When you start applying to college, you know that there are many materials to gather and requirements to fulfill. In the admissions process, schools look for applicants with excellent grades, high SAT or ACT scores, stellar letters of recommendation, and essays that captivate the reader and humanize your application.
Many applicants may not know that while a high GPA can strengthen their applications, the level of the courses they take can also highlight their candidacy. This guide will explore the International Baccalaureate (IB) program and Advanced Placement (AP) classes, including what they are, how colleges view them, and which path is right for you.
The IB program is a European-based program designed for children and teenagers. The IB aims to be more than just educational programs and certificates and strives to use education to create a better world.
The IB program’s mission is to “develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” The program works with multiple organizations like schools and governments to develop challenging international education programs for students around the world.
The overall goal of the IB program is to “encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.” It’s worth noting that this level of acceptance and openness to other perspectives is a trait that admissions committees look for in applicants.
There are four programs in the IB for students ages three through 19: the Primary Years Program (PYP), Middle Years Program (MYP), Diploma Program (DP), and Career-related Program (CP).
The DP and CP are designed for students between the ages of 16-19. The DP “aims to develop students who have excellent breadth and depth of knowledge – students who flourish physically, intellectually, emotionally and ethically." At the same time, the CP “is a framework of international education addressing the needs of students engaged in career-related education.”
Like the IB Program, the AP program contains high-level courses that you can take to demonstrate your passion for learning and the ability to tackle challenging academic workloads. The AP program is designed for high school students and offers them the opportunity to take college-level courses and exams while earning college credit or advanced placement in college.
If you earn college credits through AP classes, you may be eligible to skip some introductory courses when you enroll in a post-secondary institution. Although it’s called an AP “program,” you can choose how many and which courses you want to take.
While admissions committees highly regard both programs, there are benefits and things to consider.
There are numerous benefits and valuable outcomes you can expect from enrolling in an IB Program, whether it's the Diploma or the Career-Related programs.
1. You learn valuable skills through its challenging and diverse education.
The IB program offers students the opportunity to grow through the challenging coursework it provides. IB research suggests that students are “likely to perform well academically – often better than students on other curricula.”
Through either the DP or CP, students are “encouraged to think critically and solve complex problems and drive their own learning.” The IB program focuses on globalization, meaning that students can gain cultural awareness and enjoy a global IB alumni network.
2. You can become a well-rounded student through the IB’s curriculum.
The Diploma Program consists of three core elements to challenge you before you’re ready to graduate:
Theory of knowledge: This element requires you to deliver an oral presentation and a 1600-word essay. It revolves around the theme of knowledge and its nature, like how you claim to know what you know.
Extended essay: The extended essay is “an independent, self-directed piece of research, finishing with a 4,000-word paper.”
Creativity, activity, service (CAS): You need to take part in one project that involves a personal challenge, activities with significant outcomes, activities that require planning, reviewing progress, or reporting, and reflections on the outcomes and what you learned.
Along with the three core elements, students must complete courses within six subject groups: studies in language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics, and the arts.
3. Some courses in the IB program can be used for college credit.
You need to be enrolled in an IB program to take an IB exam, but you may be able to obtain college credits and skip some compulsory courses when enrolling in a post-secondary institution.
Matthew Nelson, director of advanced academics for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee, said that “If you are successful on the assessment, then it is invaluable in terms of how much money you save on college credit.” If you’re looking to save money on college classes or get a head-start on your learning, the IB program can be valuable.
4. The IB program is internationally recognized.
Because the IB is an international program (hence its name), its global recognition can help you boost your chances of acceptance into universities abroad. The IB “is believed to give students a genuinely international outlook, an understanding and appreciation of different cultures, and a sense of being a good global citizen.”
Because of the IB’s foreign language requirement, you may be a more competitive candidate to study abroad than your peer who didn’t enroll in the program. If you’re open to the idea of studying abroad in places like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Germany, the IB program can help you get there!
Like all great programs, there are some things you need to take into account before you jump into a new commitment head-first. Consider these things before enrolling in an IB program to make sure that you make the most well-informed decision for your needs.
1. The workload can be challenging and time-consuming.
The prestige attached to the IB program means it requires a fair amount of hard work and effort. When you’re thinking ahead to college applications, there are already many things to consider—the SAT or ACT you’ll need to take, the letters of recommendation you need to gather, and the essays you need to write.
The IB program is meant to be a challenging undertaking, but you should be aware of the kind of work required of you before you sign up. Make sure that you can stay motivated and committed to doing your best work, and ask yourself if the pace of the learning is something that you can handle. Remember that you also have the option to take select IB classes if you feel the whole program may be too rigorous for you.
If you decide you want to complete the IB program, make sure that you use organizational tools, have excellent time management skills, and have a support system to help you out if you get overwhelmed.
2. The IB program may not have the level of flexibility you need.
Although there are subject choices within the six required areas of study, you’re met with a more rigid curriculum than the AP program due to the compulsory requirements. The IB program may not be best for students interested in a specific area of study, like science of the arts. Because you can’t forgo any category but the arts, you may be able to take two courses in another area, but this simply might not be enough for some.
The AP program has numerous benefits, and more schools in the U.S. administer AP courses than the IB program. Here are some of the best things about the AP program for your consideration.
1. You can choose to enroll in the AP program or take select courses.
According to the College Board, “There's no magic number of AP courses that's right for all students. Every student is unique, and the amount of college-level coursework they’re ready to take on varies.” The amount of coursework you take on is entirely up to you, and you can decide what you can handle at your current workload.
Remember that more isn’t always better, whether that be extracurricular activities or high-level courses. Try not to stretch yourself too thin, and be confident that you can handle the extra work and responsibility of a set number of AP courses. That being said, you can always sign up for the AP diploma program if that better suits your goals.
2. You have more flexibility and choice than the IB program.
Unlike the IB Program, there’s no core curriculum that you must complete to take AP classes. If you’re looking for a less rigid curriculum structure, the AP program may be a better choice for you.
You also are not limited to taking only a set number of courses from an area of study like the IB program. There are currently 38 AP classes to choose from, and you can take as many courses as you want as long as they are offered to you. There are classes you can take in each area of study like arts, language, and sciences.
3. You have the opportunity to earn college credit.
Besides the opportunity for flexible, in-depth studies in the disciplines of your choice, the credits you earn in AP classes can be used to skip some mandatory classes in college, depending on your exam scores. This can save you time and money when you enroll in a post-secondary institution.
4. The AP program is more prevalent in the United States.
According to U.S. News, more than 20,000 high schools offer AP classes to students, while approximately 950 schools offer the IB program. Given these statistics, it’s more likely that your high school offers AP classes over the IB program. However, if your school offers both, it’s up to you which one you take.
1. Depending on how many courses you take, the workload can be challenging and time-consuming.
How much time and effort you need to put into your AP classes is subjective to your strengths and how many courses you decided to take. However, understand that these classes are meant to be difficult to better prepare you for the rigorous learning you’ll do in college.
2. AP exams can be expensive.
You need to take the exam associated with each AP course and perform well on them to be considered for college credit. The base fee for exams in the United States is approximately $100, while the cost of the AP Seminar and AP Research Exams is $140.
Colleges review applications holistically, but taking high-level courses is a great way to stand out from other applicants. The IB program and the DP, in particular, enjoy “a high level of respect and recognition among the world’s higher education institutions.”
Because of the IB’s structure and the requirement of community service and a research paper, the completion of this program demonstrates your commitment to personal growth and intellectual development.
Darren Bessett, honors program director at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado, said, “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.’” Colleges look for students who are willing to challenge themselves in all areas, and the IB Program demonstrates your commitment to academic excellence, even in study areas that don’t align with your natural strengths.
AP classes can set you apart from other prospective applicants in the admissions process by demonstrating your ability to perform well in rigorous coursework. According to the College Board, “In general, colleges want to see that you’re taking the most rigorous coursework available to you. By enrolling in AP courses, you demonstrate that you’re interested in challenging yourself and learning at a college level.”
Not only do AP classes demonstrate your academic excellence and your commitment to learning, but they show admissions committees that you’re serious about your education and have taken steps to ensure that you stand out as an applicant. Educators agree that college admissions officers tend to look favorably at students who take AP classes.
Ultimately, the choice to enroll in the IB program or AP classes is yours to make. Remember that both the IB and the AP encourage students to challenge themselves and that participating in either can make you stand out to admissions committees.
The impact of the IB and AP is clear, and college admissions officers see the value in both programs. According to the 2019 State of College Admission report compiled by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, “Grades in college prep courses such as AP and IB were listed as being of ‘considerable importance’ by 73.2% of respondents.”
If you’re conflicted on which path is right for you, think about how much time you can commit to your studies on top of your regular coursework and which program best aligns with your interests and passions.
Bessett’s advice about deciding between the IB and AP pathways is to ask, “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?” He states that your choice is dependent on your academic goals.
Overall, if you’re looking for a rigid curriculum that touches many subjects, the IB program may be for you. However, if you have a particular area of interest or you already have an idea of what specialization you may want to take in college, AP classes may work to your benefit. Remember that both programs are meant to challenge you, and performing well in either showcase academic excellence, perseverance, and a passion for learning.
1. When should I enroll in an IB Program?
DP and CP don’t begin until you reach your junior year of high school, but IB students can start taking prep courses as soon as they enter high school. Remember that the IB Program offers programs for ages three through 19.
2. When should I enroll in AP classes?
You can take AP classes at any point in high school, but “AP courses are rarely offered in ninth grade, and exam results show that, for the most part, ninth-grade students are not sufficiently prepared to participate in a college-level course.” Most AP students take classes in their junior and senior years of high school.
3. Can I take IB and AP classes?
Yes, you can if your school offers both programs. Bessett said that he advises most of his students to take a mixture of both IB and AB classes to blend them “together in a rich curriculum.”
4. What are the philosophical differences between the IB and AP?
According to Matthew Nelson, director of advanced academics for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee, AP classes tend to look at an issue from multiple perspectives. On the other hand, the IB Program takes a more global approach, looking at an issue over time and how it impacts parts of the world.
5. How many IB or AP courses should I take?
Unfortunately, there’s no straight answer to how many courses you should take. However, keep in mind that it’s better to perform very well in some high-level classes than to perform not-so-well in many.
You should, of course, try to challenge yourself and have a passion for your learning, but also try to be realistic and honest with yourself about what amount of extra work you can handle.
6. What do I do if the IB or AP is not offered at my school?
If your school doesn’t offer the IB or AP, don’t fret. College admissions officers wouldn’t penalize you in the admissions process for not taking these classes if they weren’t available to you in the first place. Many college admissions officers review applications holistically and take the applicant’s opportunities into account as well.
Instead of these courses, try to take honor classes at your school, join some extracurricular activities, and try to boost other areas of your application as best as you can.
Now that you know more details about the IB and AP Programs, you’re better informed to decide which pathway is right for you, your interests, and your academic goals. Consider that both options are valuable to admissions officers and prove that you’re dedicated to challenging yourself and preparing yourself for college’s heavy workload.
Remember that both the IB and the AP have different benefits and considerations, and keep them in your mind while you decide what’s right for you. Be confident knowing there’s no wrong choice here; any high-level courses you take can bolster your college application.