NCEA vs Cambridge (CAIE) and how it affects University Entrance

Written by: Jimmy Li

NCEA vs Cambridge (CAIE) - a comparison

Despite being the two most popular high school options for students in New Zealand, there's a lot of confusion around what they actually are and the differences between the two. Inconveniently, most people only really understand their pathway after they've started. Not to worry, this article will go over what they are and the main differences between the two, based on the personal experiences of our students and tutors here at MyTuition.

Here's the basics

NCEA and CAIE? Hmm yes I recognise some of those letters

NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) and CAIE (Cambridge Assessment International Examinations) are two separate but equivalent high school qualifications offered in NZ. Both can help students meet the requirements for University entrance.

NCEA is a program developed by the NZ education board NZQA and was graduallly phased in to highschools nationally after 2002. CAIE was developed by The University of Cambridge in the UK and is in use in 160 countries globally.

For more info, please see our articles on how NCEA works and how Cambridge works.

How is everything structured?

As you probably know, high school consists of five years starting with Year 9 and ending with Year 13. The decision on whether you want to go with NCEA or Cambridge is usually made near the end of Year 10.

Both curriculums are three-part, three-year programmes with one part being taken each year. Each year, you'll take a number of subjects from your chosen pathway. We'll take NCEA as an example to illustrate how this works but Cambridge works in the same way.

In Year 11 you would study roughly five NCEA Level 1 subjects e.g.

  • NCEA Level 1 Maths
  • NCEA Level 1 English
  • NCEA Level 1 Physics
  • NCEA Level 1 Business Studies
  • NCEA Level 1 Media Studies

Each subject is assessed separately and the grade you attain for one subject has absolutely no effect on your grade for any other subjects.

In Year 12, you would generally take five new subjects at NCEA Level 2. These subjects could be a continuation of your Level 1 subjects, or they could be new subjects altogether if your grades are good enough e.g.

  • NCEA Level 2 Maths
  • NCEA Level 2 English
  • NCEA Level 2 Physics
  • NCEA Level 2 Biology
  • NCEA Level 2 Chemistry

Same story in Year 13 - you'll pick another five subjects at NCEA Level 3. Often fewer.

The subjects are designed so that there is continuation between different levels. For example, NCEA Level 2 Maths is a harder version of NCEA Level 1 Maths and directly draws on the material that you studied at Level 1.

Can I take subjects from both pathways?

Technically yes, but schools usually won't let you. Once you pick a pathway, all your subjects each year will be from that pathway and you can't mix and match. This is because you can only use one pathway for University entrance and if you take subjects from both then you're at a significant disadvantage.

An exception to this rule is if the subject you want is not offered for a certain pathway. For example, you could be doing 4 Cambridge subjects and then also take NCEA Engineering as it's not offered by Cambridge. Bear in mind that this is for interest purposes only, as you can only use the subjects from your main pathway to help you get into University.

Can I change pathways?

Yes, sometimes. There is some degree of cross crediting permitted between pathways which you'll need to speak to your school about.

The most common change is switching from Cambridge to NCEA at the start of Year 12. They will take your Year 11 Cambridge grades and give you equivalent result for Year 11 NCEA, thus allowing you to progress to Year 12 NCEA directly.

Changing from NCEA to Cambridge is more difficult.

Cambridge vs NCEA

One of the biggest differences between NCEA and Cambridge is the structure of the assessments. In Cambridge, a student's final grade for each subject is completely determined by a series of external examinations held at the end of the year. The content of these exams are set and marked by Cambridge, and teachers have no control over them.

Most schools will have tests and mock exams, but these are used only as a guideline to track progress and give a prediction of how well a student might do in the external exams. None of these results will affect their final grade.

In contrast, NCEA is assessed through a combination of internal and external assessments throughout the whole year.

Internal assessments are created and marked by the schools themselves – teachers will adhere to NZQA guidelines but have quite a bit of flexibility in how they interpret these guidelines. They can be take-home assignments or they can be sat in test conditions at school. Internal assessments vary widely between subjects and schools and there is no definitive structure that these may come in.

The external component at the end of the year is set and marked by NZQA and is much more standardised than the internals.

Assessment format comparison


Cambridge is great for students who enjoy or work better under pressure. As there is a lot to study for during exam season, it does encourage students to develop skills for coping. On the flipside, there is a temptation to slack off until the last minute. For some students, it will really epitomize “studying 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 2 weeks a year”. This is an extremely effective approach if you are a genius or if your goal is to get bad grades.

Most schools however will have lots of tests and mock exams through the year for Cambridge students and these serve as great progress checks.

An added benefit of studying for everything at the same time is that it also allows students to think of the curriculum as a whole and link various topics together for a better overall understanding of that subject.


NCEA’s approach is to regularly assess students and give them feedback. In some cases, students are also allowed an opportunity to make corrections to their internal assessments and submit it for remarking. It wholly adopts the “learning from your mistakes” motto, which many find appealing. NCEA is also one of the few systems in the world to return marked exam scripts to students (CAIE does not).

A lot of our students said that ultimately what affected their decision the most is their study style. Students who excel under pressure and enjoy getting everything over in one go opt for CAIE. For students who don’t do as well under stress or prefer to plan things out in advance, NCEA is the choice that allows parts of it to be split and done throughout the year.


Which one is easier and which one is harder? We stress that there's no simple answer. However, we feel that taken as a whole, NCEA is slightly easier than CAIE.

Without going into too much detail about how NCEA is marked (that's for another article), in NCEA assessments the questions are grouped into three categories. Achieved level questions are the easiest, Merit level questions are harder, and Excellence level questions are challenging.

Most students feel that Achieved level questions and some Merit level questions in NCEA are very straight forward, making it quite easy to pass a subject by answering only the easy questions. Many people believe that NCEA provides an easier path towards basic university entrance for this reason.

However the hardest questions in NCEA are harder than the comparable questions in CAIE. They can sometimes make students feel like they're being asked to prove Einstein's theory of relavitity.

Our students and tutors have commented that CAIE tends to be broader and cover more topics within a subject. NCEA in contrast tends to be focused in a more narrow area, going into more depth at the higher levels than CAIE.

Course material and consistency

The mark scheme and assessment criteria for CAIE is very well defined, with many years worth of resources including past exam papers and mark schemes freely available online. Our students have been able to look at past samples and get a very clear expectation of what they need to do in an exam. All students in New Zealand will sit the exact same exams for a subject.

The NCEA mark scheme is much more open to interpretation, with the examiner’s expectations being a lot less clear. In some cases, mark schemes may go along the lines of “this student shows good understanding” - excellence, “this student shows general understanding” – merit, “this student shows basic understanding” – achieved and our students are left there trying to figure out what exactly is the difference between good, general and basic understanding. In addition, with the internals being written and marked by different parties, there is less consistency than with CAIE.

The expectations of NCEA are not always clear and the there aren’t too many resources online - it makes it more difficult to prepare for assessments when compared to CAIE. NCEA study guides can help with this. However, this could be seen as encouraging students to more fully understand the concepts and material as opposed to just learning for the sake of sitting the exams.

University Entrance

As this article focuses on the difference between NCEA and Cambridge, this section will only focus on how your University opportunities are affected by your choice of pathway, and not how the entrance process works. This will be covered in another article.

Both pathways are qualifications that are recognised by Universities in New Zealand.

For NCEA, they look at your results from Year 13.

For Cambridge, you can use your results from Year 12 as well as Year 13. It is possible and not uncommon for high achieving students to enter University one year early (skipping Year 13).

As mentioned previously, NCEA may provide an easier pathway towards basic university entrance although there's not much difference when it comes to getting into more demanding programmes such as Engineering and Medicine.

The assessment structure of University is also very similiar to NCEA, with a series of assessments throughout the year which all contribute to the final grade. NCEA students may have an advantage entering University as they are familiar with this learning style. After entering University, some Cambridge students who are used to studying only at the end of the year realise too late that all those assignments/tests throughout the Semester ended up accounting for 40% of their final grade.

Overseas universities are a completely different matter. Cambridge has been around for a long time and is internationally recognised. Being a relatively new programme, many Universities aren't too familiar with NCEA and err on the cautious side when screening applicants with an NCEA qualification. It doesn't mean it's not possible, it just mean you may need to jump through more hoops in order to be considered. For example, you may be asked for a letter from your school to stipulate to the fact that NCEA is indeed an actual qualification and not a pyramid scheme. If the plan is to get into an overseas University, we recommend going with Cambridge.


NCEA is much more affordable as it is subsidised by the government, with a flat fee of $76.7 per year for domestic students (as of 2018).

For CAIE, you would need to pay a candidate fee per student and an additional fee per subject ($100 ish for A-Level). This works out to roughly $400+ per student per year, depending on how many subjects are taken.

It depends on the student

Both qualifications have their own merits. Additionally, a particular aspect of one programme may be considered a positive by one person and a negative by another. It's important that you consider the differences between them, and decide which are the ones that matter the most to you.

5 Conversations You Need To Have With Your Child Before University

If you have a child that's planning on going to university, there are a few things you should talk to them about to make sure they are on the right path.

We interviewed dozens of people about their experiences choosing and studying for their degree, and realised that people have a lot of misconceptions before starting their degree.

Many people start thinking about university requirements much later than they should.

We've put together a 5-part email course to provide you with the right information, and help you have a conversation with your child around some important topics such as:

  • Misconceptions
  • Common mistakes
  • General advice
  • Entry requirements
  • Your options

Article by Jimmy Li

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