How NCEA works for Students in New Zealand

Written by: Jimmy Li

Whether you're a parent or a student, NCEA can be a bit confusing. Since it takes three years to complete and determines your prospects after high school, you should probably learn more about it and how everything works. Have no fear - this article will tell you the key things that you need to know.

The Basics

NCEA is the name of a pathway that many students take through high school. It was developed by NZQA, the New Zealand education board and is in widespread use in New Zealand. Being a local programme, it is recognised nationally not only for University entrance but also for alternatives such as Polytechnics and workplace training.

There are alternatives such as Cambridge (CAIE) and International Baccalaureate (IB), but NCEA remains the most common one for students in New Zealand as it's meant to be available at every school in the country.

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


NCEA is a three-part, three-year programme with one part being taken each year.

In Year 11 you 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 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 you meet the grade requirements of your school e.g.

  • NCEA Level 2 Maths - continued from Level 1
  • NCEA Level 2 English - continued from Level 1
  • NCEA Level 2 Physics - continued from Level 1
  • NCEA Level 2 Biology - new subject starting directly at Level 2
  • NCEA Level 2 Chemistry - new subject starting directly at Level 2

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

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.

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 NCEA Level 1
  • English is compulsory at NCEA Levels 1 and 2

In many schools, Physical Education is a required subject. In religious schools, Religious Studies may be compulsory.

Aside from these, you are free to choose whatever subjects you wish depending on the availability of classes at your school. For subjects at Level 2 and 3, your school may require that you do sufficiently well for that subject at the lower levels.

Aside from Numeracy and Literacy requirements, University entrance is determined by your results at Level 3 so make sure you keep that in mind. Pick subjects to reflect what you are planning to study at University, but keep your options open.

Standards and Credits

Oh boy here we go...

To understand NCEA properly, you really need to understand what these two words mean.

Every subject that you take is broken into a number of different standards – each standard will cover a core topic within that subject. For example, Maths might contain things like Algebra and Geometry. Each subject will typically have between 4 to 8 standards.

There are four possible grades for each standard – Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit, and Excellence.

Not all standards within a subject are created equal; each standard is worth a number of credits, typically around 3 to 6.

If you attain an Achieved for a standard that is worth 3 credits, then you gain 3 Achieved credits. If you attain an Excellence for a standard worth 5 credits, then you get 5 Excellence credits. All these individual credits forms the basis of your overall grade for that subject, and goes towards your overall grade for the year.

Below is an example of the results one of our students attained

This student has attained 9 Achieved Credits, 7 Merit Credits, and 5 Excellence Credits for NCEA Level 1 Science. If you get a "Not achieved", you don't get any credits for that standard.

Your result for the whole year

To pass the year level, you will need a minimum of 80 credits across all subjects, it doesn’t matter whether these are achieved, merit or excellent credits. If you meet this requirement, then your transcript will say that you've attained e.g. National Certificate of Educational Achievement (Level 1).

To make things easier for you, not all credits need to have been gained from that level. You can use unlimited credits from Levels above, and up to 20 credits from one Level below.

For example, for NCEA Level 2 we can use credits from Level 2 subjects as well as Level 3 subjects. Additionally, we can use up to 20 credits from Level 1 subjects.

See the NZQA website for exact requirements


Stuff that looks good on your CV

Certificate Endorsements

In the previous section, we talked about how if you get enough credits for a Level, then you attain for example National Certificate of Educational Achievement (Level 1) - however you can get fancy titles added on to the end of this.

If you gain a minimum of 50 merit or excellence credits from subjects from that level or levels above, you'll get an overall certificate endorsement for that Level.

E.g. if you get at least 50 Excellence credits for NCEA Level 1, 2, or 3 subjects, you'll receive “National Certificate of Educational Achievement (Level 1) achieved with Excellence”

Course endorsements

If you do well in a subject - gaining at least 14 merit or excellence credits, this will be shown on your transcript as a “course endorsement”. This recognises that you've done well in a subject.


NCEA is assessed through a combination of internal and external assessments throughout the whole year. Each internal assessment will cover one standard where as the external exam will typically assess two to three standards together.

The result you receive for each standard will be one of the following:

N0, N1, N2, A3, A4, M5, M6, E7, or E8

Each of these results corresponds with either Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit, or Excellence, and this is what will appear on your official transcript. The numbers are just there to give you a better idea of how you did, and don't affect your official result.

In other words, an M5 or M6 result for a standard will both show up on your transcript as "Merit" for that standard.

Internal Assessments

Internal assessments are created and marked by the schools themselves – teachers will adhere to NZQA guidelines but they 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. Although these are marked by the teachers themselves, roughly 10% these are further checked by NZQA assessment checkers to try and make sure most schools and teachers are marking to the same degree of difficulty.

Many schools also offer students the opportunity to review their mistakes and resit their internals.

External Assessments

Externals are a lot more uniform as the assessments are created and marked by NZQA. Held at the end of the year around November/December, they usually come in 3 hr timeslots and usually assess 2-3 standards in one go.

For many subjects, NCEA exam papers contain a mixture of Achieved, Merit or Excellence questions. The approach they take is that answering the higher level questions correctly means you often do not need to answer the lower level questions correctly as well. For example, if you answer enough Excellence level questions right within a standard, you will gain an Excellence for that standard and you won’t have to worry about whether you’ve gotten the Achieved questions right.

As a generalization: Achieved questions are very basic, and should be quite easy to answer. Marks for Merit questions require a little bit more understanding and will be a bit harder to attain. Excellence questions are challenging. Most of our students and tutors agree that the jump between Merit and Excellence is quite steep. They are aimed towards top students who have a solid understanding of the topic.

Note 1: In an ideal world, if you really know your stuff you will definitely attain an excellence, but the small amount of excellence questions combined with their difficulty have led some to comment that there is an element of luck in what questions you get in the exam, and whether it is in one of your strong areas. It may not be reflective of your overall understanding of the subject.

Note 2: This structure doesn't apply to essay based subjects such as English - in these subjects you'll just be assessed on the quality of your essay as a whole.


As part of NCEA, you will get your marked exam scripts returned to you. If you feel like the result you've received is not correct or fair, you have the opportunity to apply to have your results either reviewed or reconsidered. You need to pay a fee for this.

The goal of NCEA is to get good credits at Level 3

With any luck, you will study hard and gain the credits you need get into your chosen University and degree! Beyond basic numeracy and literacy requirements, University entrance for NCEA students is determined soley by the amount and quality (Achieved/Merit/Excellence) of Level 3 credits.

You can 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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