How do UK A Levels work?

10 March 2017
A Level student in the library

Study A Level in the UK 

Similar to many other international students, when I first came to the UK, I was mystified by the educational system here. Things seemed much simpler where I come from. In Vietnam we only have junior high schools and high schools, with a high school diploma being the ticket to university. We certainly do not have GCE or A level. I did not  understand what a Sixth Form College was. I jumped head first into an educational system that I did not understand. It certainly made it more difficult for me when making important decisions about choosing subjects, as well as understanding how the grading systems work.

What are GCE A levels?

A level is the common name for the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level certificate (GCE A level). It is a high school qualification studied in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by pre-university students. A level is the standard assessment of applicants for UK university admission and is highly respected worldwide. It is equivalent to high school diplomas in certain countries and can be used to apply to universities in most parts of them world.

The A level is split into two stages. AS level, often taken in the lower-sixth (years 12 and 13 in Northern Ireland), and A2 level which is taken in the upper-sixth (years 13 and 14 in Northern Ireland). To complete an A level, students sit an examination at the end of each academic year. Generally, students take and complete three or four A level subjects but there is no upper limit to the number of subjects that can be taken.

A level subjects are modular. Most subjects have four modules, split evenly across two academic years. Natural sciences such as Maths and Music have six modules.

A level subjects and exam boards

Exam boards are the official awarding bodies that provide A level subject educational resources and assessment. There are six exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, CCEA, WJEC, CIE

The choice of exam boards varies from college to college. Some colleges work with 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 academic disciplines such as Philosophy and Politics, to the more practical like Product Design and Textiles. Choosing A level subjects is an important decision every sixth-form student has to make at the beginning of their AS year. Students think about what they want to study and which university they would like to go to. It is pointless to choose a combination of arts subjects when you want to study Medicine, for example.

If you want to apply to Oxford and Cambridge, bear in mind that these universities will only consider some A level subjects. For example, Cambridge University publishes a list of 'soft' ocational and practical A level subjects, such as Photography, that it warns aspiring Cambridge undergraduates not to take. On the other hand, it favours ‘hard’ or 'facilitating' subjects including Maths, Physics, Modern Languages . Most top universities do not accept General Studies or Critical Thinking so these subjects should only be taken as extras.

A level marking and grading 

A levels have six pass grades from the highest A* to the failing grade E. AS levels do not award A* are written in lower case letters (a-e)

The Uniform Marking Scheme (UMS) is used to ensure a fair distribution of marks, so that students of one year are not penalised because their exam papers are trickier than those of previous years. 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, your UMS mark can be much higher if it is a particularly difficult paper.

Studying A levels at Bellerbys in the UK

Bellerbys offers a wide range of traditional A level subjects. It 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 2016, 75% of Bellerbys international students achieved A* - A, compared to just 53% across the whole of the UK. The team of dedicated Bellerbys staff and teachers provide you with all the support you need, including choosing the right A level subjects and university courses, to ensure you path to higher education is successful.

See all A Level subject options