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Should I Choose the IB or AP Curriculum?

I remember making this dilemma several years ago when I was choosing which high school I wanted to attend. After all, the choice of what kind of education I wanted to receive seemed like such a big decision to make. At the time, I was between the IB program, AP program, and a new experimental project-based learning school nearby. In the end, I ended up doing the IB program, and I’m really glad that I did.

Here’s a little context into my educational background. I attended a large public high school that had the IB program with about 70 kids that graduate from the program a year. I took 14 IB classes by the end of my senior year, and tested in six subjects. I’m now a student at Stanford University studying Computational Biology, so I can speak about my experience in the IB Diploma program and how well it has prepared me for the academics at Stanford.

What is the International Bacculaurete (IB) Diploma Program?

First of all, what even is the IB Diploma program? IB was developed as a rigorous two-year curriculum program for advanced placement in high school. This typically occurs from sophomore to junior year of high school or junior to senior year of high school, depending on the high school. However, IB is more than just a few advanced classes. Instead, IB is a whole program and curriculum, where you will also be required to take IB-specific courses, such as Theory of Knowledge (TOK), and complete an extended essay (EE), internal assessment (IA), and creativity, activity, and service (CAS) projects (if you haven’t noticed, IB has a lot of acronyms). The goal of these requirements is to encourage students to be a more well-rounded individual, from doing research to participating in extracurricular activities. It’s also a requirement that all students complete these courses and activities to graduate with an IB Diploma, so unlike AP, you can’t just take however many IB classes you want (this is referring to the full-IB diploma only—you’re allowed to take some IB classes without completing the full program and you can earn an IB certificate by taking 1-5 IB courses, without completing the full requirements of the diploma!).

This is in comparison to Advanced Placement (AP), where AP is a curriculum of advanced classes that students can take. There’s no “set” of courses that students have to take, but most students gunning for top schools usually take around 8-12 APs. The AP curriculum usually culminates in an AP exam, which consists of a multiple-choice section with a free-response section. There are no TOK, CAS, or other requirements in AP, as it’s primarily the courses and exams. Typically, students can take AP courses in any year of high school, although some high schools restrict this.

What are the biggest benefits of IB?

I felt like IB was actually designed with educating students in mind. It incorporates many parts of an interdisciplinary education, which can sometimes lead to less flexibility, but also genuinely provides a very well-rounded education. Students in the IB Diploma program pretty much all have to take the same core classes, including English, history, math, science, foreign language, and a “sixth subject,” so IB provides the basic core for a rigorous and well-rounded education. Some of the requirements are a bit annoying, like filling out all the busywork and reflections for CAS, but I think it’s genuinely quite well-designed as a base for an education.

There is also quite a bit of project-based learning in IB. For example, every IB course requires an Internal Assessment (IA), which allows you to essentially conduct a research project and write a research paper. This is quite cool and unique for a high school student, and an aspect that isn’t often offered in AP courses.

Another aspect, which may have just been specific to my school, was the community that came with IB. Because we were all required to take the same set of core classes, my school had a really nice community in IB, where we were all very friendly and helpful towards each other. It definitely made my high school experience a lot better as we were great friends in IB.

What did I learn from IB?

The most important skill I’ve learned from IB is writing. IB forces you to write EVERYTHING. From the 4,000 word extended essay to writing essays for pretty much every exam, IB makes you write a lot, and it’s inevitable that at some point, you’re going to have to develop very strong writing skills to survive. This has been a skill that has been immensely helpful for me at Stanford. While other students were suffering through our introductory writing classes, I finished my paper in one sitting because of the writing skills I learned from IB.

IB also places a heavy emphasis on depth and critical thinking over rote memorization. If you look at the IB exams, most of the exams involve writing or free response, even for subjects like Chemistry and Math. IB teaches less topics in more depth, while encouraging you to do your research and make your own arguments rather than learning one way of thinking. There are often several perspectives that will be introduced for a topic, and it’s up to you to argue and defend which side you believe in. In my first in-class exam for history, I was shocked to find out that I had been heavily penalized for simply describing and explaining a historical event, instead of arguing a side. From then on, I learned that I needed to make an argument and defend it—no matter what the question was. Sure, that meant you could try to argue literally anything, but I did appreciate the training on critical thinking.

STEM-wise, the topics themselves haven’t exactly prepared me academically for college as much as the experience in studying and work ethic has. I don’t think the content in IB has exactly translated into my classes at Stanford, but the work ethic I’ve gained from IB has definitely helped me at Stanford. I think the classes at Stanford tend to be more geared towards students who took AP than IB in terms of content.

Is there a difference between IB and AP in college applications?

In terms of how colleges view IB and AP, there is absolutely no difference between the two. Colleges don’t automatically prefer one over the other, and both are regarded as equally rigorous, given if you take a similar course load in both. So if you’re debating between the two solely for how colleges will view them, there’s really no difference, and they won’t penalize you if your high school doesn’t offer one or the other. Just take the most rigorous course load offered by your school.

However, in terms of credits and how well they translate into college, there is a non-insignificant difference. I will admit—most universities in the United States are more geared towards students who took the AP curriculum over the IB curriculum. For example, Stanford offers more credit for AP exams than IB exams, because they only accept HL examinations, and even then, IB credits don’t really help that much with prerequisites. I still had to take calculus even though I did IB Mathematics HL, whereas if I had been in AP Calculus BC, I could have skipped that calculus class. I personally don’t agree with how Stanford does this. IB covers less topics in more depth, which means that even though IB Mathematics HL is generally considered more rigorous, Stanford gives less credit for it just because it doesn’t cover the obscure (and kind of useless) topics that certain required math classes cover. Similarly, taking IB French Language-B HL allows you to skip the same prerequisites and gives the same number of units as AP French, even though IB French Language-B HL is way more difficult than AP French.

However, if you want to apply to college internationally, I would definitely recommend IB. While colleges internationally will often accept AP, IB is just undoubtedly a more international system, and it’s a huge benefit if you’re applying to a college not in the United States. Schools like Cambridge and Oxford take IB, and it’s much easier to translate IB scores than to try to apply with American systems.

Are these classes extremely intense?

This depends quite a bit on the school and the student. I personally did not find IB to be that bad, but I know many of my classmates that found IB to be extremely academically intense and time-consuming. I also had friends in the AP curriculum that were absolutely swamped in their sophomore and junior year. Anecdotally, most people have tended to say IB is more rigorous than AP, but it’s safe to say that both curricula will be quite rigorous. However, it’s definitely manageable for an ambitious and responsible student. I would estimate my workload during IB to be around 7 hours in classes, 1-2 hours of homework, and 2-3 hours of studying per day, but that depended on the number of assignments and exams due. I also admit that I was not the most academically-involved IB student, as I occasionally did my IB assignments (like TOK and CAS) just to get them over with, and didn’t put my full effort into them.

Overall, who would I recommend IB to?

I would recommend IB if you’re a responsible, self-motivated student who’s open to interdisciplinary learning and lots of writing. It’s a great education system that teaches you a lot, so I would highly recommend the experience. However, be prepared for lots of self-directed projects as well that you have to manage your own timelines for, such as EEs and IAs that will require you to be on top of your work.

If you want more flexibility and less requirements, don’t do IB. With all the requirements that IB imposes on you, it will inevitably be a huge part of your high school career, and you might be stuck with classes you don’t want to take because IB requires it. For example, as much as I hate learning foreign languages, IB required me to take four years of French anyways. But ultimately, it was a great experience and I made lots of friends from French class, so I don’t regret it. There’s also a lot of busywork that IB forces you to do. TOK and CAS is often a lot of busywork, and it still takes up your time. I would also not recommend IB for anyone that absolutely despises writing. If you hate writing, you’re either going to have a terrible time or be forced to learn some writing skills real quick. Which, that’s not always a bad thing. I didn’t particularly like writing coming into IB, but I’ve developed the skills along the way.

Posted in College Life

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