What you need to enter UK universities
Occasionally, schools advise parents that their child must take GCSEs if they want to go to a UK university. They insist that UK universities want to see British exam results and won’t accept international school assessments (transcripts). Nor the internal certificates of, say, the IB Middle Years Programme or an American high school.
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 wrong. UK universities are increasingly knowledgeable about other systems. Furthermore, they are often willing to take students who have bounced through several curricula. In other words, parents might have more options than they know.
Moving between Education Systems
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.
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 education system than the one their children were in before.
Most colleges and universities have been keeping up with different education systems for some time. They have certain benchmarks they look for within those systems to find good applicants.
The International Baccalaureate (IB)
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 factor. In fact, it’s the later IB Diploma results that matter.
Admission to a certain field of study (for example medicine) can be affected by the courses taken before the IB Diploma programme. If, for example, your child wants 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 like a third language, a second science, a second math.
For such a specialist field (medicine), some UK universities would want the applicant to have done Biology, Chemistry and Physics at A-Level. Which you can’t do at an IB level. Therefore, an IB candidate may be admitted on the basis of having done Biology and Chemistry 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. That is, if the school is willing to help arrange this. For more on studying the IB, read our IB Blog.
The GCSEs and IGCSEs
The IGCSE (or GCSE) is an important factor for UK universities admission if the applicants have only done A-Levels. Students traditionally only do 3 or maybe 4 subjects. A student applying for medicine might present a string of good Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Maths A-Levels. But the admissions staff are able to go back to the earlier GCSE results to ascertain how the student has done in other areas. The A-Level results presumably represent the student’s strong areas. The GCSE/IGCSE results help fill in the other blanks and embellish the A-Level portfolio.
American High Schools and UK Universities Entrance
Contrary to popular belief, 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 (Oxbridge look for 32 out of 36 points). They expect at least three Advanced Placement courses (with scores of 5 on at least two AP exams and 4 on another). For an IB Diploma, Oxford and Cambridge require (38-40 points, with 6s or 7s in higher subjects). UK universities are less interested in extracurricular achievements. Except perhaps in ways they might contribute to your proposed area of study.
The final word
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 (a well-known, prestigious university might not be the best place for studying your subject). For students wishing to enter British universities with an IB Diploma, it’s important to know what the admissions criteria are so that the student can choose the correct IB Diploma courses.