Why do New Zealanders generally study more A Levels than their UK counterparts?


I have friends in the UK studying 4 AS subjects in their lower sixth form (year 12), and studying 3 A levels in upper sixth form (year 13). Meanwhile here I am being told to study 5 AS (at a minimum) in year 12, and then 5 A Levels after that, or at the very least, 4 A Levels. My school won’t let me take less than 4 subjects in year 13, but they’re inconsistent in saying I can do AS subjects instead of A2 ones to fill up my year 13 timetable, if I don’t want to continue with the A levels I’ve already picked – or because I got Us in them. My UK buddies wouldn’t dream of doing AS subjects in year 13 – university offers are always conditional on just 3 A Levels, not 4 or 5 (or 10) – but nor would they ever do more than 3 A Levels.

Why are A Levels in the UK and NZ treated so differently? And why exactly do Kiwis get such a harder workload? Is it perhaps because the education-people have mistakenly equated the difficulty of A Levels to the difficulty of NCEA Level 3 subjects, thinking that they’re the same in difficulty, when really A Levels actually ARE more difficult, but the exam boards only expect us to do 3 of them, not 5?

It seems to me that things are quite out of order.


And another point: the same aforementioned UK friends of mine tell me they’ve all studied 10 GCSEs at the very least, one of them 14. I struggled doing just 7 IGCSEs, even though 1 of those was pretty much a double up (English). With that in mind, why the discrepancy between the quantity of IGCSEs/GCSEs that we do and the number that they do, and does the fact that we NZers only take 7-8 of them at the most at all disadvantage us in the UK-university application process (or even in plain academic terms, i.e. we’re not challenging ourselves as much as our UK buddies?)


Hi Henry, great question! It’s largely due to cultural differences between education systems in each country. You’re quite right in saying that it would be a mistake to equate the difficulty of an A2 course to a Level 3 course, but many schools in NZ are uncomfortable with only recommending 3 A Levels because they believe it won’t be as attractive to students when compared with the breadth of study that six Level 3’s could provide! There is no law or policy saying students must study more than 3 - it’s largely just a case of hidden incentives on the part of schools.

Could you clarify what you mean when you say your school is ‘inconsistent’ in letting you do AS subjects? I don’t quite understand. Most schools will let you do an AS subject instead of a fourth A2 subject. If they don’t advertise this, you can speak to your school’s head of CIE exams and they will most likely agree, if you can make a case that you will do better by only taking the three A2’s.

I will stress, though, that there is no ‘perfect number’ of A Levels - this is up to you to decide. The blanket policies of ‘3 in the UK’ and ‘4 in NZ’ are not set in stone - you can certainly do less in New Zealand and (theoretically) as many as you want in either country. If you’re aiming for US and UK universities, 3 is fine if you do well in all of them, but the sky’s the limit! There are few better ways for your application to stand out than for you to be able to prove that you’ve already gone above and beyond academically. Back home, using the University of Auckland as a local example, 3 A Levels will again get you into any course you want, provided you get the grades. But we all know that things don’t always go to plan, so a fourth A Level can be seen as a sort of ‘backup’ to give you a better chance of achieving your goals.


You won’t be disadvantaged at all by doing only 7 IGCSE’s (that’s still more than most NZ’ers!) - it’s important to remember that in the UK, GCSE’s are usually done over 2 years, so naturally students will do more of them. Some universities don’t even look at your IGCSE or GCSE results, but if they do, rest assured they are generally interested in quality rather than quantity. Your A Levels are what really matter!


I would also check out this post: How is it possible to take 10 A Level examinations? for some more context on why people do more A Levels (and my experience of this)


I can answer some of your questions Henry. The students in the UK do around 10 GCSEs because they do it over 2 years, and so that’s similar to 5 GCSEs over 1 year, which is what we also typically do in New Zealand. The universities would focus on A levels and not GCSE/IGCSEs. Only top programs in Oxford and Cambridge would look at your IGCSE results as well.

You are right in saying that the UK schools only require 3 to 4 A levels. However, almost every single student who applies to the top UK schools will have met the minimum academic requirements. When that is the case, do you think the universities would prefer someone with 6As at A Level or 3As at A Level?

Many of our students take more than 3 A Levels to differentiate themselves - with some students attempting over 10 A Levels.


This question already has a couple of good answers but I’d like to stress a few more things.

Firstly, comparing all British students with specifically those New Zealand students doing A levels is a bit misleading. Since A levels are only offered at some of NZ’s top schools (and usually also with the option to take NCEA instead for candidates who think they’ll struggle) it’s not surprising that the average level of academic performance is higher. For top students in the UK it’s not unusual to do 4 A levels - many of my friends did - it’s just that the typical student is satisfied with 3. So I’d say the same thought process is going on in both countries: “I’m a top student so I’ll do an extra A level”. It’s just that the baseline is different - in NZ doing an extra A level means you’ll have 5.

This doesn’t really explain students doing 6 or more A levels, though. But a second consideration is that NZ students are far more likely than UK students to apply to US universities, which are in general more competitive than UK universities, and also encourage academic breadth over depth. US unis want the most qualified applicants overall, and so extra A levels might tip that balance. UK unis, on the other hand, want the best applicant for a specific degree program. An extra A level in economics might provide some information about how well you’ll do as a physicist, for example, but probably not very much, so it’s a better use of time to focus on absolutely acing physics.