With its international focus and requirements that emphasize multidisciplinary coursework, service, and research, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program offers a more holistic option for students seeking to challenge themselves in high school. The IB teaches “students to think critically and independently, and how to inquire with care and logic.” Although the IB is similar to the more familiar Advanced Placement (AP) program, it has its own pros and cons.
The IB Curriculum
The IB is comprised of four programs: Primary Years Programme (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP), Diploma Programme (DP), and Career-related Programme (CP). Of these four programs, the Diploma Programme is by far the most popular and accessible.
The curriculum for an IB diploma (DP) includes three core elements:
- Theory of Knowledge
- Extended Essay
- Creativity, Activity, Service
Students must also complete courses in each of these six subject groups:
- Studies in Language and Literature
- Language Acquisition
- Individuals and Societies
- The Arts
Each student takes at least three (but not more than four) subjects at the higher level (HL), and the remaining at the standard level (SL). A course in the arts can be exchanged for an additional sciences, individuals and societies, or languages course.
Due to the IB’s focus on international education, students in all courses are encouraged to “consider both local and global contexts” and “become more culturally aware, through the development of a second language.” Each course aims to develop students’ appreciation of other cultures and their understanding of global issues by “looking at big ideas across disciplines, such as examining connections between the early 20th century novel The Jungle and communism or considering visual depictions of music."
Students in an IB program are not graded on a traditional A through F scale. The IB is a point-based system in which “a diploma is awarded to students who gain at least 24 points, subject to certain minimum levels of performance including successful completion of the three essential elements of the DP core.” The IB uses both internal assessments and external assessments to determine how many points students will receive.
Each of the six IB subjects is graded on a 1-7 scale. A student who earns a 6 in Biology will add 6 points to his or her IB point total, for example. Students can earn three more points for the Extended Essay (EE) and Theory of Knowledge (TOK) components. In addition to earning points, students must also maintain “consistent quality of work throughout the program,” successfully complete at least one class in every core subject, and demonstrate satisfactory performance on the Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) component.
IB vs. AP
There are many similarities between the International Baccalaureate program and the Advanced Placement program. Both programs are open to all students, look good to colleges, and award college credit upon examination. How do you know which program is right for you? The choice comes down to picking the program that best matches your personal and academic goals.
One of the most significant differences between the two programs is the level of commitment required. IB’s diploma programs have core element requirements in addition to course-specific requirements. Although students can choose to take IB courses and earn a subject-specific IB Certificate (and potentially college credit) without participating in the full program, pursuing “a diploma shows you are challenging yourself in all areas of study rather than a select few.” The holistic approach of the IB is in many ways its greatest asset, but it can also make it more challenging for students to balance the demands of the program with social and extracurricular activities.
AP is a much more flexible option, especially for students who would like to focus on taking advanced classes in a few specific subjects that appeal to their strengths and interests. However, while the IB’s curriculum requirements may be more rigid, it offers a more hands-on approach to learning: students actively critique each other's work, choose their own projects, express themselves through writing, conduct research, and engage in community service. Unlike AP, which is geared toward preparing students for the AP exam, IB aims to teach students how to think creatively with exams that focus on applying knowledge. Many students who take IB classes also take (and pass!) AP exams.
Ultimately, the choice between IB and AP is made for you: many schools simply do not offer an IB program, and, if they do, the range of courses available is limited. The IB provides a search tool on its website to locate participating schools. Students should also be aware that, even though more colleges are recognizing the IB, it is still not guaranteed that students who participate in the program or pass IB exams will receive college credit. Right now, AP is still the more reliable option.
The International Baccalaureate isn’t for everyone. It is a highly demanding program that not only comes with a heavy workload, but also a rigid curriculum that must be completed over a significant length of time. Still, there are many benefits of participating in an IB program. Not only is the IB a pathway to earning college credit and acceptance at highly competitive colleges and universities, it is a rigorous and challenging academic program that teaches students personal responsibility, problem solving, and international-mindedness.
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