Most Common Acronyms Used in the US, UK education system (part 2)

Continuing our previous article on Most Common Acronyms Used in the US, UK education system, this week, we’ll focus on some acronyms and abbreviations indicating international qualifications, programs, and examinations such as GCSE, AP, IB, O-Levels, and A-Levels.

IB, A-Levels, and APs are academically challenging and are considered the highest high school options students can take.  If you are sending your child to study abroad, you might have heard about these programs, and the question inevitably arises: What courses will be the best suited to help my child excel and to nurture her interests?  Which will improve the odds of getting her into a top school the most? 

This article will explain to you these popular and prestigious academic paths, key differences, and how to choose between them, the pros and cons of each, to help your families decide what looks best on college applications.


GCSE stands for the General Certificate of Secondary Education.  This is a set of exams taken in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and other British territories.  It’s a replacement for the old O (Ordinary) Levels and CSEs (Certificate of Secondary Education).  The IGCSE and the GCSE are equivalent qualifications.  Both are designed to test the completion of Key Stage 4 (Years 10 and 11) of the English National Curriculum.

IGCSEs were introduced in 1988 and are internationally recognized qualifications. The “I” in IGCSE is for “International”.  The courses are more relevant to those studying them internationally.  So for children being schooled at home, who may be based in any part of the world, they are ideal.  Candidates can take IGCSE examinations all over the world.  Similar to GCSEs, they are perceived by some as academically more rigorous, and for this reason, have recently been adopted by over 300 independent schools in the UK.  IGCSEs are widely accepted by universities and colleges as part of their entry requirements.

Although equivalent, there are a few differences between IGCSE and GCSE:

  • The GCSE may be taken only in the UK, whereas there are opportunities to take the IGCSE in nearly every country in the world as well as in the UK.
  • The GCSE is set only in May/ June of each year. But students may sit for the IGCSE also in October/ November, and in India only, also in March.


O-Level is the abbreviation of Ordinary Level. It is one of the two parts of GCS (General Certificate of Education).  The other part of GCE is Advanced Level (A-Level), which students enter after completing O-Level.

O-Level is the final certification for secondary school, to be taken in the fifth form or year 11 at approximate age 17 (or age group 14-16).  Students that have completed O-Level are considered to have completed formal education.  They can further their studies to A-Level (at their school’s sixth form or private colleges),  Foundation Courses or diploma courses, or even simply leaving school.

O-Level is offered by Cambridge International Examination (CIE), American Council for Higher Education, and Edexcel International.  Though schools in the UK had replaced O-Level with GCSE in 1988, it is still used in many Commonwealth countries, such as Bangladesh, Brunei, Malaysia, Malta, Mauritius, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka and also in Trinidad and Tobago.


A-levels (short for Advanced levels) are the UK national curriculum designed to follow the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in the UK.  Students usually choose three or four subjects and take two years to study for these A-levels between the ages of 16 and 18.  A-levels are two-year courses, the first year is called the Advanced Subsidiary (AS), the final year is called the A2 Year.

The program offers a choice of 55 subjects and schools that can offer any combination of subjects.  International A Levels are offered by Cambridge International Examinations, but the teacher can decide how to teach each subject.

If you are sure you want your child to study in the UK, it might be preferable to take A-Levels, as it is the country’s traditional high school qualification.  A-levels are also a great choice for a student who has a clear idea of which subjects they excel in and what studies they wish to pursue after school.  A-Levels allow them to focus their time on achieving the highest possible grades in the 3 or 4 most relevant subjects.

Most importantly, students receive separate certificates in each subject they pass, rather than one overall certificate as with the IB. 


AP (Advanced Placement) course is a program in the United States and Canada created by the College Board, which offers college-level curricula and examinations to high school students. Similar to the SAT Subject Tests, there are AP tests that cover a range of subjects from Biology to European History to Music Theory.  There are currently over 38 AP test options, though few high schools offer classes in every subject.

Students that study the AP program will usually undertake three to four courses each year, in the final year up to seven courses may be studied.   Each course is developed by a committee composed of university faculty and AP teachers and covers the breadth of information, skills, and assignments found in the corresponding university course.  The idea behind AP courses is to present college-level concepts and course work to high school students and then test them at the end of their courses, using a 1-5 grading scale.  American colleges will often grant course credit and placement for AP courses in which students scored 3 or higher.

Nearly all U.S. and Canadian colleges accept AP scores for placement or credit, as do many international universities. AP might be the right choice if your child is over-scheduled: unlike the IB Diploma Program, which includes extracurricular commitments, AP is solely curricular.

Another point worth considering is that similar to A-levels, students can take AP exams without being enrolled in an AP class. If students have proficiency in a language that’s not offered by their school or they want to self-study for a niche subject such as art history, then the AP program will give them more flexibility.


IB, or International Baccalaureate program began in 1968 in Geneva, Switzerland, and it was intended to produce highly educated, cosmopolitan students from children, whose parents were involved in diplomacy, international and multinational organizations.  The IB Diploma Program (DP) is an assessed program for students aged 16 to 19.  It is respected by leading universities across the globe.

Students must choose 3 Higher Level subjects and 3 Standard Level subjects from each of the 6 compulsory core areas: Language & Literature, Language Acquisition, Sciences, Maths, Social Sciences, and the Arts.

They must also complete additional components of the course.  This includes a Theory of Knowledge module, which promotes critical thinking, as well as participating in at least 3 hours-worth of arts, sport, or community service activities as part of their Creativity, Action, and Service (CAS) module.  They must also complete an Extended Essay, an independently researched 4,000-word essay on a topic of their choice.  The IB program has been described by advocates to be a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to a student’s education.

The IB diploma offers a well-rounded education. This makes the course particularly suited to students who are interested in a broad range of subjects but haven’t chosen what they would like to study at degree level yet.

The essay and Theory of Knowledge components of the IB program also provide ideal preparation for university education, giving students a solid grounding in critical thinking independent research skills.

Final Thoughts

Only you as the parent and student can decide which organization or program best suits you and your academic goals.  However, no matter which pathway you decide for your child to take, remember that selective colleges care that your child challenges themselves academically in high school: the particular coursework they take is less important.

According to the Yale admissions website, students are only expected to take advantage of AP or IB courses if the high school provides them.  Princeton’s admissions website offers similar advice: “Whenever you can, challenge yourself with the most rigorous courses possible, such as honors, Advanced Placement (AP) and dual-enrollment courses.  We will evaluate the International Baccalaureate (IB), A-levels or another diploma in the context of the program’s curriculum.”  Ultimately, what matters to colleges most is whether your child took advantage of the advanced options offered by their school.


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