The Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs are both high school programs that offer college-level courses and the opportunity to earn college credit.
So what’s the difference between AP and IB? Does one look more impressive than the other? Which will improve your odds of getting into a top school the most? We will introduce you to both programs and explain which one will look more impressive on your college applications.
Key Differences Between IB and AP
Both the AP and IB programs offer challenging courses to high school students that you can earn college credit while doing. However, their philosophies and goals are quite different.
The AP program was developed in the United States to help high school students prepare for college by taking advanced courses, with no set program of courses. Students could take just one or even a dozen AP classes, depending on their school, schedule, and goals.
In contrast, IB was developed in Switzerland to be an internationally recognized diploma. To earn the diploma, you have to take a certain number of courses in a range of subjects. It is possible to take just a few IBs without earning the diploma, but IB was developed to be a set program of courses.
Now, let’s go over five key ways the two programs differ from each other.
AP Is More Popular Than IB
The IB program is far less common than AP. More than 2.8 million students took AP exams in 2019, but only about 166,000 took IBs. Furthermore, AP reported in 2014 that over 30% of US public high students took at least one AP exam.
While AP is quite widespread, the IB program is rarer since schools have to be able to offer enough classes for the diploma in order to host an IB program. Adding IB is often more costly than starting a few AP classes.
IB and AP Have Different Program Goals
The programs have different goals as well. IB has more emphasis on writing and developing critical-thinking skills—and not just on the exams themselves. The IB diploma also requires the extended essay (a long, college-style research paper) and maintains extracurricular requirements.
In contrast, the AP is a program focused on teaching students specific content and testing their knowledge via exams. There is more multiple-choice on these tests and a bigger emphasis on meeting certain content goals.
IB Requires You to Enroll in Classes
You can take AP exams without being enrolled in an AP class (this depends on the high school, please check), but you must be enrolled in an IB class to be able to take an IB exam. If you have proficiency in a language that’s not offered by your school or you want to self-study for a niche subject such as art history, then the AP program will give you more flexibility.
AP is a good option for students who like to study on their own.
Additionally, IB offers higher-level and standard-level courses. To get an IB diploma, you have to take at least three higher-level courses. AP courses are offered at a single level, though there are certain subjects, such as calculus and physics, that have different course options.
IB higher level is, at some high schools, considered harder than AP. Most colleges give credit for AP exams and higher-level IB exams, but not all give credit for standard-level IB exams.
You can search the AP credit policy of various colleges at the AP college database. The IB program doesn’t have a similar database, but you can look up the IB credit policy of any college or university by searching “[School Name] IB credit.”
You might be attracted to the IB program’s focus on writing and a broad education, or you might think the AP program’s flexibility makes it a better choice for you. Definitely take these differences into account as you make your choice.
But what do colleges think? Does one program have a reputation for being more rigorous?
What Do Colleges Think of IB and AP?
As it turns out, colleges don’t automatically consider AP or IB harder or more impressive on a transcript. Since IB is a rarer program, they can’t penalize students for not taking it. Plus, there are huge differences in how both AP and IB courses are taught and graded at high schools across the country.
Because of the differences in IB/AP course grading, colleges—especially the most selective ones—just want to see that you have taken the most challenging course load available at your school. So instead of worrying about AP versus IB, you should worry about taking the most rigorous classes your high school offers.
For example, Princeton says on its admissions website, “Whenever you can, challenge yourself with the most rigorous courses possible, such as honors, Advanced Placement (AP), and dual-enrollment courses. We will evaluate the International Baccalaureate (IB), A-levels, or another diploma in the context of the program’s curriculum” (bold emphasis mine).
Princeton is more interested in how hard your schedule is considered at your school rather than whether you chose AP or IB.
So if your high school just has APs, then you should take some AP classes. If your high school has just the IB program, you should take some IB classes or, even better, go for the diploma. If your high school has both, you can take a mix.
Since IB is a diploma program and AP is not, if you’re going for the most selective schools, it’s smart to pursue the IB diploma if it’s offered at your school. If you don’t, you technically haven’t taken the most challenging courses available to you.
However, if you have a demanding extracurricular schedule or are intensely committed to a few academic areas, you won’t necessarily be penalized for not doing the diploma. The bottom line is that you should consider your high school’s offerings and how challenging your schedule (including extracurriculars) looks in comparison.
One thing to keep in mind is that the IB diploma shows you are challenging yourself in all subject areas, whereas with the AP program you could just pick subjects you are strong in. Colleges will notice this. If you can, try to take AP classes in a broad range of subjects while digging deeper into subjects you’re passionate about.
For example, if you’re a writer and do well in your English classes, definitely take AP English Literature and AP English Language if you can. But you should also consider trying AP Statistics or AP Calculus to prove that you have strong quantitative skills, too.