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IB vs. AP: Choosing the Right Program

If you’re a high schooler, especially one already in advanced or honors courses, you’ve probably heard a lot about the IB and AP programs. But what makes them different, and which one best suits your strengths and weaknesses as a student? We’ll break it down for you.


If you’re a high school student or parent of a current high school student, you’ve probably heard the terms “AP” and “IB” thrown around before, especially if you’re interested in an advanced curriculum. These are the most well-known options when it comes to choosing advanced courses that offer preparation for college-level studies — the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) Program and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme. The allure of these programs has often been the potential to earn college credits (although that largely depends on your college and major of choice). 

In 2022, more than 2.6 million students took at least one AP class, and the IB offered programs to more than 1.95 million students aged 3 to 19 internationally. These programs allow students to explore higher-level classes in a wide variety of subjects while working on their academic strengths and weaknesses. These programs can provide students exposure to interests they might have not otherwise explored before embarking on their journey to higher education.

While most students only have the option of one program, some can choose between the two options. If you’re deciding which program is the best for you or if you’re deciding if either of them is a fit for you at all, we’re here to break down the pros and cons of both so you can make an informed decision.

What is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program? 

According to their website, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which was first established in 1968, encourages “both personal development and academic achievement challenging students to think critically, to ask the right questions and think across disciplines.” Its four educational programs — the Primary Years Programme (ages 3-12), the Middle Years Programme (ages 11-16), the Diploma Programme (ages 16-19), and the Career-related Programme (ages 16-19) — are offered to students aged 3 to 19 across the globe, hence the UK-inspired spelling of “program.” IB classes are the less popular and available option in the US, but it’s commonly thought that the IB Program is a better fit for students who want to go to school abroad. 

High school students are often participating in the Diploma Programme, which is described as “a future-ready programme that builds students’ inquiring mindset, fosters their desire to learn, and prepares them to excel at their careers and lead meaningful lives.” The curriculum is comprised of six subject groups and the DP core, comprising theory of knowledge (TOK), creativity, activity, service (CAS), and the extended essay. Students take exams at the conclusion of their classes, and upon successful completion of the program, they are awarded an IB Diploma. 

What is the Advanced Placement (AP) Program?

The Advanced Placement (AP) Program was established over 40 years ago by the College Board, a national nonprofit organization that also administers the SAT. There are 38 courses and exams that are available through the AP program. Subjects include classes in the Arts, English, History and Social Sciences, Math and Computer Science, Sciences, and World Languages and Cultures.

Students usually take an exam at the end of the class to receive AP credit. Not all schools require students to take AP exams after their course, but that is the only way for students to potentially receive college credit in the future — it was reported by the College Board that, in 2022, 34.6% of public high school students in the US took at least one AP Exam. It is also possible to take the exam without taking an AP course and simply receive credit for the exam if they receive a certain score. To ascertain the difficulty of these exams, consider the fact that only 21.6% of public high school graduates in the US scored a 3 or higher on an AP Exam.

What Are the Differences Between IB vs. AP?

As mentioned above, while these programs are similar in that they offer advanced courses for high school students, there are significant differences in each program’s approach. These differences include availability in American high schools, curriculum structure, assessment methods, philosophical differences, and flexibility and customization.


AP classes are more widely available in the US compared to the IB Diploma. Nearly 23,000 high schools offer at least one AP course, according to the Brookings Institution, while the IB Diploma Programme is only offered in just over 900 American high schools.

Curriculum Structure

IB courses tend to be more in-depth, as most IB diploma programs last two years whereas AP classes are usually two semesters at most. An IB Diploma necessitates two years of classes across six subject categories whereas students are free to take as many or as few AP courses as they would like (or can fit in their schedule).

Assessment Methods

AP exams are usually full of multiple-choice questions that require factual, sometimes surface-level knowledge, and maybe a few short essays that demand a very rigid approach to answering a complex question (i.e. Document-Based Questions (DBQs) in AP history classes). IB Diploma Programmes, on the other hand, are almost exclusively written responses that demand a much deeper, detailed understanding of the subject matter. 

Scoring is also different on each exam — AP exams are graded on a scale of 1-5 (with 3 being a passing grade), and IB courses are graded on a scale of 1-7 (with 4 usually being considered a passing grade). The score necessary to obtain college credit for the course, however, depends on the college that the student eventually attends.

Philosophical Differences

IB courses often focus on fostering collaboration between students and creating “globally-minded students” who can see the bigger picture regarding the entirety of their education. AP classes offer students a more individualized experience with less focus on group projects. AP classes are focused on getting students accustomed to the pace and rigor of a college education whereas IB classes are committed to a comprehensive exploration of the curriculum.

Flexibility and Customization

AP students are not required to commit to an entire curriculum like IB students; instead, they can choose the classes that fit them best. While some schools do place limitations on the number and difficulty level of the classes (usually through prerequisites and teacher approval), students usually have at least some choice and flexibility when it comes to choosing their classes. IB students do have flexibility, but because of the length of the courses, they’re not able to take as many classes as AP students in most cases.

IB vs. AP: Benefits and Challenges

According to an article in US News & World Report and interviews with several AP instructors at various American high schools, AP courses are “specifically designed to help students do college-level work and improve their critical thinking skills,” whereas the IB Diploma Programme aims “to help students be reflective, balanced, healthy risk-takers and caring.”

IB classes are more focused on inquiry, and, given that the classes span two years, offer a much deeper window into the subject at hand. This can be seen as a hindrance for students who want to explore a wide range of subjects during their very limited time in high school. However, some students find AP classes offer such a large amount of information in such a short amount of time that all students are capable of doing is learning how to take the test, instead of letting the learning process be a meaningful experience in and of itself.

One thing to note is that AP exams cost students (or, rather, their families) around $98 per test and up to $146 for AP Seminar and Research exams. IB Diploma classes and exams also cost $119 each. Sometimes schools will fit the bill for these tests or offer financial assistance; however, at private schools in particular, students are usually responsible for the full cost. 

IB vs. AP:  What is the Best Choice?

When it comes to choosing between the IB and AP programs, the truth is that the best choice for any student varies widely based on the several factors discussed above — academic trajectory and goals, availability at their receptive schools, schedule availability, cost, focus and approach, and more. It’s best to discuss with your teachers and guidance counselors to see what they think may be an ideal fit given your situation.

Do Colleges Prefer AP or IB?

Continuing off the above, it’s more important to consider what is actually the best fit for a student when choosing between IB and/or AP classes without giving too much weight to the competitiveness of the college admissions process. It is true, however, that prestigious colleges like to see that students have opted for the most challenging course of study possible, which usually means taking the AP and/or IB classes that are available to them. These classes can also have a large, positive impact on a student’s GPA, which can lead to a number of academic awards and honors and impress a college.

It’s also important to note that colleges won’t compare you directly to a student who has more advanced classes and resources at their disposal — for instance, if your school only offers 5 AP classes, you’re not going to be compared to a student at a school that offers 20 AP classes. Rather, you’re considered in the context of the school you attend so that all candidates are on an equal playing field as much as possible. 

AP and IB classes can drastically change the course of a student’s education for the better. Keep all of the above advice in mind when considering which one may be the best fit for you or your student.

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