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What curriculum do top universities prefer?

As high school students embark on their educational journey, the choices they make in terms of coursework can significantly impact their future opportunities. The path to college admission, especially at top universities, is increasingly competitive, and every decision regarding high school curriculum matters. But what exactly do these prestigious institutions look for in a student’s academic record? Which high school curriculum stands out in the eyes of admissions officers at Ivy League schools, renowned research universities, and other prestigious institutions?

Here we delve into the intricate world of high school curricula and explore the preferences of top universities. We will unravel the factors that shape their decisions and provide you with valuable insights to help you make informed choices during your high school years. From Advanced Placement (AP) courses to International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, we will navigate the options, weigh the pros and cons, and demystify the ever-evolving landscape of academic preparation for college admission.

GCSE and A Levels

The International GCSE pathway is fairly straightforward and starts in Year 11 or earlier with students sitting up to six subjects. These subjects are structured as first introductions to the specific topic areas that they cover. In Year 12 students move on to the A Levels that are further broken down into two parts: the AS Level, called “Advanced Subsidiary”, (usually done in Year 12) and A2 Level (typically done in Year 13). Traditionally, students take 4-5 AS Level subjects and then go on to take 3-4 of those subjects at the A2 Level.

GCSEs are typically assessed through a combination of examinations, coursework, and practical assessments, with a focus on international standards. A Levels are assessed primarily through written examinations, which are typically taken at the end of a two-year course of study. The grading scale is typically A* (the highest) to E (the lowest) for each subject.

IB Diploma

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme is a rigorous and internationally recognized educational curriculum designed for students aged 16 to 19. It emphasizes a well-rounded education that not only focuses on academic excellence but also fosters critical thinking, intercultural understanding, and a commitment to community service.

To receive the IB Diploma, students must successfully complete assessments in six core subjects (three at Standard Level and three at Higher Level), the Extended Essay, the Theory of Knowledge course, and fulfill Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) requirements. Each IB subject is assessed based on a combination of internal and external assessments. The total points obtained from the six subjects, TOK, and the Extended Essay determine whether a student is awarded the IB Diploma. The maximum total score achievable is 45 points (7 points for each of the six subjects, plus 3 points for TOK and the Extended Essay).

US High School Diploma

The U.S. high school diploma generally requires students to earn a specified number of credits by completing courses in various subjects such as English, mathematics, science, social studies, and electives. The specific credit requirements can vary from one state or school district to another, but they often include core subjects like English (language arts), mathematics, science, and social studies. In addition to coursework, some schools may have additional graduation requirements, such as passing standardized tests or completing a certain number of community service hours.

Grading scales can vary by school or district, but a common grading scale in the U.S. uses letter grades with corresponding grade point averages (GPAs). The standard scale often includes A (90-100), B (80-89), C (70-79), D (60-69), and F (below 60). Some schools also use plus and minus modifiers (e.g., A-, B+) to provide more granularity in grading.

Advanced Placement Classes

AP classes, or Advanced Placement classes, are a set of rigorous high school courses that offer college-level content and are designed to provide high school students with an opportunity to earn college credit and demonstrate their readiness for higher education.

At the end of an AP course, students have the option to take an AP exam in that subject. These exams are typically administered in May and consist of multiple-choice questions and free-response questions. AP exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. Many colleges and universities grant college credit or advanced placement to students who earn a passing score (usually 3 or higher) on these exams.

Having AP courses on a high school transcript can also be viewed favorably by college admissions committees, as it demonstrates a commitment to academic excellence and a willingness to take on challenging coursework.

Curriculum Ages Corresponding school years Number of subjects Exams Grading
International GCSE and A Level 14-18 Year 11-13 Minimum 4-5 External, offered two to three times a year Scale of 1-9 for each subject
IB Diploma 16-18 Year 12-13 6 (plus 3 papers) One cumulative external exam at the end of two years with some internal scoring Out of 7 for each subject
US – AP classes 14-18 Any time from Grades 10-12 In addition to high school classes External, offered once a year in May Scale of 1-5


Which programme is most recognized globally?

While all the three curricula discussed above have global recognition, the A Levels are probably the most well-renowned with the widest reach. International GCSE and A Levels are studied in over 10,000 schools by over a million students in 160 countries. Over 1,400 universities worldwide recognise A Level qualifications. They are accepted by every UK university, by 600 universities in the US (including all the Ivy League universities) and in many other major student destinations, such as Canada, Australia, Singapore, South Africa, Germany and the Netherlands. To compare, over 5,000 schools worldwide offer the IB curriculum. AP courses are offered by many US curriculum schools around the world.

Which programme can help you get into top US/UK universities?

Top universities in both countries recognize all three of these curricula. However, there is a level of familiarity that universities might have with their own country’s curriculum. This does not mean that you will not get into US universities with A Levels or IB, or vice versa. If you are looking to challenge yourself, the IB would be more rigorous. The A Levels, on the other hand, give you a level of flexibility while challenging you and allowing you to score your best due to their exam structure. If your school does not offer an international curriculum, taking part-time AP classes can help enhance your university admissions profile.

Which programme is right for you?

The programme that is right for you should be the one where you feel most comfortable as a student. If you are looking for a more flexible curriculum that allows you to pursue a variety of subjects while having multiple exam date choices then the A Levels are the perfect choice for you. On the other hand, if you are looking for a more rigorous programme, then the IB is the right choice. The APs are also rigorous as they are college-level courses.