IB Vs. AP: Which Is Better For College Admissions?

girl using laptop reading about IB vs. AP classes
April 29, 2024
8 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

Are you deciding to take challenging classes but unsure between IB vs AP? We’ll cover everything you need to know about the two.

When you start applying to college, 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.

What Is the IB Program? 

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 worldwide. 

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 16 and 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.”

Students will also have the opportunity to earn advanced credit through the program. If you’re curious about what IB credit is, it essentially means that the IB classes you take in high school may count toward completing your undergraduate degree. 

What Are AP Classes? 

The Advanced Placement (AP) program offers high-level courses that showcase your passion for learning and ability to handle challenging academic workloads, as AP courses are typically more difficult.. 

Designed for high school students, AP allows you to take college-level courses and exams, potentially earning college credit or advanced placement. AP exam scores are typically received based on the state you reside in.

Key Differences Between IB and AP

Here is a table outlining the main differences between IB vs. AP classes. 

Classes are available to students aged 16-19. Available to any student in high school.
Takes two years to complete. Courses can be taken individually and completed in a year.
Students must register for the exam. Students do not have to be enrolled in the class to take the exam.
Only available in these subject areas: mathematics, sciences, arts, language and literature, language acquisition, and individuals and societies. Students can take courses in a wide variety of college-level subjects.

Below, we’ll cover a thorough comparison of both the IB and AP programs.  

Who Can Take the Class

Both IB and AP classes are typically available to high school students. IB classes are for students aged 16-19, while AP classes are open to high school students who meet the prerequsites set by their school

The availability of these programs is dependent on the school. Consult with your school's guidance counselor for specific information.

Length of Classes 

The IB program typically spans two years (11th and 12th grades) and often includes the option to pursue the full IB Diploma. AP courses can be taken individually throughout high school, allowing students to choose subjects of interest without committing to a specific program.


The IB and AP programs differ in their assessment approaches. In the IB program, students must be registered, and their final exam accounts for a significant portion (around 70-80%) of their course grade. 

In contrast, students can take AP exams without enrolling in AP classes. However, many schools encourage students to take AP exams to better prepare for and improve their chances of achieving high scores in AP assessments.

Subjects Offered 

The IB program takes a holistic approach, covering six areas of study: mathematics, sciences, arts, language and literature, language acquisition, and individuals and societies. IB students handle a demanding workload, requiring effective time management. 

In contrast, AP classes provide a range of college-level subjects, such as AP Chemistry, AP Statistics, or AP English Literature. 

Students typically take one to three AP classes per year, focusing on subjects that can earn college credits or enhance college applications by showcasing proficiency in rigorous high school subjects

IB vs. AP: Benefits and Considerations 

While admissions committees highly regard both programs, there are benefits and things to consider. 

IB Program Benefits

You can expect numerous benefits and valuable outcomes from enrolling in an IB Program, whether the Diploma or a Career-Related program. 

1. 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, "If you are successful on the assessment, then it is invaluable in terms of how much money you save on college credit.” 

The IB program can be valuable if you want to save money on college classes or get a head-start on your learning. 

2. The IB Program Is Internationally Recognized 

The international nature of the IB program enhances its global recognition, boosting your chances of acceptance into universities abroad. It fosters an international outlook, cross-cultural understanding, and global citizenship. 

The IB's foreign language requirement can make you a competitive candidate for studying abroad, particularly in countries like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Germany. The IB program is valuable for those aspiring to study in international settings.

IB Program Considerations 

Like all great programs, you need to consider some things 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 IB program requires effort, dedication, and consideration of other college application requirements. Understanding its challenges and assessing personal motivation and workload management abilities are crucial. 

Choosing specific IB classes instead of the full program is an option if it feels overwhelming. Effective organization, time management, and a support system are essential for successfully navigating the IB program.

2. The IB Program May Not Have the Level of Flexibility You Need 

The IB program has a more rigid curriculum than the AP program due to compulsory requirements in six areas of study. This structure may not be ideal for students focused on a specific area, such as science or the arts. Although subject choices are flexible, the mandatory categories may not provide enough depth for some students.

AP Program Benefits 

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 with your current workload. 

Remember that more isn’t always better, whether extracurricular activities or high-level courses. Try not to stretch yourself too thin, and be confident you can handle the extra work and responsibility of a set number of AP courses. That said, you can always sign up for the AP diploma program if that better suits your goals.

2. 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. 

AP Program Considerations

Here are some things you should consider before signing up for AP classes. 

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 decide to take. However, understand that AP 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 AP Seminar and AP Research Exams cost $146. 

How Colleges View the IB Program 

Colleges review applications holistically, but taking high-level IB courses in high school 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, completing 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.’” 

How Colleges View AP Classes

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 also 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.

IB vs. AP Classes: Which Should You Take? 

The answer to whether you should take IB or AP classes depends on your available study time, interests, and passions. The IB program provides a comprehensive curriculum across multiple subjects, while AP classes allow specialization. 

Both programs aim to challenge students and demonstrate academic excellence, perseverance, and a passion for learning. The decision to enroll in the IB program or AP classes is yours to make, as both programs offer opportunities for academic growth and can impress admissions committees. 

College admissions officers recognize the value of both programs, with grades in college prep courses like AP and IB considered important by 73.2% of respondents in a State of College Admission report. 

FAQs: IB Program vs AP Classes

Do you still have questions about IB vs AP classes? Check out these frequently asked questions.

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. How Many IB or AP Courses Should I Take? 

Unfortunately, there’s no answer to how many courses you should take. However, remember that performing very well in some high-level classes is better than performing not-so-well in many. 

You should try to challenge yourself and have a passion for your learning, but also try to be realistic and honest about what amount of extra work you can handle. If you want to get into a good school, aim for a 3.7 GPA or above in IB or AP courses!

4. What Do I Do If the IB or AP Is Not Offered at My School? 

If IB or AP classes are not available at your school, there is no need to worry. College admissions officers consider an applicant's opportunities and review applications holistically. 

You can still demonstrate academic achievements by taking honors classes, participating in extracurricular activities, and focusing on strengthening other areas of your application.

5. Is IB Worth It?

The worth of the IB program varies based on individual preferences and goals. It can be valuable for those seeking a challenging and comprehensive education by emphasizing critical thinking and global perspectives. The program promotes personal development and a broader understanding of the world. 

However, it's crucial to consider the demanding workload and potential stress involved. Evaluating the pros and cons will help determine if the IB program is worth it for each individual.

6. Is IB Better Than AP?

The IB and AP programs offer challenging coursework but have different focuses and structures. The IB program emphasizes a holistic approach to education with core components, while AP allows students to choose specific subjects for mastery and potential college credits.

The better option depends on individual learning styles, academic interests, university goals, and program availability.

7. Is IB Harder Than AP?

Comparing the difficulty of the IB program to AP is subjective and depends on individual experiences. IB offers a comprehensive curriculum with main components, while AP focuses on specific subjects with college-level content. 

Difficulty varies based on students' strengths, study habits, and course selection. Both programs can be challenging, and personal learning preferences should guide the choice.

8. Do Colleges Prefer AP or IB?

Colleges do not have specific preferences between AP or IB classes. The AP program is a suitable choice if your primary goal is earning college credits or fulfilling admission prerequisites in specific subjects. 

However, if you seek a comprehensive and enriching education that equips you with valuable skills for college and beyond, the IB program might be the preferable option.

9. Does IB Give College Credit?

IB courses can earn college-level credits at many US universities, but credit policies vary by institution. Each college or university sets its requirements and criteria for granting credit based on IB exam scores

It is important to research the credit policies of the colleges or universities you are interested in to determine if your IB coursework can earn you college credit.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have learned more about the IB and AP programs, you can make an informed decision based on your interests and academic goals. Consider the unique benefits and considerations of each program. 

Be confident, knowing there is no wrong choice, as any high-level courses you take can strengthen your college application.

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