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IB vs AP: What you need to know
Many students aiming for high-ranking universities while in high school work hard to set themselves apart. Preparation includes taking difficult courses, especially those considered IB (International Baccalaureate) or AP (Advanced Placement). With so many intricacies, though, knowing the differences between the two programs is sometimes a little difficult. To help you better understand the differences between the IB and AP programs, we’ve completed an all-inclusive guide on the both of them, so, keep on reading!
Advanced Placement (AP)
If you attend a high school within the U.S., you’ve probably heard the term “AP” or “Advanced Placement” at some point, but what does it actually refer to?
AP (Advanced Placement) classes are a type of class most often offered in high school. These classes more closely resemble college courses and are more challenging than their equivalent honors or regular counterparts. At the end of each school year, students enrolled in AP classes (and those who aren’t) are able to take AP exams. Performing well on such exams can earn high school students college credit, allowing them to skip some college intro courses. Skipping such classes allows diligent students to jump into advanced courses more quickly in college. That jump opens up more available credits to take the courses they truly want to take.
If you want more information on AP courses or are curious about what makes them differ from honors courses, we recommend checking out Honors vs. AP Courses: What Are the Differences?.
International Baccalaureate (IB)
Unlike the AP Program, which is based solely in the U.S. (and whose exams are typically only offered to students attending American schools or American International Schools), the IB program is international. In fact, as of August 2021, 159 countries across the globe offer IB programs.
Besides where the programs are offered, though, IB also has a greater focus on global education than AP programs, hoping to create “students who can function in a globalized society.” And, unlike AP courses which are offered in a majority of American high schools, students who wish to receive an IB diploma must attend an IB-approved school (aka an “IB World School”).
However, in terms of similarity, students taking IB courses (and exams) can earn college credit, just like their AP-taking counterparts. While the way students can earn such credit differs between programs, the outcome is the same – but we’ll get more into that later.
For now, though, what are the key differences between IB and AP courses? Let’s see.
Key Differences: IB vs. AP
AP and IB courses differ from start to finish, having different eligibility requirements, curriculums, and exams. So, category by category, here are the differences between IB and AP classes:
The relative popularity of the IB and AP programs ultimately depends on where you’re looking. If you reside in the U.S., AP classes and exams are definitely more popular, being offered at a wide majority of American high schools, while IB programs are harder to find. In fact, according to the College Board, nearly 40% of the graduating class of 2018 took an AP exam at some point in their high school career.
So, why isn’t IB more widespread in the U.S.? Well, in order to host an IB program, schools need to offer enough IB classes, which is often more costly than just offering a few AP courses.
If you live outside of the U.S., though, you’re probably more accustomed to IB courses, with the IB program being more popular worldwide. This is not surprising, considering that AP courses are offered primarily to American students (However, non-American students can take AP courses and exams! To find out more about how to take AP classes and exams as an international student, check out AP Around the World).
While HL (“High Level”) IB courses are generally considered to be more difficult than equivalent or similar AP classes, SL (“Standard Level”) IB courses are typically seen as similar or easier than their AP counterparts.
However, since each class varies greatly depending on the school, subject, and teacher, we highly recommend asking students who have already taken the course (at your school). Their feedback can help determine whether it will be difficult or not. As you likely already know, some teachers may assign loads of work, while others assign very little at all. So, ask away!
What really makes the curricula of AP and IB courses differ? Well, to start, the curriculum of IB courses tends to have more requirements than that of AP courses, both for teachers and students. While IB teachers have certain assignments that they must grade as part of an internal assessment, AP teachers have more leeway. This allows them to teach the content in any way they like so long as they are preparing their students for their exam.
What makes the IB and AP curriculum different for students, though? Let’s see.
In order to shape “global” students, the IB Diploma program requires students to study across six different subject groups. These include language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics, and the arts). Study involves a “set of disciplinary approaches” (theory of knowledge, creativity, activity, service (CAS), and the extended essay). While students can take courses at either the “standard level” (SL) or “high level” (HL), the IB Diploma Program (the one used in American high schools) requires students to take at least three HL courses.
While it is possible to take a few IB courses on their own, the program was created with the intent of being comprehensive. Thus, students are generally expected to take a wide range of classes, to get them to truly learn about a wide variety of subjects, cultures, and fields of study.
Each AP course, on the other hand, is signed up for and taken separately. Therefore, enrolling in one does not require you to enroll in any others unless you want to. So, if there’s a particular course that seems interesting, or is relevant to your potential college major, consider taking it’s AP version. During high school, students can take as many AP courses and exams as they wish (so long as they’re available).
What types of AP courses are available? Well, all of the 38 available AP courses fall into one of the main subject areas: AP Capstone, Arts, English, History and Social Sciences, Math and Computer Science, Sciences, and World Languages and Cultures. For a full list of available AP courses, we recommend checking out College Board’s very own AP Courses and Exams list!
It’s time to talk about grades! Given that both AP and IB courses are considered more rigorous than their regular or honors counterparts, they are typically weighted more heavily in students’ GPA’s. Both IB and AP courses generally will give students an extra grade point, meaning that an “A” in an AP or IB course would be a 5.0 rather than a 4.0.
Unfortunately, both IB and AP exams are difficult, and require students to complete lots of studying and practice in order to excel on them. But what exactly makes them different?
IB students are expected to take exams for each of their six core courses, and these tests are usually offered in May (or November, for those in the southern hemisphere). They include both an external and internal assessment portion. The external assessment contains 2-3 “papers”, which consist of a combination of multiple-choice, short-answer, extended-response, and data-analysis questions. This portion of the exam is typically completed in either one day, or over the course of a few days, and is graded by an independent examiner.
The internal assessment, on the other hand, includes any assignment that was graded by your IB teacher(s). These can include presentations, lab reports, or any other type of written work.
To find out the IB exam dates for the upcoming school year, check out this May 2022 examination schedule. And, to find out more about the IB exams in general, check out Assessment and Exams from the IB Program itself!
AP exams are taken at a similar time of year to IB exams, taking place on specific dates in May and June. A new schedule is released each year (here are the exam dates for 2022). Exams are completed in one sitting and can consist of multiple-choice, essay, or short answer questions, depending on the exam. The World Language & Culture exams also include speaking and listening comprehension portions.
All AP students across the country take their exams on the official test dates (at the same time), unless they cannot make it for some reason. Then, these students will be expected to sign up for a makeup AP exam.
Exams are taken with paper and pencil, except for the AP Chinese Language and Culture or AP Japanese Language and Culture exams. All of those exams are taken on computers at your test site. You should be able to take your exams at your high school. If not, you can sign up to take it at another school or testing site.
The eligibility requirements also slightly differ for the AP and IB exams. While students must be enrolled in IB courses in order to take the exams for those classes, this is not the case for AP. Any student, whether in AP classes or not, can sign up for any AP exam as they can find a nearby testing site that offers it. For more information on how to take particular AP exams if they are not offered at your school, keep on reading (we’ll go into that later!).
IB exams tend to be more costly than AP exams, but both can be quite expensive. While IB exams cost $119 (USD) each, AP exams cost $96 USD each. However, low-income students can secure a $34 fee reduction on each AP exam if their household income meets certain eligibility criteria. To find out if you’re eligible for AP exam fee reductions, check out AP Exam Fee Reductions.
Although these prices seem pretty hefty for a single exam, taking and passing each exam would likely be far cheaper than the college tuition to take the same classes!
And, on that note, how can taking IB and AP exams earn you college credit?
Earning college credit early can be immensely helpful, whether you’re planning on graduating college early or not. So, how exactly can IB and AP exams help you do that?
Working similarly to the AP system, IB also gives students college credit in exchange for receiving certain exam scores. However, not all universities within the U.S. accept IB diplomas or exam scores for college credit. Some only accept one or the other, and many will only offer college credit for HL (High Level), but not SL (Standard Level) exams.
If you’re not sure whether your prospective college offers credit in exchange for IB exam scores, the International Baccalaureate website goes over how many different colleges approach IB exams and credit. If you cannot find your potential school on this page, we highly recommend checking out their website. You can also contact an academic advisor at your prospective university and get their input on whether the university accepts IB exams.
Perhaps the most common way to gather college credits in high school is by taking AP, or Advanced Placement classes. If you take an AP course, you’ll have a chance to take an AP Exam near the end of the school. If you pass these exams with a score of either 3, 4, or 5 (on a scale from 1-5), you may earn college credit. However, it is important to note that while some universities will accept a score of 3 for credit, others will only accept 4s. Some will only accept 5s. So, it’s in your best interest to study for these exams and do your best!
P.S.: Whether you’re looking to graduate high school or college early, check out these guides:
- How to Graduate High School Early
- Complete Guide on How to Graduate College Early
- Why Should I Earn College Credit in High School?
IB vs. AP: Pros and Cons
Now that we’ve gone over all the basic differences between the AP and IB programs, it’s time to review their pros and cons. So, without further ado, here they are:
|More widespread (available at more schools) in the U.S.||Not necessarily a holistic curriculum; focus is mainly on teaching relevant content|
|AP exams are less expensive than IB exams||Not as useful outside the U.S.; primarily used for students attending universities in the U.S. or Canada|
|Don’t need to be enrolled in an AP course to take an exam|
|Can take as few or as many AP courses as you want|
|Does not require extracurricular commitments|
|The focus on critical thinking and writing will help prepare students for college||Have to be enrolled in an IB class to take an exam|
|Encourages a global mindset; may work better for students who are thinking of working, living, or studying abroad||More difficult to find in high schools in the U.S. that offer IB programs|
|The long-term projects and assignments will help students develop their time-management skills||Less likely to be accepted for college credit than AP exams in the U.S.|
|Studies show that IB Diploma students have an easier time “adjusting to university studies” than the average U.S. college student||High Level IB courses are often considered more rigorous and time-consuming than AP courses|
|57 courses available (compared to 38 for the AP program)|
How do colleges view AP and IB?
Generally, taking advanced courses in high school (whether AP, IB, or honors) looks good on one’s transcript. All of these courses will be impressive to colleges, as long as you perform well. But is there one type of class that is considered “more impressive” than another? Well, not really.
As long as you are working to challenge yourself throughout high school by taking whichever more advanced courses are available to you, selective colleges will take note of this. Colleges will not penalize you if such courses are unavailable at your school. So, do not worry if there is a lack of AP or IB courses available to you. It is important to just do the best you can given your circumstances.
Also, keep in mind that if you’re not looking to apply to particularly selective schools, taking many advanced courses is not always necessary. But, for those of you who are looking to enroll in more advanced classes, what should you do if they’re not available at your school? Let’s find out.
What if your school doesn’t offer AP or IB courses?
For those of you who don’t have AP courses available at your school, or are homeschooled, you can still take AP exams! While you did not have to take an AP course itself to take its exam, it is highly recommended that you take an equivalent or self-study for the exam before taking it.
To sign up for an exam, you should then check the AP Course Ledger. Here, you will be able to enter your location, desired exam, and test year in order to find local schools which offer the exam you want to take. Once you find a school, we recommend contacting them and confirming that they will allow you to test there that year.
For more detailed information on taking AP exams if they’re not offered at your school, or you’re homeschooled, see:
- I’m homeschooled. How can I take an AP Exam?
- The AP Exam I want to take isn’t offered at my school. What should I do?
Unfortunately, as the IB program necessitates that one be enrolled in an IB class to take an IB exam, those who do not have IB courses available at their school will be unable to take such exams. However, keep in mind that taking IB classes is not necessary for getting into selective colleges or even studying abroad.
Taking whichever advanced classes are offered at your school is impressive, whether they are AP or honors. Still, if you happen to be dead set on taking IB courses in high school, we recommend searching for local IB World Schools. To do so, use this helpful “Find an IB World School” tool from the IB website itself.
Which should you choose?
So, with all that in mind, should you choose to take IB or AP courses in high school? Well, it depends…
If you’re looking for a more flexible program in which you can choose specific classes and don’t have as many requirements, you may want to consider enrolling in AP classes. On the other hand, if you’re planning on studying or living abroad after high school (or later in life), or want a more holistic education, the IB program may suit you better. Alternatively, if both sound up your alley (and are offered at your school), feel free to take a mix of both!
Also, if you have an idea of what you want to study in college, it may be helpful to take courses related to that (whether AP, IB, honors, or regular). For example, if you want to major in forensics and there’s an Honors Forensics at your school but no AP equivalent, it makes more sense to take the forensics course rather than a random AP or IB class. Basically, we wouldn’t recommend taking advanced classes just for the sake of taking them. Always try to take classes that you find interesting, and that are related to your intended major.
And with that, we’re done. We wish you good luck in high school, college, and beyond! For a step-by-step guide to preparing yourself for success in the college admissions process, check out our high school checklist. We’ll guide you all the way from freshman to senior year.