Learn the key differences between AP and IB classes, and what looks best on college applications
As your child enters high school, the question inevitably arises: what can they do to challenge themselves academically? What courses at their school are best suited to help them excel and to nurture their interests?
Often, the answer is to enroll in college-level classes. Most American high schools offer one of the following sets of advanced courses: Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB). These programs offer college-level coursework to high school students in a variety of subjects, ranging from Spanish Literature or Chinese Language and Culture to Computer Science or Environmental Science. By taking AP and IB exams in high school, students can sometimes earn college credit or place out of introductory courses once they get to college.
Whether a high school offers an IB or AP program, or both, might also factor into your decision about which high school to choose for your child. Maybe your neighborhood public school offers AP classes, but a local magnet program offers only the IB Diploma Program. How should this information factor into your decision about how your child should spend their high school years? And what if you’re nowhere near such advanced options?
We’ll answer these questions and more in this post, explaining what AP and IB programs are, exactly, how to choose between them, and the pros and cons of each. Finally, we’ll talk about how college admissions officers appraise the two.
Part 1: What is the IB program?
Background, History, and Philosophy
The IB program launched in the United States in 1971, but began in Geneva in 1968. It’s an international program, with a focus on global education, meant to create students who can function in a globalized society.
When educators refer to “IB programs” at American high schools, they’re typically talking about the IB Diploma Program, which is the IB curriculum designed for students between the ages of 16-19—that is, grades 11-12.
Students working toward an IB diploma must study across six subject groups—language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics, and the arts—and a “core” set of disciplinary approaches—theory of knowledge (TOK), creativity, activity, service (CAS) and the extended essay. Your child can take IB courses at “standard level” (SL) or “high level” (HL). To earn the IB diploma, at least three HL courses must be taken.
It’s possible to take a few IB courses individually, but IB was developed with the intent of being a comprehensive program.
How widespread is the IB?
The IB program is still relatively small in the US. According to the official IB website, the IB Diploma Program is offered at 945 schools across the country. However, international schools both in the U.S. and abroad tend to offer IB courses and diploma programs.
How do colleges view the IB? Can my child get college credit for a top IB score?
Getting an IB diploma is no mean feat, and colleges respect that. The Diploma requires students to complete extra projects regular coursework, like a 4,000 word research paper and a community service project. Completing the IB diploma demonstrates to colleges that your child is dedicated to their communities, and that they’re not afraid to take on extra intellectual projects (i.e. the essay) outside the classroom.
1,662 universities in the US recognize the IB. Some provide course credit for the IB diploma; others offer credit for individual exams students take within the diploma program. Some schools offer credit for high scores on HL, but not SL, exams; others offer credit for high scores on both HL and SL.
Some schools—generally elite private institutions—offer placement rather than course credit, meaning with a great HL score, your child will be able to enroll in advanced physics, rather than general physics, as a freshman, but won’t be able to count that HL score as a class toward graduation credit.
State schools often offer generous course credit—meaning your child can use a great score to count as a college class—for IB exams. The University of California system has a “30 for 30” policy: if a student earns a score of 30 or above on the IB diploma, they’re awarded 20 semester units (the equivalent of 30 quarter units) towards their UC degree (other schools like CUNY and Oregon State University also have 30 for 30 policies).
By contrast, at top-tier private colleges, the requirements for credit can be stricter. At Columbia, students can receive up to a year of credit for certain HL exams on which they’ve earned a score of 6 or 7. Similarly, at UPenn, students can earn some credit with scores of 6 or 7 on HL exams.
Some universities like Harvard and Yale don’t offer one-to-one credit at all. Instead, high scores on HL IB exams place you into higher-level courses or, at Harvard, the Advanced Standing Program.
The takeaway: state schools and private colleges alike provide some acknowledgement for high-scoring IB students, whether it’s through credit or acceleration. The IB website also provides a comprehensive list of colleges that give credit for IB exams.
Part 2: What are AP classes?
Background, History, and Philosophy
The Advanced Placement program is an entirely U.S.-based program started in the 1950s, in response to Cold War concerns that American high schools and colleges weren’t adequately preparing students for the professional world.
It also began as a response to the concern that when graduates of elite private high schools enrolled in Ivy League colleges, their first few years of education were redundant. (The history of AP courses and exams is a winding one, and if you’re curious about it, there’s a ton of background info in Eric Rothschild’s article, “Four Decades of the Advanced Placement Program.”)
At first the intention of the program was to keep the freshmen at elite colleges engaged through their first two years by accelerating them into more suitable coursework—nowadays, the core of AP is still about letting gifted students take more challenging courses.
The AP program, administered by a non-profit organization, the College Board—the same one that oversees the SATs and PSATs—has two main missions. First, it gives students more challenging, college-level coursework. And second, it can help eager students earn college credit or skip the intro classes to jump straight into deeper waters once they matriculate.
Unlike the IB Diploma program, APs weren’t created with the notion of delivering a cohesive curriculum. Instead, students can choose from as many as 38 available courses in seven subject areas—AP Capstone, Arts, English, History and Social Sciences, Math and Computer Science, Sciences, World Languages and Cultures.
However, which courses your child can take generally depends on what their high school offers, though it’s possible to self-study for an AP exam if the course is not offered.
How widespread is the AP?
22,169 schools offered AP classes in 2017, according to the College Board. You’re likelier to find AP courses available nearby than IB programs.
If your school doesn’t offer APs, you can take some courses online. Programs like the University of California’s SCOUT or the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth offer online AP classes. Your child can also study independently for AP exams. This is a good option if your child is motivated, has access to quality materials, and can balance independent study with their other classes.
How do colleges view the AP?
Nearly all U.S. and Canadian colleges accept AP scores for placement or credit, as do many international universities. The College Board provides a tool to see whether their scores are accepted.
As with IB exams, different colleges have different policies for awarding credit or placement based on AP exam score. Your child is more likely to earn one-to-one credit at public institutions or midtier private colleges, and to earn placement or acceleration at a highly selective college.
At the University of Maryland, for example, AP scores of 3 to 5 can be used to earn credit in a variety of subjects. At Haverford College, AP exams with scores of 4 or 5 can earn students up to four course credits (half a credit for a 4; full credit for a 5). At Dartmouth, AP exams can exempt students from certain classes or place them in a higher level course, but won’t count towards graduation.
So, there are two significant ways your child can benefit from AP courses: as a way for your child to demonstrate drive to top-tier schools, or as a way for them to earn course credit, graduate early, and avoid debt at a mid-tier or public school.
Part 3: IB vs AP pros and cons
Now that you know the key facts about each program, here are some pros and cons of each.
AP courses are more widespread than IB courses.
It’s less expensive to take an AP exam than an IB exam.
Your child can take AP exams without being enrolled in an AP class, whereas to take an IB exam they must be enrolled in an IB course.
AP doesn’t have a holistic program as IB does. This allows your child to focus on advanced classes in subject in which he or she excels.
AP might be the right choice if your child is over-scheduled: unlike the IB Diploma Program, which includes extracurricular commitments, AP is solely curricular.
The IB curriculum has a heavy focus on critical thinking across disciplines, as well as on writing. These skills are very helpful for college-bound students, and may impress admissions officers. IB exams emphasize essay-style answers rather than multiple-choice bubbles; the 4,000 word research essay required to complete the diploma also exposes students to extended writing.
The IB program mimics the liberal arts philosophy that many students will encounter on college campuses, thanks to its combination of subject matter and disciplinary structure.
The IB Diploma Program can foster community among bright and motivated students: often students end up taking many of the same courses.
Global mindset. With its emphasis on global education, the program may be ideal for a student who’s interested in eventually living or working abroad. An IB diploma might make it easier for your child to apply to Oxford, for instance, since students with IB qualifications are their second largest applicant group after A-level students.
Maturity: IB’s requirement that students complete a research paper and community service project may help a student mature and learn time-management.
IB has commissioned studies on how IB students fare in comparison to the average high school student. Here are some interesting highlights from the studies:
“Former DP students in the United States (US) are significantly more likely to attend a ‘selective’ or ‘highly selective’ institution compared to the average US college-goer.”
“Feedback collected from a wide range of IB graduates suggests that IB students have an easier time adjusting to university studies.”
“In the US, a comparison of four DP standard level (SL) courses (biology, mathematics, language A and world history) and similar Advanced Placement (AP) courses assigned the DP SL courses equal or higher grades than the AP courses.”
Part 4: What if your child’s school doesn’t offer AP or IB courses?
There are still opportunities for advanced study, even if your child’s school doesn’t offer AP or IB courses. Your child can enroll in an online AP course through programs like UC Scout, Johns Hopkins CTY, or The Florida Virtual School.
Another great option is enrolling your child in local community college classes. Talking to a counselor at your child’s school can help determine which courses are a good fit. Community college courses let students experience what college is like, and may help them earn college credit without paying for pricey AP exams.
Part 5: Takeaways
Takeaway #1: AP is a less expensive, more convenient, and more widespread option.
You’ll find AP courses in most U.S. high schools. IB courses are rarer. Because it’s not part of a cohesive diploma program, AP is a more flexible, do-it-yourself option. The tests are cheaper, your child can take some tests without being enrolled in a formal course, and they can focus on subjects they care about.
Takeaway #2: IB might be a more realistic preparation for liberal arts college, and ensures a well-rounded education.
IB, with its holistic diploma program, community service component, research essay, and emphasis on critical thinking might more closely mimic college courses. It might be the better option for a student who’s serious about advancing in many subjects, not just those they’re best at.
Takeaway #3: Colleges view AP and IB similarly.
Selective colleges care that your child challenges themselves academically in high school: the particular coursework they take is less important.
According to the Yale admissions website, students are only expected to take advantage of AP or IB courses if the high school provides them. Princeton’s admissions website offers similar advice: “Whenever you can, challenge yourself with the most rigorous courses possible, such as honors, Advanced Placement (AP) and dual-enrollment courses. We will evaluate the International Baccalaureate (IB), A-levels or another diploma in the context of the program’s curriculum.” Top tier schools often offer acceleration credit for students who receive high scores on either type of exam.
Your child should make their selection based on what feels like the best fit for them. Ultimately, what matters to colleges most is whether your child took advantage of the advanced options offered by their school.