The Cambridge Pre-U: an alternative to A Levels

The Cambridge Pre-U has been designed to provide students with the in-depth understanding and skills needed for university entrance. Although relatively new, it is already recognised across the world.

Girl studying representing the Cambridge Pre-U
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The Cambridge Pre-U, designed by Cambridge International Examinations, a department of the University of Cambridge, is a relatively new qualification. However, it is already recognised by universities, education providers and employers across the world. We provide an overview of this challenging academic programme.The Pre-U was introduced in 2008. As with the International GCSE (IGCSE), the University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) is the main awarding body.The Pre-U is linear, which means that it does not have any modular exams during the course. This allows teachers to decide on the order, pace and depth of teaching most appropriate to their students.
Around 26 Principal Subjects are available. Each subject is only examined at the end of the two-year course. This is intended to give teachers the flexibility to prepare students without the pressure of continuous assessment.According to the CIE, students start to see the subject as a whole, instead of studying isolated modules and missing the links between them.Principal Subjects are the equivalent of A Levels. Students can take up to four Principal Subjects, or they can take them in combination with A Levels.The CIE also offers a one-year Short Course. Nine such courses are available, mainly in modern languages and maths. Designed to allow students to continue with their studies in the first year of sixth form, they offer an advanced qualification for application to university.

Global perspectives and research

The Pre-U Global Perspectives and Research (GPR) prepares students for the independent thinking they will need at university. Students choose from five broad themes: ethics, economics, environment, technology, and politics and culture.The GPR is taught as two successive one-year courses. Global Perspectives develops research and thinking skills during the first year, preparing students for an extended writing project in the second year.The GPR can be taken alongside three Principal Subjects or as a standalone qualification alongside A Levels.According to the CIE, the Pre-U is underpinned by a clear set of educational aims:
  • Encouraging the development of well-informed, open and independent-minded individuals
  • Promoting deep understanding through subject specialisation, with a depth and rigour appropriate to progression to higher education
  • Helping learners to acquire specific skills of problemsolving, critical thinking, creativity, teamwork, independent learning and effective communication
  • Recognising the wide range of individual talents and interests
  • Promoting an international outlook and cross-cultural awareness

Pre-U assessment

Students can take the Pre-U syllabuses separately and receive a grade for each, or they can take the Pre-U Diploma, which consists of at least three Principal Subjects plus the GPR. Assessment takes place at the end of the course and is reported on a scale of nine grades: Distinction 1, 2 and 3; Merit 1, 2 and 3; and Pass 1, 2 and 3. The top grade, Distinction 1, reports achievement above an A* grade at A Level.Each of the nine grades translates to UCAS Tariff points, which are used by universities as a measurement to assess applicants. However, Pre-U UCAS Tariff points are often higher than the A Level equivalent.For example, a Distinction 3 is aligned with an A grade at A Level, yet is worth ten more UCAS Tariff points. This is because the size of each Pre-U Principal Subject is larger than an A Level in terms of Guided Learning Hours (the term Ofqual uses to denote how many tutor-led hours are required to complete the course); the Pre-U is deemed to have more open and challenging questions; and the assessment is said to allow for a more coherent and synoptic experience of the subject.Many UK universities accept the Pre-U as equivalent to other Level 3 qualifications (such as AS Levels and A Levels). Universities in the US, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands also accept the Pre-U as an equivalent to other pre-university qualifications.This is a revised version of an article originally published in October 2016.
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