IB vs AP – what’s the better choice for a bright and focused young student looking to build an outstanding high school resume, complete with an impressive academic record? Whether you’re a parent wanting to make the right decision for their child, or a high school student wanting to select the right coursework for your academic goals, we’ve got you covered.
In this blog, our college advisors explain exactly what the IB and AP programs consist of, the key differences between them, how they influence your college admissions and future college career, and the alternatives to these programs. We’ll also go over the advantages of each of these programs and discuss the key factors that can help you determine which is the better choice for you.
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Every early advantage counts in today’s highly competitive academic environment, which is why parents encourage their children to select IB and AP coursework in high school to gain a competitive edge for college admissions. IB and AP are the two most popular advanced coursework programs at the high school level. These programs allow students to complete college-level coursework in a wide range of subjects while still in high school. This advanced coursework can count towards college course credits; alternatively, it can help them skip introductory coursework and sign up for more advanced courses in their freshman year of college. Some IB and AP courses even count towards professional program requirements such as medical school prerequisites.
Many parents decide which high school to send their kids to based on the advanced coursework they offer. Most US high schools offer either IB or AP coursework, though some schools may offer the option of both, or neither. Deciding between IB and AP can be tricky, as both are well-known educational programs with their own sets of benefits. Keep in mind that college admissions consulting can be the perfect avenue for choosing the courses that will make you stand out.
Read on to find out more about IB vs AP and how to choose between them.
What is IB?
The International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program is a 2-year program for students in grades 11 and 12, that culminates in the IB diploma. It originated in Geneva in 1968 but was formally launched in the US only in 1971. This international program has a global focus, with the aim of educating students to become successful global citizens.
To get an IB diploma, students must complete studies in six subject groups:
Students can take courses from the above subject groups at a standard level (SL) or high level (HL). At least 3 courses must be HL to meet the IB diploma requirements.
Along with this, they must complete studies in five core disciplinary approaches:
The IB course is both rigorous and thorough, with a special focus on building students’ reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. The curriculum is designed to be integrated and comprehensive, intended for students to complete all the requirements to work towards the IB diploma. However, a few schools do offer IB courses with the option to take individual subjects without completing the entire IB program.
The IB program does not have a very strong presence in the US or Canada. In the US, fewer than 1000 schools offer the IB diploma program. The number is even lower for Canada - only 189 schools offer the IB diploma program in Canada. Hence, it might be difficult to find a school that actually offers IB classes near you in these countries. The IB program is much more widespread internationally, especially in Europe. Even in the US, “international” schools, which cater to those who are not US nationals (such as children of staff at international organizations and foreign embassies) are more likely to offer IB courses. Such schools typically promote an international education which is why a lot of them favor the IB program.
What is AP?
The Advanced Placement (AP) program is a completely US-based program for high school students. Today, it is administered by the College Board that also oversees the SAT, but it was originally started in the 1950s to address the concerns that American high schools weren’t providing adequate education and skills to equip students for college level course work and the professional world. In fact, the goal back then was to provide more challenging coursework for freshmen students at elite colleges who were found to be simply repeating what they had learned in high school in their first two years of college.
Even today, AP courses are results- and “exam-oriented”. AP coursework is focused on building students’ core competencies in various subjects and getting them ready to tackle college level coursework. It is most often utilized by gifted students to take on more challenging studies and get ahead of their college coursework requirements.
The AP program doesn’t have a cohesive structure or comprehensive curriculum, but rather focuses on individual subject matter competency. The individual courses are created by a panel of experts with the aim to create more challenging coursework for high school students. One year of coursework culminates in rigorous exams which are scored on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest possible score.
Students can choose to take up any of the 38 available AP courses from the following 7 different subject areas:
Note that not all high schools will offer each and every AP course and students’ choice may therefore be restricted based on what is available at their school. However, with the AP program, interested students can always opt for the self-study or home tutoring option and then sit for the AP exam of their preferred subjects and get the AP credits.
Recently, there has been some controversy surrounding the AP program and the effectiveness of its curriculum. Its critics claim that the program caters too much to elite schools and colleges, and that it perpetuates education inequity while actually not being challenging or comprehensive enough in terms of the study material. In response to this, there have been some efforts to revise the curriculum and focus more on academic skills and critical thinking, rather than rote learning and memorization. The AP capstone component was introduced with the idea of making the overall curriculum more cohesive and providing an overarching structure to AP studies.
Despite these criticisms, the AP program continues to have a strong presence in North America, with over 22000 schools in the US and over 500 schools in Canada offering AP courses. The AP program also offers great flexibility in terms of when and how to complete the AP credits, which makes it even more accessible to the average high school student in the US.
IB vs AP: Key Differences
The following table shows some key differences between IB and AP:
This infographic covers the advantages of both IB and AP Courses:
IB vs AP: College Credits and Admissions
First of all, remember that colleges recognize and respect both IB and AP credits in a high school student’s resume. Both demonstrate a commitment to academic excellence and are a clear way to mark out gifted and ambitious students from the rest. Having said that, the presence of IB vs AP in a high school student’s academic record could influence admissions committees in slightly different ways.
How will IB help with college?
There are several advantages of having IB courses in your record:
College admissions: High-scoring results in high-level or HL IB courses will make any student’s college application stand out from the crowd. Moreover, the IB program is considered one of the most academically rigorous high school study programs in the world, especially as it involves both high-level coursework and extra projects such as completing community service and writing research papers, which is bound to impress colleges.
College credits: IB courses are recognized and rewarded with college-level credits by 1,662 universities in the US including state schools like UC colleges as well as many top universities. So whether you are looking to attend the easiest Ivy Leagues to get into or are preparing your CV for medical schools in California, IB credits can give you a competitive edge during the admissions. However, how IB courses translate to college credits varies from school to school. Some may provide a certain amount of college credits for the overall IB Diploma, while others provide subject specific credits for high-scoring results in individual courses. Some schools also have the policy of only providing college credits for HL subjects.
Often, top-tier or Ivy League schools have more strict credits recognition policies as opposed to state schools, who offer a very generous credits recognition policy for IB courses. Schools like the University of California and Oregon State University offer a “30 for 30” policy – students who get a 30 or above in their IB Diploma receive college credits of 30 quarter units or 20 semester units. This is a huge boon, as students can then graduate earlier or take up more advanced coursework sooner.
You should always check how your IB courses are considered towards college credits at the website of each college you’re applying to. You can also check the official IB website to find out more.
Looking for more on the easiest Ivy League to get into? Check out our video!
Course placement: Instead of credits, some colleges offer placement into more advanced courses. This is most likely with elite private schools and Ivy League colleges. For instance, students with a high-scoring result in HL Physics during their IB program are allowed to skip general physics or intro to physics, and go straight to advanced physics courses. At Harvard, students holding an IB diploma with excellent scores in HL courses are eligible to be placed in the Advanced Standing Program.
Extracurriculars: With the highly competitive admissions environment today, it’s not enough to just have an impressive academic record or strong college essays. College admissions boards are also looking for meaningful extracurriculars that demonstrate additional skills and qualities in applicants. IB coursework includes research papers, community service projects, independent studies, and other interesting extracurricular avenues to explore non-academic interests. This often helps students get ahead of not only their college level extracurricular admissions requirements but also their grad school requirements, such as extracurriculars for medical school.
How will AP help with college?
College admissions: AP courses are almost universally recognized in the US and Canada and are also increasingly being accepted internationally towards high school and college credits. While AP courses aren’t a mandatory requirement for college admissions, many of the best schools look for AP courses in applicants’ records to find the brightest students. It’s not enough to just sign up for an AP course – it’s also extremely important to get good grades, especially for college admissions, since the student’s GPA is a very important evaluating factor for college admissions committees.
College credits: Similar to IB, the credit recognition policy for AP courses varies from school to school. You can use the College Board’s official tool to check the AP credit policy for the schools you’re applying to. Generally speaking, state schools or mid-tier schools are more likely to offer 1-to-1 college level credits for AP courses. Most schools ask for a minimum score of 3 in any AP course for it to count towards a college credit. The more elite, competitive schools have a higher score cut-off of 4.
Course placement: Most of the top schools, such as Yale, prefer to give students with high scoring AP credits the choice of advance placement into higher level courses rather than college credits. They may also give you the option to skip certain foundational or 101 classes that are mandatory for other students.
This video covers more information about UC schools and rankings:
Alternatives to IB and AP
If you can’t find a school nearby that offers IB or AP coursework, there’re still a lot of ways for a student to gain a competitive edge for their academic future.
IB or AP: Which is Better?
Okay, so how can you actually decide which is the better choice for you? Ultimately, both programs can add great value to any high school student’s resume and make them better candidates for college admissions. Both IB and AP have their own advantages. You should consider which one works for you before making a decision.
Advantages of IB
- Comprehensive, challenging coursework: The IB diploma program offers a comprehensive, consolidated curriculum with challenging coursework that focuses on fostering critical thinking, reading, and writing skills in students. They encourage creativity and a global, holistic perspective. The goal is not just to get students good grades and into good universities, but to impart an excellent education that expands their thinking, stimulates their curiosity, and makes them ready for the next stage of their lives. The academic as well as extracurricular components of the IB curriculum imparts a set of skills and holistic knowledge to students that has an impact beyond immediate academic preparation. Needless to say, the scope and content of the IB curriculum also looks great on college applications. Unlike AP, the IB program offers students the chance to work on their extracurricular as well as academic college admissions requirements.
- Better prepares students for college: The IB program structure, curriculum requirements, and testing strategies mirror the college-level exams and requirements students will face in their future. The IB program inculcates many skills required for college-level work at an early stage. For instance, the 4000-word mandatory Extended Essay requirement helps to build crucial research and critical thinking skills, as well as familiarizing students with the essay writing process that is integral to college education. Additionally, the demanding, multi-dimensional IB curriculum teaches students to manage their time and balance their efforts between academic and extracurricular demands. This helps students feel less overwhelmed when they finally transition to a life in college. Moreover, if a student wants to eventually join grad school or a professional program, managing academic success with extracurricular commitments is a critical skill they must have.
- International focus: The international focus of the IB curriculum prepares students for future studies and/or professional success in a global arena. For students targeting international schools, the IB program could provide a competitive edge during admissions.
Advantages of AP
- Wide variety of subjects: Students can choose between 38 AP courses, giving them a large variety of options. This is particularly useful if students want to target specific courses for a target program or professional college.
- Flexibility of courses: The biggest advantage of the AP program is the flexibility it offers to students. Unlike IB, the AP program does not require students to sign up for an entire curriculum in order to gain specific college credits. This allows students to create their own schedule, avoid getting over-tired, and over-worked, and to target the courses that they actually need. For instance, a student hoping to get into a good pre-med program may not have the time to take on challenging humanities subjects and extracurriculars, and may just want to focus on getting ahead of Physics, Bio, and Chemistry admissions requirements or college credits. For such students, the AP program offers the flexibility to select and specialize in individual subjects of their choice, as opposed to signing up for an entire multi-subject program that may be too much to handle.
- Flexibility of structure: When it comes to AP courses, students also have the flexibility to self-study, or take classes at other schools. Unlike IB, there’s no mandatory coursework component and students can just register for and take the final exam without any classroom training, if they so wish. That gives more flexibility to students who do not have access to schools offering AP courses of their choice.
- Less expensive than IB: The cost of taking one AP exam is 94$ while the cost of taking one IB exam is 114$. However, this does not represent the full picture. Since IB consists of a curriculum leading up to a diploma with mandatory classwork, the overall cost of gaining IB credits is much higher than AP courses. The tuition for IB courses varies depending on the school in question, but they will most likely charge tuition of tens of thousands of dollars per year, similar to elite private schools. You will not be allowed to sit the final IB exam without having completed the required mandatory coursework. Now, AP courses aren’t ALWAYS cheap – many private schools do offer AP courses and the tuition for those schools is comparable to expensive IB programs. However, many public and low-cost schools also offer AP courses, and they usually only expect students to pay the cost of the exam and may even waive the exam fee if the student is in financial need. Even if students opt for self-study and do not join any AP classes, they only need to pay for the final exam.
- Popular and more widespread in the US and Canada: The AP program is US-based and is much, much more widely available among US high schools than IB. While the AP program is not as widespread in Canada as compared to the US, it’s still much more common than IB programs. In terms of basic convenience and geographical accessibility, AP becomes the obvious choice for most students wanting to boost their high school academic records.
Factors to Consider
Before you make this all-important decision of which high school program to select, consider the following factors:
What do you hope to gain from your high school education?
IB and AP are two different programs with different philosophies and visions. This impacts their curriculum and course content as well as the final exam format. AP courses are much more content-based, focusing on building subject matter expertise in one subject. On the other hand, the IB curriculum is much more comprehensive and all-encompassing, seeking to inculcate both academic and soft skills in students and exposing them to a variety of different experiences and learnings. The IB program is definitely more time-consuming and offers less flexibility in terms of subject choice. If all you want to do is gain college credits or complete admission prerequisites in specific subjects, then AP might be the right choice for you. But if you’re looking for a high quality, stimulating education that imparts skills you’ll need all through college and beyond, then IB might be the right option.
What’s your study style?
AP courses are challenging and rigorous, but they are essentially focused on imparting knowledge about a specific subject. They require rote memorization skills to pass the multiple-choice exam, and overall, the study style for AP courses is closer to the typical high school learning experience. On the other hand, IB courses are focused on building creativity, critical thinking, and long-form writing skills. While IB students are taught content-specific courses, this program of study can be challenging for someone who prefers a more traditional, subject-focused learning style. You should consider which style you prefer before signing up for either AP or IB courses.
What’s your budget?
There’s no denying that the overall cost of completing an IB diploma program is much higher than doing a few AP courses as per your individual requirements. While IB programs do provide a high-quality education, AP courses are specifically geared towards providing students with a simple, convenient way to get ahead of college coursework. You should consider the cost to value ratio of each program and decide accordingly what works for you.
What’s available around you?
There’s no point deciding between IB and AP without first considering if it’s logistically accessible from where you live. In the US, AP programs are much more widely available in high schools, but internationally, IB programs are more common.
Moreover, different high schools offer different AP courses and not every school offers the full range of AP subject options. Though you do have the option to sign up for any AP exam and complete the coursework via self-study, this style of studying doesn’t work for every student. Some may prefer to receive classroom instruction, and, in that case, you’ll need to find an AP school near you that offers the subjects you want to study.
Also, as a homeschooled or self-study student, you don’t necessarily have to attend AP classes throughout the school year, but you will have to register with a local school to take the final AP exam. You can use the official AP course ledger to find the school nearest you where you can sit AP exams.
It’s important to consider what is available around you and evaluate your own logistical restrictions and academic requirements before deciding between IB and AP.
1. What’s the difference between IB and AP?
IB and AP are both high school programs that provide challenging coursework for academically bright students. The IB program has a comprehensive curriculum consisting of both academic and extracurricular requirements culminating in a diploma. The AP program consists of several individual subjects and students can opt for the subjects they wish to gain advanced knowledge in. While the IB program seeks to foster creativity, critical thinking, and writing skills in students, the AP is more focused on subject-specific competency. AP courses are much more easily available in US high schools than IB courses, though IB courses are more popular internationally.
2. Which is the better choice between IB and AP for college admissions?
Both IB and AP programs can greatly increase a student’s chance to get into the college of their choice. There’s no one clear-cut “winner” in terms of which program is better for college admissions. However, both programs offer their own pros and cons, and you should carefully consider them before deciding between the two. IB courses generally have an expanded scope and students end up doing independent projects, presentations, research work, etc. Hence, the students end up learning crucial skills such as critical thinking and essay writing which could impress admissions committees. On the other hand, AP courses focus on individual subject matter expertise and in general, the AP program offers more flexibility in terms of how and where students can complete their courses. Hence, for many students, AP courses represent a convenient, cost and time efficient way to meet college admissions requirements.
3. How many AP courses can I take?
Students can choose out of 38 AP courses across 7 subject areas. While there’s technically no limit to the number of courses they can select, AP courses are highly rigorous so students should not take on more than they can manage. Most schools do not consider AP courses towards college credits or admissions requirements unless you can show a good exam score (of 3 or higher). So, it’s better to focus on quality over quantity and select the courses that can really boost your academic record without becoming too much to handle.
4. Can I take individual IB courses?
The IB program is a consolidated curriculum designed to help students complete comprehensive education in their last two years of high school before they receive their diploma. Most schools do not offer the option to take individual IB courses and prefer students to enroll in the program in its entirety.
5. What are the alternatives to IB and AP?
If IB or AP courses are not a feasible option for you, you can consider building up your academic record in high school by taking community college classes. Not only do these courses count towards college credit, they also give you a chance to get exposed to a college environment while still in high school. You can also consider completing online AP courses or taking up extracurricular summer projects to make your college application stand out.
6. Do IB and AP courses count towards college credits?
Many schools in the US, Canada, and even a few internationally, do accept AP and IB courses towards college credit requirements. The policy varies from school to school so you should definitely do your research to find out how your IB or AP courses will count towards college credits. Top schools and elite private schools usually offer placement into an advanced course rather than count them as college credits, allowing students to skip the freshmen level classes in specific subjects.
7. Is it worth it to take AP classes or complete an IB diploma?
Whether you opt for AP or IB, you can expect a rigorous course of studies followed by difficult exams. These courses are designed to challenge high school students, so they definitely aren’t easy. However, that is precisely why many students opt for AP or IB. Students who aren’t sufficiently challenged by regular high school coursework can find academic fulfillment and growth via these programs. At the same time, AP and IB courses count towards college credits and look great on college applications, which is an added incentive.
8. Is AP easier than IB?
AP and IB have very different program structures, curriculums, and aims. The overall IB curriculum is more comprehensive and hence more demanding than the individual AP coursework. That doesn’t necessarily mean than any given IB course is more difficult than an AP course in the same subject. It could depend on a lot of factors such as the individual schools and how they are teaching the subjects, the IB “level” of the subject, and so on. The high-level or HL IB courses at some high schools might be considered more demanding than AP courses. On the other hand, some colleges do not accept the standard level or SL IB courses for college credits.
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