Source: Times Online UK

With university applications very much in the news, it seems a good time to ask if there are ways in which prospective students can stand out from the crowd. Simon Johnson – who is off to Cambridge to study modern history later this year – has one suggestion, and it’s to take the IB rather than A levels.

Simon, who is 18 (and whom you can see in the picture), is certain that taking the IB helped him. This was particularly true, he says, of the Theory of Knowledge part of the course, which he says was “fantastically useful in teaching me to criticise my own thinking. This, in my view, is what the Cambridge interviewers were looking for: a sense that you were able to critically analyse what you had previously written, and point out its failings. More obviously, the whole programme has made me a more balanced ‘learner’.”

Here’s Simon’s realistic take on the IB:

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“It’s becoming increasingly normal to read about the demise of the A-level and the inexorable rise of the International Baccalaureate (IB) in its place. I have had the rare opportunity of seeing two systems at first hand: I left my state school in the UK at 16 to do the IB at a private school in New Zealand. Meanwhile, a lot of my friends continued with A-levels in England.

I know that, for me, choosing the IB was the correct decision; I have really enjoyed the breadth and depth that the course offered me. However, not everyone is suited to IB, and for a lot of people, A-levels are a better alternative. Here, I suggest some areas in which the IB differs from the A-level system, and what someone thinking about doing the IB should consider before choosing their qualification post-16.

One of the hardest things about the IB is the breadth of the course. One has to study a foreign language, maths, English, a physical science and a social science, plus one further subject. Your final IB score is the sum of your score in each subject, plus potential bonus points. This means that, should you be very bad at English, it can drag down your final score. This does not mean that you have to be brilliant at every subject; no one is. However, to get a good overall final score, you have to be prepared to work hard, even in subjects that don’t necessarily interest you. Naturally, this isn’t the case in A-levels.

There is no way of sugar-coating just how hard the IB is, in terms of how much time it requires. A quick Google search will reveal any number of stories of people who pull all-nighters for days on end to cope with the multitude of assignments they have. These people tend not to be representative of IB students in general- who do not normally have time to post on the net. Anyone who says that the IB was easy is lying to you. Do not underestimate, as a prospective student, just how hard you will have to work if you want the top marks. It is not possible to do well on the IB without investing this time  into it; well in excess of what is required for someone doing A levels. Whilst the IB will improve your time management skills, if you do not feel able to spend the time required, you may be better looking at the alternatives.

Grade inflation is one of the big selling points of the IB. Simply put, there isn’t any. The proportion of people getting 45 (the highest score) in each exam session has remained constant for many years,  and the mean diploma score of 30 has also remained constant. This compares to the situation where 1 in every 8 people now get 3 A’s at A-level. This offers the IB a key advantage: it can better distinguish the intelligent from the very intelligent. If you get a top score on the IB (a typical Oxbridge offer is around 39 out of 45 points) you know that you are amongst the world’s best.

For me, however, one of the most important features of the IB is how well it prepares you for university. Having done the IB, writing a 4,000 word essay no longer seems like a terrific hurdle: you’ve done it all before. The self discipline that you have acquired from doing so many subjects, some of which you hate, has also prepared you nicely for the independent learning that comes with university. It is not surprising therefore, that leading universities around the world have all said that they welcome applicants with the IB and recognise that they are better prepared for the demands of studying at university.

The IB has a series of unique qualities; features that help to explain why it is increasingly seen as the best post-16 option. However, it is certainly not for everyone, and you should really consider the strengths and weaknesses of the IB, and how well it suits you personally, before choosing which qualification you wish to do.”