Which is Better: AP or IB?

A prospective client emailed me yesterday with a question that is regularly asked of me when I give presentations on college admission around the Denver area.

Which is better, Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB)? Do colleges find one more impressive over the other?

In my opinion, both the AP and IB programs are equally valuable, in that the exams associated with those courses provide an external measure of quality. Any student who does well on the end-of-course assessments associated with either program can genuinely claim to have done college work in a high school setting.

The structures of the two programs are very different, however. Think of AP and IB this way: AP is a smorgasbord: pick the courses you want, leave behind those that tempt you less. IB, by contrast, is a “prix fixe” menu: you get all or nothing. There is a range of choice within IB, but the entire high school curriculum is dictated by those initial choices.

The fact is that highly competitive AP students are taking 6, 7, 10 AP courses and doing well on the exams (scores of 4 or 5 out of five possible points). Likewise, highly competitive IB students are not only taking the IB courses, but are scoring 5, 6, or 7s (out of seven) on the diploma tests. However, there are also plenty of students who take lots of AP courses who do not do well on the exams (many do not even take them!). Similarly, there are students in IB programs who are unlikely to fulfill all the requirements of the IB diploma.

As to whether colleges prefer AP or IB? Colleges like them both. Both programs represent tough curricular requirements. But in the end, it’s all about the student’s performance: did they perform at the very top of the scale for either program? Did they pass the independently administered exams with flying colors? If so, colleges will be heavily recruiting those students—regardless of the AP or IB label.

One thing parents (and students) ought to keep in mind as they look at schools and at individual teachers: ask about their pass rate. That is, ask what percentage of students enrolled in these programs take and pass (or get perfect scores) on the AP or IB assessments? The answer to this question will be a better indicator of program quality than the label. I have several clients who are getting very high grades in AP courses, but who will never be able to pass the AP exams. Their teachers are simply not up to the job of presenting such a demanding curriculum and helping students achieve to the standards set by that curriculum.

So to reiterate, both the AP and IB programs are excellent preparation for college, and the colleges seek out students to excel in either environment. Students and teachers should look beyond the labels to ask about the quality of the programs on offer. Just as we don’t judge books by their cover, we should not judge a program by its label.

Mark Montgomery
Montgomery Educational Consulting



About the Author

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

202 Responses to “Which is Better: AP or IB?”

  1. Peeit says:

    Hi,

    My son has been accepted at IB Program in a magnet school in a not-so-good-neighborhood for 9th grade. His other choice is the home school with AP offerings and wider variety of extracurricular activities. He has gotten mostly A and some B grades in all 2-year accelerated Math (Geometry for 8th grade), Spanish 2 and honors programs for other subjects presently in 8th grade.He also has been part of present school’s Robotics team and made it to state championships. We are trying to decide which school will be a better choice to to prepare for Ivy league schools in high school. I’d appreciate your input on this matter of school decision.
    Thanks

  2. Ema Chaginleigh says:

    Hi Mark,
    I have to disagree with one of your statements. As a teacher, I see there are many students in our IB program who are simply lazy, so I disagree with looking at the teacher’s scores. We had a class of seniors that almost didn’t get their HIGH SCHOOL diploma, much less their IB diploma (if they got it at all) because they refused to do work. One of our teachers had her IAs pulled in their entirety because the first three requested to be marked by IB were by students who refused to do an IA at all. Another of our teachers had the lowest percentage passing score in the school’s IB program’s history – the same year she also had the first 7 we’ve ever had in a science class.
    So, I have to say that it’s not entirely fair to just look at the scores of the teacher to see if they are a worthwhile teacher. You can have a great teacher and students who don’t care.
    I realize that at the vast majority of IB schools you CAN look only at the scores, but there are some situations in which it really isn’t the teacher’s fault.

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