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

    By Zach Skillings

    Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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    and Cece Gilmore

    Cece Gilmore is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cece earned her undergraduate degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from Arizona State University. While at ASU, she was the education editor as well as a published staff reporter at Downtown Devil. Cece was also the co-host of her own radio show on Blaze Radio ASU.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: October 26th, 2023
    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 8,000 IB World Schools in 159 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 can choose to participate in the full high school Diploma Program. This option involves taking a full IB course load, writing a 4,000 word thesis paper known as the extended essay, 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?

    Student author experience

    Experiences of an IB Diploma Program graduate
    Cece Gilmore

    High school IB grad

    Arizona State University grad

    “The workload of the IB Diploma I participated in was quite challenging. Within each IB class, you were required to complete an IA (internal assessment) along with an IB exam at the end of each class. The IA was typically a month-long project that required a lot of attention to detail, such as writing a lab report or completing an oral language presentation. In addition to the IA projects, IB classes would function as typical courses in which there would be occasional quizzes, essays, exams, projects, and presentations. Therefore, I had to quickly learn how to manage my time effectively and organize my due dates to ensure I completed all of my necessary assignments for each IB class. 

    In addition to the IB classes, you were required to write a 4,000 word extended essay and complete a CAS project. The extended essay allowed a lot of freedom and flexibility in choosing the topic. Throughout this process, I was paired up with a teacher who was knowledgeable on the subject and helped me set smaller deadlines to ensure I would not be writing all 4,000 words the night before the EE was due. This teaching advisor helped me learn how to tackle big research papers which became a valuable skill for college. 

    The CAS project involved a lot of outside effort and time (“CAS” stands for Creativity, Activity, and Service). Logging specific instances when you were creative, active, or completing service was required. For example, I could log track practice as two hours of “activity.” I also had to complete a CAS project to benefit my community. My CAS project involved collecting used shoes from the community in order to donate them to a good cause at my local running store. Working on and completing this project helped me gain valuable social skills as well as become connected within my community. In fact, I continue to donate my old shoes to that same local running store and I hope that those that I collected shoes do as well! 

    In my opinion, participating in the IB diploma program was extremely beneficial when adapting to college-leveled courses. However, a number of schools I applied to did not recognize IB courses for college credit, which made the college search process challenging. Luckily, the university I ended up attending (ASU) accepted some of my IB credits. This gave me 12 credits going into college which allowed me to graduate college 1 year early, making it entirely worth it. 

    Overall, I recommend that you take advantage of any IB programs that your school may offer. While the IB Diploma was challenging, it provided me with a lot of valuable skills, knowledge, and experiences that have helped me even today. In addition, participating in IB can help colleges view you as a strong and well-rounded student. It can also grant you college credits which can help you skip intro-leveled courses as well as help you graduate college early!”

    Frequently asked questions about  International Baccalaureate (IB) 

    Do colleges and universities recognize the IB diploma?

    Yes, many colleges and universities worldwide recognize and value the IB diploma by offering credit for IB courses. Make sure you are checking with your intended college or university to ensure the IB diploma is recognized.


    You can check the official IB website or contact your local school district to find schools offering IB programs.

    Are there fees associated with the IB program?

    Yes, there are registration and examination fees associated with the IB program. The specific costs can vary depending upon the school and specific program, so be sure to reach out to your local IB school to discover the cost.


    While there are some recommended resources and textbooks for IB courses, schools often have the flexibility to create their own curriculum within the framework.


    Schools need to go through an authorization process which includes training for teachers and demonstrating that they meet the IB standards.


    No! The IB program is designed for a wide array of students, not just academically gifted ones. The IB program values a holistic approach to education which includes personal and social development.

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