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Advanced Placement versus International Baccalaureate, or AP vs. IB

AP, College Admissions, College Applications, High School, IB, Teaching

Having taught both IB and AP courses, attended several trainings for IB and AP, and also having been an AP grader, I hope I am able provide a solid summary of the differences between the two programs.  Since I no longer teach high school and have no vested interest encouraging students to do one program or another, I am also free to be completely honest in my assessments. 

1.        Which is less expensive and easier to implement for schools and students?  AP

The fees to set up an IB school can often be prohibitively expensive:

http://www.ibo.org/become/fees/

This is why we don’t see a whole lot of smaller schools and private schools going the IB route – they don’t have the opportunity to achieve the economies of scale that make it worth the investment.  IB works best financially in a large school district where one high school can be designated the “IB Magnet” school, drawing students interested in the program from throughout the district. 

AP does not require any school wide investment, and individual courses can be easily implemented rather than an entire program.  The IB requires full school-wide implementation of the program, so a school cannot implement just one IB course at a time.  Moreover, IB has an extremely rigorous school approval process before the IB program can even be allowed at the school.  This does help ensure a higher level of program quality, but it can be a major paperwork hurdle for a school administration to overcome. 

As far as student fees to take the exams, AP is a bit less expensive.  If you take multiple IB exams, the costs are comparable, but if you are doing just one or two IB exams, the mandatory student fee can add quite a bit to the costs.  Compare for yourself here: 

http://www.ibo.org/become/fees/assessmentfees/

http://www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/ap/cal_fees.html

Finally, AP will allow individual students to take an AP exam without having taken the AP course.  IB doesn’t allow this, so self-study is not an option. 

2.       What kind of student prefers each program?  It depends on the student.

Do AP if you like:

  • Multiple Choice Tests
    • AP Tests typically have multiple choice as roughly half of the overall AP assessment, and free response the other half. 
  • More structured in-class essay writing
    • The rubrics for AP essay grading are more straight-forward and less open to interpretation than the more holistic rubrics for IB. 
  • If you are able to quickly memorize information
    • You need to know a broader array of facts for the AP assessments. 
  • You don’t care for big papers and projects
    • Most AP teachers will model their in-class assessments on the AP exams, which are generally combinations of multiple choice and free response.  It is unlikely that you will have as many large research papers or presentations in AP since these types of projects do not prepare you for the AP exams. 
  • You learn well with lecture
    • It is more likely that your AP teacher will use lecture to cover the vast amount of material that’s needed for the AP exam.  There are plenty of AP teachers who don’t do this, but in my experience, lecture often comes with the territory in AP. 

Do  IB if you like:

  • Writing
    • You will have tons of writing to do for IB.  The Extended Essay, Internal Assessments, in-class essays, and more.  There is relatively little multiple choice in IB.  If you are looking to improve your writing skills, you will definitely do so in the IB program.
  • Going in-depth
    • On many of the IB assessments, particularly those in the humanities, you will find that you are required to achieve mastery of deep areas of knowledge rather than going through a broader survey. 
  • You like working in groups
    • There are more opportunities for group activities in the IB assessments and in-class activities.  Although an AP teacher may encourage group work, it is hard to not do group work as a part of IB. 
  • You enjoy projects and presentations. 
    • In IB you will have all sorts of portfolio projects and unique internal assessments.  If you are good at demonstrating your knowledge in ways other than multiple choice tests, then IB may be right for you. 
  • You don’t procrastinate. 
    • If you put off doing your internal assessments and extended essay, you will be in a ton of trouble.  If you have the discipline to get things done over a period of time, you will find IB tough but manageable. 
  • You are interested in the intersection of different types of knowledge.
    • AP is much more compartmentalized, i.e. the AP U.S. History course won’t discuss anything from the AP Physics Course.  In IB, particularly if you are doing the Theory of Knowledge course, you will look quite a bit at how we claim to know what we know, and what that means in different areas of scholarship. 

3.       Which is more widely accepted by colleges?  AP for the most part.

 

  • If you are like most American Students and plan on going to college in the U.S., AP will make it easier to get college credit.  Although more and more colleges are becoming familiar with IB, many schools are behind the times and are more willing to award credit to AP students.  In addition, you may need to do the Higher Level IB course (a more rigorous 2 year option) in order to earn college credit.  With AP, you do a one year course, and most colleges will give you credit.  The only way to be certain about this is to ask the colleges to which you want to apply what their policies are. 
  • If you are thinking about going abroad for college, IB might make it easier.  IB was originally formed to make it possible for students who had to move around Europe a good bit to be able to transfer between schools without trouble.  Since so few American students are thinking about going to Europe, Canada or elsewhere for college, this usually isn’t a selling point.  (In my opinion, Americans should consider doing this as I argue here.)  If, however, you are open to international schools, IB can be a plus. 

4.       Which prepares you more for college coursework?  For the most part, IB does

Freshman-level introductory courses are often survey classes that involve multiple choice tests, some essay work, and quite a bit of lecture.  AP will prepare students very well for these types of classes.  For upper level courses and independent studies that involve quite a bit of research and writing, IB is far superior in helping students learn the process. 

5.       Which will likely have better teachers? 

IB may have better teachers for the following three reasons:

  • Better training.  Having attended both IB and AP training, I found that the IB training to be more in-depth and comprehensive.  We received more materials, had more discussion, and had smaller workshops. 
  • They choose to do it.  Since IB is typically done as a “school within a school”, the teachers who teach IB courses typically want to be there.  This is not always the case, of course, but I think it is more likely than would be the case with AP teachers. 
  • They choose what to cover.  IB allows teachers the flexibility to go in-depth into areas about which they are knowledgeable and passionate.  AP mandates covering everything more superficially.  This difference will be far more pronounced in the humanities courses than in math/science, but even in the IB math/science courses there is more opportunity for outstanding educators to do what they would really like to do. 

 6.       Do colleges prefer IB over AP, or vice versa, when it comes to applying?  The consensus I have found is “no”.  Colleges want to see applicants who are doing the toughest courses offered at their high schools.  Both IB and AP constitute “tough” courses, so do whichever one you prefer and don’t worry about how it will look to college admissions officers.     

 7.       Are there any other options if I don’t want to do IB or AP? 

Yes!  Try to take college classes while you are in high school!  Talk to your guidance counselor about the logistics of this, but many states will allow you to take classes at State Universities at no cost while you are a high school student. 

I look forward to your comments on this piece.  If you found it helpful, please share it with your friends and colleagues.  Thank you.  

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