IB vs AP: Which is the right programme for you?

IB vs AP
Not all pre-university programmes are created equal. Source: AFP

If you’re a high school student aiming to get into a prestigious university, it’s likely that you’re considering pre-university courses to set yourself apart. 

And you’re likely faced with many options. There are the A Levels, IB (International Baccalaureate) and the AP (Advanced Placement), for example. Then there are also foundation programmes, which are like an introductory year to a full three-year or four-year degree.

If you plan to join a US university, however, then you must consider the IB vs AP.

Both help students develop their intellectual and practical skills in preparation for university. 

But which is better?

IB vs AP: A short introduction

What is the International Baccalaureate?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is a well-known programme recognised worldwide­.

Established in Switzerland during the­ 1960s, it’s a programme that encourages students to develop critical thinking, as well as social and intellectual skills that can be applied to the world outside the classroom.

As of November 2023, there are over 8,000 IB programmes offered across more than 5,700 schools in 160 countries.

While IB courses are more common in high school, they are also available in elementary and middle schools.

Students can choose to take individual IB courses or enrol in the full IB Diploma Programme if their high school offers one.

For an IB Diploma Programme, students must take courses from six areas of study, ranging from sciences, mathematics, studies in language and literature, language acquisition, the arts, and individuals and societies.

They must also complete three core components – the Extended Essay, Theory of Knowledge, and Creativity, Action, Service (CAS).

At the end of the programme, students are required to take an assessment and earn at least 24 points (out of 45) to graduate with an IB diploma.

IB vs AP

Switzerland is the birth place of the International Baccalaureate programme. Source: AFP

What are Advanced Placements classes?

The Advanced Placement (AP) programme was created in the 1950s in the US to offer high school students colle­ge-level course­work.

It was initially created to address concerns that high schools weren’t providing adequate education and skills to equip students for higher education coursework and the professional world.

Now, it’s more commonly known as a programme that challenges students academically and allows them to earn college cre­dit.

The programme has grown exponentially since its early days. AP classes are offered and recognised in admissions worldwide, and 5.2 million students sat for AP exams in 2023, compared to 1.6 million in 2002.

Research showed that students who earn AP scores of two and above performed better compared to academically similar college peers who did not take the AP course.

Why the popularity? Over 30 subjects are available, ranging from sciences and humanities to arts and languages, and students can take specific AP classes in their area of interest or strength.

At the end of their class, students take standardised tests to evaluate their knowledge of the subject matter, which they can use to earn college credit if they pass.

IB vs AP: Which is better for me?

Here’s where things get interesting. While the IB and AP programmes both prepare high school students for university, there are key differences between them. 

Let’s address some commonly asked questions.

What are the differences between the IB and AP?

When it comes to the topic of IB vs AP, the biggest difference is what each programme seeks to achieve. 

The IB aims to develop well-rounded global citizens, whereas the AP focuses on specific subject areas.

This is why the IB gets students thinking about global issues and considering multiple perspectives. When it comes to assessment, it emphasises writing and critical-thinking skills in multiple areas, such as exams, the extended essay and extracurricular requirements.

In contrast, AP classes are focused on specific subject areas and allow students to explore their chosen fields of interest with flexibility. 

Another key differentiator between IB vs AP is that students must be enrolled in a registered IB class to take the exam.

Students can even take AP exams without being enrolled in a proper class, but it’s recommended that they do so regardless. 

In certain cases, not all high schools will offer all AP classes listed in their programme, and students may be restricted based on what’s available at their school.

Students can then opt for self-study or home tutoring to prepare for the exam if they’re still determined to get the AP credit they want. It’s a great option for students who prefer studying alone too!

IB vs AP

A student studying quietly at home. Source: AFP

How are IB and AP exams scored?

The most significant difference between the two programmes is that the IB Diploma Programme evaluates students on multiple skills, such as knowledge, critical thinking, writing and more.

You’re assessed through coursework, presentations, and exams — each with scores that would be calculated into the final score.

For an AP student, their grades are based on the final exam only.

IB Diploma Programme scores are based on a score of one to seven, awarded for each of the six subjects, for a total of 42 points.

In addition to subject grades, students are awarded points for completing core components, which consist of the Extended Essay, Theory of Knowledge, and Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) requirements.

These core components can earn students up to an additional three points, adding to their final score out of 45. You need to achieve 24 points to graduate with an IB diploma.

AP exams are more straightforward as they are scored on a scale of 1 to 5. Many colleges grant credit and/or allow students to skip the equivalent course for scores of three and above once they get to college.

IB vs AP

A hall of students taking an exam. Source: AFP

How long does it take to complete an IB or AP?

IB programmes are usually two years long, as they tend to be more in-depth as compared to AP classes.

Meanwhile, AP classes typically last a semester or two. More time is spent developing a richer knowledge and experience in an IB programme, but AP classes offer a wider range of subjects.

If you’re looking for flexibility and a broader range of courses over a shorter period of time, you may want to consider AP classes.

If you’re interested in doing a longer-term course that’s more cohesive and integrated, pick an IB programme instead. 

Is IB or AP more expensive? 

Both programmes cost roughly the same, but IB exams in particular used to require a registration fee of US$172, plus a fee of US$119 for each exam.

In comparison, AP exams cost US$96 each. This led to IB courses being pricier than AP classes in the long run. 

However, as of November 2019, IB decided to do away with the US$172 registration fee in the hopes that their programme would be more affordable to students worldwide.

Similarly, AP also offers a US$36 fee reduction on each exam if you meet certain eligibility criteria, to ensure that low-income students would be offered the same opportunities as their wealthier peers. 

Although these prices seem pretty steep for a single exam paper, let’s put things into perspective – taking and passing these exams is likely to be cheaper than the university tuition needed for the same class.

IB vs AP

In the IB vs AP debate, which programme is more affordable? Source: AFP

Do colleges prefer IB or AP?

There really isn’t much difference – most colleges recognise and respect both IB and AP credits in a high school student’s resume.

Regardless of IB vs AP, both programmes demonstrate commitment to academic excellence and are a clear way to identify ambitious students among the herd. 

However, how these respective programmes translate to college credits varies from school to school.

Some schools may provide a certain amount of college credits for the overall IB diploma, while other schools may provide subject-specific credits for individual courses.

Some top-tier or Ivy League schools may have stricter credit recognition policies as well, so it’s good to double-check with the college or university you’re interested in.

IB vs AP

A class of high school students listening intently to their programme director. Source: AFP

IB vs AP: How should you choose?

The general assumption that most people have is that the IB programme is better, because classes seem harder than AP classes. The IB programme challenges students in all subject areas, as compared to the AP programme where students can pick subjects they excel in. 

Ultimately, you might be attracted to the IB programme’s focus on a broad education as it opens many paths for your future, or you might opt for the AP programme’s flexibility and specialisation.

Regardless, always check what your high school offers and how challenging your schedule is, especially with extracurriculars lined up.

Remember that more classes or extracurricular activities aren’t always better and that you should be responsible and pick classes within your capacity. 

Consider these facts when you’re thinking about IB vs AP, and take these differences into account as you make your choice. Happy choosing!