6 Reasons Foreign Students Should Consider Studying A-levels in Britain

Harrow School

The decision to study abroad is a big one, and not one to be taken lightly. But it brings a host of benefits that you’ll find stay with you throughout life, from a strong academic record, to confidence and life experience, to a host of new friends.

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In this article, we’ll look at what’s involved in studying for A-levels, as well as the International Baccalaureate, which some consider academically tougher. We’ll run through some of the major advantages you’ll enjoy if you choose to take this exciting step in your academic career and come to the UK to study for these all-important qualifications. Not only will your end-of-school qualifications affect your choice of degree and careers, the time when you take A-levels – usually, when you’re aged 16-18 – is a very exciting one, so it’s worth thinking carefully about the best way to spend it.

All about A-levels

As an international student, you may not be familiar with the concept of A-levels, and they may seem quite different from the equivalent qualifications in your own country, so let’s start with a bit of background information on what A-levels are and how they work.

What are A-levels and when are they taken?

Officially known as GCE Advanced Levels, A-levels provide two years of intensive study across several subjects of the student’s choosing, with the outcome being a series of respected qualifications with which to apply to university. A-levels are typically taken between the ages of 16-18 as the culmination of secondary education, but it’s possible to study them as a mature student later on as well.

How are A-levels structured, and how many should I take?

A-levels are structured into AS levels, taken in the first year, and A2, taken in the second year. Students typically take four AS levels, and may choose to drop one AS level for the A2 year, leaving them with a total of three full A-levels – the minimum required for any respected university in the UK. Both AS and A2 courses are broken into a series of modules covering different topic areas and issues within each subject. While the AS course typically focuses on the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills, A2 courses are generally designed to develop skills in analysis and critical evaluation.
Many students choose to take on more than three A-levels, particularly those who are more academic and are aiming for entrance to the top universities. Furthermore, many schools and colleges set a compulsory extra subject, General Studies, at either AS or full A-level; this subject is designed to broaden general knowledge and critical thinking skills, but it is not generally accepted towards minimum entrance requirements by respected UK universities. Indeed, not all A-level subjects are equally well-respected; ‘traditional subjects’, such as English Literature, Maths or Physics, are more highly regarded than newer disciplines such as Media Studies. There’s more guidance on this in our article on choosing the right A-level subjects.

How are A-levels assessed?

Image shows rows of chairs set up for an exam.
Some courses are assessed more by coursework, others more by exam, so it’s worth looking that up if the type of assessment is a factor for you.

A-level assessment is via exams and coursework, the latter being longer pieces of work that you work on and submit during the course of your studies, not in an exam environment. For students who crumble under the pressure of exams, coursework provides the opportunity to showcase a range of academic skills in a less high-pressured environment, rather than just the ability to do well in exams and remember facts.
Exams are taken at the end of each of the two years, in May and June, often following a period of ‘study leave’, during which you’ll have time to revise on your own rather than being committed to a structured programme of lessons. Exams for certain modules of some subjects (usually sciences) may be taken in January. Results will be released in August.

How are A-levels graded?

At the time of writing, A-levels are graded from A* to U, with A* being the best possible mark (reflecting a total score of 90% or more) and U being Unclassified, the lowest possible mark. When you get your results sheet, you’ll be able to work out grades for individual modules as well as being able to see your overall result.

An alternative to A-levels:  the International Baccalaureate

The alternative qualification available at some schools and colleges in the UK is the International Baccalaureate (IB), an internationally recognised qualification considered by some to be harder and more rigorous than A-levels. With a compulsory six subjects, the IB provides a wider range of tuition, including a mandatory language and mathematics subject. This will not come as good news to those who can’t wait to give up maths! Grading differs from A-levels; the IB is marked on a scale between 1 and 7 for individual subjects, with an extra three marks for the Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay components, giving a maximum total of 45. The IB is assessed with a single round of exams at the end of the two years, so if you’re not someone who copes well with the stress of exams, you may prefer to spread your exams across two years and opt for A-levels instead. If, on the other hand, you’re academically ambitious with a well-rounded knowledge base and skill set, you may find you rise to the challenge of the IB.

So why study A-levels as an international student?

Now that the background stuff is out of the way, let’s get onto the real purpose of this article – a look at the benefits of studying A-levels as an international student. If you’re still in the process of deciding whether or not to take this step, or you need help convincing your parents that it’s a good idea, here are six great reasons you should come to the UK to study for A-levels (or the IB – the choice is yours!).

1. An education system respected for academic success

The UK education system is highly respected the world over, having produced some of the world’s greatest thinkers, writers, politicians and scientists, both past and present. Coming from abroad to study in the UK, you’ll be part of a long academic tradition and you’ll be in an environment in which academic success is valued and respected. Whether you choose to go to university in the UK or anywhere else in the world, having A-level qualifications on your applications will stand you in good stead.

2. Make it easier to apply to UK universities

Image shows the beautiful building that is the University of Bradford's School of Management.
The University of Bradford’s School of Management.

Though UK universities will usually accept A-level equivalent academic qualifications from overseas, there’s no getting away from the fact that they are geared towards students who’ve done A-levels, and the A-level is seen as the standard measure of academic success in the UK. The IB is increasingly popular, but the overwhelming majority of applicants to universities in the UK will have A-levels on which their offers will be based. Coming to the UK to study A-levels not only means that you’ll fit in better with the UK education system and university expectations, but it’s also a solid introduction to what it’s like studying in the UK, which will better prepare you for studying at a UK university if you decide that’s the path you want to take.

3. A chance to develop your English skills

If English isn’t your native tongue, studying A-levels in the UK is a fantastic way to develop your fluency in English to the level that will be required for entry into a British university. Immersed in English on a daily basis, both at college and socially, you’ll quickly pick up the nuances and subtleties of the English language – not to mention the everyday colloquialisms that no language book will teach you.
Note, however, that you’ll need to be at a minimum level of English proficiency in order to start studying A-levels; you will struggle otherwise. Each college will have its own admissions policy, but will more than likely need some sort of proof that your English skills are strong enough to withstand the rigours of A-level study. If you don’t feel confident in your level of English, it’s strongly advisable to take an English course in it prior to your application to study in the UK.

4. Be a tourist

Image shows Highclere Castle, where the TV series Downton Abbey is filmed.
Highclere Castle, where the TV series Downton Abbey is filmed.

The UK is packed with interesting history, going back thousands of years and just as evident on the streets of ordinary towns and cities as at major cultural hotspots. From ancient sites like Stonehenge, to Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, to London’s popular tourist hotspots, there’s enough to see and do in the UK to last a lifetime, let alone your two years of A-level study. That’s without even mentioning the UK’s numerous areas of outstanding natural beauty, rich theatrical offering and the huge array of international cuisines available almost everywhere.
To get you started, and to help convince you that the UK is a great place to spend two years, here are just a few of the places you’ll have the chance to visit if you come to study in the UK:

  • Buckingham Palace, London – one of the Queen’s official residences. Make sure you catch a Changing of the Guard!
  • The Tower of London, London – where once England’s traitors were incarcerated.
  • Madam Tussauds, London – pose with waxwork models of all your favourite actors and actresses at this enormously popular museum with a difference.
  • Christ Church, Oxford – and lots of other Oxford colleges, in fact. Christ Church’s beautiful hall stood in for the Hogwarts great hall in Harry Potter.
  • Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire – the stunning birthplace of war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill offers a pleasant foray into the Cotswolds, a famous region of the UK noted for its quintessential English villages and beautiful countryside.
  • Windsor Castle, Berkshire – another of the Queen’s official residences, Windsor has been home to a long string of monarchs.
  • Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon – visit the birthplace of the world’s most famous playwright – and the homes of his wife, mother, daughter and granddaughter.
  • Highclere Castle – if the alluring world of Downton Abbey hasn’t yet reached you, it will almost certainly do so during your stay in the UK. It was filmed at Highclere Castle, so if you fancy stepping back into the opulent world of the English stately home, you can’t do much better than Highclere.
  • Stonehenge, Wiltshire – an ancient and mysterious prehistoric stone circle – the world’s largest.
  • The Lake District – home to the poet Wordsworth and Peter Rabbit children’s author Beatrix Potter, the Lake District National Park is famous for its breathtaking landscape of mountains and lakes. It’s a haven of tranquillity popular with tourists and UK residents alike.

5. Make new friends with people from other cultures

Studying in the UK is also a great opportunity to mix with students from a range of other cultures, and not just born-and-bred Brits. UK colleges are popular with students from all over the world, so as well as British students, you can look forward to making friends with people from a variety of nationalities and backgrounds – a culturally enriching experience that will provide a good preparation for life at university, which will be even more cosmopolitan. The two years you spend studying A-levels in the UK will give you the opportunity to make friends for life – not to mention a great excuse to come back to the UK later on!

6. Boost your job prospects

Image shows a newspaper Jobs column.
Studying in England may make it easier to find a job in future.

Studying abroad – and immersing yourself in a new culture – teaches you valuable interpersonal skills and gives you life experience and confidence that may place you ahead of those who have not had this experience. This will enhance your CV in the eyes of a prospective employer when you enter the job market later on. Add to this the fact that, as already noted, the UK education system is highly respected by employers worldwide, and you have a stronger CV and potentially better job prospects than your peers.

We hope we’ve managed to convince you that the UK is a fabulous place to study, and that A-levels are a great set of qualifications with which to approach university applications and, beyond that, your career. If you’re still not sure, why not book yourself onto one of our summer school courses and get a taster of what it’s like to study in the UK? We have students from a huge range of nationalities, so you’ll fit right in.

Image credits: banner; exam; Bradford; Highclere; jobs