News & Updates

IB, AP, And A Levels, What’s The Difference?

Once you have decided enrol your child in a private school, you will likely be faced with another academic choice. Many private schools, particularly those in the international school category, offer different curricula. The three most commonly available options in Hong Kong are:

  • International Baccalaureate (IB)
  • Advanced Placement (APs)
  • A Levels

These certifications are a step higher than just receiving your high school diploma. Pupils are introduced to college-level coursework. This advanced certification, when earned, means that the pupil is capable of keeping up with the academic rigour of the world’s top universities. 

These are all western curricula that many expat and local families prefer, as they are considered more helpful to pupils hoping to secure a spot at universities abroad. The westernised curricula make it easier for universities to make an assessment of a pupil’s academic and enable pupils to more easily adapt to the type of learning they will encounter there. 

Let us first define what each of the indicated curricula is before we consider the key differences that may help in determining what choice is most suitable for your child’s academic ambitions. 

International Baccalaureate (IB)

IB is an international organisation based out of Switzerland that offers a globally focused skill-based curriculum. It offers the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP), which is a two-year programme targeted at secondary school pupils in the 16-19-year age range. 

Advanced Placement (APs)

The APs are an American-based high school curriculum developed by the US Organisation College Board. It is a separate qualification from standard high school diplomas that allows pupils to pursue individual courses at a collegiate level. The courses chosen are typically by keeping with what the pupils intend to study in college and can be eligible for credit in American Universities. 

A Levels

The A Level is a curriculum developed by the UK government that mainly features British learning materials that have been adapted to an international market. Also often referred to as the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level certificate GCE A Levels, it is a two-year programme that upon completion, can be used as the basis of academic assessment of pupils by universities during admissions. 

The Differences

1. Curriculum

IBDP allows pupils to choose from six subject groups. This is alongside the completion of Theory of Knowledge training, a research project, a 4,000-word essay, and participation in creativity, activity and service (CAS). Once all these qualifications are met, a pupil may then earn their IB diploma. Some may however opt to partake in fewer courses, leading to them earning their high school diploma and some IB certificates. 

AP courses are individual courses with no set minimum, so pupils have flexibility in choosing how many they want to study. However, the school they are attending may have rules governing this, including how many courses pupils can take. The range of subjects offered will also largely depend on what the school is capable of. AP courses do emphasize higher-order thinking and writing skills.

The A Level curriculum is more limited and will pupils often taking 3 or 4 subjects. It is also a 2-year programme that most pursue after having earned their high school diploma. There are no mandatory subjects so pupils are free to focus on what pertains to the degree they intend to pursue. When intending to use this qualification to apply to university, most will require at least three A levels. 

2. Training

The IB program tries to link different courses while being as in-depth as possible with individual subjects. Critical thinking, inquiry, risk-taking, and communication are integral to the learning experience. The development of soft skills such as empathy, having a global perspective, and being open to different viewpoints is also nurtured. 

The APs encourage pupils to act more independently. A lot of the coursework requires plenty of self-study time, reading and writing to excel. Training is mainly done through lectures with pupils taking notes and learning how to keep up with deadlines to ensure they have covered the course syllabus. 

A-Level courses are also in-depth but more focused on the individual courses than providing linkage with others. Pupils gain good expertise in the subjects they have focused on that will help with their later college-level academic work. While IB courses focuses on a broader range of subjects, A Level focuses on specialisation and in-depth study of each subject. Many pupils and parents that opt for A Levels are happy with the focus and accuracy provided on chosen subjects. 

3. Testing

IB certification results are based on both internal and external assessments. The internal assessments are predominantly made up of test papers, reports and presentations. External assessments are mainly in the form of a cumulative exam administered at the end of the study. A points-based system is used to grade performance. 

APs are completely externally assessed through a standardised test administered at the end of each academic year by the College Board. Pupils are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with those awarded a 1 not recommended to receive college credit while those receiving a 5 are highly recommended. 

A Levels are also completely externally assessed with two exam dates available each year. The examining board may however vary depending on location and the school. Here the traditional letter grade system is used. 


All these curricula are academically challenging, so there is not an easier shortcut to getting into your desired university. However, the IB program will likely take up more of your time than the others due to the greater number of subjects that need to be covered. 

They are also all relatively well established, having been in existence for well over 50 years. They are also all recognised by top universities. It does not matter much which option you choose, but rather how well you perform academically 

Though some international schools will offer more than one curriculum choice, many stick to a single option. You may want to make your choice based on the reputation of the institution and the performance record of its pupils. Also, look into what kind of support system there is for pupils, the kind of training the teachers have had, and the facilities on offer.