What are A Levels?

March 22, 2021


Advanced Level, or A Level as it is often referred to, is a subject-based qualification based on the British education system. It is recognised as the standard assessment of a student’s suitability to enter university, as well as prepare students for alternative higher education avenues, training, and even work. In international schools that follow the British curriculum, this programme would usually be taken up by students aged 16 – 19 years (Year 12 & 13) since it follows the completion of the IGCSEs (Year 11). However, students who have completed their SPM examinations and received the Malaysian Certificate of Education, can also follow the A Level programme after Form 5.



The duration of an A Level programme, consisting of the Advanced Subsidiary (AS Level) and the A2 Level, can be anything between 18 – 24 months. Institutions can follow one of two main structures, namely a ‘staged’ programme where students complete the AS Level exam (50%) in their first year and the A2 Level exam (50%) in their second year, or students can sit for one final A Level examination at the end of the programme. Some subjects, however, do not allow for the staged assessment route so it is advisable to do research and confirm the specific options available. Students also have a third option and that is to only sit for the AS Level examinations, which is half of the syllabus content, but this will not allow for a full qualification. 


International A Level subjects are reported on a grade scale from A* (highest) to E (minimum required performance), which is slightly different than the A* – G scale used for IGCSE. The only exception is AS Level, which has no A* grade and thus only consists of A – E. Assessing students’ work and assigning a particular grade in each subject is a very complex process. Grade thresholds, which are the minimum number of marks that a student needs to obtain for a specific grade in a subject, are therefore put in place to ensure that it is no more difficult and no less difficult to obtain a particular grade than it was in the previous year. These grade thresholds are published every year after each examination series (June and November) and results are available approximately two months after the conclusion of each examination.



A Level students have a choice between 40 – 55 different subjects, depending on the specific A Level examination board a school or institution is registered with (e.g. Cambridge or Pearson Edexcel). Subjects cover a range of disciplines including Sciences, Mathematics, Languages, Creative and Professional subjects, and the Humanities and Social Sciences. Besides these traditional fields, students also have the option to take subjects like Thinking Skills and Global Perspectives and Research that prepare students for a positive engagement with our rapidly changing world. It offers students the opportunity to reflect on global issues, considering different perspectives and modes of inquiry. These subjects can be offered in any combination to suit a student’s particular interests and career prospects, which makes it a highly individualised curriculum. 



The advantage of A Levels is that it is a globally recognised programme that offers students a qualification that is highly regarded by higher education institutions in Malaysia and across the world. With A Levels, students do not have to take foundation courses at university but can start immediately with a degree course. It serves as excellent preparation for university since it allows students more options in various academic fields, develops students’ in-depth subject content and critical thinking skills, and teaches students to handle and evaluate different types of information sources. The programme also encourages students to think logically, make coherent arguments, and present judgements and explanations reasonably. All these skills are essential for success at university level, whether students find themselves studying locally or abroad.

Choosing A Levels

A child should consider to sit A Levels if they are academically-inclined and enjoy challenges in their learning, want to keep their career options open, prefer exam-based assessments in determining their grades and is looking to gain entry into top tier universities, specifically in the UK.

Other pre-university programmes

A Levels are not the only pre-university programme that students in Malaysia can enrol in. Other institutions offer a range of pre-university programmes like the Australian Matriculation, the International Baccalaureate (IB) or foundation courses. These programmes can differ from A Levels in terms of how long they run for, the structure of the course, how they are assessed and the universities that will accept the qualification. It is important to research any pre-university programme carefully before making a decision on which to study, especially knowing the specific entrance requirements of courses you may want to take for university. 

Before choosing any pre-university programme, it is important to ask the following questions:

  • Do I want to study locally or abroad?
  • Do I know which career I would like to pursue? What subjects do I need to study for this career? Would a skills-based course better prepare me for my future job?
  • How do I prefer to learn? Do I like to sit examinations or complete coursework?
  • How much does it cost? Would I need financial aids or a scholarship?

Dornehl Kitching holds a Master’s Degree in Education (South Africa), as well as a Master’s in Philosophy from the University of Cambridge (UK) with a focus on Art & Design education. She has 12 years experience teaching the CAPS, IGCSE and IB curriculums in South Africa, South Korea and Malaysia.