Frequently Asked Questions: Higher Education

Do admissions tutors understand the IB?

The IB has become a much more widespread qualification globally with a consequent increase of students with this educational background. Admissions tutors have been briefed by the IBO, via IBSCA, about the content of the Diploma courses, and IB offers are now prominently listed alongside A-level requirements in the vast majority of top university prospectuses. The admissions policy and entry requirements are set by universities as a whole and follow guidelines intended to guarantee fairness; this is monitored by an organisation called SPA (Supporting Professionalism in Admissions). A problem may arise where an admissions tutor is new or in a university which attracts fewer IB applicants. In that case the school contacts the admissions office with information about the IB. We also react to the offers which our applicants receive, which appear disproportionately high.

How will the changes to A-level impact on IB candidates?

Rising numbers of teenagers are abandoning A-levels in favour of alternative qualifications, like the IB or Pre-U exams, amid a backlash over major changes to the exams system. Big reforms being introduced in the coming years include a move to end-of-course exams, the downgrading of coursework, the abolition of AS-levels in their present form and the introduction of new syllabuses.

Has the A* grade at A-level led to fewer offers for IB candidates?

Not at all, as the IB Diploma is a very demanding and broad qualification which is seen as quite distinct by admissions tutors. The existence of the A* has largely removed the anomaly of equating a 7 at Higher Level with an A at A-level as the highest grades of each qualification.

Are there so-called soft Higher Level subjects, like soft A-levels?

There are no ‘soft subjects’ in the IB; all subjects have rigorous academic content. However, admissions tutors of top universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, prefer candidates to have just one subject at HL out of the following: Theatre, Visual Arts and Design Technology.

Do universities take any account of IB SL grades?

The offers made by universities are usually in terms of overall Diploma points and often include specific grades at Higher Level; for example, an offer for Medicine could be 38 points and 666 at Higher Level to include Biology and Chemistry. Sometimes there is a requirement for English for overseas students (HL or SL), for Maths or a subject most closely related to the degree applied for. 

See the latest HESA statistics that show that IB students out-perform A level students in securing top UK university places. 

Because the IB differentiates better than A-level; if we are hesitating about making an offer at all, we would be more likely to make an offer to an IB student than an A-level student.

Dr Geoff Parks, Admissions, Cambridge

How do universities feel about gap years?

Generally, universities take a favourable view of gap years as long as they are not just spent doing nothing. A structured gap year can enhance an applicant’s Personal Statement, and being more mature and independent is also seen as an advantage. This may not apply where the planned degree course involves the study of Mathematics as it is thought that students will forget what they have learned during a year away from its study; though students can get around these fears by doing a Maths course during their gap year.

Does Deferred Entry make it more difficult to receive an offer?

It depends on the university and the course. If a course is vastly oversubscribed or has a very small intake (as is often the case with Oxbridge colleges), admissions tutors are inclined to give preference to candidates for the next academic year. This is particularly true of Oxford. Where students take gap years, they can, of course, apply after they have achieved their IB Diplomas – an option which makes them more popular with admissions tutors, as they know their actual IB total. When in doubt, it is best to email the university department in question and ask where they stand on DE.

What are the advantages/disadvantages of applying after receiving results (PQA)?

There are several advantages: A student with his/her grades in hand can target university courses more successfully and university offers are unconditional. Furthermore PQA applicants are often preferred by admissions tutors as they can be sure that the candidate has already achieved the necessary points. It gives students who are undecided about their degree or course another year to make up their minds. If their I/GCSE results were disappointing, these will largely be ignored by admissions tutors if the IB results reflect a significant improvement.

How many universities now interview apart from Oxbridge?

Not many, with the exception of Medicine, Veterinary Medicine/Science and Dentistry applicants, who are nearly always interviewed. Applicants for Fine Art, Drama, Music and Architecture will mostly have interviews with portfolios or auditions. Year on year this changes and it depends on the universities and the character of the course. UCL has a number of subjects where they interview while other universities invite students they wish to make an offer to for an Open Day and an ‘interview’ which is more like an informal chat.

They know about education; not just three subjects. They can think across boundaries; not along straight lines. University is the natural extension of IB and together they provide the essential lateral and creative thinking that employers look for.

How should prospective applicants for Medicine approach their applications?

Medicine is an extremely competitive subject so it is important to research all Medical Schools very carefully. They roughly fall into the following groups:

  • Old vs new
  • Large vs small
  • PBL (problem-based learning) vs Integrated (systems based) vs traditional
  • City vs campus
  • BMAT or UKCAT required

Medical applicants can only put four medical courses on their UCAS forms, plus one other, related course, such as Biomedical Sciences. This makes it important to ‘spread one’s bets’ in terms of location and application ratios. Bristol, for example, had 17 applicants per place last year, while Belfast had four. The latter is unlikely to receive many applications from independent schools in the South East of England offering the IB, improving our students’ chances. Further, one can increase one’s chances by not choosing only Medical Schools which require the BMAT test (Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Imperial, Leeds and Brighton & Sussex) in case of no more than an average expected score, or are located in London (because they attract lots of good applicants from around the world). Although the application ratios at Cambridge and Oxford appear favourable, these institutions are looking primarily for students who are excellent scientists and have the potential for doing medical research. The pre-clinical course is also highly theoretical with very little patient contact so it attracts a particular kind of student. If one does not fit this type, an offer from Oxbridge is unlikely and an application there is a waste of a choice.

Are there scholarships for university study in the UK?

The financial help available from UK universities is based on financial need, rather than academic excellence, ie they offer bursaries. Some scholarships are awarded for excellence in sports or music, and some professional bodies provide scholarships for shortage subjects (for example, Engineering or Sciences). Small awards are made by some Oxbridge colleges for top students after the first-year exams.

To what degree do school and social background affect application outcomes?

The government has for a number of years pursued the goal of ‘widening participation’ in higher education. This means that universities have to be seen to be open to applicants from all social backgrounds and actively seek to encourage less privileged students to apply by offering talks, workshops and preparation courses. However, when it comes to considering applications universities’ overriding interest is to attract the best students, from whatever background. There is no evidence that independent school applicants are disadvantaged.

How important is work experience for a university application?

It is essential for Medicine, Veterinary Medicine/Science and Dentistry and advisable for other vocational degree courses, such as Law, Business/Economics, Engineering and Architecture. For other courses work experience can underline the applicant’s commitment to the subject but it is not expected. Far more important is securing a strong IB Diploma score and reading widely around your chosen degree subject.

How accurate are the university league tables?

University league tables might be reliable in the statistical sense in as much as the data is collected and calculated accurately but they are not necessarily valid. As a recent research paper puts it: ‘The measures used by the compilers are largely determined by the data available rather than by clear and coherent concepts of, for example, ‘excellence’ or ‘a world class university’. Consequently, some of the measures used are poor proxies for the qualities identified. This brings into question the validity of the overall tables.’ From our perspective, league tables are a good starting point for research into one’s university and subject choices but they have to be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Is HL Maths necessary for an Economics degree?

Yes and no. Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and Warwick (but not for PPE or Economics and Politics) plus a number of other top universities require it but there are many other excellent ones which do not, for example Bath (SL7), Birmingham (SL6), Bristol (SL7), Durham (SL7), Edinburgh (SL6) and Nottingham. For up-to-date information on all entry requirements go to and Course Search. When you look up the entry requirements for the Economics courses, the IB is listed on a tab on the left of the screen.

How important are I/GCSE results in a university application?

Very important for those applicants who have taken them, as they provide admissions tutors with a universal measure of academic excellence. Predicted grades may be equally or more important but any discrepancy in achievement would have to be explained in our academic reference. Also, many schools are poor predictors of final results; this leads some admissions tutors to be sceptical about predictions and to rely more heavily on the ‘hard currency’ of I/GCSE results. Where a student has improved significantly between I/GCSE and the IB, we recommend a Post Qualification Application (PQA, see below).

Which Oxbridge colleges are the easiest to get into?

There is no easy way into Oxford or Cambridge, whichever the college. All colleges are looking for academic excellence and enthusiasm for the proposed degree subject. Both universities operate policies to ensure a fair chance for all applicants. Oxford redistributes applicants from oversubscribed colleges to others during the interview period, while Cambridge uses a ‘pool’ where excellent students who could not be taken because of numbers are offered to other colleges. While there are league tables for Oxbridge colleges (Norrington and Tompkins tables), these are based on the exam results of the students already at the college and do not reflect differences in quality.

I am now at Imperial in my first term. IB Biology has definitely put me a step above lots of people and I've got my first lab report due on Monday which isn't much different from the Biology Internal Assessments I seemed to be writing all the time at Sevenoaks!

Emma Harrington, OS 2015