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MAR 16, 2020 • 9 min read
Ever heard of A levels? How about GCSE? CIE?
If you’re an international student looking to apply to top universities around the world, you’ve probably heard of all three of these exams.
But do you know what they mean? And how they can help you get into the university of your dreams?
For one thing, they can make you a more competitive an applicant in the eyes of admissions officers.
And, if you do really well on these exams, your hard work may even be rewarded with college credit.
Now that I've got your attention, let’s get started!
Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) is a not-for-profit organisation run by the University of Cambridge. As the name suggests, CIE provides examinations for international students, and these can be taken at more than 10,000 high schools in 160 countries around the world.
By taking these courses you will learn a wide variety of material at a very high level and learn how to be self motivated, think critically and be reflective, all of which are essential skills for any university you attend.
There are 55 total subjects which are split across nine main categories: English, Mathematics, Sciences, Social Sciences, Languages, Humanities, Technology, the Arts, and General Studies.
You will have the freedom to choose which courses to take based on what you’re interested in and what your school offers.
1. The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE/IGCSE): This is the first part of CIE and is usually taken when you are in Year 11. Typically, you will pick five to six subjects to sit at this level and these courses will prepare you for your Advanced (A) levels in the following years.
Your school has the option of offering "Core Papers" or "Extended Papers". The Core Papers will give you a basic understanding of each subject you take, while the Extended Papers give you the opportunity to earn top grades.
Fingers crossed that your school offers the Extended Papers (most do). If not, you will be okay but you may have to study much harder for your A levels.
2. Advanced Levels (A Levels): A levels are made up of two parts: Advanced Subsidiary (AS) and A2. Normally, you will sit AS in Year 12 and A2 in Year 13. Together, your AS and A2 grades will make up your complete final A level marks.
Although you will likely sit five to six GCSE levels, you will only sit three to four full A levels. The drop in course numbers reflect the amount of work you are expected to do. In other words, A levels are much harder than GCSE levels and you will need to study a lot more for them in order to do well.
You also have the option of taking a few AS courses and not sit the A2 courses. This is a good idea if you want to learn a bit about certain subjects but do not think you will study them at uni.
Keep in mind that universities will only accept AS courses if you have completed three or more full A levels.
Most A levels are pretty broad.
Looking to study maths?
You will probably study pure maths and statistics (and possibly mechanics) in one course.
In many other high school curriculums, subjects tend to be a lot more specialised, think “calculus" as opposed to “maths”.
This broad overview allows you to learn a lot, very quickly.
CIE recommends that you get 180 hours of teaching for AS and 180 hours for A2.
I know that may sound like a lot of hours but all of your hard work will pay off when you go to uni and find out that you already know most of the material that the course will cover.
Most schools give you free range on the courses you want to sit; however, each high school offers a certain number of courses due to their limited resources. If you are interested in a course that isn’t offered, try bugging the right people. If you bug them enough, they may find the resources to teach another course.
Picking three to four courses from a list of 20+ may seem difficult but there are a few things you can consider to make your decision easier.
1. Think about what you want to study at uni. If you find a specific subject area you are passionate about, stick to it and take A levels associated with that subject area.
2. If you are unsure of what you want to study, take a variety of courses to broaden your scope and help you find your passion.
3. Check to see what the A level requirements are at the unis you are interested in and make sure the courses you pick count towards your applications. Usually, courses such as Thinking Skills and General Paper are not applicable, even though they may be really valuable in your day to day life.
If you're looking to get some practice in now, or review what a CIE exam looks like - you can take a look at the subjects listing, chose a subject and navigate to CIE past papers
The best way to study for your exams is to do as many past papers as you possibly can.
Start early, take good notes in class, and work hard.
For each course you take you will need to sit multiple papers over the course of a month and a half.
There are two exam periods; one in June and one in November depending on what hemisphere you live in.
The number of papers and the types of papers depend on the course you are taking. Some papers will be multiple choice, some will require essays, and some will require short answers. Language papers often have a speaking component and science courses have a lab component.
Regardless of the format, these exams are usually pretty hard.
The grading process however, is relatively simple.
You get a percentage between zero and 100 for each subject.
If you do well enough to pass, you will get a grade as well.
Luckily, if your exams are harder than usual, your mark will be slightly scaled up to make up for your super difficult test.
You may never know what your raw score is and that’s okay!
90%-100% = A*
80%-89% = A
60%- 69% = C
50%-59% = D
40%-49% = E (minimum passing standard for A levels)
30%-39% = F (IGCSE only)
20%-29% = G (IGCSE only)
U = Ungraded, fail.
Your AS and A2 grades will be combined (50-50) to give you your complete A level score.
If you only take an AS course, anything you get between an 80%- 100% is an A. If you want to get an A*, you must take the A2 course as well.
Feeling really ambitious?
There are also awards for “top in country”, “top in the world”, and “best across 4 A levels”. These awards are very impressive and may help you even more with your uni admissions.
P.S. If you are unhappy with your results, you can re-sit your papers in the following exam session.
CIE qualifications are accepted by most UK universities (including Oxford and Cambridge), 450 US universities (including Stanford and all of the Ivy Leagues) and many other universities around the world.
Sample University Offerings:
1. Boston University: If you pass your A levels with a C or better, you will most likely receive credit for two full time courses. Additionally, if you have separate AS levels you may receive up to one full time course credit.
2. California Institute of Technology (CalTech): CalTech accepts IGCSE and A levels. If you have three complete A levels with a grade of B or above, along with physics (it’s a requirement), you will be a very competitive applicant.
3. Harvard University: As an international student you need three A levels with an A or B in each; however, you will also need to take the SAT or ACT along with two SAT Subject Tests. If you have three A levels with Grade A you will be given one year of academic credit.
4. Yale University: You can use your A levels instead of SAT Subject Tests on a one-on-one basis if you get a grade A or B. Keep in mind that you will only receive academic credit once your A levels are approved by your academic advisor.
5. Cornell University: Your A levels will count towards the testing portion of your application. If you pass your courses with A, B or C, you will receive academic credit.
6. University of Cambridge: In order to get in, you will need three to four A levels (not including Critical Thinking) with the grades AAA or AAA depending on the course.
7. University of Oxford: To get into Oxford you will need at least three A levels. The grades that are accepted depend on the courses you are taking. Take a further look into the A level requirements here.
Can't find the university you're interested in here?
Check out this list of universities that accept A levels.
If your school offers A levels, take them. Not only will they help you get into your dream university but they will teach you skills that you will use for the rest of your life.
However, don’t overdo it and take more A levels than you can handle.
If many of your subjects overlap (i.e. maths, economics and chemistry) you may have any easier time taking more courses but for the most part you should stick to three to four.
Study hard and you will be rewarded.