Choosing Between IB and AP Programs

6 min readnovember 3, 2020

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Going to an international school gives me the option to choose between the Advanced Placement program by CollegeBoard versus the International Baccalaureate program. Many students struggle with this decision, as both programs are unique in their own right, with varying pros and cons.
AP Overview
Advanced Placement courses are college level courses offered most commonly in American high schools. Though it started off as an American program, the courses have begun to expand globally over the past few years. There is no set program for AP; you can take as many courses and whichever courses you like (in regards to your school rules). There is an (optional) exam for each course, and each exam is out of 5 points. At US universities, you can get credit for these courses depending on the score you obtain.
IB Overview
The International Baccalaureate program is a two year program which is completed during a student’s last two years of high school. In this program, you must take 6 courses, one from each subject group. You must take 3 of these courses at a higher level and three at a standard level. In addition to your 6 subjects, you must fulfill 3 additional requirements: Creativity and Service (CAS), Theory of Knowledge (TOK), and an Extended Essay (EE). These will be further explained later in the article. Finally, at the end of the two years, you take 6 exams for each of your subjects. These exams cover information you have learned over the past two years. You get a final score out of 45, maximum 7 points for each subject. The remaining three points are obtained through CAS, TOK, and EE.
While both programs have a lot to offer, these are a few factors you should consider before making a decision.
Similar core courses are offered in both programs. However, there are a few distinctions.
There is definitely a larger variety of AP courses. For example, the AP Histories offered include: US History, European History, World History, and Art History. On the other hand, the IB program only offers one history course. With the IB program, you have to take 6 courses that come from 5 groups. You have to take 1 math, 1 social science, 1 science, 1 English, and 1 language. For your 6th course, you can take an additional science or social science. This type of structure for two years does not allow you to explore a specific subject area in much depth. For example, in IB, you can only take 2 sciences. But in AP, you can take as many as you would like (with regards to school rules and fitting the classes into your schedule, of course).  While many people like the flexibility in course selection AP offers, many people also prefer a balanced, set schedule.  Some individuals might not know what they want to pursue yet, so a schedule with all the courses is exactly what they need. So, if you know exactly what subject area you are interested in, and want to go deeper into that, then AP may be the right choice for you. If you are unsure, then IB may be a better option.
The IB program is already very rigorous as it is fixed— so you will be taking 6 IB classes. AP is more flexible; you can make it as easy or difficult as you want. You can only take 1 AP course, making your load much easier. Or you can take 6, making your schedule extremely difficult. Hence, if you want the opportunity to take courses of varying difficulty, AP may be the right choice for you.
Extra – Curricular Activities
One of the requirements in IB, in addition to the 6 courses, is CAS: Creativity, Action, and Service. This requirement is met by completing a specific number of hours of activities falling into these categories. While some of these hours can be fulfilled by your current extracurriculars, most students often have to do extra “CAS projects.” Therefore, if you have no extracurriculars— this is perfect for you! It could motivate you to partake in more activities outside of academics. But, if you already have many activities that you are a part of, it would definitely be worth it to do your research. If you have a lot of activities that don’t work for CAS, you might want to consider AP as you will not have to do both CAS oriented work and your regular activities. You will be able to focus on activities you actually enjoy, instead of doing activities merely to meet a requirement.
IB does focus a lot on the value of research. This is shown in the Extended Essay, which is a research project consisting of 4000 words. While this is a positive aspect of the program and does help build research skills, you should also think about how the Extended Essay works at your school specifically. At many schools, it is just left to students to complete over a summer, with minimal help. Other schools give students a lot of guidance in the research, which can be a real asset to you when attending college. It is also important to note that CollegeBoard offers the AP Seminar and AP Research courses tied together via the AP Capstone program. These are courses dedicated to research, which makes them better preparation for university than the IB Program. If you have an interest in research, and these classes are offered at your school, you may want to consider taking them. If you aren’t interested in research at all, then taking AP courses without AP Seminar / AP Research is completely fine too. It ultimately depends on the amount of research you want to do during your school year. Keep in mind that you could also do your own research project over a summer or other break!
Theory of Knowledge – TOK
TOK is like a 7th class you will have to take part of  during the time-frame in which you are completing the IB program. It is a discussion based class, and the way it is taught varies from school to school. If you are considering the IB program, you should ask seniors for insight about how TOK works in your particular school.
UK Admissions
The UK accepts both the IB program and AP Exam scores, but there are a few factors that differentiate the process between an IB versus an AP student. Firstly, with AP, it is much more common to receive unconditional acceptances. This is because you already have external exam scores from 11th grade and prior to send to universities. With IB, you receive your scores in the July following your senior year. Therefore, with IB, conditional acceptances are more common. This is when you get a notice that you have “gotten in” to a university, but will only be able to attend if you have received a specific IB score on your exams. This is definitely a factor to consider when deciding to do IB verus AP; some people may not be able to cope with the pressure of reaching a specific score to get into university. While you may get conditional acceptances as an AP student, they will likely be for 1 or 2 exam scores at most— for IB, they will be for the total score out of 45. Additionally, unconditional acceptances with AP are common, while with IB, they are rare.
Overall, one program is not better than the other. They are both amazing programs with many positive qualities. It ultimately depends on which program is better for you. Try not to be influenced by other people, but think of yourself, and which program you will enjoy more. At the end of the day, you really can’t go wrong with either!
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