A Levels in the United States of America

School News June 19, 2019
A Levels in the United States of America

Let’s start with the most important point:

· A Levels are accepted as a matter of policy at over 500 US universities and colleges and all of the Top 100 universities and all of the Ivy League

The US National Association for College Admission Counselling recently found that the third most influential aspect of admission to an American university was the rigour of the course the applicant had studied. A Levels can be considered the most rigorous course available to a High School pupil in the world and therefore are very helpful in showing the academic strength of  that  pupil to universities. 

The important statistics from that study are reproduced below:

Parents can expect that schools offering A Level should also have good English provision and a track record of improving English proficiency, but if you need to check then look out for schools with a wide range of A Levels, and especially those school with successful Humanities and English Literature A Level courses. A Level schools should also explain how they award GPA points for tough A Level courses and should be offering additional grade points for A Level grades or, as a substitute, breaking down the A Level into component modules for the purpose of awarding grade points. Schools offering A Level must show that they can have success with the American system with their curriculum, but if they can then it is likely that they are a very good school indeed.

For the influential factors of College Prep Course Grades and Course Rigour, A Levels excel. All A Levels are a college prep course just like AP and they are the strongest and deepest high school qualification in the world.

Depth of Subject Knowledge

A Levels have a great breadth and depth of subject knowledge and so are comparable to parts of an American university education themselves. Indeed, for US high school applicants who intend to try to study a BA in the UK they are explicitly warned that pupils with A Levels will have a head start. 

The proof comes from the fact that, on average, A Levels are awarded more University credits than any other high school qualification, their nearest competitor are Advanced Placement classes, followed, trailing badly, by the International Baccalaureate.

So, if we take the example of a pupil from Wycombe Abbey International School Changzhou who left to go to a top American University;

The WAISCZ Pupil received the following A Levels:

She went to a top American University to major in Finance and Economics. Her American University did this:

Because of her A-Levels, the former WAISCZ pupil has been able to save almost a year of tuition, have the option to take more interesting courses, take part in a wide variety of clubs and extra-activities, such as debating and performing in an Oboe concert. The experience has allowed her time to gain internships in two top companies and put herself in a strong position in the job market. She has also found that there are other courses where she has covered much of the content during her A Levels and  well-prepared for university life. As college counsellors we see this pattern again and again with pupils going to the USA.

The university credits that a pupil can accrue from an A Level course are, as we have seen, a huge attraction for a university. Gaining experience in university level curriculum while in high school demonstrates the pupils’ ability to perform in university and allows admission officers to be confident that if they allow that pupil entry to their university, they will be able to complete their education there.

Furthermore, such is the strength of the A Level and UK education that back in the UK, according to an American source ‘the most selective English universities are reluctant to admit American high school graduates and pupil who do get in will find themselves navigating a world more appropriate for juniors and seniors in college.’ (Fiske Guide to Colleges, 2017, p. 368). From this statement, we can conclude that those international pupils with strong A Levels, may find themselves up to a year ahead of those pupils coming from the USA itself and this is being borne out by the growing strength of A Level pupils in gaining places at American universities.

What else does the course rigour of A Levels help?

Universities are assessing the ability of pupils to succeed at university. Completing a generic high-school education or a programme such as IB, while obviously worthwhile, tends to be more superficial intellectual challenge than that provided at university. A Levels, on the other hand, do provide a university level intellectual challenge and therefore show the potential of a pupil at university more clearly.

In addition, A Levels depth of knowledge gives a pupil in high school subject matter material that they can speak about in an interview or in a personal essay. When taught innovatively, A Levels also allow for project work of the kind that can be very helpful on the personal essay. Depending on the course of study and the university applied to, applicants may be required to answer shorter questions about challenging lessons or classroom environments and their A Level courses should have useful examples of this.

Choosing A Levels

Given their depth and rigour it is very hard to complete more than four A Levels in two years and in the UK three A Levels is more common. US universities often insist on pupils taking courses from a range of areas and this largely accomplished through GCSE/IGSCE courses, but is also an area where pupils who are about to take A Levels need to put in a lot of thought and work with their school counsellors to ensure that they have communicated their US goals thoroughly with their school experts. The first point of contact here should be school university counsellors as they understand the context of the school’s reporting and how that fits into transcripts and applications. Good communication on all sides is essential to ensure that A Levels are able to give the pupil the optimum chance of being accepted to a US university.

For US applications, A Levels have to be chosen carefully to give a balance across subjects or demonstrate considerable development in more specific areas. However, there is another way to balance sophomore and senior year choices to support US university applications. Look out for a school with a wide-range of co-curricular activities as many of these can be ‘classes’ on a pupil’s transcript and make sure the school is including them when it comes time for US university applications.

The Acceptance Process

Now that the pupil has applied it is worthwhile to look at how US universities make decisions on an applicant: (this is the general process but not all universities follow all these steps)

1. Screen & Sort – organizing the applications and sending to the appropriate admissions officer

2.  Individual Reads – one, two, three, or more individual reads to form initial impressions

3.  Committee – deliberation of applications among a group

4. Final Decision – applicants are selected, financial aid packages are created, and acceptance letters are mailed out

At each stage, A Levels are attractive to the admissions officers. In screen and sort, pupils will be taking the strongest curriculum possible in High School. As an individual admissions officer reads the application, they should be able to understand that the applicant is deeply interested in their chosen subject and has managed to gain a great breadth and depth of knowledge in their subjects and they can then argue this in committee. They should then receive a positive final decision.

University is not the end

Parents dream of the day when they see their child off to university, however, there is a growing realization in China and across the world that simply being accepted into a good university is no guarantee of success at university or in life. Parents who want to see their child succeed in and past university should also care about how their course of schooling will develop their ability to deal with university and life.

A Levels are excellent in this regard. A good grade in an A Level is a mark of a ‘subject expert’ who can deal with complex ideas flexibly and creatively. They are not too general and do provide significant challenge, passing an A Level depends not only on work completion and diligence, but also about engagement with the subject.

We wish you all the best of luck in your endeavours and hope you have found this information useful.

【Invited by Hurun Report it was written by WAIS staff which was first published in "Hurun Schools Guide 2019".】