levels do not award A*, and AS grades are written in lower case letters.

 

A LEVELS AT BELLERBYS IN THE UK

Bellerbys offer a wide range of traditional A Level subjects from Economics to Physics, as well as more vocational subjects such as Accounting and Arts. The college itself has a long standing tradition of outstanding academic achievement, with a high percentage of students achieving grade A/A* each year. Many Bellerbys students have gone on to study at top universities in the UK. In 2013 Bellerbys students have had another year of outstanding A level success with 57% receiving A* - A, compared to just 26% across the whole of the UK. The team of dedicated staff and teachers provides students with all the support they need, from choosing subjects to choosing universities, to ensure that they succeed in their path to higher education. Read more on how to apply for A levels in the UK.

Autumn Hoang

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