How Cambridge (CAIE) works for students in New Zealand

Written by: Jimmy Li

Cambridge (CAIE) can be a bit confusing, especially with all the acronyms. Whether you're a parent or a student, it's a good idea to understand how everything works and be able to see the bigger picture. Have no fear - this article will tell you the key things that you need to know.

The Basics

Cambridge Assessment International Examinations (CAIE) is the name of a pathway that many students take through high school. It was developed by Cambridge University in the UK, and is in use in over 160 countries globally.

Alternatives to CAIE in New Zealand include NCEA and International Baccalaureate (IB).

See our other articles on CAIE vs NCEA or How NCEA Works if you're interested.


CAIE is a three-year programme. Each year, you'll take a number of subjects at either IGCSE, AS, or A2. Although AS is a recognised stand alone qualification, AS and A2 together form the full A-Level qualification.

Year 11

In Year 11 you study roughly five Cambridge subjects.

The vast majority of students carefully consider where they want to be 10 years down the line, their career prospects, and pick subjects accordingly.

Haha. Just kidding.

Many students will use a combination of "what are my friends picking" and "this subject sounds easy" to pick their subjects (although many panicking parents will push them towards certain directions).

That's not a completely terrible approach, as the IGCSE level is really an opportunity for you to experience what the curriculum has to offer and to explore what you want to study further. This first year allows you to get used to the curriculum structure, the marking system and the exam style while deciding where your interests lie. Think about the future yes but keep your options open, and don't specialise too heavily too early on unless you're sure.

IGCSE does not contribute towards University Entrance. It does however serve as a foundation for AS and A2

E.g. In Year 11 our imaginary friend Millie has decided to pick the following:

  • IGCSE Maths
  • IGCSE English
  • IGCSE Physics
  • IGCSE Business Studies
  • IGCSE History

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

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

Year 12

In Year 12, most schools will recommend students take around four or five subjects again. Many students will be taking all subjects at the AS level.

AS Subjects can contribute towards University Entrance.

You have a few choices here

  1. Continue with your IGCSE subjects at the AS Level
  2. Pick up new IGCSE subjects
  3. Pick up new AS subjects without having done IGCSE

e.g In Year 12, Millie has decided to go with the following:

  • AS Maths - continued from IGCSE
  • AS English Literature - continued from IGCSE
  • AS Physics - continued from IGCSE
  • IGCSE Biology - new subject starting at IGCSE
  • AS Chemistry - new subject starting directly at AS

It is not compulsory to have done a subject at IGCSE in order to do it at AS, but it's easier that way – some schools may require the students to get special approval to skip IGCSE.

Year 13

In Year 13, you need to think very carefully about your subjects. This is your last chance to contribute towards your University Entrance.

The options you have now are as follows

  1. Continue with your AS subjects at the A2 Level
  2. Pick up new AS subjects

There's no point picking IGCSE Subjects now as they can't be used for University Entrance, instead you would pick only AS or A2 Subjects.

One potential approach is to pick your best AS subjects – typically 3 to 4 – and continue these at the A2 level. The A2 level should be thought of as the second part of this whole A level program, therefore you can’t take a subject at A2 level if you have not done the AS counterpart.

Alternatively, you can pick more subjects at AS level. Students choosing this path are opting to have a broader knowledge base rather than specializing/gaining deeper understanding of what they have already studied. Students choosing this option are not disadvantaged for university entrance too much, and we will talk more about this at the end but basically AS is a perfectly acceptable stand alone qualification that does count towards University entrance. In fact, some high achieving students skip Year 13 altogether and go directly into University using their Year 12 AS results.

Most students do a mixture of the above two options.

e.g. Millie has decided to go with the following at Year 13

A2 Maths - continued from AS

A2 English Literature - continued from AS

AS Classics - new subject starting directly at AS

AS Economics - new subject starting directly at AS

Compulsory Subjects and University Entrance

The following subjects are compulsory as they form the minimum requirements to get into University in New Zealand. Getting a good enough result for these subjects will fullfill your Numeracy and Literacy requirements

  • Maths is compulsory at IGCSE
  • English is compulsory at IGCSE and AS

In many schools, Physical Education is a required subject. Aside from these subjects, you are free to choose whatever subjects you wish.

Aside from Numeracy and Literacy requirements, University Entrance is determined by your results at AS and A2.


With CAIE in NZ, your grade for that whole year is completely determined by external examinations held at the end of year in October/November.

For each subject, there might be 1 to 3 exam papers covering different aspects of the curriculum. For example the sciences will typically have a multiple choice paper, a structured answer paper and a practical paper. Each paper would be examined separately with each exam session lasting between 1 to 3 hours.

For CAIE, all the papers across all the subjects will be examined in this manner over the period of a few weeks in no particular order.

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 results at the end of the year.

At the end of each exam session, all the exam scripts are collected and sent to be marked externally.

Example Exam timetable


For every subject that you take, your results comes in the form of a single overall grade for that subject. This is derived from the percentage of questions that you've correctly answered.

Exam Resits

You can generally resit it again next year in May/June if you're not happy with your results for a subject. For example, if you get a B for IGCSE Chemistry, you may continue with AS Chemistry normally next year while studying for IGCSE Chemistry in your own time. Most schools that offer Cambridge will offer the resit option.

The goal of CAIE is to get good grades at AS/A2

With any luck, you've studied hard and gotten the grades you need get into your chosen University and degree! Beyond basic numeracy and literacy requirements, University entrance for Cambridge students is determined solely by your results from your AS and A2 subjects.

Learn more about the exact requirements for University Entrance in New Zealand here.

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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