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International Baccalaureate, or “IB”: What You Need to Know

Are you seeking an academic challenge and looking for ways to prepare for the rigor of college-level work? If so, you may want to consider International Baccalaureate (IB). In this guide, we’ll talk about the defining features of this popular international program. Let’s get into it! 

Related: High school checklist: Freshman through senior year

What is International Baccalaureate? 

Founded in 1968, the International Baccalaureate (IB) is a nonprofit foundation with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The foundation offers four educational programs to students around the world aged 3 to 19. IB’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.” There are currently over 5,000 IB World Schools in 156 countries across the globe. 

Students can participate in IB at varying levels. Some students take just one or two IB classes at the high school level to add some rigor to their course load. Meanwhile, other students participate in the full high school Diploma Program. This option involves taking a full IB course load, writing a 4,000 word thesis paper, and completing a community service project. And while IB is arguably most popular at the high school level, there’s also programs offered for primary and middle school students. 

What’s so special about IB? 

International Baccalaureate is often compared to Advanced Placement (AP). While both programs offer challenging classes, there’s several unique aspects of IB you should know about. Here are the defining features of the program: 

Related: IB vs AP: What you need to know

Inquiry-based global approach

IB values an “inquiry-based approach” that challenges students to examine important questions from a variety of perspectives. For instance, students in history classes may examine key events through different political, social, and economic lenses. And as part of a global program, students expand their worldview by learning about different cultures and belief systems. Whatever the topic, students dig deep and explore new ways of thinking. Ultimately, IB’s inquiry-based approach helps students “understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.” 

Student-led learning 

If you sit in on an IB class for one day, you’ll notice that things work a little differently compared to normal classes. Perhaps the biggest difference is the amount of student discussion that takes place within IB classrooms. Rather than sitting through teacher-led lectures every single day, students take part in active discussion. Teachers facilitate these conversations and provide students the flexibility to learn from each other by debating and asking questions. IB courses also place an emphasis on both individual and group projects. Students commonly pick their own topics, complete projects, and present in front of their classmates. In the process, they develop important skills related to research, writing, teamwork, and communication. This student-led approach fosters the development of critical thinking and independence. 

Research and writing 

Another big component of IB is the amount of research and writing involved in coursework. Students participating in the full Diploma Program are required to write a 4,000 word extended essay. This project allows students to perform an in-depth exploration of a topic of their choosing. Topics range from the philosophic implications of The Truman Show to the relationship between culture and advertising. Students who complete the extended essay gain valuable preparation for college-level research and writing. Even students who don’t participate in the Diploma Program gain valuable reading, writing, and research skills through their coursework. 

Experiential learning

When it comes to IB, not all learning takes place within the walls of a classroom. High school students in the Diploma Program engage in hands-on learning through the CAS project. Standing for creativity, action, and service, the CAS project incorporates components of community service, creative thinking, and physical activity. Students have the flexibility to design their own projects, which can range from organizing a 5k race to performing music for senior citizens. The Middle Years Program also culminates in an extensive personal project that emphasizes community service and creativity. 

Also see: Honors vs AP Courses: What are the differences?

Programs for students of all ages

International Baccalaureate is unique in that it’s available to students aged 3 to 19. Below we’ll discuss the four levels of IB and how they cater to students of different grade levels. Students can enter IB at any age, meaning that participation in earlier programs is not necessary to pursue IB at the high school level. 

Primary Years Program (PYP)

The first component in the IB continuum of programs is for students aged 3 to 12. Students in this program have the advantage of being immersed in the IB education system from an early age. They take early ownership of their education by becoming “agents of their own learning”. 

Middle Years Program (MYP)

The Middle Years Program ranges from 2 to 5 years in length and is typically offered to students aged 11 to 16. Students take classes in eight different subject areas, ranging from math and science to language and literature. In every subject area, students apply their knowledge and skills in unfamiliar contexts. The MYP also involves a long-term personal project and a community-based project. Students who complete the MYP are well-equipped to take on the Diploma Program in high school. 

Diploma Program (DP)

This program is for high school students ages 16 to 19. Two of the three core elements of the DP are the extended essay and the CAS project, which we discussed previously. The other core element is a course called Theory of Knowledge, in which students reflect on the nature of knowledge itself. To earn the IB diploma, students must complete all three components and score highly enough on their senior year IB exams. 

Career-related Program (CP)

Recently created in 2012, the CP is for high school students pursuing a vocational or technical education. Students combine their academic studies with their professional interests, gaining the skills they need to follow their career pathways after graduation. CP students also complete a final project related to their intended professional field.  

Are IB classes worth it?

IB programs and individual classes are rigorous, which may be intimidating to some students. However, many students find the benefits to be worthwhile. IB fosters the development of critical thinking, leadership, and communication skills. Not to mention, many universities offer college credit to students who complete IB courses in high school. Having IB courses on your transcript may also help you stand out during the college admissions process. 

Keep in mind  that you may be able to take individual IB high school courses without committing to the full Diploma Program. Performing well in even one or two IB courses can help boost your weighted GPA and give you an edge when it comes time to apply for college. Some schools are 100% IB while others offer a mix of regular, AP, and IB classes. So, if IB at any level sounds interesting to you, be sure to check with your local schools and learn about your options.

Also see: Why should I earn college credit in high school?