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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...

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.

Search for a university course? See what A-level and BTEC requirements you need to satisfy

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

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 not completely improbable, right? Could you easily switch direction if you wanted to?

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.

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 2015 over one quarter of students accepted into higher education had at least one BTEC. Although this is still a small proportion of all uni applicants, the figure continues to grow each year (the previous year it was 14%). Even elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge state that they accept BTECs.

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 e.g. 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” 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 student - 
works at 40-50% of full effort from September to mid/late-November
works at 80-100% of full effort from November - 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 - Summer tests

BTEC Student - 
works at 60-70% of full effort from September - June

So as you see, BTEC needs a consistant work rate throughout the year, 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. As of this year, AS grades will no longer shape your final A-level grades which means your Year 13 exams will decide 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. This way, you spread out the work which shapes your final grade, relieving yourself of this exam-pressure. Plus you can better track your progress and have an idea of your final grade as you progress.

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 a BTEC student, 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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