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How to chart your child’s curriculum journey (from primary school on) so he winds up safely at a good university at the end – whether in the UK or the US. 

IGCSE, A levels, IB, AP?  If you choose one system and change your mind later, is your child doomed? Will he end up pumping petrol?

What’s needed to get into a UK university?

Occasionally schools advise parents that their child must do the GCSEs if he wants to go to a UK university, insisting that UK universities want to see British exam results and won't accept international school assessments (transcripts) or the internal certificates of, say, the IB Middle Years Programme or an American high school. 

Schools also sometimes suggest that, if you think your child will go on to a US university, it is not necessary to do the IGCSE examinations (even if students have followed a curriculum based on the IGCSE syllabus) as the US colleges/unis (universities)* only want to see internal grades and high school transcripts from the US system...and won't accept (or even understand) exam results from another system. 

However, expatriate parents wishing to send their children to the best schools available locally as they move around the globe might not have perfectly seamless, same-system options wherever they go. They might start out in one system, with their children’s careers mapped out for the next 12 years, and suddenly find they’ve arrived in a city that throws them off plan.

But very few realize that universities in both the UK and US are increasingly knowledgeable about each other’s systems, and are often willing to take students who have bounced through several curricula. In other words, parents might have more options than they know.  

Generally speaking, this presumption that good universities are not up to speed on other curricula and exams, or that they somehow won't find a way to enrol a bright talented student, is nonsense. 

It's probably safe to say that weaker students will be better off if they don't skip between systems, just because it's never easy even for the excellent student. But sometimes families looking for the best education they can find as they move from post to post have no choice but to shift to another system than the one their children were in before.

Happily, most colleges and universities have been au fait with other systems for some time, and have certain benchmarks they look for within those systems to find good applicants.

The IGCSE (or GCSE) is an important factor for UK universities admission IF the applicants have only done A-Levels, because students traditionally only do 3 or maybe 4 subjects. So, for example, a student applying for medicine might present a string of good Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Math A Levels, but the admissions staff is able to go back to the earlier GCSE results to ascertain how the student has done in other areas (eg. Does this person know how to write?  How did he do on humanities? etc).   The A-Level results presumably represent the student's strong areas, but the GCSE/IGCSE results help fill in the other blanks and embellish the A-Level portfolio.

Because the International Baccalaureate Diploma presents breadth and depth in a range of subjects over the final two years, the exam scores a student achieved two years previously are not such an important's the later IB Diploma results that matter. In fact, American unis know that the IB Diploma scores don’t come out until summer after graduation, so will accept students in the spring based on their existing grades and the school’s IB predictions, conditional upon the student continuing in the same academic programme with grades at the same level. 

Now, admission to a certain field of study (for example medicine, architecture, engineering) can be affected by the courses/exams taken before the IB Diploma programme: if, for example, you want to study medicine, the IB only allows two sciences maximum (the IB allows students to replace the sixth subject with a second of the first five (eg a third language, a second humanities, a second science, a second math).   

BUT, for such a specialist field (medicine), some UK universities would want the applicant to have done bio, chem and physics at A-Level, which you can't do at IB level.  Therefore an IB candidate may be admitted on the basis of having done bio and chem at IB level, but may also need to present a physics IGCSE or GCSE.   In some cases, IB students interested in studying medicine in Britain may simultaneously take a GCSE or IGCSE in physics, if the school is willing to help arrange this.

Contrary to popular belief (and fear), entrance to UK universities is also available to students in American high school programmes.  Generally, UK unis look at SATs and SAT Subject tests (Oxbridge expect 700 or above on each SAT section and each subject test), or ACTs (expecting 32 out of 36 points), and expect at least three Advanced Placement courses (with scores of 5 on at least two AP exams and 4 on another) or an IB Diploma (38-40 points, and 6s or 7s in higher subjects). UK unis are less interested in extracurriculars, except perhaps in ways they might contribute to your proposed area of study.  For more detailed information, go to the very clear Oxford Entrance Requirements page or Oxford International Students page.

From the point of view of American universities

While GCSEs are generally regarded as the equivalent of a US High School diploma (many schools regard it as the rough equivalent to the US 11th grade plus a little more), and many US colleges and universities still do not necessarily require A levels unless they note otherwise, most still like to see them done, and will normally ask why a student did not do them (see NB on this, below). Before US admissions officials knew the British system so well, they often just figured students had opted not to do their A-levels. Now that the British system is widely understood in the US, it is usually viewed unfavourably for students NOT to complete A-levels. The Fulbright Commission recommends at least five GCSEs at grade C or above in academic subjects, and 2 or 3 A levels.  However, unlike the UK uni system, acceptance at a US uni is not conditional on the A level results - especially since A level exams are not even taken until several months after US letter of acceptance go out.  Instead, the US universities will generally ask for GCSE's and AS level results, along with an indication of academic progress in the final (A2) year.

Additionally, A levels can sometimes count for US university credit: usually one A-level can equal 3 undergraduate credits. Students need to inquire about this when they are in the application process, and should expect to also provide results from the (American) SAT Reasoning test, possibly SAT Subject tests, letters of reference etc.

Even for American students, an American High School Diploma needs some beefing up to get into competitive US universities; in most schools and states, the basic courses required to achieve a standard diploma are simply not strong enough.  So most colleges and universities do prefer heftier coursework in addition to, or in lieu of, those basic courses, such as IB courses (although students who take the courses but don't eventually achieve the full IB Diploma will not elicit as much interest) and/or a few Advanced Placement courses (the more competitive the university, the higher the number of AP courses recommended, and of course the higher the scores required on the final AP exams).  

The exception would be certain high schools that have neither, but are nationally known to be extremely rigorous. One example is Phillips Exeter Academy (NH), where they feel their own course work is even more difficult than the set AP courses (enough that, even without the actual AP course preparation, they allow any student who wishes to to take the AP exams, with highly satisfactory results). 

All US universities accept the IB Diploma now, and know all about its requirements and value. Most US universities offer course credit for IB courses (it's worth asking), and many will offer college credit for AP courses provided the exam scores are high. As mentioned above, some may also give credit for A-levels. That credit can allow an entering freshmen to skip the basic freshman 500 person survey course taught by a graduate student, or cut expenses by as much a semester (if a student has enough credit to skip 3 or 4 of the totals courses required for a degree).

NB: It may seem strange that all US colleges/universities do not require that students take A levels (in addition to GCSE) in the UK (or AP level in the US), but they are not always in a position to do so (much depends on how successfully they’re filling their admissions quota that year). All admissions committees are looking for the student to have taken the most rigorous curriculum available at their school. However, because of unique situations, US colleges/universities are willing to evaluate each transcript in light of other preparation as well as talents and skills presented in the application process. Clearly, the “highly competitive” can and do set the highest requirements, and the “easier to access” colleges/universities don’t, necessarily.

Get Help Early

As the British Council explains in its excellent guide for college councilors (, UK university entrance requirements vary (so check at the particular institution to see what they want specifically), as does the level of competition to get in and the subjects that are best taken at one versus another (the name brand you know might not be the best place for studying your subject).

In any instance, it is important to consult the high school's college and career counselor; here's the weak spot in the case - many American councilors won't know about UCAS applications for UK universities, and British councilors might not know about strategising for US applications (scheduling SAT exams, teacher references, college visits and interviews, application deadlines etc).

Parents of high school students should ask in advance whether the school will be able to help with the application process. Many international schools, of course, handle a wide range of applications for universities all over the world, so will take this right in stride. But if they don't have much experience with students applying outside the country, parents should  plan to shepherd their children through the process themselves or engage an independent university councilor (who may be half way across the world but will be able to help with the master strategy). It might be money well spent to engage a private consultant who knows the territory and stays up to speed with the rocket-rate changes amongst university admissions policies.

For students wishing to enter British universities with an IB Diploma, it's important to know what the admissions criteria are WHILE the student is choosing his IB Diploma courses. But the same is true even for 9th graders planning entrance into the most competitive US unis.  

The Take-Away Message?

Very few choices in education are irreversible, despite the dire warnings of people who ought to know better and who will refute this useful and comfortable fact. Plan as well as you can, stay flexible, make the best choices you can as they come up, and make sure your children are good readers and grammatical writers. Well-chosen schools and the school systems themselves will not let you down, and neither will the up-to-date savvy of the  university admissions offices.

But no matter whichever university or country is of interest, don't leave it too late to start working on the plan. And definitely don't leave it alone entirely because you think too many postings and curriculum changes have made your child miss the boat. 

*Translation note: Although the generic word for all post-secondary schooling in the UK is “university”, and the word “college” usually refers to high school (as in Eton College), the terminology is different in the US. There, people refer to post-secondary schooling as “college” (as in: “After graduating from high school, she went off to college in Texas”). Technically, a "college" is  one school of study, either in stand-alone schools or as part of a university (which by definition means two or more colleges). Of course, to make it more confusing, one of those colleges within a university can also be called a “school”. So, a student graduating from high school goes off to Harvard College; Harvard University includes the graduate schools, and  is made up of Harvard College, Harvard Business School, Harvard School of Medicine etc. 

Useful links and Resources

Uni in the USA...and Beyond – An excellent guide to American universities if we do say so ourselves. Written by a British girl at Harvard, expanded by a British Cambridge student who traveled by Grayhound bus and, and published by The Good Schools Guide, this website has a great list of resources we won’t bother to copy again here. The print version is called Uni in the USA because it includes the US-related content only; the website include reviews and articles on universities in Europe, China, Canada and Australia. Both versions can be ordered here. – Vast, competent and long-standing organization dedicated to the promotion of British education. Independent, helpful and completely reliable for information on all educational things British, throughout the world. – Very like the GSG and GSGI in tone; top 300+ colleges and unis in the US through the eyes of the students; brief bullets of info and very fun to read (not to mention reliable; updated yearly). – Background information on studying in the US, with forthright information about funding sources (making no bones about the realistic difficulty of getting financial aid, but giving helpful information nonetheless, especially for very good students). Ignore the part of the website that names “top universities” (rubbish); just go to the helpful list of financial aid resources.  – A free website providing statistical information for all colleges, universities and trade schools in the US, state by state.  Gives a quick factual overview of over 6,000+ public and private colleges and universities.

Fulbright Commission – The brief of this well-known, long-standing and reputable organization, the official education arm of the US State Department, is to promote study and work exchange in the US, specifically to “provide accurate, comprehensive, current and unbiased information on educational and educationally-related opportunities in the United States”, without ranking or endorsing any college or university or advisory company.  

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