Starting NCEA this year? Totally confused about how it even works? StudyTime is here to help. In this article, we’ll break down the ten main things you need to know about how NCEA is structured.



One: Don’t Freak


Firstly: don’t freak out. NCEA can seem a little complex to start with, but once you’re doing it, the details will start to make sense to you.



Feeling chill? Cool, lets get into the details of NCEA. 


Two: What the heck are NCEA levels?

There are three levels of NCEA the easy, medium and hard levels also known as levels 1, 2 and 3.

It’s not the best game in the world, but NCEA is the game most NZ schools choose to have us play. If you want the university or career expansion packs, acing NCEA will help a lot.



Most people will do Level 1 in year 11, Level 2 in year 12 and Level 3 in year 13. However, the points you gather within each of the levels — called credits — don’t expire after a year or anything. This means that you can gather credits from any level, at any time, if your school offers them to you.



For example:

  • Your school might offer an assessment in year 10 that lets you collect some Level 1 credits early.
  • You might continue to earn points early, e.g. earning Level 3 points in Year 12
  • If you don’t achieve Level 1 in the first year you attempt it, all is not lost. You can continue gathering points the following year until you pass.

Three: So what are credits again?

You need to earn 80 credits to pass each level of NCEA.

These are like the jewels you might gather along the levels of a video game. Each level has their own specific credits — e.g. Level 3 credits require you to sit Level 3 assessments. However, you can put some lower or higher levels credits toward Level 2 and 3.



Here’s how breaks down for all three levels:



Four: So how do you earn credits?

There are two different ways to earn credits in NCEA, and pretty much everyone uses both.

The first way is internal assessment and the second is external assessment. Each school subject will be broken into topics, as they were before NCEA. Understanding each topic well and completing each internal assessment and/or external assessment your school offers to prove it will mean you collect credits for that topic.



Internal assessments are marked by your teacher or another teacher at your school. They are completed during the year and are most commonly projects that you hand in after you have a set amount of time to work on them.



External assessments are exams that you sit at the end of the year and are probably somewhat similar to exams you sat in Year 9 and 10. However, some subjects, like art, require you to send away a portfolio you have worked on rather than sit an exam. In NCEA, the external assessments are marked by examiners outside your school, not by your teachers.


Five: What are literacy and numeracy credits?

In order to pass Level 1, you have to gain ten credits that show you have literacy skills, and ten that show you have numeracy skills.

It is only Level One that you need to collect these credits, not 2 & 3.

The most common place to gain literacy credits is English assessments, and the most common place to gain numeracy is Maths. However, there are other subjects that allow you to gain these points too. There are more details about this here.



Six: What skills will I need to do well in internal assessment?

Probably not hula-hooping. We’ll give you some examples…

Some of the commonly sat internal assessments in Level 1:


Achievement standard 90052: Creative Writing

Click to see description and rubric.

This achievement standard asks you to write a short story of 350 words that fits a description the teacher gives you. You are allowed three weeks to complete the story and are allowed to work on it both in and out of class.


Achievement standard 91026: Numerical Reasoning

Click to see description and rubric.

The achievement standard asks you to solve a problem that requires a series of calculations. You are allowed one hour in class.


Tips for Internal Assessments

  • Project-style internal assessments are a great way to build your time management skills. Try to work on the project steadily over the time allowed so you don’t get stressed and rush at the end.
  • Use the rubric on the NZQA website which tells you exactly what you need to do to get a good grade on your assessment. NCEA is very much about following what the rubric tells you to do.
  • Use the rubric to work out exactly what you need to know how to do in advance, and then practice those skills.
  • Look at examples you can find of previous assessments on the NZQA and TKI websites
  • Ask your teacher to give you applied examples of the information on the rubric if you don’t understand what the wording means. More than likely, NZQA have phrased a simple concept in a difficult manner.
  • Ask your teacher for help and guidance along the way. They often can’t help you with specifics, but can often assist with general advice.


Seven: What are some skills I need to do well in external assessment?

You’ll find that each topic has a booklet of questions in the exams at the end of the year to complete.

We have and will talk a lot about exam skills here at StudyTime, so we won’t go into too much detail on what to do in exams here… it’s a long way away at the moment!



However, at least half, if not three quarters of doing well in the exams is making sure that you have the required base-level of knowledge when exam time draws near. People who learn the topics properly for the first time near exams miss important details and don’t understand as deeply as those who learn throughout the year.


Tips for External Assessments

  • Take good notes in all classes and keep them up to date.
  • Complete homework to solidify your understanding and memory of the material.
  • Ask your teacher about details you’re unsure of.
  • Get the walkthrough guides early in the year — like now while they’re %20 off — instead of at the last minute before exams, and use them as an additional resource when you can’t get on the same wavelength as your teacher, or understand the homework.
  • Refresh your memory of earlier topics using your notes, rewriting notes in creative ways and the walkthrough guides to work through anything you’re unclear about.


Eight: What do Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit and Excellence mean?



Many assessments you’ll do in NCEA will give you a grade to indicate how well you’ve done in them. The grades you can receive are:

Not Achieved





If you receive a Not Achieved grade on an assessment, you will receive no credits to go towards the 80 you need to pass the Level you are working towards.

If you receive an Achieved grade you will get achieved credits. For example, if your assessment is worth 3 credits, you will get three Achieved credits.

If you receive a Merit grade on the same assessment, you would still get 3 credits, but these would be Merit credits, which reflect doing better on the assessment than just achieved credits.

If you received an Excellence grade on the assessment, you would get 3 Excellence credits. This reflects an even better result than Merit credits.



You can pass NCEA by just earning 80 achieved credits at each Level. However, earning Merit and Excellence points within your 80 credits impresses employers and universities with your academic prowess.


Nine: Is there any reward for earning Merit and Excellence Credits?

Well, aside from a sense of accomplishment, there’s a couple of ways that NCEA recognises high achievers in Levels 1-3.

Certificate Endorsements

If you have 80 Level 1 Credits, and 50 or more of these are Merit or above, your Level 1 NCEA Certificate will be endorsed with ‘Merit’.

If you have 80 Level 1 Credits, and 50 or more of these are Excellence, your Level 1 NCEA Certificate will be endorsed with ‘Excellence’.

Certificate endorsements are the best ways of showing employers, universities and other people you need to impress with your academic ability that you are a good student. If you get endorsements in Level 2 and 3 — they work the same way as Level 1 endorsements — this can really help you have the pick of universities and residential colleges, and might help you get a scholarship e.g. the Uni paying you to go there!

Course Endorsements

Another way that NCEA recognises your academic abilities is with endorsements in particular subjects.

If you get 14 points at merit or above in a subject, that subject will be endorsed with merit. If you get 14 excellence points, the subject will be endorsed with excellence. This is another way to show people looking at your achievements as a student that you excel in a particular subject.

Ten: What’re vocational pathways?

Another interesting thing about NCEA is that it allows you to earn credits for things that aren’t traditionally considered ‘academic’.

That means you could earn credits for things as diverse as learning to use McDonald’s grill to getting your drivers licence.



It also means that students who prefer less traditional subjects don’t have to rule out the possibility of achieving NCEA, and those who would prefer to do a hands-on style of training can do so and still earn NCEA.

If you’d like to focus your NCEA study on building skills that will be directly useful in an industry, you can choose to follow NCEA’s vocational pathway programme.

More information here.


Vocational pathways can prepare you to enter the following industries:

  • Primary Industries
  • Services Industries
  • Social & Community Services
  • Manufacturing & Technology
  • Construction & Infrastructure
  • Creative Industries


All this information about NCEA might come across as a little overwhelming, but trust us, you’ll be away laughing in no time. NCEA isn’t all fun and games, but taking it a step at a time and putting in effort throughout the year will make things run smoothly.



Of course, StudyTime will be here right by your side, with hot tips, fresh memes and Walkthrough Guides to get you safely through your first year of NCEA.


Looking for more resources for your study?

Try out our printed Walkthrough Guides. They cover everything you need to know to ace the external exam.

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