Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate?

Parents often want to know how college admission officers view Advanced Placement (AP) versus International Baccalaureate (IB) courses on a high school transcript.

Here are descriptions of both programs and some ways to evaluate them.


First, what are they?

AP stands for Advanced Placement, a series of courses developed in the U.S. in 1956 by the College Board, the organization that developed and administers the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). The courses were designed to prepare students for the rigors of a college curriculum. You may take one or up to a dozen AP classes. The program is focused on teaching specific content and testing that knowledge on exams. 

IB stands for The International Baccalaureate, which is an international educational foundation in Switzerland, founded in 1968. This series of courses was developed to be an internationally recognized diploma. To earn the diploma, you take a certain number of courses in a range of subjects. You may take fewer IB courses without earning the diploma, but it was designed as a specific set of courses. IB places more emphasis on writing and developing critical thinking skills. To earn the IB diploma students must write a college-style research paper. 

The International Baccalaureate program is much less common than the Advanced Placement program in the U.S. About 800 high schools offer an IB program and over 14,000 high schools offer AP coursework.


How Do Colleges View Advanced Placement versus International Baccalaureate?

In competitive college admission, schools want to know that you have taken the “most challenging curriculum available”.

That means that they want you to have taken the highest level coursework offered at your school. They will NOT question why you didn’t enroll elsewhere. They will simply evaluate you in the context of YOUR school. But what if your school offers BOTH AP and IB?

If you’re interested in a highly competitive college, then you’ll need a full range of Advanced Placement courses (not just in subjects you enjoy, but in ALL available AP classes) OR you’ll need an International Baccalaureate diploma. At mentioned, you can take IB coursework without completing the diploma but admission officers often view this as not having pursued the “most demanding” coursework available. 

Do you want to enter college with the most credits possible? 

IB programs offer courses at two levels: Higher Level (HL) and Standard Level (SL) courses. To earn an IB diploma, you must take at least 3 HL courses. IB HL courses are generally considered “harder” than AP courses. Selective colleges often give credit ONLY for IB classes taken at the Higher Level. And in most cases you’ll only get credit for IB exam scores of 5 or higher (7 being the highest).

AP courses are offered at a single level, though in certain subjects there are different course options. You’ll typically receive college credit for AP exam scores of 4 or higher (5 being the highest).

You can learn the AP credit policy of most colleges in the AP college database. The IB program doesn’t have a database. Research the policies of any schools that interest you. Colleges offer different credit hours for AP versus IB. 


Financial Considerations

IB exams are more expensive. There is a $168 registration fee each year plus a $116 fee per exam for the IB program. AP exams are $93 per exam without any additional fees. Some schools have financial aid and fee-waiver programs, so your actual cost could be lower. Also remember that these fees are much less than the cost of taking an equivalent college course.

Also, you CAN take AP exams without being enrolled in a class, but you have to be enrolled in an IB class to take an IB exam. If you have proficiency in a language, or if you want to self-study for a subject, the AP program gives you more flexibility.


Other Considerations

When you’re looking at AP versus IB options, how does each of them impact your overall high school experience? Does either program inhibit your ability to be involved in activities such as music, art, yearbook, etc.? Can you continue to pursue the extracurricular activities of your choosing? Does either program limit your access to your circle of friends? 

Also, does your school have different teachers for AP and IB courses? What are their reputations? You can ask older students about their experience with teachers/classes or ask your guidance counselor about the exam pass rates for different teachers. 

The most important piece of advice I have is to be as successful as you can be in whichever program you select. There’s no point in taking 12 AP classes or enrolling in an IB diploma program if you earn a low GPA and don’t pass the exams. And don’t neglect the other portions of your application. Along with your transcript and GPA, your ACT/SAT score can have an enormous impact on your admission chances, particularly at competitive schools.


Additional Reading 

For a bit more on this topic, here’s a great article that happens to be written by one of my earliest mentors – Mr. William T. Conley, who was the Dean of Undergraduate Admission at Case Western Reserve University when I was a student employee in the office, at the very beginning of my journey of working in admission! Today he is the Vice President for Enrollment Management at Bucknell University. For College Admissions, Does an IB Diploma Make a Difference?


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