In this last section of chapter two, I’ll introduce students to the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

In many ways, IB coursework is similar to Advanced Placement (AP) coursework. Both programs have similar strengths and weaknesses. At their best, IB and AP courses both challenge students to master advanced material and to develop sophisticated study skills and habits that will be invaluable to them as college students.

But both programs also face the same criticism: as with all programs culminating in a standardized test, the IB and AP have been said to limit creativity and force teachers to “teach to the test.”

There are, of course, major differences between the IB and AP programs.

First of all, the IB program is significantly less widespread and well-known in the U.S.

While 22,600 American public high schools offer AP courses in the core subject areas (English, math, science, and social studies), only 942 schools offer the IB Diploma. One consequence of this is that fewer colleges offer college credit for IB coursework than for AP coursework.

American public high schools that offer AP courses.

Schools that offer the IB Diploma.

Secondly, although IB courses, like AP classes, are highly demanding college level courses culminating in standardized examinations, students in the IB stream have the further option of taking the entire IB curriculum: a sweeping two-year program that results in a special IB diploma.

  • Requirements include a course called “The Theory of Knowledge,” an extensive 4,000-word research paper, and 150 hours of community service. IB diploma candidates are also required to pass six IB exams in the core subject groups: language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, maths and the arts.

One demerit of the IB system is that there is very little flexibility built into the program. Because of the regimented set of requirements and coursework, the IB program—compared to the AP option—leaves little room for students to take initiative or explore their academic preferences.

On the other hand, one advantage the IB system enjoys over the AP track is that it is a thoughtfully constructed full curriculum, not an a la carte menu of course options.

Courses are designed to function in a complementary way to give the student a solid grounding in a wide variety of subjects. Additionally, the extra-academic features of the IB, such as the community service requirement, force students to develop qualities they might not exercise in the classroom.

Few students would be disciplined enough to engage in 150 hours of community service on their own!

These stringent requirements, in combination with the limited availability of the IB diploma in American high schools, can give the IB an aura of “prestige” or exclusivity.

The IB System vs. the AP Track

How should we weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the IB system against those of the AP track? How does a college admissions officer view the two programs? Is one better received than the other? And should parents and students seek out one program over the other?

When a college admissions office says that its officers evaluate an applicant based on the curricular opportunities available at the applicant’s own high school, it’s telling the truth.

The good news for students and parents is that admissions officers do not favor IB over AP or vice versa.

During this time of hyper-competitive college admissions, families should not bring additional stress on themselves by seeking out an IB high school when their local high school already offers a strong selection of AP courses.

What is important is that a student take advantage of the most demanding courses available to him or her. Doing so will give colleges all the evidence they need that the student is capable of performing at the collegiate level.

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Of course, each student must find the right balance between taking advanced college level courses and earning high grades: as we already emphasized, taking AP or IB courses and earning Cs is definitely worse than taking “regular” courses and earning As.

An Associate Director of Admissions at Cornell University summarized the moral of the story the best.

“No matter which program your school offers,” she advised, “challenge yourself! We want to see that you took advantage of some challenging opportunities at your school. AP and IB both fit into this category.”

Case Study: Alice

But let’s get a bit more specific. What should a student do if his or her high school offers both IB and AP courses? Which track should the student take? To better weigh this matter, let’s consider the following case study.

Alice was a high school student who wanted to double up on her sciences in the next school year. To do so would have required her to leave the IB track she was on, since it did not offer her the flexibility to take two science classes in one year. However, she was concerned that such a change would reflect poorly on her when applying to colleges.

What should Alice do?

To answer this question, let’s consider what kind of student benefits most from taking the IB curriculum.

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The ideal IB student is a gifted individual who thrives under the challenge of advanced coursework, but does not have a focused academic interest yet. This student prefers to get a broad education covering the humanities, science, and math without concentrating on any particular area.

Now the truth is that many high school and even lots of college students fall under this category. It takes a while to identify the field where talents and interests best line up.

  • In fact, most colleges don’t allow freshmen to declare their majors, preferring to allow students up to two years of freedom to explore several interests and seek out their real calling.

But of course there are other kinds of students. Some students have long standing and very specific interests. Alice, for instance, had always been very interested in the natural sciences and she wanted to take full advantage of the range of AP courses and electives her high school had to offer within this particular genre.

Other students might realize that they are very passionate about a subject matter that is not featured within the IB curriculum, which the strictures of the diploma program would not allow them to explore. For such students, taking AP courses might very well be the better way to go.

AP courses provide students with greater freedom and flexibility in customizing their high school education.

So we recommended that Alice leave the IB track and pursue her passion.

Find Your Interests

As always, there are no cookie-cutter answers to admissions questions. As with all aspects of education, each student must figure out what is in his or her best interest.

With regard to the IB and AP programs, the most we can say is that when given the choice between the two systems, students who have a clear sense of where their talents and interests lie should take advantage of the freedom given them to design their own AP curricula, whereas students who are less sure of their direction should undertake the broad and general education provided for by the IB curriculum.

With this information in hand, students should make an educated decision as to what will be best for them, remembering above all that—as I have emphasized throughout this chapter—receiving excellent grades in demanding courses takes top priority.

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