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IB vs. AP: Which Is Best for College Admissions?

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

For high school students looking to make the most of their courses, choosing between an International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum is often a top priority. While both choices are academically rigorous and can lead to college credit, there are also profound differences between the two programs.  

Before making your decision, it’s important to understand each option, as well as the curriculum available to you at your high school. Keep reading to learn more about how IB and AP curricula differ, what to consider before enrolling in courses, and how to register for AP exams. 


Both IB and AP courses offer students the opportunity to challenge themselves with higher-level classes. College admissions officers often look favorably upon applicants who participate in these programs.

Compared to the AP curriculum, the IB program is relatively small in the U.S. Fewer than 2,000 U.S. schools offer the IB program, while almost 23,000 high schools include AP coursework as an option. Conversely, the IB curriculum is much more prevalent internationally. According to the IB Organization, over 5,800 schools in 160 countries offer the IB curriculum. So, participating in AP courses may be more accessible for students in the U.S., while the IB is globally more accessible.

Content and Structure

The AP and IB curricula are designed differently, leading to some distinguishing characteristics. It’s important to understand these differences so you can select the curricula that best aligns with your needs and goals.

IB Program

The IB program entails a more structured process, whereby students choose six subjects and go to classes and study their chosen subjects over two years, completing coursework — including research and presentations, for example — along the way. Additional required elements of the IB program include participating in extracurricular activities that focus on creativity, action, and service (CAS); theory of knowledge (TOK); and the extended essay. Theory of knowledge encourages students to reflect on diverse ways of knowing and prepares students to be aware of themselves as critical thinkers. The extended essay is an independent research project in an IB subject of the student’s choice that they conduct under the guidance of a supervising teacher. The process is intended to promote high‐level research and writing skills, intellectual discovery, and creativity.

AP Program

In contrast, there is no comprehensive program for the AP curriculum. Instead, students select specific courses in an à la carte fashion, and mastery is determined by one exam at the end of the course. However, anyone can register for and take an AP exam — completing the course is not required to sit for the exam. So, in some cases, students who are interested in AP credit but do not have access to the course at their school can self-study for the AP exam and take it on their own.

AP Curriculum

 IB Curriculum

  • Content-based
  • Rote memorization culminating in one standardized exam at the end of the one-year course
  • College Board offers 39 AP courses and exams across various subject areas
  • Students can take as many subjects as they want either related or unrelated to each other
  • Focuses on critical thinking
  • Students select six subjects to study over two years (three at higher level and three at standard level)
  • IB exams are taken after those two years of study
  • CAS, TOK, and extended essay are unique components

Scores and Testing Requirements

As we mentioned above, one of the most noteworthy differences between an IB vs. AP curriculum is that students must be enrolled in an IB course to take the corresponding exam, while test takers can complete an AP exam without enrolling in the related course. Some students may opt to take both the IB and AP exams in the same subject to compare their scores.

The scoring system itself is also different — AP is graded on a 1-5 scale versus the 1-7 range used on most IB exams. The costs associated with each exam vary; the subject fee for IB tests amounts to $119 versus $98 per AP exam. According to the College Board, students with significant financial need may be eligible for a $36 fee reduction per AP exam, depending on where they attend school.

Obtaining College Credit

For many students, the chance to earn college credit is one of the most compelling benefits associated with taking IB vs. AP exams. It is possible to obtain credit through either curriculum, but the required scores will vary. Every college has its own set of requirements. Some universities may only grant credit if an applicant scores a 4 or above on the AP, while others will accept a 3, for example.

Students generally must achieve an AP score of 3 or 4 or above to obtain credit — IB requirements are often at least a 4. For the most accurate information, check the AP and IB score credit policies for each college on your best-fit list.

College Admissions

When it comes to applying to college, there’s no curriculum that colleges prefer. Admissions officers know that students are learning in a variety of curricula across the globe, and they evaluate applicants with that context in mind. Both will prepare students for the rigors of higher education. Whatever curriculum you’re studying in, ensure that you’re making the most of it! Take the most rigorous courses available to you and do well in them. Colleges care the most about grades in high school courses, so focus on challenging yourself and performing well academically.

Both IB and AP curricula are an excellent opportunity for students to demonstrate their academic abilities and aptitude for college-level coursework. At IvyWise, we work with students from across the globe who are taking a wide variety of curricula, from AP and IB to A-levels and beyond. Our team of college admissions counselors knows what colleges are considering when evaluating your academic achievement, transcripts, and more. We can help you achieve your college admissions goals.

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