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What's Better for You: IB or AP? College Expert Guide

Posted by Halle Edwards | Dec 31, 2019 2:30:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)



The Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs are both high school programs that offer college-level courses and the opportunity to earn college credit.

So what’s the difference between AP and IB? Does one look more impressive than the other? Which will improve your odds of getting into a top school the most?

We’ll introduce you to both programs, and explain which one will look more impressive on your college applications.


Key Differences Between IB and AP

Both the AP and IB programs offer challenging courses to high school students that you can earn college credit while doing. However, their philosophies and goals are quite different.

The AP program was developed in the US to help high school students prepare for college by taking advanced courses, with no set program of courses. Students could take just one or even a dozen AP classes, depending on their school, schedule, and goals.



In contrast, IB was developed in Switzerland to be an internationally recognized diploma. To earn the diploma, you have to take a certain amount of courses in a range of subjects. It is possible to just take a few IBs without earning the diploma, but IB was developed to be a set program of courses.


#1: AP Is Much More Popular Than IB

The IB program is much less common than AP. Over 2 million students took AP exams in 2014, but only about 135,000 took IBs. Furthermore, according to AP, over 30% of US public high students took at least one AP exam. While AP is quite widespread, the IB program is rarer since schools have to be able to offer enough classes for the diploma to host an IB program. Adding IB is often more costly than starting a few AP classes.



#2: IB and AP Have Different Program Goals

The programs have different goals, as well. IB has more emphasis on writing and developing critical thinking skills—and not just on the exams themselves. The IB diploma also requires the extended essay, a long, college-style research paper. The IB program also has extracurricular requirements.

In contrast, the AP is a program focused on teaching students specific content and testing their knowledge on the exams. There is more multiple-choice and emphasis on meeting certain content goals.


#3: IB Is More Expensive Than AP

IB exams are more expensive for US students than AP exams. There is a $119 fee per exam.



APs are $94 per exam for students at schools in the US, US territories, or Canada, or $124 per exam for all other students. However, many schools have financial aid and fee-waiver programs, so your actual cost could be lower. Talk with a counselor at your school’s guidance counseling office to find out about testing costs. (Also remember that these fees, while steep, are much less than the cost of taking the equivalent course in college.)


#4: Only IB Requires You to Enroll in Classes

You can take AP exams without being enrolled in a class, but you have to be enrolled in an IB class to take an IB exam. If you have proficiency in a language not offered by your school, or if you want to self-study for a niche subject like Art History, the AP program gives you more flexibility.



AP is a good option for students who like to study on their own.


Also, IB offers higher-level and standard-level courses. To get an IB diploma, you have to take at least three higher-level courses. AP courses are offered at a single level, though there are certain subjects, like calculus and physics, that have different course options. IB higher level is at some high schools considered harder than AP. Most colleges give credit for AP exams and higher-level IB exams, but not all give credit for standard-level IB exams.



You can search the AP credit policy of various colleges at the AP college database. The IB program doesn’t have a similar database, but you can look up the IB credit policy of any college or university by searching “[Name of College/University] IB Credit.”

You may be attracted to the IB program’s focus on writing and a broad education, or you may think the AP program’s flexibility makes it a better choice for you. Definitely take these program differences into account as you make your choice.

But what do colleges think? Does one program have a reputation for being more rigorous?


What Do Colleges Think of IB and AP?

Actually, colleges don’t automatically consider AP or IB harder or more impressive on a transcript. Since IB is a rarer program, they can’t penalize students for not taking it. Plus, there are huge differences in how both AP and IB courses are taught and graded at high schools across the country.



Because of the differences in IB/AP course grading, colleges—especially the most selective ones—just want to see you have taken the most challenging course load available at your high school. That means instead of worrying about AP versus IB, you should worry about taking the most rigorous classes your high schools offers.

For example, Princeton says on their admissions website, “Whenever you can, challenge yourself with the most rigorous courses possible, such as honors, Advanced Placement (AP) and dual-enrollment courses. We will evaluate the International Baccalaureate (IB), A-levels or another diploma in the context of the program’s curriculum.”



Princeton is more interested in how hard your schedule is considered at your school rather than whether you chose AP or IB.


So if your high school just has APs, then you should take some AP classes. If your high school has just the IB program, you should take some IB classes or, even better, go for the diploma. If your high school has both, you can take a mix.

Since IB is a diploma program and AP is not, if you’re going for the most selective schools, it’s smart to pursue the IB diploma if it's offered at your school. If you don’t, you technically haven’t taken the most challenging courses available to you. However, if you have a demanding extracurricular schedule or are intensely committed to a few academic areas, you won't necessarily be penalized for not doing the diploma. Bottom line: consider your high school's offerings and how challenging your schedule (including extracurriculars) looks in comparison.



One thing to keep in mind is that the IB diploma shows you are challenging yourself in all subject areas, whereas with the AP program you could just pick subjects you are strong in. Colleges will notice this. If you can, try to take AP classes in a broad range of subjects while digging deeper into subjects you are passionate about.

For example, if you’re a writer and do well in your English classes, definitely take AP English Literature and AP English Language if you can. But you should also consider trying AP Statistics or AP Calculus to show you also have quantitative skills.


One of the single most important parts of your college application is what classes you choose 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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Does IB or AP Give You More College Credit?

Another difference between the AP and IB courses is how much course credit you can earn from them at different schools. If a college you’re interested in seems to favor one program or the other, it could help you decide which program to pursue.

In most cases, if you earn a high passing score—for example a 7 on IB or a 5 on AP—you will get course credit.



But one thing to keep in mind is that while IB higher-level courses are usually accepted by colleges, standard-level IB courses aren’t always taken. In contrast, AP is offered at one level. So if you take three higher-level IB courses and three standard-level IB courses as part of the diploma, you may end up with less credit than you would for the same six AP courses.

Furthermore, many colleges have slight variances in credit hours between AP and IB, which could affect your decision between the two programs.

For example, at Stanford, the IB and AP credit lists are mostly the same, with language, math and physics getting the exact same credit. However, you can get more credit for IB Chemistry than AP Chemistry.

But some colleges tend to give AP more credit. For example CU Boulder generally gives AP Language exams more weight than IB language exams. Some colleges give more credit for IB. The University of Michigan generally gives more credit hours for IB classes.



The bottom line? AP and IB credit are both widely accepted, but there are lots of slight differences in credit policies. We suggest looking up policies at your target schools since the credit policies can differ.

How do you get this info? Search for “[Name of College/University] IB Credit Policy” or “[Name of College/University] AP Credit Policy.”


The University's web page with credit information will often be the first or second result.


If a school you’re really interested in seems to vastly favor one program or the other, you should take that into consideration when weighing the two programs. But odds are if you look up more than two or three schools, it will end up being a wash, with some schools slightly favoring IB and others favoring AP.

Also, keep in mind you only get credit in most cases if you have a 5 or higher on IB exams or a 4 or higher on AP exams. So whether you take AP or IB, remember to focus on doing well and passing!



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Other Considerations for Deciding Between AP and IB

There are a few other factors you should think about when deciding between AP and IB.


How Do They Fit With Your Scheduling and Extracurriculars?

Would doing the IB diploma prevent you from a certain extracurricular, like Yearbook or Debate or Band? Are APs and IBs offered as the same class at your school? Are you ready to commit to an IB diploma or do you want the flexibility of AP classes?

These are questions you should consider before signing up for either AP or IB classes. Ask your high school if they have suggested four-year plans for advanced students. This will give you an idea of what your schedule might look like and how it could conflict with extracurriculars you want to participate in.



Do IB or AP Classes Have Better Teachers at Your School?

Does your school have the same or different teachers for AP and IB courses? What are their reputations? The quality of a teacher can make or break your experience in a class.

You can ask upperclassmen about their experience in certain classes, or see if there is a way to see syllabi from current and past years for AP and IB classes. You can also ask your guidance counselor about the exam pass rates for different teachers. This can give you a sense of a class’s reputation and how many students are successful in which classes.


Should You Change Schools For IB?

We’ve talked about deciding between AP and IB at the same school. But what if your local high school doesn’t offer IB, and you’re considering switching to a school that does?




Remember to consider the time it will take to commute!


I had to make this decision myself. My district had three high schools, but only one offered the IB program. That high school was pretty far away from my neighborhood, but it drew tons of students specifically for the IB program, and a lot of my friends were going there because they wanted to get into good colleges. I strongly considered going to that different high school for the IB program.

I eventually decided to go to my neighborhood high school that offered just APs. Going to the other high school would have involved at least an hour of commuting each day, and it would have strained my family’s schedule.

Since I saved time by not commuting, it was actually easier to get involved in after school extracurriculars like debate and Model United Nations. I was also able to keep doing piano lessons and service work, activities I had done since I was little, since my schedule wasn't squeezed by commuting.



Furthermore, I was able to take a rigorous schedule of AP classes. I earned leadership positions in my extracurriculars by junior year. All of this helped me put together competitive college applications. I likely could have done as well at the other high school, but the point is that even without IB, I was able to pursue a rigorous and challenging high school program.

Since I took the most challenging program available at the high school I attended, I didn’t hurt my admission chances. In fact, I might have improved them by having more time for extracurriculars.

There is one exception to this worth noting—there was an in-state scholarship competition I was in the running for that ended up selecting most of its winners from IB schools. It’s possible that for some private scholarships and organizations, IB looks more impressive. But that is a factor that could vary state by state, and even district by district.



The key is to do your best at whatever high school you attend. Colleges are evaluating you in the context of your school. If you feel like you won't have many opportunities to be challenged at your local high school and really want to attend a different school, you can make that call. But don't feel pressured to switch just because you think it will look better on an application.


Bottom Line: AP vs IB

Taking either AP or IB classes will look very good on your applications, as it shows you are challenging yourself with college-level courses. There is no real preference or benefit from doing one or the other, as long as you do well in your chosen courses.

As one admission officer at Northwestern University said, “one qualification (AP vs IB) is not better than another.”

However, you want to make sure you are doing well in your classes and not overloading. There is no point in taking on 10 AP classes or the IB diploma if you get a low GPA and don’t pass the exams.



Finally, you want to make sure other parts of your application are strong, especially your ACT/SAT score. Along with your transcript and GPA, your ACT/SAT score can have an enormous impact on your admission chances, especially at selective schools.


What’s Next?

Speaking of the SAT and ACT, do you know which exam you’re going to focus on? Find out definitively which one you will be best at.

Get a study schedule for the SAT and ACT. The earlier you start, the more opportunity you have for a high score.

What’s a good SAT/ACT score for the Ivy League? Find out the scores you need to be competitive.


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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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