Difference Between IB and AP: Which One Is Better For College Admissions

Let’s learn about the critical differences between AP and IB classes and what is considered best for college applications.


Once you enter high school, the question unavoidably arises: what can you do to test yourself academically? What are courses at the school best suited to help you excel?

Generally, the answer is to enroll in college-level classes. Most American high schools provide advanced courses, i.e., Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB). These programs give college-level coursework to high school students in several subjects, ranging from Spanish Literature or Chinese Language and Humanities to Computer Science or Culture. By taking AP and IB exams in high school, students can periodically earn college credit or place out introductory courses once they get to college.

It does not matter if a high school provides an IB or AP program or both programs. This might also point to your decision about which high school to choose. Sometimes your neighborhood public school offers AP classes, but a local magnet program provides only the IB Diploma Program.

The question comes back to how should this information point to your decision to spend your high school years? And what if you are nowhere near such advanced options?

We will answer these tricky questions and more in this article, describing what AP and IB programs are, exactly, how to choose between them, and the pros and cons of each. In the end, we will discuss how college admissions officers appraise the two.

What is the IB program? Background, History, and Philosophy

The IB program originated in the United States in 1971 but started in Geneva in 1968. Its bedrock on global education is an international program devoted to creating students who can function in a globalized society.

When teachers refer to “IB programs” at American high schools, they generally talk about the IB Diploma Program, which is the IB curriculum designed for students be creating the aged 16-19—i.e., grades 11-12. 

Students operating toward an IB diploma must study across six subject groups—language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics, and the arts—and a “core” set of disciplinary approaches—theory of knowledge (TOK), creativity, activity, service (CAS) and the extended essay. You can take IB courses at “standard level” (SL) or “high level” (HL). To receive the IB diploma, at least three HL courses must be taken.

It is easily possible to take a few IB courses individually, but IB was developed to be a comprehensive program.

How popular is the IB?

The IB program is still comparably small in the US. According to the official IB website, the IB Diploma Program is given at 945 schools across the country. Nevertheless, international schools both in the U.S. and abroad lead to offer IB courses and diploma programs.

How do colleges inspect the IB? Can any student get college credit for a top IB score?

Obtaining an IB diploma is not an achievement. The Diploma demands students to complete different projects regular coursework, like a 4,000-word research paper and a community service project. Finishing the IB diploma shows to colleges that you are committed to your communities, and also you are not scared to take on different intellectual projects (i.e., the essay) outside the classroom.

One thousand six hundred sixty-two universities in the US approve the IB. Some provide course credit for the IB diploma; others offer credit for individual exams students take within the diploma program. Some schools provide credit for high scores on HL, but not SL exams; others provide credit for high scores on both HL and SL.

Few schools—usually elite private institutions—offer placement rather than course credit, indicating with a great HL score, you will be able to enroll in advanced physics, rather than general physics. As a freshman, you would not be able to count that HL score as a class toward graduation credit.

State schools usually offer charitable course credit—which means you can use a great score to count as a college class—for IB exams. The University of California system has a “30 for 30” policy. If a student earns a score of 30 or above on the IB diploma, they are granted 20-semester units (the equivalent of 30 quarter units) towards their UC degree (other schools like CUNY and Oregon State University also have 30 for 30 policies).

By variation, at top-tier private colleges, the requirements for credit can be stricter. At Columbia, students can get up to a year of recognition for some HL exams on which they have achieved a score of 6 or 7. Also, at UPenn, students can earn some credit with 6 or 7 on HL exams.

Some universities like Harvard and Yale do not offer one-to-one credit at all. Rather, high scores on HL IB exams place you into higher-level courses or, at Harvard, the Advanced Standing Program.

Important note: state schools and private colleges equally acknowledge high-scoring IB students, whether through credit or acceleration. The IB website also provides a comprehensive list of colleges that give credit for IB exams.

What are AP classes? Background, History, and Philosophy 

The Advanced Placement program is an entirely U.S.-based program that started in the 1950s in retaliation to Cold War concerns that American high schools and colleges were not correctly preparing students for the professional world.

It also started as an answer to the concern that when graduates of elite private high schools enrolled in Ivy League colleges, their first few years of education were unnecessary. 

Earlier, the program’s purpose was to keep the freshmen at elite colleges occupied through their first two years by accelerating them into more suitable coursework. Nowadays, the core of AP is still about letting gifted students take more challenging courses.

The AP program, managed by a non-profit organization, the College Board—the one that oversees the SATs and PSATs—has two primary missions. First, it gives students more challenging, college-level coursework. And second, it can help eager students earn college credit or skip the intro classes to jump straight into deeper waters once they enroll.

Unlike the IB Diploma program, APs weren’t created with the notion of delivering a cohesive curriculum. Instead, students can choose from as many as 38 available courses in seven subject areas—AP Capstone, English, Maths, Sciences History, Arts and Social Sciences, Math and Computer Science, World Languages and Cultures. 

Nevertheless, which courses your child can take generally depends on what their high school offers, though it is possible to self-study for an AP exam if the course is not provided.

How popular is the AP?

Twenty-two thousand one hundred sixty-nine schools offered AP classes in 2017, according to the College Board. You’re likelier to find AP courses available nearby than IB programs.

If your school doesn’t offer APs, you can take some courses online. Programs like the University of California’s SCOUT or the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth offer online AP classes. Your child can also study independently for AP exams. This is a good option if your child is motivated, has access to quality materials, and can balance independent study with their other classes.

How do colleges view the AP?

All U.S. and Canadian colleges accept AP scores for placement or credit, as do many international universities. The College Board gives an instrument to see whether their scores are accepted.

Different colleges have different policies for awarding credit or placement based on AP exam scores if we talk about IB exams. You are more likely to earn one-to-one credit at public institutions or midtier private colleges and earn placement or acceleration at a highly selective college.

For example, at the University of Maryland, AP scores of 3 to 5 can be used to earn credit in several subjects. At Haverford College, AP exams with scores of 4 or 5 can earn students up to four-course credits (half a credit for a 4; full credit for a 5). At Dartmouth, AP exams can exempt students from certain classes or place them in a higher level course, but won’t count towards graduation.

So, there are two excellent ways higher-levelInsteadan benefit from AP courses: as a way for you to display drive to top-tier schools or as a way to earn course credit, graduate early, and avoid debt at a mid-tier or public school.

IB vs. AP pros and cons

AP advantages: 

  • AP courses are more popular than IB courses.
  • It is less expensive to take an AP exam than an IB exam.
  • According to College Board, students pay $94 to take an AP exam whereas, and students pay $119 per subject exam fee for the IB program.
  • Your child can take AP exams without being enrolled in an AP class, whereas to take an IB exam, they must be enrolled in an IB course.
  • AP does not have an all-rounded program as IB does. This allows your child to focus on advanced classes in subjects in which they excel.
  • AP might be the right choice if your child is over-scheduled: unlike the IB Diploma Program, which includes extracurricular commitments, AP is solely curricular.

IB advantages:

The IB curriculum has a strong focus on critical thinking across disciplines and writing. These skills are helpful for college-bound students and may influence admissions officers. IB exams highlight essay-style answers rather than multiple-choice bubbles; the 4,000-word research essay required to complete the diploma also exposes students to extended writing.

The IB program imitates the liberal arts philosophy many students will encounter on college campuses because it combined subject matter and disciplinary structure.

The IB Diploma Program can encourage community among bright and motivated students: often, students end up taking many of the same courses.

The program is ideal for a student who is engrossed in eventually living or working abroad. An IB diploma might make it easier for you to apply to Oxford, for instance, since students with IB qualifications are their second-largest applicant group after A-level students.

IB’s requirement that students complete a research paper and community service project may help students mature and learn time management.

IB has authorized studies on how IB students fare in comparison to the average high school student. Here are some exciting highlights from the studies:

Former DP students in the United States (US) are significantly more likely to attend a ‘selective’ or ‘highly selective’ institution compared to the average US college-goer.”

“Feedback collected from a wide range of IB graduates suggests that IB students have an easier time adjusting to university studies.”

“In the US, a comparison of four DP standard level (SL) courses (biology, mathematics, language A and world history) and similar Advanced Placement (AP) courses assigned the DP SL courses equal or higher grades than the AP courses.

What if the school does not offer AP or IB courses?

You still opportunities for advanced study, even if the school does not offer AP or IB courses. You can apply for an online AP course.

Also, one great option is applying to local community college classes. Discussing with a counselor can help understand which courses are a good fit. Community college courses let students experience what college is like and help them earn college credit without paying for pricey AP exams. 

Important IB vs. AP Points

Point #1: AP is a less expensive, more appropriate, and more popular option.

You will find AP courses in most U.S. high schools. IB courses are rarer. Because it is not part of a cohesive diploma program, AP is a more flexible, do-it-yourself option. The tests are cheaper, your child can take some tests without being enrolled in a formal course, and they can focus on subjects they care about. 

Point #2: IB ensures a well-rounded education.

With its holistic diploma program, community service component, research essay, and emphasis on critical thinking, IB might more closely mimic college courses. It might be the better option for a student who’s serious about advancing in many subjects, not just those they’re best at.

Point #3: Colleges see AP and IB similarly.

Colleges want you to challenge yourself academically in high school: the particular coursework they take is less necessary.

According to the Yale admissions website, students are only expected to take advantage of AP or IB courses if the high school provides them. Princeton’s admissions website offers similar advice: “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.” Top-tier schools often offer acceleration credit for students who receive high scores on either type of exam.

Final Thoughts

You should make the decision based on what you think fits best for you. In the end, what matters to colleges most is whether you took advantage of the advanced options offered by their school.