The SATs: Whether it is the reasoning test or the subject tests, the College Board SATs are generally negatively viewed by most American high school students. To the media, education leaders, and college-bound students, the SATs are often viewed as a barrier to higher education instead of a promoter. However, have you ever wondered what college entrance exams other students around the world take? We’ll take a look at other types of testing students have to take to enter their home universities.

In similar fashion at examining what standardized test the Chinese use to attend universities, this week we are going to look across the pond and see how the British do it: Let’s meet the GCSEs and A-Levels.

Ok, so the picture above might not be the most accurate depiction of how the GCSE or A-Levels are taken. However, Harry Potter’s standard examinations aren’t too far from the truth! Fun fact: the Ordinary Wizarding Level (O.W.L.) are comparable to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (G.C.S.E.). The GCSE is typically taken by 5th formers (or 11th graders) or when you are 16. After you take the GCSE, you are officially done with school, and you can choose whether or not you want to pursue college (or in England, they call it Uni) Here are fast facts about the GCSE:

  • Typically you take 10 GCSE in specific subjects such as History, Modern Languages (Afrikaans, Cantonese), Design Technology (Product Design, Textiles), just to name a couple. You can think of them being similar to AP examinations in the fact that they specialize in specific areas of study, but if you see the GCSE kicks the AP’s butt in diversity of what you can be examined on.
  • You have to take the GCSE before you can take your A-Levels so this is just the first step towards Uni.
  • Fun Fact: Emma Watson took 10 GCSEs and received eight A*, the highest mark you can receive on your GCSEs, and two As. Daniel Radcliff and Rupert Grint was said to have made fun of her on set because she was just like Hermione. But for the rest of us, it’s just another reason why we love Emma Watson.

The A-Levels, or the N.E.W.T. in Harry Potter, come in when you decide to continue into your 6th form year (12th grade) and want to pursue uni. The General Certificate of Education Advance Level, or A-Levels for short, are generally studied over a two-year period (during your Year 12 and Year 13) and completed by an examination at the end of each year. If you think about it in American high school terms, the 13th year would be an extra year in high school, however in the UK, the undergraduate university time is only three years – in the end, the time spent in high school and university will be the same. Here are some quick facts about the A-Levels:

  • Similar to China, you choose what you want to study (or in the UK, you say you’re reading a subject) when you apply to a uni. Usually the A-Levels you select are similar to the subject you would like to read in uni.
  • Instead of taking ten GCSEs, students usually take three to four A-Level examinations.
  • If you watch this news clip of students receiving their A-Levels and their reactions [1:43], there are both similar and different reactions to those students receiving SAT or ACT scores. One thing you will notice is that it is in a public venue where you receive your scores (on paper) and usually done with your friends or family. Since you can receive your SAT scores online, I remember viewing my privately in my dorm room and others doing the same. Not really something you would share with your friends unless you did well on them.
  • Like the GCSEs, the A-Levels have a wide range of topics you can be examined on and depend on the A-Level course you select during your Year 12.

Overall, I cannot say if the GCSE and A-Levels are better than the SATs or ACTs in the States. One thing for sure is once you receive your scores, you can tell whether or not you were offered a place at the university. Most universities well offer a conditional acceptance if you receive a certain set of grades. For example, Oxford University’s entrance requirements range from three A*s to three As. In addition to having a more transparent admissions system, the A-Levels allow students more choice in what they get examined in if their high school offers the subject. The trade off is that, like in China, you have to predetermine your area of study. While it is not clear if the SAT is better or not, one thing for sure is that this is a different system – examination, preparation, and how the public perceives it.

What do you think about the GCSE and the A-levels? Let us know in the comments below!



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  1. ellie on March 15, 2014

    GCSE’s are usually taken in year 11 (15-16 years old), so 10th grade. Year 12’s are 16-17 years old and Year 13’s are 17-18 years old so no extra year before uni.

  2. Coreena on April 15, 2014

    Honestly, I’m doing my GCSEs right now and they suck. Americans are so lucky they don’t have to do this- but then there’s the ACTs and SATs so I guess we even out hey!

  3. Pingback: Homeschool Science for College-Bound Teens | Lee Falin 23 Jan, 2015

    […] the UK, we learned about GCSE exams. If you’re not familiar with GCSE/IGCSE exams, you can read more about them here. Basically, they are subject-based exams for students finishing the UK equivalent of American high […]

  4. Pingback: Homeschool Science for College-Bound Teens | Science in the House 23 Mar, 2015

    […] the UK, we learned about GCSE exams. If you’re not familiar with GCSE/IGCSE exams, you can read more about them here. Basically, they are subject-based exams for students finishing the UK equivalent of American high […]

  5. Lucy on May 21, 2015

    I’m doing my GCSEs at the moment and its 5 weeks of exams. The worst part is I’ve had no life since the beginning of April due to revising

  6. bongofbobledore on June 2, 2015

    Im doing my GCE- O levels in Singapore and I have just finished my Chinese Language paper. It was difficult as hell. The exams here are difficult but when I do the sample ACT tests, I could get Bs and when I do the GCSE exams in the UK, I could get similar grades. Ultimately, Singapore’s GCE-O level exams are the hardest in my opinion….

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