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Articles / Preparing for College / AP or IB: Which Do Colleges Prefer?

Aug. 3, 2021

AP or IB: Which Do Colleges Prefer?

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Photo of student holding a stack of textbooks in front of face by Siora Photography on Unsplash

AP or IB: Which Classes Should I Take?

Some high schools offer both AP and IB classes. Having the option to choose is great, but knowing which classes to take can leave many students (and parents) confused. In terms of college admissions, there isn't one clear choice. College admissions committees like seeing both types of college prep classes on students' transcripts. Both IB and AP prep classes have benefits; which is best for your depend on your goals and which classes your school offers.

Understand the differences between AP and IB

More high school students in the U.S. take AP classes than IB classes, but this doesn't mean they're necessarily better.

Around 20,000 American high schools offer AP classes, while fewer than 950 U.S. schools offer the full IB diploma program. In 2021, however, over 5500 schools in 159 countries offered the IB program. International baccalaureate is gaining in popularity though; the number of schools worldwide that offer IB increased 33 percent between 20

IB's are more focused on critical thinking, theory and writing. AP's are more focused on mastering complex knowledge in one of the 36 subjects offered

Choose courses that challenge you

College applications ask guidance counselors to indicate whether a student's academic program is "Most Demanding," "Very Demanding, "Somewhat Demanding," when compared with what is offered at that school. If a student is interested in top-tier schools, it is less important whether their classes are AP or IB than that their course load falls is considered "most demanding" for their high school. College counselors consistently rate grades in college prep courses and difficulty of curriculum as "very considerable" factor in college admissions decisions.

Both full IB programs and AP-heavy courses are demanding, but just how demanding may depend on the specific classes you take. If you're not sure how rigorous your schedule is, check with your school counselor. If you have your sight set on a top-tier school, but sure to choose the most challenging classes your high school offers, whether they are IBs's, AP's, or a mix of both.

If Your School Offers the Full IB Diploma Program, Seriously Consider It

The IB diploma program is an academically rigorous two-year program for 16 to 19 year olds. It's not offered at nearly as many high schools as APs, but if your school is one of the 900 that offers the full diploma program, you may want to take it.

College Confidential's Dean Sally Rubenstone reached out to the renowned Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews about the AP vs IB question. Matthews has written extensively about AP and IB programs.

He says:

"I have been asking selective college admissions officers for 20 years what they think of AP and IB, and every one has been extremely enthusiastic about both. The IB exams ask more of students than the AP ones do, and I don't think anyone who works regularly with IB students thinks there is any lack of rigor and content in the IB teaching... But I think IB is even better because of its emphasis on writing and its extended essay requirement for those going for the full diploma. The only American high schools these days that require a research paper of every student are private schools and IB schools. It is a great flaw in our system and IB does more than AP to correct it."

In many high schools, students can sign on for some selected IB classes without shooting for the whole IB diploma, but admission officials prefer to see students who completed all six-courses in the full diploma program.

If You Need Flexibility for Extracurriculars, Consider AP over IB

Before you commit to either, be certain that you understand what is required of both. If you are a serious athlete or your extracurriculars take up a significant amount of your time, you may want to stick with AP. There are more courses options to choose from with AP, which may make scheduling easier. There are also online options for some AP classes, and lots of test prep resources to make studying for the exam easier.

Your school should have information the IB classes and schedule. You can also read about the benefits of IB or explore this comprehensive Wikipedia summary of International Baccalaureate.

If you're not up for a huge time-commitment, AP might be the way to go. But before deciding, research which AP classes your school offers, and be sure there are at least three to five courses that you're interested in and eligible to take.

Before you commit to either route, be certain that you understand what both programs require and the extracurricular or social sacrifices you may need to make.

Ask yourself:

  • Will either keep you from the activities or events that are important to you?
  • Do IB diploma students take all their classes together and rarely spend time with non-IB students?
  • Are you more interested in mastering complex information, or discussing with complex issues?

If you want to graduate college early, take AP classes

The most selective colleges often give college credit only for Higher Level (HL) IB classes. IB diploma students take three classes at that level and the rest at the Standard Level (SL). Some colleges only give credit for top IB exam scores of 7, while others give credit for scores of 4 and up.

Similarly, colleges have different policies about what AP exam scores qualify students for college credit. AP students may credit in many more subjects, depending on how many AP classes the student takes, how he fares on the exams, and what the college's credit policy is.

Some students say that it is harder to earn IB credits than for AP credits. If you have an idea of where you want to apply to college, look into their AP and IB transfer credit policies to make a better- informed decision about which classes to take.

If your goal is college credit, take AP classes

The most selective colleges often give college credit only for Higher Level (HL) IB classes. IB diploma students take three classes at that level and the rest at the Standard Level (SL). Some colleges only give credit for top IB exam scores of 7, while others give credit for scores of 4 and up.

Similarly, colleges have different policies about what AP exam scores qualify students for college credit. AP students may credit in many more subjects, depending on how many AP classes the student takes, how he fares on the exams, and what the college's credit policy is.

Some students say that it is harder to earn IB credits than for AP credits. If you have an idea of where you want to apply to college, look into their AP and IB transfer credit policies to make a better- informed decision about which classes to take.

Both AP and IB are good options. Which is better depends on your goals.

The Bottom Line:

You can't really can't go wrong with AP or IB classes. Which is better depends on your goals.

AP classes may be a better choice for students that want to save time and money by earning college credits. They also make sense for students who want to go into technical fields that require mastering detailed information, or who are athletic recruits or heavily involved in extracurriculars.

The IB diploma program may be a good choice for a student who plan to go into a field that will require a lot of critical thinking and essay writing. IB's are best for students who see academics as their primary interest and strength, and crave a stimulating and thought-provoking high school experience.

For some additional thoughts, here is an and also to an IB vs. AP thread on the College Confidential forums.

Want More College Admissions Advice?

Keep reading for more tips on high school strategy and applying to college.

Or, join the conversation about IB vs. AP in the CC College Admissions Forums.

Written by

Joy Bullen

Joy Bullen

Joy Bullen is College Confidential's Senior Editor and Head of Content. She is a graduate of Kenyon College, where she majored in English and Creative Writing. She also earned a master’s in Psychology from The New School for Social Research in NYC.

Before becoming a full-time writer and editor, Joy coached thousands of prospective and enrolled college students on admissions and academic and career success. She also managed a team of academic and career coaches and consulted with universities on how to create programs that have better outcomes for students.

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