A-levels vs Btecs: which should you take?
A closer look at two of the most popular study options after GCSE
Up until the age of 16, most students in England study GCSEs. After that, your options become much more varied.
Apprenticeships, T-levels and the International Baccalaureate are among the choices available - but the most popular options are A-levels and Btecs. In this article, we'll take a closer look at each.
What are Btecs?
Btecs are vocational qualifications that can be studied at school or college. Btecs can be studied at various qualification levels, including the equivalent to GCSEs and degrees.
The Btec qualification that's at the same level as A-level is called the Btec National. You'll generally see these referred to simply as Btecs.
Where A-levels are focused on academic study, Btecs Nationals include a lot more practical and hands-on learning. There are a broad range of subjects to choose from - everything from construction to childcare to computing. Some Btecs are assessed entirely through coursework; others may include exams are part of the assessment.
- Read more: what are Btecs?
What are A-levels?
A-levels are still what most people go on to study after GCSEs. These qualifications cover a broad range of academic subjects, such as maths, sciences, foreign languages and the humanities.
A-levels are typically studied across two years, with a series of exams at the end of the second year determining your grades.
- Read more: A-levels and AS levels explained
Are Btecs easier than A-levels?
You might find some people assuming that Btecs are somehow easier than A-levels. Myles McGinley, who works on Btec Nationals at Pearson (the company that runs Btecs), says this is "a common misunderstanding."
"Btecs are not the same as GCSEs and A-levels, but they are demanding and rigorous qualifications that open up many opportunities both in the world of work and in to higher education," he says.
"What Btecs do offer is the chance to do more practical and career-focussed work, often working in a team, rather than focusing just on purely academic study. The course content gives you a flavour of the world of work and help build the skills to lead in to your chosen career."
Do universities accept Btecs?
The old way of thinking was that universities preferred A-levels over Btecs because A-levels were more academic whereas Btecs involved more practical elements. This perception has changed in recent years – and the number of Btec students applying to university is growing each year.
"Nearly all universities accept Btec students," Myles says.
"Almost one-quarter of university entrants now start university having taken a Btec at Level 3 or above, and that number is expected to rise in the future. These students go on to make good progress once they enter uni, with around 90% of Btec students going on to receive a 1st or 2nd class degree."
While many universities will accept Btec qualifications, the subject and content of your chosen Btec will be important factors in determining whether you will meet the entry requirements for specific courses.
For instance, you may be required to study an A-level alongside the Btec qualification to be considered for some courses.
- Read more: can you get into university if you're studying Btecs, and which Russell Group unis accept the qualification?
Which is more flexible: Btecs or A-levels?So you're halfway through your A-levels or Btec and you change your mind about what you want to do next. Could you easily switch direction if you wanted to?
Btec qualifications can be quite specific in their focus - they might be an option you choose if you're very sure about the path you want to go down.
If you’re less sure about what you want to do, the A-level route might be a more flexible choice. This way you can study a few different subjects which interest you now, while keeping your options reasonably open.
Can you study A-levels and a Btec at the same time?
A middle ground is to simply do some of both.
"Students are looking ahead to their futures and starting to plan for a career, choosing a blend of subjects and qualifications to equip them with the skills to succeed in what they do next," Myles says.
"For example, if you want to become a nurse, you might take a health and social care Btec alongside an A-level in a science subject; or if you want to become an engineer, you might take an engineering Btec alongside A-level mathematics," Myles explained.
Find out more about what studying each qualification is really like by visiting The Student Room's Btec general chat thread and the current Year 12 A-levels chat thread.
What’s the difference between Btecs and A-levels?
To sum it up, there are a few key differences between Btecs and A-levels:
• A-levels are more academic and classroom-based, while Btecs are more vocational and practical.
• A-levels give you a broader academic base if you’re not totally sure what you want to do later, while Btecs are more focused on a particular career path.
• A-levels are assessed by exams at the end of two years, while Btecs generally have a more continuous workload throughout the course.
How can you choose between A-levels and Btecs?
There are a few questions that might help your thinking when you are deciding between A-levels and Btecs.
What do you want to do later?
If there is a hands-on aspect to the field you want to pursue, Btecs are worth considering as a real alternative to the traditional A-level path. This is because they tend to offer more practical opportunities in a particular field. A-levels tend to be more theory-based and lacking in actual practical skills.
How do you learn best?
So you’ve spent the last 10 years or so sitting in a classroom, listening to a teacher talk at the front... are you happy to continue with the same?
A-levels are taught in roughly the same manner, with theory being the main focus. There are some differences, such as classes being smaller with more of an emphasis on open discussions and independent study.
On the other hand, with Btecs you apply the theory to actual practical projects. This can be refreshing, especially if you learn best by actually doing something rather than simply reading about a subject.
How do you handle exams?
Everyone approaches exams differently. Some students ace them, making up where they may have lacked the rest of the year; others struggle, whether it’s retaining all that knowledge or the intimidating exam environment itself.
A-levels are usually assessed through end-of-year exams, with the Year 13 exams deciding everything.
Meanwhile, Btecs are assessed using a mix of coursework and projects, as well as some externally assessed tests. The exact mix is dependent on the subject you're taking, but generally you will spread out the work which shapes your final grade, relieving yourself of this all-on-one-exam-pressure. Plus you can better track your progress and have an idea of your final grade as you progress.
Read more: worried about exams? Check out our revision help and advice
Are there any other options apart from A-levels and Btecs?
You do have other options if you don’t think A-levels or Btecs are right for you. Here’s a quick rundown of a few other things you can do once you’ve finished your GCSEs.
The International Baccalaureate Diploma is an international qualification that’s accepted by UK universities. It's generally referred to as the IB.
It’s a two-year course and you choose six subjects: three principal (higher level) subjects as well as three subsidiary (standard level) ones. This broad range of learning means you can keep your options open for university if you’re not sure what you want to do in the future yet.
On the IB, students are assessed on a combination of exams and the work they’ve done on the course.
Read more: here's how to apply to university with an IB
Ask questions and speak to other students about the IB on The Student Room forum here.
T-levels are a new kind of technical qualification that were launched in September 2020. There are a lot of similiarities between T-levels and Btecs - both are vocational qualifications with a focus on hands-on learning. The key difference is that T-levels come with guaranteed industry placements.
One T-level is equivalent to three A-levels, and the course takes two years. It involves a mixture of classroom learning and on-the-job experience through those industry placements.
T-levels are different to apprenticeships because students spend more time in the classroom, and as they’re industry-specific they’re designed for students who have a good idea of what future career they want to go into.
- Read more on The Student Room: what are T-levels?
Ask questions and speak to other students about T-levels on The Student Room forum here.
Apprentices work for an employer and get trained on the job.
There are all sorts of different levels of apprenticeship you can take – an intermediate apprenticeship, for example, is equivalent to five GCSE passes, while an advanced apprenticeship is the same as two A-levels. Degree apprenticeships are also available in some subjects.
Depending on the qualification you get at the end of it, you can go to university with an apprenticeship.
Ask questions and speak to other students about apprenticeships on The Student Room forum here.