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A-levels vs Btecs: which should you take?

Thinking about taking A-levels or Btecs, or a mixture of both? Both offer paths to university, or into work. To help you decide, the qualifications are going head-to-head. Here are the key differences between Btecs and A-levels, as well as a few other options you could consider.

What do you want to do later?

If you don't know the answer to this question, don't worry; you don't have to rush into a decision now. But if you do have a rough idea or some possibilities you'd like to keep open, this could play a significant factor in whether you choose to take A-levels or Btecs.

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. something which might appeal more and actually be rather useful depending on the subject. A-levels tend to be more theory-based and lacking in actual practical skills. This is where Btec students may flourish in their application

Ask questions and speak to other students on The Student Room A-levels forum and Btec forum

Which is more flexible?

So you're halfway through your A-levels or Btecs and you change your mind about what you want to do next – it's possible, right? Could you easily switch direction if you wanted to?

A major difference between Btecs and A-levels is that, while Btecs are quite flexible in that they come in different sizes and levels, they can be quite specific in their focus. As a result, they can pigeonhole you later on.

If you’re not sure about what you want to do, the A-level route might be a safer choice; this way you can study a few different subjects which interest you now, including some facilitating subjects to keep your options open.

Searching for a university course? See what A-level and Btec requirements you need to satisfy.

Are Btecs easier than A-levels? 

No – Myles McGinley, Btec Levels 1 to 3 product management director at Pearson, told us that this is "unfortunately a common misunderstanding, but is simply not the case. 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."

"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 give you a flavour of the world of work and help build the skills to lead in to your chosen career," Myles added. 

What do universities think?

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. While this perception has changed somewhat and Btecs are publicised when a university states their entry requirements, there is still a slight bias towards A-levels:

In terms of Btecs, we recommend that applicants take a more academic qualification, such as one or two A-levels in relevant subjects, in combination with a Btec to make their application more competitive. Admissions Department, University Of St Andrews

That said, in 2017, over 25% of the students who started university had a Btec. That's compared with 18% back in 2010 and it's a ratio that's risen consistently since 2008. 

Although this is still a small proportion of all uni applicants, the figure continues to grow each year. Even elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge state that they accept Btecs.

"Nearly all universities accept Btec students," Myles said.

"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," Myles finished. 

However we would always recommend checking with a university first regarding their entry requirements to a course:
It’s important to do some research into university entry requirements before deciding which route to take. Whilst 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.
  Admissions Department, Bangor University

​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 eg classes are smaller, with 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 utterly refreshing, especially if you learn best by actually doing something rather than simply reading about a subject.

If someone was to show a graph of students' effort throughout the year, it may look like this:

A-level students:
  • works at 40-50% of full effort from September to mid/late-November
  • works at 80-100% of full effort from November to winter tests
  • works at 40-50% of full effort from January to mid/late-March or Easter
  • works at 80-100% of full effort from late March to summer tests

Btec students:
  • works at 60-70% of full effort from September to June

Btecs need a consistent work rate throughout the year, while A-levels students tend to do the required school work then hit a sudden spike in extra study when approaching the exam period. Bestofyou | Student Room Member

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 (and this includes even the A-students).

A-levels are assessed through end-of-year exams, with the Year 13 exams deciding everything (mostly). If you feel confident placing all your eggs in one basket, then go for A-levels.

Meanwhile, Btecs are assessed regularly throughout the year through coursework and projects, as well as some externally assessed tests. This way, you 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.

Can you study A-levels and a Btec at the same time? 

Yes – and this is becoming an increasingly popular option. 

"Between 2008 and 2014 the numbers of students using a Btec alongside A-levels to enter university more than tripled," Myles told us. 

"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," he added. 

"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. 

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. 

International Baccalaureate

The IB is an international qualification that’s accepted by UK universities. 

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. It can be a demanding option, with more classroom time than A-levels or Btecs. 

Ask questions and speak to other students about the IB on The Student Room forum here.

T-levels 

T-levels are a new kind of technical qualification that were piloted in September 2020 with a small amount of students across a few subjects. The government has a three-year plan for rolling them out, with all 25 T-level subjects due to be available by autumn 2023. 

One T-level is equivalent to three A-levels, and the course will take two years. It involves a mixture of classroom learning and on-the-job experience through 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. 

Ask questions and speak to other students about T-levels on The Student Room forum here.

Apprenticeships

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. 

Depending on what 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.

Don’t be distracted by the fanfare

You hear a lot about A-level results day each August: morning television, newspapers, messages on social media….if you’re studying for a different qualification, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little underappreciated when you’ve worked just as hard! 

However try to focus on what is right for you; it is your life after all! Don't be pressured into following the rest of the flock.

Read more about A-level choices, or learn more about the Ucas application process if university is your ultimate goal.

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