To be accepted to a prestigious university, you should take the most rigorous and intensive courses your high school offers.
Generally, these may include honors, AP, and IB classes, with more emphasis on AP and IB courses.
However, if your school offers both, which should you opt for?
What is AP?
AP, or Advanced Placement, classes are designed to be college-level courses that can better prepare you for real-life college.
These classes are more demanding than traditional courses, and you can take an AP test during March to place out of certain college courses.
- The AP program tends to be a little more common in U.S. schools.
For AP exams, you receive a score from 1-5, with a 3 being the lowest possible score to be considered for college credit.
What is IB?
IB, or International Baccalaureate, classes comprise the IB Diploma, which is a program that awards you with a special diploma upon graduation.
Note that you can take IB classes without fulfilling the IB diploma requirements and that only 80% of students who complete the IB Curriculum receive the IB Diploma.
- As such, receiving one is an honor.
- Like the AP program, you can take exams at the end of the year to prove your aptitude in the subject and use it as college credit.
For IB exams, you receive a score from 1-7, with a 4 being the lowest possible score to be considered for college credit.
Because not all high schools offer both options, you should choose the most rigorous classes available to you.
That being said, if you are in a position where you can choose between the two, here are some points you should consider before choosing one or another.
AP and IB Courses
The AP and IB programs offer different classes. While some of these classes can overlap, there are some subject areas that are unique to one or the other.
Keep in mind that, while AP classes were made with specific, entry-level college courses in mind, the IB was not necessarily made as a replacement for specific college courses.
In other words, AP classes often correlate directly with specific classes, while IB classes may not.
List of AP Classes
- AP Research
- AP Seminar
- AP Art History
- AP Music Theory
- AP Studio Art: 2-D Design
- AP Studio Art: 3-D Design
- AP Studio Art: Drawing
- AP English Language and Composition
- AP English Literature and Composition
- AP Comparative Government and Politics
- AP European History
- AP Human Geography
- AP Macroeconomics
- AP Microeconomics
- AP Psychology
- AP United States Government and Politics
- AP United States History
- AP World History
- AP Calculus AB
- AP Calculus BC
- AP Computer Science A
- AP Computer Science Principles
- AP Statistics
- AP Biology
- AP Chemistry
- AP Environmental Science
- AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism
- AP Physics C: Mechanics
- AP Physics 1: Algebra-Based
- AP Physics 2: Algebra-Based
- AP Chinese Language and Culture
- AP French Language and Culture
- AP German Language and Culture
- AP Italian Language and Culture
- AP Japanese Language and Culture
- AP Latin
- AP Spanish Language and Culture
- AP Spanish Literature and Culture
List of IB Classes
- Language A: literature SL/HL
- Language A: language and literature SL/HL
- Literature and performance SL
- Classical languages SL/HL
- Language B SL/HL
- Language ab initio SL
- Business management SL/HL
- Economics SL/HL
- Geography SL & HL
- Global Politics SL/HL
- History SL/HL
- Information technology in a global society SL/HL
- Philosophy SL/HL
- Psychology SL/HL
- Social and cultural anthropology SL & HL
- World religions SL
- Biology SL/HL
- Chemistry SL/HL
- Computer Science SL/HL
- Design technology SL/HL
- Environmental systems and societies SL
- Physics SL/HL
- Sports, exercise and health science SL & HL
- Further mathematics HL
- Mathematical studies SL
- Mathematics SL/HL
- Dance SL/HL
- Film SL & HL
- Music SL/HL
- Theatre SL/HL
- Visual arts SL/HL
- Creativity, activity, service
- Extended Essay
- Theory of Knowledge
IB Offers Different Levels
You may be wondering what the “SL” and “HL” next to each IB course means. They stand for Standard Level and Higher Level.
As the name suggests, the Higher Level option will be a more academically-challenging course than the standard one.
- In fact, you must complete a set number of HL courses before receiving your diploma.
Keep in mind that, while you can take tests for SL courses, some colleges only offer credit to HL exams.
- Stanford, for example, only accepts credit from HL IB exams.
- Georgia Tech, on the other hand, offers credit for both HL and SL exams, but notice that there are far fewer SL exams accepted and that you must receive exceptionally high scores on SL exams.
AP courses, on the other hand, do not offer “levels.” The closest equivalent would be its Physics courses: AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 correspond directly with AP Physics C: Mechanics and AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, but the former two are algebra-based, while the latter two are calculus-based.
Because of the math requirements, the AP Physics C courses go more in-depth with each topic. Other than that, there is no difficulty modulator for AP courses.
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The AP Program is More Popular
You’re less likely to have an IB program in place.
This is because IB classes are part of a curriculum that ends with a special diploma – you have to offer enough courses so that students can opt for an IB diploma.
- AP classes, on the other hand, are easier to incorporate into the course catalog, since your school can add them one at a time.
Students also may feel less pressured into taking more AP courses, since there isn’t a specific AP curriculum, whereas students must commit to taking a select number of IB courses before receiving their diploma.
- As a result, at least 30% of U.S. high school students took at least one AP exam before graduating, while far fewer took IBs.
Because the IB program is rare, universities generally will not penalize you for not taking any IB courses.
However, if you haven’t taken AP or IB courses despite both being offered at your school, colleges may question why you didn’t take the most academically-challenging classes available.
IB Exams Require You to Take Corresponding Classes
Unlike with the AP program, the IB program requires you to take an IB class in order to then take the IB exam.
If your school does not offer any IB classes, you can’t receive any IB credits, either.
- Meanwhile, you can take an AP exam without having taken the corresponding class, meaning that you can study independently for the test.
This can be a great method for getting some class credit in schools that don’t offer many AP courses.
While it won’t show up in your transcripts, you will probably have the chance to talk about your extracurricular studying in your application.
Colleges View IB and AP as Equivalent
In general, colleges don’t prefer IB over AP or vice versa. Both programs require a lot of diligent work and academic aptitude.
Rather, what schools focus on is the relative rigor of your schedule.
- Did you choose the more challenging courses when they were available to you?
- Did you refrain from taking a “slacker” class and choose to push yourself academically?
If your school offers AP classes and no IB, take as many AP classes as you reasonably can. If your school offers the IB program, look into committing to the diploma track.
If your school offers both, consider taking a few AP classes during freshman and sophomore year and decide which program best reflects your interests for junior and senior year.
- For instance, if you’re interested in performance arts, the IB program offers theatre, music, and dance classes, whereas the AP program does not.
On the other hand, the AP program offers several specific physics courses delving into specific fields of physics; the IB program only offers a Standard Level Physics and a Higher Level Physics.
Depending on where you want your high school curriculum to take you, you may prefer the courses IB offers over AP, or vice versa.
College Credit Depends from School to School
Unfortunately, colleges are not unanimous on which program deserves more credit.
Some schools offer more hours of credit to IB scores, some to AP scores.
For instance, Stanford gives 10 quarter credits to a score of 5 or higher on IB Chemistry exams; the AP Chemistry exam only renders 5 quarter credits, and you must receive a top score of 5 to get the credit.
- In fact, Stanford requires that you earn a 4 or 5 on all AP exam scores, while only requiring a 5 (out of 7) for most IB exam scores.
- On the other hand, some IB exams are valued less than AP exams for Georgia Tech college credit.
- AP Economics (Macroeconomics and Microeconomics, which often can be taught in one class) gives a total of 6 credits; IB Economics gives 3 credits.
They also accept far fewer IB scores compared to AP scores. For instance, AP Music Theory, Studio Art, and Geography are accepted for college credit, whereas IB Music, Visual Arts, and Geography are not.
The scores required are roughly equivalent, including the required highest score on both programs’ Physics courses.
Each school is different. Before choosing which program to pursue, make sure to evaluate which tests are accepted by which schools.
- If your dream college doesn’t accept many IB exams, consider opting for AP courses instead.
On the other hand, if your dream college gives more credit to IB exams, then consider enrolling in IB classes.
IB Exams are More Expensive
While AP and IB programs are roughly equivalent in academic rigor and prestige, the IB program will cost more money in the end.
- IB exams require a registration fee for each year that you take an IB exam ($172), plus a fee for each exam ($119).
- AP exams, on the other hand, don’t require a registration fee for any period of time, and cost $94 per exam.
- For instance, if you were to take three IB exams in a given year, you would pay a maximum of $529, versus $282 for the same amount of AP exams.
That can be a huge difference, especially if you belong to a lower-income family.
- While these costs are not anywhere near as high as college tuition, paying upfront for these exams (as well as standardized tests and college application fees) can definitely be costly.
Luckily, your high school may offer some financial aid for these exam fees.
Talk to your counselor about any potential waivers or other student aid that you can opt for.
While IB exams are more expensive, that shouldn’t discourage people from pursuing an IB diploma or taking any IB exam.
Advice From Admissions Experts and former IB & AP Scholars
These experts were kind enough to give us insights on what colleges look for in IB and AP scholars.
They also tell us how these curricula helped them succeed in college.
Savannah Oxner, senior admissions counselor and school counselor liaison at Sweet Briar College:
Sweet Briar does not have a preference when it comes to IB or AP. We know many schools can only offer one or the other. If a student does come from a school that offers both IB and AP, we want to see that the student is taking advantage of that rigor, regardless of which program she uses.
We weight them the same. (We will recalculate a GPA if we feel that courses have been over-weighted or under-weighted on a transcript.) Furthermore, if a student commits to graduating with an IB diploma when it is available, we know that student is prepared to take full advantage of her education in college.
Keyona of Professional Momma:
I took the pre-IB classes 9th and 10th grade and started the actual IB program in 11th grade. After completing the IB program I was the only applicant from my high school
to be accepted into my first choice, Emory University in Atlanta, GA.
The IB program definitely prepared me for college. The rigorous course work and multiple 18+ page papers definitely prepared me for college. I was used to studying and knew how to write. Unlike other students, I didn’t have to learn this in college and it gave me a definite advantage.
Today I have my masters in Nursing and work as a nurse anesthetist. I accredit the IB program for giving me a strong foundation and preparing for higher education.
Alice Stevens, a digital marketing strategist for BestCompany.com:
I took several AP classes in high school. I think the most valuable one was AP European History. This course helped me hone my writing and critical thinking skills by learning how to write a good thesis and introduction and structure an argument.
It also taught me how to do these things quickly and effectively. I continued to develop these skills following that class, and they have helped me through college and in my current position.
From Ashley Washington, Ivy League graduate and founder of No Closed Roads Inc.:
I graduated from high school in 2013 and recently graduated from Brown University in 2017. During high school, I was in the IB program, but I also took a few (around 3-4) AP classes.
Brown University is unique in that it does not have core classes and does not accept AP/IB credit for most of its courses. Because of this, I never used my AP or IB credit. Although I cannot speak on the course credit aspect of AP and IB classes, I believe I can speak on how well each prepared me for college.
Compared to my AP classes, I believe my IB classes prepared me more for how to approach the college lifestyle and made college a smoother transition mentally and emotionally. My AP classes stopped the moment I left school. The IB program not only required rigorous coursework at school but also had requirements outside of school (i.e. creative, action, and service hours).
The hardest part of college is trying to balance the assignments, your extracurricular activities, your social life, and your health (physical as well as mental health). Although my college courses were harder than the IB courses, I was already accustomed to balancing multiple hard assignments at once, finding time for my interests and friends, and not letting myself get burned out.
Conclusion: IB vs AP
Ultimately, IB vs AP is a personal question, dependent on a lot of factors. If your school doesn’t offer IB, take as many AP and honors classes as possible.
If it does offer both programs, choose which would provide the most benefit, whether it be the education in your intended field or the most college credit awarded in your top-choice colleges.
Make sure that your choice doesn’t impede on other parts of your high school career as well.
- For instance, stacking your schedule full of AP or IB classes may prevent you from being drum major in your marching band – leadership positions like that are just as important, if not more so, in your college application.
- If you have to transfer to a high school further away to go for the IB diploma, will the extra commute time prevent you from participating in robotics club?
- Do you have time for volunteering or interning for a business in your intended field of study?
- Are you trading this opportunity for another, equally important opportunity?
Remember, college isn’t just looking for an impressive transcript – they want to see you as a student who also strives to push himself academically.
All in all, both AP and IB classes look impressive to colleges, and there’s no special preference for either.
Your high school curriculum matters, but only to a certain extent – admissions officers are going to look at your college essays, extracurriculars, and standardized test scores.
An impressive transcript is good, but a unique essay and strong extracurricular resume can make you stand apart from the rest of the applications.