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MAR 10, 2020 • 7 min read
Is it your dream to study overseas?
If so, one of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make in high school is choosing the right curriculum.
One of the most popular globally recognised curriculums is the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE).
Through CIE, you can gain A Level qualifications which are made of AS Levels and A2 Levels.
But wait… what does that actually mean?
Don’t worry! It’s all here in this blog. Keep reading to see A, AS, and A2 Levels explained in-depth.
What is an A Level qualification?
According to the official UCAS website, “A levels are subject-based qualifications that can lead to university, further study, training, or work. You can normally study three or more A levels over two years. ”
Though originating from the UK, the A Level qualification is recognised by universities around the world!
Grades for the A Levels Range from A* to U.
Grade% markA*90% and overA80% -89%B70% - 79%C60% - 69%D50% - 59%E40% - 49%U (Ungraded)under 40%
If you’re looking at applying to a top 30 university ([QS World University Rankings for 2019] (https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2019)) you want to be aiming for grades that sit in the A or A* band.
For those considering US universities, the American equivalent for A Levels are the AP examinations.
The A Level qualification is made up of two components:
*AS Level *A2 Level
You need to study and complete your AS Level before you take your A Level. After that, your two scores are averaged (50/50) to produce your overall A Level score. Students usually complete their AS Level in their second to last year of high school and their A2 Level in their last year.
Both AS and A2 Levels are designed to be year long courses.
There are two times in the year when you can sit the exams. The first is in May/June, and the second is in October/November.
Students in the Southern hemisphere usually take the Oct/Nov series and students in the Northern hemisphere usually sit the May/June series because of how school years are structured.
However, there is another option when it comes to scheduling your exams!
Some students can sit both the AS and A2 Level papers during the same exam periods.
This might sound more difficult, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference and your schedule - whatever works for you and your timetable is the option you should go for.
Sitting the exams together may offer a heavier workload; however, this could be a great option if you think that by taking the two components together you’re less likely to forget the content learned in AS by the time you reach A2.
An important point to note is that AS and A2 Level papers must be sat within a 12 month period of one another. Otherwise, your AS mark “expires” and you can’t combine it with your A2 mark to gain an A Level qualification.
At this point you might be thinking, “Wait a minute. Just how difficult are A Levels? Are these exams suitable for me?”
Difficulty is something you should definitely take into account when you’re choosing different curriculums and subjects.
Although just “how difficult” something is differs from person to person, you want to make sure that whatever it is you’re signing up for, you’re confident that you’ll be able to tackle it and perform to a high standard.
Cambridge International Examinations releases updated syllabuses that are available online for all of their subjects. Simply pop the subject you’re looking for along with “Cambridge syllabus” and voila!, you can take a look at exactly what’s included in the curriculum.
Though the syllabuses may appear long and confusing, choose to focus on the learning objectives. These explain exactly what kind of content the student is expected to learn and everything that will be found in the exams can be found to fit under these categories.
Objectives tend to become harder further down, as the syllabus is written according to the order the content is usually taught in. So to get a good gist of difficulty, make sure you scroll down to the bottom to check out what those harder topics include!
You can also take a look at past papers online. Because A Levels are such a popular curriculum, you can find a huge array of resources online!
Use past papers to get a better sense of the exams and their difficulty level by skimming through their content. You can also use these to get an idea of the exam structure.
Try to look at past papers from more recent years as they tend to get harder as time goes on! Even better, look at specimen papers (fancy term for sample papers) for the current year released on the Cambridge website to get the most up to date examples.
However, while you do this, keep into account that you don’t necessarily need to get 90% or 70% of questions correct, to end up getting a 90% or 70% on your report card.
How is that possible?
Welcome to scaling!
All exams are scaled on a bell curve so raw grades are often inflated. Grades may be inflated anywhere from 1%-15% depending on where you score, the difficulty of the paper that year, and also the subject you’re taking.
So if the past papers are looking impossible, do not fear! You might just be getting an unrealistic representation of your final score.
Always make sure to take a look at the grade and scaling boundaries for the exam for that year when looking at past papers.
You should now have a broad understanding of how A Levels work - what AS and A2 Levels are and how they combine together to give you your overall mark.
But what exactly is the difference between AS and A2 Levels?
They may have minor differences in exam structure; for example, AS science papers have a multichoice component but A2 science papers do not. However, aside from that, the two levels have a lot in common.
They are both one year courses.
They both require year-long study that culminates in a series of exams.
They both count for 50% of your final A Level mark.
However, A2 Levels are generally harder than AS Levels and build on the knowledge that you learn during taking your AS papers.
In fact, many A2 Level papers also test on content covered in the AS papers. This can be seen with the business studies A2 exams which require you to recall knowledge from AS business studies.
What kind of resources are available to help you with your AS and A2 studies?
Cambridge publishes an awesome set of textbooks that are geared towards the curriculum for all the different subjects available. These textbooks offer comprehensive cover for both the AS and A2 courses.
Alternatively, you could look at buying study guides and textbooks produced by other companies that also target A Level students.
The A Level curriculum is a hugely popular, internationally recognised curriculum that can help you secure your place at top universities around the world. Be it Stanford, Oxford, or Harvard, A Levels can be be the high school curriculum to help get you there!
Cambridge International A Levels are offered in 55 subjects. So whether you’re interested in biology, economics, maths, or classics, chances are there are probably subjects available that are the right fit for you!
Some final advice?
A Levels is an awesome curriculum that opens up many tertiary opportunities for high school students.
However, unlike many other curriculums, the AS and A2 courses are structured so that no coursework or classroom participation grades are factored into your final score.
This means that your entire grade is determined by how you perform in your final exams.
While you may think that this is an excellent opportunity for you to procrastinate, think again!
If you don’t prepare throughout the year, you could jeopardise your final grade which represents your academic work for an entire year. So, make sure you study throughout the year, take notes, and keep up with the content!