Conscientious high school students have a lot to consider: grade-point average, extracurricular activities and the rigor of classes. Many students have turned to Advanced Placement courses to challenge themselves with the most rigorous classes. A somewhat lesser-known option is the International Baccalaureate program, which also offers students a challenging curriculum.
Students should know several things when weighing IB vs. AP courses as they prepare for college studies.
The IB program is still relatively small compared with the AP program in the U.S. Fewer than 950 U.S. schools offer the IB diploma, according to the program's organizers. By comparison, more than 20,000 high schools offered AP courses during the 2017-2018 school year, according to the College Board, which administers the AP program.
"We see strengths in both programs," says Darren Bessett, honors program director at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado, which offers IB and AP classes. According to the school's website, many students combine IB and AP, taking exams for both.
College admissions counselors also see value in both programs. Grades in college prep courses such as AP and IB were listed as being of "considerable importance" by 73.2% of respondents in the 2019 State of College Admission report compiled by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Only 5.5% of respondents felt the same way about subject test scores in AP and IB programs.
How the IB and AP Programs Differ
While colleges seem to equally value AP and IB programs, students should be aware of some structural differences.
While AP is limited to high school courses, the IB program also offers elementary, middle school and career programs. The IB Diploma Program is for high school students, specifically those ages 16-19, while AP classes are offered from grades nine through 12.
Students can choose to take individual IB courses, similar to AP, or pursue an IB Diploma recognized by colleges around the world.
Both IB and AP courses are offered overseas, but IB is primarily an international program. According to the IB website, nearly 5,200 schools in 157 countries offer the program.
Students take a standard set of courses and exams in the rigorous two-year IB Diploma program, which they complete during their junior and senior years. Other requirements include community service and a research paper, Bessett says.
"What's nice about IB and the diploma, particularly, is you're saying, 'Hey, I'm willing to challenge myself in areas of strength, but I'm also willing to challenge myself in areas where I'm not as strong as well,'" he says.
If students do not want to commit to the diploma program, they can choose individual IB courses they'd like to take, just as with AP classes, Bessett says.
Aside from the structural differences, educators say there are philosophical contrasts as well, with IB classes taking a more international focus than AP courses.
"In an AP class, you may look very deeply at an issue and look at it from multiple perspectives," says Matthew Nelson, director of advanced academics for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee. "In IB, it would probably be more, still looking at an issue, but you may be looking at an issue over time and how it has impacted other parts of the world and how there is that connectivity to it all."
Bessett says that's changed in recent years with the two curricula becoming more like one another.
"IB traditionally has been very narrowly focused in terms of time periods covered, focusing more on historical skills," he wrote in an email. "AP aims to cover breadth of knowledge with a wide survey of time covered. What has changed in the last several years? IB has moved away a bit from their narrow focus, and now has breadth of content options within the program. AP has introduced elements to the history curricula that aim to capture historical skills (e.g. historiography) like what the IB has done in the past."
Likewise, he notes that a new IB literature program feels similar to an AP language and composition course.
IB and AP Classes Can Lead to College Credit
A student must be enrolled in an IB class to take an IB exam, Bessett says. However, students can take an AP exam without taking the corresponding AP course.
Both IB and AP classes culminate in an exam, and students may be able to earn college credit depending on their scores.
"If you are successful on the assessment, then it is invaluable in terms of how much money you save on college credit," Nelson says.
Both educators agree that they think college admissions officers look favorably on students who take AP or IB classes.
"It's always, where are you at as a student? What's your goal? What is your strength? What can we try to achieve by you taking this particular class?" says Bessett about deciding on AP or IB classes.
Bessett says he doesn't advise students to take one course over the other -- a student's choice depends on his or her academic goals. In some cases, a student may take an AP English class instead of the IB English class because of the type of literature the class is reading, he says.
Most students Bessett advises take a combination of both, he says. Fairview, he notes, has crafted course offerings to blend AP and IB together into a rich curriculum.
"It would be great if more schools could do that," he says.
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