IB vs. AP Classes: What’s the Difference?

January 24, 2017

College-bound students can get a head start on their academic careers by taking advanced placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses while still in high school. Both may be eligible for college credit, but they differ in structure and learning focus. 

Students should make a personal choice about what is optimal for their academic futures, whether it’s taking AP, IB or a combination of both.

How the Programs Differ

AP courses are offered individually, on a semester-by-semester basis. In essence, a student may take a regular curriculum but opt for one or two AP courses. The IB program, in contrast, is generally pursued as a structured two-year program for which students receive a diploma. It is possible, however, to take individual IB courses without completing the full IB curriculum.

Some argue that AP courses offer more flexibility, as classes may be taken online at any point. IB courses are restricted to those enrolled in grades 11 and 12. As an IB student, you are required to choose 6 subjects to study for 2 years; 3 at a higher level, and 3 at a standard level. The flexibility of AP may be particularly appealing for gifted students who want an academic challenge at an earlier age. While the IB takes a more comprehensive and international approach, AP narrows in on specific subjects and analyzes them from all angles.

Most observers agree that the overall workload for the IB program is greater than for AP courses; however, AP subjects are comprehensive and tested after a shorter time frame. The IB diploma program focuses to a large extent on writing, while AP classes may have tests with many multiple-choice questions.

IB diploma students are required to complete a major research paper (a.k.a the extended essay) and a set number of community, action and service (CAS) hours in addition to other coursework. They are also required to take a class called the Theory of Knowledge and submit coursework on a chosen subject.

How Students Are Tested

Since the IB is an international program, most of the assessment is done externally, outside of a student’s high school. AP exams, on the other hand, are scored internally. In addition, a student can skip right to the exam for an AP course, receiving credit without actually taking the class. In IB, it is mandatory that students take the course before sitting for the exam. IB exams are at the end of senior year and tests students on material that was taught over the 2 year program.

How Colleges View AP and IB

Most colleges and universities will place equal weight on AP and IB courses. Because IB is less common in U.S. schools and is more international in nature, it’s likely many colleges are more familiar with the AP modules and curriculum. Both programs are considered rigorous, and students usually receive college credit if they have obtained a certain score. For AP, that is usually a minimum score of three; for IB, the minimum is usually five. Many U.S. colleges also only allow credit to be given on IB Higher Level subjects. 

Which Is Better?

Students are bound to be challenged by either AP or IB coursework. While the IB program does not offer the same flexibility as AP courses might, it offers academic experiences that AP does not. Those include the major research paper and the Theory of Knowledge course, which are mandatory.

IB students generally receive extensive administrative support in schools where the program is offered. Reference materials for AP courses are more commercially available, allowing for independent study. Students who want to enroll in IB must take prerequisites in grades 9 and 10, and therefore must anticipate wanting to pursue the certificate.

Students must look closely at their academic objectives in order to decide whether to enroll in IB or AP. In either case, they will receive a significant academic challenge. Many locations also permit students to take a “mix and match” approach, taking courses with each designation.

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​What high school curriculum do you follow? Let us know what you think and if you have any questions about APs or IB courses!



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lmelcher
Columbia ‘20


Accepted to Columbia, Brown, UPenn, Rice, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UVA, UC Davis, UCSD, UCSC, USC

Hey! I'm a John Jay Scholar at Columbia, and I'm from Los Angeles. I'm planning to major in Art History and do ballet and theater. Hope I can help!
Bhenrique
UC Berkeley ‘19


Accepted to UC Berkeley, Penn State, Colorado, UCLA, NYU

Passionate about Education. Lover of all things science!
elle2020
Brown ‘20


Accepted to Brown, UPenn, Wellesley, Kenyon, Macalester, Holyoke, Harvard, Bowdoin

Just another girl finally through the college apps rat race. I'm happy to share with you what I did to get through it! Currently I'm pre-law and possibly majoring in Public Policy.
Serena2020
Harvard ‘19


Accepted to Harvard, UChicago, Northwestern, Swarthmore, Emory, Oklahoma U, UKentucky, K College , OU, Alma

Premed on track to graduate a year early. But I love my school! National merit scholar, into surgery, arts & community…

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