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What Is the IB Program, and What Are IB Classes?

Posted by Halle Edwards | Mar 17, 2015 1:30:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)



One factor some students consider when choosing a high school is whether or not it has an International Baccalaureate program. Sometimes compared to 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 post, we introduce you to all things IB, including the diploma requirements and exam characteristics. We will also tell you if you have to get an IB diploma to get college credit for your IB classes.


What Is IB?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) program was designed in Switzerland in the 1960s. It was made to be a rigorous, internationally-recognized diploma for entry into universities that students all around the world could earn. (You can read more about the history and philosophy of the IB program over at their website. )

To earn an IB diploma, you have to go to an IB-approved school and meet the requirements, including taking classes in the six subject groups, passing their exams, and completing three additional core requirements.

But what if you don’t want to do the diploma? It is also possible to take a few IB classes without doing the full-blown diploma program, though each high school sets its own policy on this.


How Does College Credit Work for IB?

IB exams are recognized for college credit in a similar way to AP exams. You don’t have to earn the IB diploma to get credit for individual classes, as colleges give credit course-by-course. As an example, you can check out Stanford’s chart for IB credit. IB classes come in both "higher level" and "standard level" forms (which we will discuss in-depth below). Colleges sometimes only give credit for the higher level classes.

Keep in mind that some schools 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 a student with an IB diploma could totally skip general 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 an advantage.

To find out any school’s policy on IB credit, search “[Name of College/University] IB credit policy.” Most universities have a dedicated web page for explaining their IB credit policy.


What Are the Benefits of the IB Program?

One of the chief benefits of the IB program is how 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 are a great way of showing 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 have discussed before, colleges want to see you have taken the most advanced classes available to you. Taking IB is a great way to do that.

In addition to getting preparation for college, you can also 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, taking a few individual IB classes could still be beneficial.

Currently, taking an IB exam isn’t cheap. There is a $160 registration fee plus a $110 fee per exam. While this is a lot of money, it is 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.


The 6 Core Courses

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 one of the other groups.

  • 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, other social sciences)
  • Group 4: Experimental Sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, other sciences)
  • Group 5: Mathematics
  • Group 6: The Arts (Dance, Theater, Visual Arts, etc.)

Between 3 and 4 subjects must be taken at the “higher level” (HL) and the rest at the “standard level” (SL) 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 higher-level requirements by having students take the SL or AP version of a course first, and the HL version second, to form a two-year sequence. For example, you might take AP English Literature as a junior, and then Higher-Level IB English as a senior.

Also, note that many high schools with IB programs have recommended 4-year plans to help students fit in all of the requirements, since there is a lot to keep track of. So you won't necessarily have to do a bunch of schedule-planning on your own.

If your school or a school you are interested in has an IB program, get in touch with the guidance counseling office to find out if they have recommended IB class sequences. This can help you if you are deciding which high school to attend, or if you can’t decide if you want to take IB or not.


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 consist of two parts – an external assessment and internal assessment.

The external assessment is the more traditional exam portion, and consists of two or three "papers," usually done on the same day or a few days in a row. A paper is essentially an exam section, and they usually have some combination of multiple choice, short answer, extended response, and data or case analysis questions.



You won't spend much time bubbling 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 are done by the teacher. They can include oral presentations, practical work (like a written lab report), or other written work. 5% or more of the internal assessments will also be graded by a moderator appointed by IB – and based on this moderation, the grading curve of that subject at the school will be set.

IB Exams are graded from 1 to 7, with 6 and 7 considered an A, and anything 4 and up generally considered passing, though 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 exams at the IB website.


The 3 Core Requirements

In addition to IB classes and exams, there are three more core requirements students must complete to earn an IB diploma. Read about them below.


1. The Extended Essay

This is an independent research essay of up to 4,000 words, graded externally by IB. It has to be focused in one academic subject, and written on a topic approved by IB. Students are awarded points towards their diploma based on how well they do on the essay.


2. Theory of Knowledge Class

This class teaches about 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) to pass this course.


3. Creativity, Action, Service

Students are required to participate in activity outside of class, either community service, athletics, or creative activities. For most students, their regular extracurricular activities and sports count for these hours, and they do not to add anything extra to their schedule to fulfill this requirement.


IB and AP Similarities and Differences

We have a complete rundown of AP versus IB in this post, which includes a guide to deciding between the two programs. But here are some of the most essential similarities and differences between the two.



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 are even the same course (e.g. AP/IB French, AP/IB Biology).

AP and IB are generally the most challenging courses available to high school students. Unless you are able to sign up for local university courses or do advanced independent projects and research, AB and IB are likely the best way for you to begin preparing for college by taking tough courses.


What’s Different?

Although both programs offer challenging courses for high school students, there are a lot of differences between they do so.



Advanced Placement is by far the more popular program. 2.2 million students took AP exams in 2013, and 2.3 million took them in 2014. About 1 million of those students are in the US

About 135,000 students took IB exams in 2014. About 73,000 of those students are in the US, the rest are international. 67,524 were diploma candidates – students completing the full IB program with the goal of earning an IB diploma. Some families opt for IB because it is rarer and can help set students apart in the admissions process.



IB is designed as a diploma program, although as we discussed above it is possible to take just a few IB classes for college credit.

In contrast, the AP program was designed around advanced classes, and not a diploma. (However, the AP has created a competitor to IB in the AP International Diploma, which you can read about here.)


Class Curriculums

IB curriculums are stricter for teachers. IB has certain required assignments your teacher has to grade, for example oral presentations, as part of the internal assessment. In contrast, AP teachers have a bit more freedom as to how to teach an AP course as long as they are 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 or easier than APs. Keep in mind that how difficult a class is to pass at your school is very dependent on the teacher and their curriculum.


Exam Content

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.



IB exams are more expensive, as we saw above. There is a registration fee plus a fee for each exam. For AP exams, you just pay by exam – $91 each. Remember that these fees are much lower than college tuition for the same classes!


College Credit

Getting AP credit can be more straightforward since more American universities are used to it and College Board officially sets a passing grade (a 3 out of 5), whereas IB does not. Furthermore, since AP courses only come in one difficulty level, it can be easier for colleges to set credit policies. (For IB, they have to decide how to handle Standard Level and Higher Level courses.)

However, for both IB and AP, the higher your passing score, the more likely you are to get credit. For example, an AP exam score of 5 nearly always earns credit, the same as an IB score of 7. Keep this in mind when you're studying!


What’s Next?

Want to learn more about AP classes? See our guide to what AP classes are and why you should take them.

Also studying for the SAT or ACT? Figure out which exam YOU will do the best on!

Get a timeline for studying for the SAT/ACT. Planning ahead will give you the opportunity to get a higher score.


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Halle Edwards
About the Author

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.

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