Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) are some of the best ways to prepare yourself for college and to make your college application stand out.
But, deciding between AP vs. IB can be challenging.
While both can be used for college preparation; each one has unique characteristics. This ultimate guide will help you decide which one is better for you by providing a list of pros of the AP program, cons of the AP program, and IB program advantages and disadvantages.
By the end of this article, you should know which one is better for you and your goals!
First Things First: What is the IB Program, and What is the AP Program?
To start, the IB program is an international, globally recognized diploma across the country, with over 4,000 schools offering IB courses. Designed primarily for high school aged students, the IB program aims to cultivate foundational skills needed for personal and professional development at the college level. The core tenants to the IB program focus on (1) theory of knowledge, (2) extended essay, and (3) creativity, activity and service (CAS).
The requirements for the IB diploma include the completion of at least one class selected from each of the six subject groups at higher and standard level over the course of two years. Subject groups studies in language and literature, individuals and societies, experimental sciences, mathematics, and the arts. However, the diploma is optional; you can take the classes without the diploma.
Assignments include an extended 1,6000-word reflection essay, and an independent research project resulting in a 4,000-word research paper. You are also expected to demonstrate service; however, this component of the program is not formally assessed.
IB programs can only be offered through accredited IB schools with an IB certified instructor. This can be a pretty small percentage of schools in the U.S. There are additional registration and exam fees that apply for students who decide to take classes to meet IB diploma requirements.
Lastly, you can use passing grades on the IB exams for college credit. However, this will depend on the college. Some students tend to take both IB and AP exams, especially if they aren’t sure which college they plan to attend.
Now, the AP program is another college preparation program that offers college-level coursework to high school students based in the United States (U.S.) school system. The AP is based on standardized examinations, rather than any form of globalized education. The program was designed to prepare students for the professional world, as it was perceived in the 1950s.
Students can choose AP courses in a variety of subjects, as many as 38 classes. Subjects include English, History and Social Sciences, Sciences, Math and Computer Science, World Language and Cultures, AP Capstone, or Arts. Course availability will vary by what each high school is available to offer; make sure to check with them first!
Assignments for AP classes are typically based on an assigned textbook to pass the standardized AP exam for college credit. One of the cons to AP programs is that AP classes only provide students with coursework specific to content, but not necessarily in applied skills like the IB program.
How Many Students Take AP vs. IB Classes?
We should preface by saying that AP classes are more common than IB classes, especially among high schools in the U.S. So, how many students take AP vs IB classes will start from an unfair sample. What we mean by this is that more students in the U.S. take AP than IB simply because it is much more likely that AP programs are made available through their current school than an IB program in the U.S.
With that in mind, there are significantly more students who take AP in the U.S. For example, in 2014, over 2 million students completed AP exams; with less than 150,000 students taking IB exams. AP classes are much more accessible than IB classes through the use of online classes. Students can also self-study to take the exam, making this more accessible to those who cannot make the commitment to in-person classes, but can commit to studying the content.
With IB programs, there is a more rigid design to the curriculum that requires a certified instructor and accredited school. Without the IB instructor, there is no IB class. This makes it more difficult for students to take IB classes without the proper accreditation.
Why is AP More Popular Than IB? Does that Reflect the Quality of the Program?
Let’s think about this question a little deeper.
Why is AP more popular than IB?
Remember that IB programs are grounded in international perspectives and offer a globalized curriculum that aims to expand and cultivate skills more than a traditional curriculum in U.S. high schools. We want you to consider how the answer to this varies by perspective and location rather than program quality.
Because AP is U.S.-based, many students who grew up in the U.S. may have just seen AP programs much more than IB programs in their schools and education (from parents or friends). However, a student from international settings might have a different experience and perceive the IB programs as much more popular than AP because that’s what is typically offered in their current education outside of the U.S. All this to say—it depends.
Now, if we are focusing on why AP programs are more popular than IB programs in the U.S., we have a specific response to that.
IB programs are not commonly offered in schools across the U.S. There are only a limited number of accredited schools with certified instructors; though this number is still big enough to make it possible to find an IB program nearby. You will actually find it very difficult to find IB courses made available through your current school.
However, we want to flip the script and comment how this is actually one of the IB program’s advantages and disadvantages.
The fact that it is not as common as AP programs makes your college application stand out way more than the pool of APs and in a globalized, recognizable manner. College admissions know what IB programs are and what type of training is given to IB students. We consider this as a major advantage, but also a significant disadvantage due to limited access.
In direct contrast, AP programs are located in over 22,000 schools, without any accreditation needed. One of the pros to the AP program is that you are much more likely to find AP courses available through your school than any IB programs. Classes for AP programs are also offered online, making accessibility much easier for students who attend remotely.
Accessibility to IB courses are limited. Coursework for IB program do not count online classes for the diploma because it derails the design of the curriculum, which is more applied, critical, skills-based learning. Learning by experience is an important factor to the IB curriculum; online access can compromise learning outcomes.
Additionally, because IB programs are not as common in the U.S., some people may just not know about it. So, there might be students who are not taking IB programs because they simply didn’t know they had an alternate option. This lack of awareness also contributes to the larger number of AP programs taken in the U.S.
Overall, these are major reasons as to why AP programs are more popular than IB programs in the U.S. We do not think, in any way, that this reflects the quality of the IB program. You can rest assured that IB programs are quality, globalized curriculums that prepare you for advanced university level coursework; just from a different learning approach than traditional U.S. school curriculums.
How Do Colleges Perceive IB vs. AP for Admissions?
Now, what about IB vs. AP for college admissions?
Colleges perceive both IB and AP as advanced level coursework that conveys a students’ potential, critical thinking, and abilities to complete challenging work. The IB diploma is still a reputable, globally recognized achievement. However, there is a significant difference in the number of colleges that accept AP vs. IB exam scores for college credit.
Schools in the U.S. and Canada will typically take AP scores for college credit. This is essentially the norm, so you are more likely to find this option available to you. However, IB exam scores are based on policies– scores will only be accepted for college credit at some universities.
Many institutions have different policies for accepting passing IB exam scores. You may use it for college credit, for advanced placement in college courses, or some other form of assessment-based procedure. However, the same can also be true for AP exams, though, very rarely.
Colleges typically have a website where you can check whether your IB or AP score can be used for college credit or some other policy. Make sure to check in with that first before proceeding with any commitment to advanced level college preparation courses.
Do You Get More College Credits for AP vs. IB?
As we previously discussed, college credits for AP and IB programs can vary by every institution’s policy and procedures. Generally, colleges view IB and AP programs very similarly, with the only distinction being reflected in their policies for course waivers. Of course, this is, at times, out of their control to change, as well.
What about IB vs. AP for Ivy League universities?
This will also vary by college. Some colleges tend to give AP more credit simply because there is only one level to the program. Whereas, for IB, most colleges are likely to accept higher level IB courses than standard level courses.
This makes it somewhat difficult for a student to determine beforehand because the diploma requires a certain number of higher level and standard level courses. So if you took 2 standard level courses and the remaining 4 at a higher level; colleges will probably only take those 2 courses taken at the higher level. So, always take the more challenging courses!
Other colleges tend to just give AP exams more weight than IB exams, but this is definitely not consistent across Ivy League universities and will also vary by subjects. For instance, Stanford tends to give more college credits for IB chemistry than AP chemistry; but Princeton University only has guidelines for waiving AP credits but equal consideration to IB diplomas for acceptance into the college.
All this to say that you should always check with your college of choice first. Make sure to read through their IB or AP policies to see if you’re really getting your time and money’s worth in completing these programs for college applications.
Which Program is More Expensive? AP vs. IB Exam Fees
Now, costs of both AP and IB exams are consistent across countries. One of the pros of the AP exam is that it is less expensive than the IB exam. To take the AP exam, you will find yourself paying around $94 without any need to register or enroll in courses; but the IB exam will include registration fees and an additional $119 for each subject you decide to get tested on (out of the six subject groups).
Both AP and IB exam fees are still considerably much lower than college courses. Both still give you the advantage of advanced coursework and skills for college and the option to lower your college tuition afterwards.
What are Other Key Differences Between the IB and AP Program?
Other Key Differences Between IB and AP Program
|Curriculum is unidimensional, based only on the assigned readings to get a specialized knowledge of a particular topic||Holistic program – focused on cultivating critical thinking skills, creativity, application and appreciation of culture|
|AP program goals are to teach specific content and test knowledge of that content||IB program goals are to create a well-balanced decent human being, with strong skills in critical thinking, writing, and a commitment to physical service in the community|
|More likely to be accepted for more college credits at Universities based in the U.S.||You get a worthwhile experience out of the creativity, activity and service (CAS) component of IB program that push you to think beyond books and focus on service|
|Exams are not heavily based in writing; questions are usually multiple-choice items with 1-2 essays.||Exams are based heavily on critical thinking, writing, and reflections with extended essays, independently led projects, and research papers|
|Ensures a specialized knowledge and understanding of a specific topic that will prepare them for professional goals||Ensures a well-rounded education for personal and professional growth for college, university, and professional settings.|
|You only get credit when you achieve a 4 or higher on exams||You only get college credit when you achieve a 5 or higher, typically at a higher level than standard level|
|Focuses more on traditional learning approaches – read, recall, test; without any application of concepts||Challenges you to learn differently; you need to be an independent, driven, self-starter to succeed in this program.|
|Facilitates advanced placement across universities in the U.S.||Facilitates entry into colleges outside of the U.S.|
|AP prepares you for more traditional colleges based in the U.S.||IB is better preparation for liberal arts college with its holistic education|
|You can self-study and take the exam when it’s available to you||Can’t take the exam without enrolling in IB courses with a certified IB instructor|
What Should I Do If My School Doesn’t Offer Either Program?
Now, we’ve estimated the number of schools that have AP and IB programs available in and outside of the U.S.; but there is always a chance that you may not have these nearby. If you’re still driven to pursue advanced college level coursework to prepare yourself for universities, ivy-leagues, and other incredibly accomplishing things you’ve set yourself out to do, we have some options to offer you.
So, what should you do if your school doesn’t offer either program? This will depend on your learning styles and career goals.
For AP Programs
If you are interested in strengthening your skills for college level coursework and to gain more familiarity with that college class experience, then there’s an opportunity to access AP courses online. Online courses will demonstrate the teaching styles, assignments, and expectations of a college level course.
Here is a resource to find options available to you online.
If you are only interested in obtaining the college level credit, then you also have the option to self-study for the AP exam and take the exam at another school. You will risk not having the AP exam count on your GPA.
For IB programs
Options for the IB program are much less flexible, given the rigidity of the curriculum. You may have the option to complete the course at another school, but make sure to consider your time, resources, and commitment to do this. Traveling from school to school can be stressful and difficult to manage over the course of two years.
What are the Biggest Criticisms of Both IB and AP Programs?
Now, the biggest criticisms of both IB and AP programs?
First, it can be difficult to transition from one program to the other. For example, if you have been taking AP programs, but aren’t as challenged as you’d like, and then want to switch to an IB program; there will be a slight disconnect on what’s being taught in the curriculum. This is because the curriculums are so different from one another.
Second, AP and IB exams don’t assure you advanced college placement—this means that you can take the exams, but you also have to make sure you received extremely high scores to approve consideration for advanced placement. Policies vary by institution, so this can be very frustrating for students who put in the hard work.
Wrapping Things Up: AP vs. IB
We want you to know that taking AP or IB programs will both strengthen your college application and prepare you for University level coursework no matter what. However, the two are very distinct in their design, goals, and overall acceptance across schools.
The main takeaway is that AP vs. IB relies on a lot of circumstances, such as an institution’s policies and procedures, your career goals, the resources and time you have available, your learning styles, access and location, and so on. Make sure to ground your decisions based on these factors to help guide your next steps to achieve your career goals.