One factor some students consider when choosing a high school is whether it has an International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Often compared with the Advanced Placement (AP) program, the IB program allows students to take college-level courses while in high school.
So what is International Baccalaureate? What is the IB Program and an IB Diploma, and why are IB classes worth taking? In this article, we introduce all things IB, including the Diploma requirements and features of the exams. We also explain whether you have to get an IB Diploma in order to earn college credit for your IB classes.
2021 IB Exam Changes Due to COVID-19
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, May 2021 IB assessments will have two routes, exam and non-exam, depending on which your school chooses. Stay up to date with the latest information on what this means for IB diplomas, course credit for IB classes, and more with our 2021 IB COVID-19 FAQ article.
What Is IB? An Overview
The International Baccalaureate (IB) program was designed in Switzerland in the 1960s. Its purpose was to give students around the world a chance to earn a rigorous, internationally recognized diploma, which they could then use for entry into universities. (You can read more about the history and philosophy of the IB program on the official IB website.)
To earn an IB Diploma, you have to go to an IB-approved school (called an "IB World School") and meet the requirements, which include taking classes in the six subject groups, passing the IB exams, and completing three additional core requirements.
But what if you don't want to do the Diploma? It's also possible to take a few IB classes without doing the full-blown Diploma Programme, though each high school has its own policy on this.
How Does College Credit Work for IB?
IB exams are recognized for college credit in a way similar to how AP exams are used. You don't have to earn the IB Diploma to get credit for individual classes, as colleges give credit course by course. For example, check out Stanford's chart for IB credit.
Most IB classes come in two forms: Higher Level (HL) and Standard Level (SL). We will discuss this in more detail below. Some colleges only give credit for HL classes, as Stanford does.
Also, some colleges will completely waive General Education requirements for students who have completed the full IB Diploma. See the University of Utah's policy here as an example.
This means that a student with an IB Diploma could totally skip Gen Ed classes and jump right into their major. This would obviously save a ton of time and money, and shows why getting the IB Diploma can be a huge advantage.
To find a school's policy on IB credit, search for "[School Name] IB credit policy." Most universities have a dedicated web page for explaining their IB credit policies.
What Are the Benefits of the IB Program?
One of the chief benefits of the IB program is that it provides academic preparation for college. IB courses are known for being interdisciplinary, requiring a good deal of independent thinking, and assigning oral presentations and original research—all characteristics of college courses.
Spoiler alert: college-level research involves a bit more work than just Googling something.
Especially if you earn the full IB Diploma, your IB courses will be a great way of showing that you have taken tough courses in a range of subjects, from math to English to history to science, and are able to manage college-level coursework.
As we discussed before, colleges want to see that you've taken the most advanced classes available to you. And taking IB is a great way to do just that.
In addition to getting preparation for college, you can get credit for college classes by passing IB exams. Again, you don't need to complete the full IB Diploma to earn credit, so if you don't think you can fit the IB Diploma into your schedule, it might still benefit you to take a few individual IB classes.
Unfortunately, taking an IB exam isn't cheap. There's a $119 fee per exam. While this is a lot of money, it's still much less than the tuition you would pay for the same intro-level college course.
Many schools also have their own financial aid programs for IB. Learn more about IB costs here.
What Are the 6 Core Courses in the IB Program?
To earn the full IB Diploma, you have to take courses from six subjects, one each from groups 1-5, and either one from group 6 or a substitute from groups 1-4:
- Group 1: Studies in Language and Literature (most likely an English literature course if you're an American student)
- Group 2: Language Acquisition (a foreign language course)
- Group 3: Individuals and Societies (history, economics, geography, etc.)
- Group 4: Sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.)
- Group 5: Mathematics
- Group 6: The Arts (dance, theater, visual arts, etc.)
Between three and four subjects must be taken at the Higher Level and the rest at the Standard Level in order to earn the Diploma. Higher Level courses are more challenging—IB recommends a minimum of 240 hours of instructional time for HL courses, and 150 hours for SL courses.
Some schools handle the HL requirements by having students take the SL or AP version of a course first and the HL version second, thereby forming a two-year sequence. For example, you might take AP English Literature as a junior, and then HL IB English as a senior.
Also, note that many high schools with IB programs have recommended four-year plans to help students fit in all the requirements, since there's a lot to keep track of. Therefore, you won't necessarily have to do a bunch of schedule-planning on your own.
If your school or a school you're interested in has an IB program, get in touch with the guidance counseling office to find out whether they have recommended IB class sequences. This can help you if you're deciding which high school to attend, or if you can't decide whether you want to take IB classes or not.
What Are IB Exams?
For each of those six core classes, you also have to take an IB exam. IB exams are given in May (or November for southern hemisphere schools). They have two parts: an external assessment and an internal assessment.
The external assessment is the more traditional exam portion and consists of two or three "papers," typically done on the same day or a few days in a row. A paper is essentially an exam section, and they usually have a combination of multiple-choice, short-answer, extended-response, and data- or case-analysis questions.
You won't spend much time bubbling in answers on an IB exam.
The papers are graded by independent examiners—similar to how AP exams are graded by certified AP graders.
The internal assessments, however, are done by the teacher. These can include oral presentations, practical work (such as a written lab report), or other written work. Around 5% or more of the internal assessments will also be graded by a moderator appointed by the IB, and based on this moderation, the grading curve of that subject at the school will be set.
IB exams are graded on a scale of 1-7, with 6 and 7 considered an A, and anything 4 and up generally considered a passing score (though the IB doesn't set official passing grades). Most colleges give IB credit for scores of 5 and higher.
To earn the IB Diploma, you need to score an average of 4 on each exam to get the minimum 24 needed points. You can learn more about IB exams on the IB website.
What Are the 3 Core Requirements in the IB Program?
In addition to IB classes and exams, there are three more core requirements students must complete to earn an IB Diploma. These are the Extended Essay, the Theory of Knowledge class, and the Creativity, Activity, Service project.
#1: The Extended Essay
This is an independent research essay of up to 4,000 words that's graded externally by the IB. It has to be focused on one academic subject and written on a topic that's been approved by the IB. Students are awarded points toward their Diploma based on how well they do on this essay.
#2: Theory of Knowledge (TOK) Class
This class teaches the nature of knowledge and builds skills in critical thinking. Students have to complete a presentation (graded by the teacher) and a 1,600-word essay (graded externally) in order to pass this course.
#3: Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS)
Lastly, students are required to participate in an activity outside of class, either community service, athletics, or creative activities. For most students, their regular extracurricular activities and sports count for these hours, meaning that they don't need to add anything to their schedules to fulfill this requirement.
IB vs AP: Key Similarities and Differences
We have a complete rundown of AP vs IB in this post, which includes a guide to deciding between the two programs. That being said, here are some of the key similarities and differences between the two.
IB vs AP: What's the Same?
Both the AP and IB programs allow you to take a challenging course followed by an exam that you can earn college credit for. In some schools, they're even the same course (e.g., AP/IB French, AP/IB Biology, etc.).
AP and IB are generally the most challenging courses available to high school students. Unless you're able to sign up for local college courses or do advanced independent projects and research, AB and IB are likely the best (and most convenient) way for you to begin preparing for college.
IB vs AP: What's Different?
Although both programs offer challenging courses for high school students, there are a lot of differences in how they do so.
Advanced Placement is by far the more popular program. In 2019, 2.8 million students took AP tests.
By contrast, only about 166,000 students took IB exams in May 2019. The Diploma pass rate was 77.81%. Some families opt for the IB program over the AP program as it's rarer and can help set students apart in the admission process.
IB was designed as a diploma program (although, as we discussed above, it is possible to take just a few IB classes for college credit). Meanwhile, the AP program was designed around advanced classes—not a diploma. (That said, the AP has created a competitor to IB via the AP International Diploma, which you can read about here.)
IB curricula are stricter for teachers. IB has certain required assignments your teacher has to grade, such as oral presentations, as part of the internal assessment. In contrast, AP teachers have a bit more freedom in how they may teach an AP course, just so long as they're effectively preparing students for the exam.
IB Higher Level courses are often considered more difficult than APs, whereas IB Standard Level courses are considered the same as or easier than APs. Keep in mind that how difficult a class is to pass at your school will vary depending on the teacher and their curriculum.
IB exams contain more writing and application of ideas, whereas APs are more about proving what you know. This is why AP exams have more multiple choice, while the IB exams feature more short-response questions, essays, and case studies.
Getting AP credit can be more straightforward since more US colleges are familiar with it and the College Board officially sets a passing grade (3 out of 5) while the IB does not.
Furthermore, because AP courses only come in one difficulty level, it can be easier for colleges to set credit policies for AP exams. For IB, colleges have to decide how they'll handle Standard Level and Higher Level courses.
However, for both IB and AP, the higher your passing score is, the more likely you are to get credit for college. For example, an AP exam score of 5 nearly always earns credit, the same as an IB score of 7 does. Don't forget this when you're studying!
You know a lot about IB—but what about AP? See our guide to what AP classes are and why you should take them.
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One of the single most important parts of your college application is what classes you choose to take in high school (in conjunction with how well you do in those classes). Our team of PrepScholar admissions experts have compiled their knowledge into this single guide to planning out your high school course schedule. We'll advise you on how to balance your schedule between regular and honors/AP/IB courses, how to choose your extracurriculars, and what classes you can't afford not to take.
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.