Entry requirements and alternatives to A levels

A levels aren't the only option out there to take your students to university.

Choosing a different qualification can offer an alternative way to study – as a teacher, you can help students consider their preferences for learning and assessment.
So which other qualifications could your students choose as a stepping stone to university? Here's an overview of what’s on offer…

BTECs and vocational qualifications

It is becoming increasingly common for students to apply to university with a mixture of A level and BTEC qualifications. If the academic and exam focus of A levels isn't right for a student you're advising, then how about a vocational qualification at Level 3 (Level 6 on the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework)?
BTEC qualifications are widely available in sixth forms and colleges, but you might encounter CACHE qualifications, City and Guilds Tech Levels or Cambridge Technicals too. These qualifications tend to link to a broad job area, rather than an academic subject – think engineering, not maths; health sciences, not biology.

Who would they suit?

Vocational courses like these might suit students considering university or work-related options in future. Students will still spend time in the classroom, but they should also get the chance to apply their learning. There's a focus on coursework and assignments over exams. As a general rule, students will need GCSEs at grade 4 to get a place.

There’s less pressure without exams, but more work to keep on top of everything throughout the course. You need to be organised as there are lots of assignments. I have heard that the top tier of universities may be less interested in me as I have chosen a BTEC, but I’m not too worried about that.

Francesca Smith - Year 12, Meadowhead School, Sheffield

Are there any limitations?

Some universities are more 'BTEC-friendly' than others.

'Some of our universities consider vocational qualifications like BTECs in certain circumstances. However, for many courses they are not considered suitable preparation,' advises The Russell Group.

'Where BTECs are accepted, it is likely that you will be required to achieve very high grades, for example three Distinctions. You may also be required to have studied the BTEC in combination with other qualifications such as A levels.'

Read the Rusell Group's informed choices guide.
Students will need to check which BTEC qualification they will be studying. Qualifications include Extended Diplomas, Diplomas, Subsidiary Diplomas and Certificates. Check UCAS Tariff points information.

Find out more

Access to Higher Education (HE) Diploma

For students looking for a route to university but without the necessary qualifications, the Access to HE Diploma might be worth considering. 

Who would it suit?

Typically, Access students are 19+ and most have had a break from study. Unlike most of the two-year options explained here, this course is offered as a one-year intensive programme and can be taken part-time.

Entry requirements vary, but may require some GCSEs initially, particularly in English and maths. Students are taught how to study as well as developing subject knowledge.

Students will mainly be assessed by coursework, alongside other assessment methods, including essays, presentations, laboratory work, research projects and exams.    

Are there any limitations?

Access courses are widely accepted by universities, but it is always recommended to check individual university entry requirements before choosing a specific Access to HE Diploma.
The Access to HE Diploma award is on the UCAS Tariff. Students achieving all distinctions will gain equivalent points to students gaining three A levels at grade A.

Find out more

International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma

For students who want breadth of study, the International Baccalaureate has lots to offer. Students cover six subjects, three at higher level. The programme is academically challenging but encourages personal development too.

Who would it suit?

The IB Diploma can be a great choice for all-rounders, as students are expected to study one from each of the following groups:

  • studies in language and literature
  • language acquisition
  • individuals and societies
  • sciences
  • mathematics
  • the arts

Students also pick a second subject from a group of their choosing. Assessment is based around coursework and final exams.

In terms of difficulty, IB subjects at higher level are very similar to a full A level. The difference is that the IB has more breadth. A student taking IB will have more contact hours, on average, because they also need to complete a theory of knowledge course, a 4,000-word extended essay and 150 hours of creativity, action and service (CAS) over the two years.

David Shaw, IB Co-ordinator, Bilborough College, Nottingham

The breadth of learning means that students should be well-prepared for their university studies. The International Baccalaureate Diploma is widely accepted by universities in the UK and around the world.

Are there any limitations?

Students will have fewer free periods and more tutor contact time than most A level or BTEC students. This option can be demanding, so make sure students are ready for the challenge.

Find out more

What else is there to consider?

These aren't the only qualifications that could lead students to university.

Look out for Cambridge Pre-U, the Foundation Diploma in Art and Design, and Highers and Advanced Highers in Scotland.