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AP, A Levels, and Alphabet Soup: Choosing the Right Curriculum

If you don’t attend an American-curriculum school but you’re thinking about US universities, you may be very confused about AP, A levels, and IB. Do I have to take AP tests? What if my school doesn’t offer AP classes? What if I am pursuing  A levels or an IB diploma instead? It can be tough to cut through all these acronyms to figure out the right choice for you.

First, some clarification:

Advanced Placement (AP) is a program created by the College Board, which is also responsible for administering the SAT. AP courses, which are typically offered only in US high schools and American-curriculum schools abroad, allow you to tackle challenging, college-level material and even earn college credit, and are offered in 35 different subjects. AP exams are scored on a 5 point scale, with 3 considered a passing grade, and are administered in May each year. You do not actually take an AP course to sign up for the AP exam and there are many low-cost online instructional options.

A Levels (short for Advanced Levels) are subject-based qualifications in the UK system, which students begin preparing for after completing their GCSE qualification. Based on a student’s GCSE results and interests, he or she will typically select 3 or 4 subjects to pursue in depth as A level courses, and sit exams in those subjects at the end of Year 12 and Year 13. A Levels are graded from O to A*.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme is a widely respected and internationally recognized high school curriculum, different from the US and UK systems. The rigorous IB program requires students to take a broader offering of subjects compared to A levels, in which students take three Higher Level and three Standard Level classes. Full diploma students must also complete an Extended Essay on a subject of their choosing, Theory of Knowledge, and CAS (Creativity, Activity, and Service) hours in order to fulfill the completion requirments.  A school must be authorized as an IB World School in order to offer the IB curriculum.

Choosing a curriculum is a big decision, as each has its advantages and disadvantages. Don’t worry: you can go on to an an amazing college or university regardless of your curriculum. Top US universities accept students from American, UK, IB, and other types of schools every year!

If my school doesn’t offer AP classes, should I prepare for and take AP tests on my own?

In almost all cases, no! AP exams are designed to test you on college-level material that you have learned in a structured, full-year course, and you are unlikely to be successful if you study on your own.

American universities will evaluate your application in the context of your school and curriculum. In fact, your school counselor will be asked to rate how demanding your course selection is compared to your classmates’. If you are in a non-American curriculum, you are not expected to complete AP tests, and you are at no disadvantage.

So how can I go above and beyond to prove myself academically?

First, seize every opportunity to challenge yourself within your school’s curriculum. In IB, that means pursuing the full IB diploma (rather than a certificate) and taking challenging subjects. If you are in the British curriculum, think about tackling additional, challenging A Level subjects or taking on an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). As an IB student, you will be compared against other IB students, A level students against other A level students, and so on.

Second, look for chances to shine outside your classes. Sites like Coursera and EdX have an incredible array of online courses from top American institutions, and some even offer college credit! Summer residential programs in the US, offered at many universities, let you experience life on campus and try out a new field or topic.

Finally, take SAT Subject Tests to show off your academic strengths. Regardless of your curriculum, these knowledge-based tests can prove your skills in topics like math, literature, and foreign languages – and high scores will definitely be an asset to your application. With these points in mind, you can set yourself up for success in your college applications – and ensure that you have a strong academic foundation to build on once you get to campus.

Libby Kokemoor is an Educational Consultant at Hale Education Group and a graduate of Pomona College with a BA in International Relations.

To learn more about studying in the US and how to apply, please contact our office on +971 4 299 0077.

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