Although A levels are still by far the most commonly taken level 3 qualification, there is a growing number of alternatives for young people to explore. Last time in the A Level Alternatives series we looked at BTEC Nationals; a vocational qualification often taken in conjunction with A levels themselves. This week we take a look at Cambridge Pre-Us.

What are they?

The Cambridge Pre-U was designed in the mid-2000s to provide deeper subject knowledge with a larger emphasis on developing study skills than A levels offered at the time. Officially launched in 2008, Pre-Us are administered by Cambridge Assessment International Education, a subsidiary of Cambridge University. Although Pre-Us were originally created after consultation with independent schools, they are now offered by a range of state and grammar schools and sixth-form colleges across the UK. The number of institutions was around 170 schools in 2016 and is thought to have increased since then.

At their core, the qualifications are targeted at 16-19 year-olds preparing for university-level study.  They aim:

  • to support independent and self-directed learning
  • to encourage learners to think laterally, critically and creatively, and to acquire good problem-solving skills
  • to promote comprehensive understanding of the subject through depth and rigour.


How do they work?

Pre-Us function very much like A levels, in that a student is generally expected to take 3 or 4 subjects over the course of 2 years. There are no obligatory subjects, and it’s common for students to take a mixture of Pre-Us and A levels, often depending on what the school/college offers.

The standard course takes 2 years to complete, but a number of short courses – in modern languages and maths – are also available, which can be completed in a single year.

Another option open to you is the Pre-U Diploma. To achieve the Diploma, you will study at least 3 Pre-U subjects alongside a special course known as Global Perspectives and Research (GPR). The GPR course is specifically designed to cultivate independent research and critical thinking skills and includes an extended project in the second year. Up to 2 of the Pre-U subjects (excluding the GPR) can be replaced by another level 3 qualification, such as A levels, Scottish Advanced Highers or an IB Diploma course. The Pre-U Diploma itself does not qualify for UCAS points, but the courses you take within the Diploma will receive points (specific UCAS scores are discussed below).


What subjects can I study?

There are around 25 subjects on offer, including GPR. Available subjects span a range of academic fields, with Art & Design, Chemistry, Classical Greek and Mandarin Chinese all currently being studied in the UK. One-year short courses are provided in all modern language subjects (French, German, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Spanish), as well as in mathematics and GPR.


How will I be assessed?

Cambridge Pre-Us are linear qualifications, like the new A levels, meaning you will only sit exams at the very end of the course. Depending on subject choice, you will have to sit between 3 and 6 exams per course, although 4 is the most common number. In terms of results, there are 9 pass grades: 3 broad grades (Distinction, Merit, Pass) are further split into 3 numerical levels, so D1 is the highest possible grade, then: D2, D3, M1, M2, M3, P1, P2, P3. Short courses are graded in the same way, and both types of course are assigned UCAS points – see the next section for more.


What are they worth?

The Pre-U is widely considered an  academic qualification, so employers will likely view it as being equal with an A level.

The grades are also roughly analogous with A levels, but with one important difference: the top grade – D1 – is considered to be better than an A* at A level. After that, the comparisons are simple: D2=A*, D3=A, M1=B etc. This is broadly reflected in the UCAS point assignations.

The Cambridge Pre-U is accepted by universities across the world, including in the UK, Canada, Belgium, Germany and the USA. Around half of the UK’s universities will consider applications from students with Pre-Us, including Oxford and Cambridge. However, you should be aware that many will only accept Pre-Us in combination with A levels, and don’t in fact accept the Pre-U Diploma. A lot of this may simply be due to the fact that the Pre-U is still relatively new, and unis may well become more receptive to them as their reputation grows.



On many superficial levels, the Cambridge Pre-U is similar to the standard A level; in terms of course length, examinations and UCAS points. The content of the courses, however, is claimed by Cambridge Assessment International Education to be more rigorous and challenging than A levels. It can therefore be considered as an academic alternative for students looking to apply to university, though students should carefully check which institutions accept the qualification before committing.