The A Level and International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma programmes are popular options for students who have completed their Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) and plan to pursue their tertiary studies overseas.
They prepare SPM school leavers for entry into undergraduate programmes at universities locally and abroad.
A Levels, also known as GCE Advanced Level, is a United Kingdom-based programme that is administered commonly by one of two examination boards — the Cambridge Assessment International Education and Edexcel. The IB Diploma programme, meanwhile, originates from Geneva, Switzerland.
Both globally-recognised qualifications are highly regarded by university admission teams, said Helen Prior, founder of SchoolSelect Malaysia, a school consultancy service.
“The IB Diploma and A Levels are rigorous academic programmes that students complete in their final two years of secondary school (Year 12 and 13), with both involving the study of a range of subjects at a high level and demanding final examinations.
“Some international schools offer an 18-month timeframe for A Level (students),” she said.
Prior said the requirements to enrol in
A Levels or the IB Diploma varied between schools, and “a minimum of five credits comprising Bs in SPM or IGCSE (the International General Certificate of Secondary Education) is not uncommon”.
A Level students typically study four subjects in Year 12 (AS Level) and three in Year 13 (A2 Level). IB Diploma students take six subjects that stay the same during their two-year programme, with additional compulsory components.
“A level students have complete (freedom of) choice on which subjects they intend to pursue. For example, they can focus on Maths and Sciences, or just English and the Humanities.
“Some schools supplement A Level subjects with additional offerings, such as the Extended Project Qualification, to increase the breadth of the qualification,” said Prior.
“For IB Diploma programme students, they must study subjects classified under different groups, such as Language and Literature, Maths, Sciences, Foreign Languages and the Humanities/Business.
“They can choose an Arts subject as their sixth choice, or pick a final subject from one of the other five groups,” Prior noted.
“For IB students, in addition to completing the six subjects, they must complete an independent research project, a ‘Creativity, Action, Service’ (CAS) component, (around 150 hours in two years) and pass a philosophy/critical thinking course called ‘Theory of Knowledge’ to be awarded the diploma,” she added.
Structure-wise, A Levels has two models — one with all final exams taken at the end of Year 13 (linear) and a staged-assessment model comprising AS and A2 levels.
The IB Diploma structure is different.
“Out of the six subjects a student elects to study, three must be ‘Higher Level’ (HL) and three must be ‘Standard Level’ (SL). HL subjects go into more detail and depth, and are studied for a minimum of 240 hours, compared with a minimum of 150 hours for SL. All examinations are taken at the end of the two-year programme,” said Prior.
For both qualifications, examinations are conducted two times a year: in November if the school starts their academic year in January, or in May/June if they begin in August.
As for grading, Prior said A Level subjects are graded on a letter system (A* to E), whereas IB Diploma subjects are marked on a score of one to seven, with a seven roughly equivalent to an A*.
“A total of 24 points overall is needed to be awarded the IB Diploma qualification,” she said.
So, who are A Level and IB programmes most suited for?
“A Levels suits students who know what they want to study and have clear strengths in two or three subjects. The IB Diploma is broader, and suits those who want to keep their options open, and have strengths and interests across a wider range of subjects,” Prior said.
Siti Sarah Aisyah Jafri Malin, 21, who is studying medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, did her IB Diploma programme in Kolej Mara Banting fully sponsored.
She said the programme required a person to become an all-rounder.
Siti Sarah said what she studied was different from SPM, particularly in academic terms.
She took Mathematics, Economics and Malay for her SL subjects and Chemistry, Biology and English for her HL subjects. She went to Cambodia as part of her CAS activities.
“The assessment includes internal assignments for each subject and one extended essay for a subject that you choose that requires you to do ‘mini’ research. The IB programme is an intense Pre-U programme designed to holistically nurture individuals,” she said.
Nornadiatul Nathra Muhammad Azman, also 21, took up A Levels as a self-paying student at Intec Education College in Shah Alam and is now doing a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland).
Her A Level subjects were Physics, Mathematics and Further Mathematics. “In the beginning I was quite laid back since the subjects were similar to SPM. We had to do presentations and assessments, but it was simply regarded as a class activity for exposure and was not graded,” she shared, adding that the freedom of not being guided quickly led to poor time management.
“ Nonetheless, I was back on track pretty quickly with constant help from my teachers and I began actively participating in study groups,” she said.
A Levels is a good choice for those who are keen on exam-based courses, or for those who are still unsure of their undergraduate degree, Nathra feels.
Coming up next week: Diploma programmes.