Nearly 10,000 more A*s were awarded than expected in the first year of the elite grade, A-level results published this week show.
The news bears out heads' predictions that the new top rating would motivate the most able pupils to work harder as they approached the end of their A-level courses.
But with as many as 200,000 pupils expected to miss out on scarce university places, it will make the fight to win entry to institutions such as Cambridge even tougher.
It came as the overall pass rate rose for the 28th year in a row with 97.6 per cent of all A-levels gaining at least an E grade. A grades were also up for a 12th successive year, awarded to 27 per cent of all A-levels.
Jim Sinclair, Joint Council for Qualifications director, said it was "a day for celebration". But his comments were unlikely to quell the annual claims of dumbing down and grade inflation. Science, maths and technology (STEM) subjects continued their revival, with entries boosted in maths, further maths, biology, chemistry and physics. French and German were down again.
Of all grades issued to girls, 8.3 per cent were A*, compared with 7.9 per cent for boys, confounding the expectations of some academics. But boys outperformed girls at A* overall within the STEM subjects.
Independent school heads had feared that the decision to use last year's results as a reference point for the percentage of A*s awarded would fail to take account of the extra incentive to work provided by the grade.
The TES revealed last week that some A-level marks had their values altered to keep the top grade close to expectations. The fact that 8.1 per cent, or 69,302, of all A-levels got the A* compared with the expected 7 per cent may have partially allayed The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference's concerns.
But as The TES went to press, the conference was demanding that details of exactly which marks had been lowered or raised be released.