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IB vs AP: A Complete Guide

IB vs AP: A Complete Guide

10 min Read|December 12 2023
|Written by:

Charles Whitehouse


Navigating the maze of high school qualifications can be daunting, especially when faced with choices like the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Both are renowned globally and offer students a rigorous academic experience. But which one is right for you? This guide delves into the intricacies of both programmes, comparing their structures, benefits, and global recognition. Whether you're aiming for an Ivy League university, Oxford, or simply seeking the best fit for your academic journey, we'll help you analyse the pros and cons of IB and the AP course. Let's embark on this enlightening journey together.

Overview of the IB program

The IB is a globally recognised educational programme that offers four distinct courses catering to students of different age groups. These include the Primary Years Programme for children aged 3-12, the Middle Years Programme designed to build a solid academic foundation for students, the Diploma Programme which fosters an inquiring mindset and prepares students for their future careers, and the Career-related Programme tailored for students in their final school years, combining academic subjects with professional interests. With over 5,000 IB World Schools in more than 159 countries, the IB programme has reached approximately 1,950,000 students worldwide. This vast network of schools is testament to the programme's international reputation for excellence and quality. The beauty of the IB is that it’s a global education community. All schools around the world face the same challenges, enjoy the same benefits and can connect with one another. The IB's commitment to excellence is further evidenced by its collaboration with university researchers globally, ensuring the continuous development and impact assessment of its programmes.

Overview of AP courses

Advanced Placement (AP) courses, offered by the College Board, are designed to provide high school students with the opportunity to study college-level material and potentially earn college credit. These courses are recognised for their rigorous content and are available in a wide array of subjects, from arts and sciences to maths and world languages. One of the standout features of AP courses is the potential for students to boost their GPA, as many high schools offer a GPA increase for those undertaking these challenging courses. Moreover, having "AP" on a high school transcript signals to colleges a student's motivation and commitment to tackle advanced academic work.

In terms of statistics, a significant number of students who enrol in four-year colleges start their academic journey with some credit already earned through their AP scores. This not only gives them a head start on college credits but also potentially reduces the overall cost of their tertiary education. Furthermore, AP courses can be a deciding factor in college admissions, as they demonstrate a student's ability to handle more challenging coursework.

The College Board also provides a plethora of resources for AP students, including AP Daily Videos, topic questions, and progress checks, ensuring that students are well-prepared for their exams and can maximise their chances of achieving high scores.

10 Benefits of Taking AP Courses

10 Benefits of Taking AP Courses

What is the difference between IB and AP?

The IB and Advanced Placement AP are both advanced academic programmes, but they differ in several key aspects.

1. Programme Structure: The IB is a comprehensive two-year programme that requires students to take courses in six different subject areas, complete an extended essay, participate in the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course, and engage in Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) activities. On the other hand, AP courses are individual subjects that students can choose based on their interests and strengths. There's no overarching programme structure like in the IB.

2. Assessment: IB assessments are a mix of internal and external evaluations, including oral presentations, essays, and exams. AP assessments are primarily based on a final exam at the end of the course.

3. Global Perspective: The IB programme places a strong emphasis on global perspectives and intercultural understanding, making it particularly suitable for students interested in international affairs or those planning to study abroad. AP courses, while rigorous, don't necessarily have this international focus.

4. Flexibility: AP offers more flexibility in course selection, allowing students to pick and choose the subjects they're most interested in. IB has a more prescribed curriculum, ensuring a well-rounded education but with less choice in subjects.

5. Recognition: Both IB and AP are recognised by universities worldwide, but the level of recognition can vary. For instance, some universities might offer more college credit for AP exams than for IB exams, and vice versa.

6. Duration: While the IB Diploma Programme is a two-year commitment, AP courses can be taken individually and span one academic year.

In summary, the choice between IB and AP largely depends on a student's academic goals, interests, and the level of challenge they're seeking. Both programmes offer rigorous academic preparation, but their structures and emphases differ.

Additional difference between IB and AP? | World Schools

Additional difference between IB and AP?

Is IB harder than AP?

The debate over whether the IB is more challenging than AP is a common one, and the answer often hinges on individual experiences and perspectives. However, there are some general observations that can be made.

1. Depth vs. Breadth: While AP courses tend to focus on a broad range of topics within a subject, IB courses delve deeper into specific areas. For instance, an IB HL history student doesn't just learn about history; they're expected to interpret it, developing a unique historian's voice.

2. Assessment Style: AP assessments often involve memorisation and are primarily exam-based. In contrast, IB assessments are more varied, encompassing oral presentations, essays, and projects. The expectation in IB is not just to recall information but to analyse and interpret it.

3. Additional Components: IB students have added pressures with components like Theory of Knowledge (TOK), the Extended Essay, and CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service). These elements require critical thinking, research skills, and community engagement, adding to the programme's intensity.

4. Language Proficiency: For language courses, IB expects students to achieve near-native speaker proficiency, assessing them in various ways, from writing to oral skills.

5. Duration and Commitment: The IB Diploma Programme spans two years and requires a holistic commitment, whereas AP courses are year-long and can be taken individually.

6. Homework Intensity: Anecdotal evidence suggests that while the volume of homework might be similar between the two, IB assignments tend to be more challenging and thought-provoking.

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Benefits of the IB program

The IB programme, with its unique educational approach, offers a plethora of benefits to students worldwide. Here are some of the key advantages:

1. Global Perspective: The IB programme is designed to foster a global mindset. It encourages students to understand and respect diverse cultures, promoting a more peaceful world through cultural understanding.

2. Holistic Education: Beyond academic rigour, the IB focuses on the overall development of students. Components like Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) ensure that students engage in artistic pursuits, physical activities, and community service, fostering well-rounded individuals.

3. Critical Thinking: The IB curriculum, especially the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) component, challenges students to question the nature of knowledge and develop critical thinking skills.

4. Research Skills: The Extended Essay, a core component of the IB, allows students to delve deep into a topic of their choice, honing their research and writing skills.

5. University Preparedness: The IB's rigorous curriculum ensures that students are well-prepared for university-level studies. Many universities worldwide recognise the IB diploma, often giving credit for certain higher-level courses.

6. Community of Schools: By being a part of the IB, students join a global community of over 5,000 IB World Schools. This network offers opportunities for cultural exchanges, global events, and collaborative projects.

7. Lifelong Learning: The IB instils a love for lifelong learning. Its inquiry-based approach encourages students to be curious, ask questions, and seek knowledge throughout their lives.

In essence, the IB programme offers more than just an academic curriculum; it provides students with the tools, skills, and mindset to thrive in a globalised world and make meaningful contributions to society.

Have a look at our comprehensive set of IB Study Notes and IB Practice Questions, developed by expert IB teachers and examiners!

Benefits of AP courses

AP courses, spearheaded by the College Board, offer a multitude of advantages to high school students. Here's a breakdown of the key benefits:

1. Skill Development: AP courses equip students with essential time management and study skills crucial for college and future careers. They also foster creativity and problem-solving abilities, allowing students to delve deeper into subjects that intrigue them.

2. College Admissions: Taking AP courses signals to colleges a student's dedication to their education and their readiness to embrace challenging coursework. In fact, 85% of selective colleges and universities indicate that a student's AP experience positively influences admission decisions.

3. Academic Success in College: Research suggests that students who score 3 or higher on AP Exams typically achieve greater academic success in college and boast higher graduation rates compared to their non-AP counterparts.

4. College Credit: A significant advantage of AP courses is the potential to earn college credit. Three out of four AP students entering a four-year college commence their studies with some AP credit, allowing them to potentially skip certain introductory or general education courses.

5. Financial Savings: Students who undertake AP courses and exams are more likely to complete their college degree on time, translating to financial savings by avoiding extra years of tuition.

6. Global Recognition: AP is a globally acknowledged credential. Qualifying AP Exam scores can earn students university credit in nearly all universities in the US and Canada, and are recognised in 60 other countries, including many in the UK and Europe.

Do Harvard and Ivy League universities prefer AP or IB?

When it comes to the admissions process at Ivy League institutions, including Harvard, there isn't a definitive preference for either the IB or AP curriculum. Both curricula are recognised for their academic rigour and are highly regarded by admissions officers. According to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, grades in college prep courses such as the AP and IB courses were listed as being of considerable importance by nearly three-quarters of admissions officers.

However, there are some nuances to consider:

1. Availability: The IB program is less prevalent in the US compared to AP. Fewer than 1,000 US schools offer the IB program, while over 20,000 high schools offer AP courses. However, internationally, the IB curriculum is more widespread, with over 5,000 schools in 158 countries offering it.

2. Content and Structure: The IB program is more structured, requiring students to choose six subjects to study over two years, along with additional components like CAS, TOK, and the Extended Essay. In contrast, AP courses are more flexible, allowing students to select specific subjects and take an exam at the end of the course.

3. College Credit: Both IB and AP exams can lead to college credit, but the required scores and policies vary by institution. Generally, students need an AP score of 3 or 4 or above, while IB requirements often start at a score of 4.

4. Admissions Perspective: Admissions officers evaluate applicants in the context of their high school's offerings. If a student's school offers both AP and IB and they choose one over the other, it's the quality of their performance and the rigour of their course load that matters most.

In essence, both IB and AP provide students with opportunities to demonstrate their academic prowess. The key is to excel in whichever curriculum they choose and to ensure that their overall application reflects their capabilities and potential.

Does Oxford accept IB or AP?

The University of Oxford, one of the world's leading academic institutions, has a comprehensive admissions process that recognises a variety of international qualifications, including both the IB and AP courses.

1. International Baccalaureate (IB): Oxford acknowledges the academic rigour of the IB programme. While the university doesn't release official cut-off scores for the IB Diploma, based on expectations from other top universities, an overall IB grade of 38+ is viewed favourably. For more competitive courses, a score of around 40+ might be expected. However, this doesn't imply that scores below 38 won't be considered, but higher scores generally strengthen an application.

2. Advanced Placement (AP): AP courses, offered by the College Board, are also recognised by Oxford. These courses signal a student's commitment to challenging coursework. Successful completion of AP exams can be a testament to a student's academic prowess and can be considered favourably in the admissions process.

3. Subject Requirements: While both IB and AP are recognised, Oxford also has specific subject requirements for some courses, especially in the sciences. Prospective students should ensure they meet these requirements when applying.

4. Admissions Tests: For most courses at Oxford, candidates, including international students, must take an admissions test as part of their application. This test can be taken in the candidate's own school, college, or another test centre in their home country.

While both IB and AP are respected by Oxford, the university evaluates applicants holistically, considering not just their academic qualifications but also their potential, commitment, and suitability for their chosen course.

Can you take both IB and AP?

The prospect of taking both IB and AP courses is indeed a challenging one, but it's not impossible. Many students around the world opt for this combination to maximise their academic potential and college readiness. Here's what you need to know:

1. Flexibility vs. Structure: AP courses offer flexibility, allowing students to choose specific subjects on a year-by-year basis. In contrast, the IB program is more structured, requiring students to select six subjects to study over two years, along with additional components like CAS, TOK, and the Extended Essay.

2. Workload: Both AP and IB are rigorous in their own right. Combining them can lead to a significant workload. For instance, IB students often report spending up to 4 hours on homework daily, with fluctuations based on project deadlines. AP homework, on the other hand, tends to be more evenly distributed.

3. Cost Implications: Taking IB exams can be a costly affair, with some students spending upwards of $720 on their exams. AP exams, in comparison, are more affordable.

4. Commitment: The IB program demands a lot from its students, from evening classes to mandatory meetings outside of class hours. Additionally, IB students are expected to complete 50 hours each of service, action, and creativity activities.

5. Benefits: Combining IB and AP can offer students a broader academic experience and potentially make them more attractive to universities. However, it's essential to balance the workload to avoid burnout.

In conclusion, while it's feasible to take both IB and AP, students should carefully consider their academic goals, personal interests, and capacity to manage the combined workload.

How to choose between IB and AP

Choosing between IB and AP can be a daunting task for high school students. Both programs offer rigorous, college-level coursework, but they differ in structure, focus, and recognition. In order to decide which one is more suited to you, consider each of the following differing elements:

1. Program Structure: AP courses are more flexible, allowing students to pick and choose subjects they're interested in. In contrast, the IB program offers a more holistic education, requiring students to study six subjects along with core components like the Extended Essay, Theory of Knowledge (TOK), and Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS).

2. Global Recognition: The IB program, with its international focus, is recognised worldwide. This can be particularly beneficial for students considering studying abroad, especially in places like the UK where institutions like Oxford have a significant number of applicants with IB qualifications.

3. Cost: AP exams are generally more affordable than IB exams. While AP exams cost around $94 each, IB subject exams come with a fee of $119.

4. College Credit: Both AP and IB scores can earn students college credit, but the acceptance varies by institution. For instance, while many state schools in the US offer generous credit for both AP and IB scores, elite institutions might have stricter requirements or offer placement instead of direct credit.

5. Skill Development: The IB program places a strong emphasis on critical thinking, writing, and a global mindset. The extended essay component of the IB, for instance, prepares students for the kind of independent research they'll undertake at university.

6. Availability: AP courses are more widespread and common in the US, with over 22,000 schools offering them in 2017. In contrast, the IB program, is internationally recognised, and is more popular in UK schools.

The decision between the AP and IB programs should be based on a student's academic goals, interests, and the opportunities available at their school. Both programs are rigorous and respected, so students should choose the one that aligns best with their future aspirations.

Tips for balancing IB and AP workload

Balancing the workload of both IB classes and AP courses can be a challenging endeavour, but with the right strategies, it's entirely feasible. Here are some tips to help students manage the demands of both programs:

1. Prioritise Your Time: Both IB and AP courses are rigorous and require a significant time commitment. Create a study schedule that allocates specific blocks of time for each subject. This will help ensure that you're dedicating enough time to each course and not neglecting any particular area.

2. Seek Support: Don't hesitate to ask for help if you're feeling overwhelmed. Teachers, guidance counsellors, and peers can provide valuable insights and resources. Joining study groups can also be beneficial, as discussing topics with peers can enhance understanding.

3. Stay Organised: Use tools like planners, calendars, and digital apps to keep track of assignments, test dates, and project deadlines. Being organised can help reduce stress and ensure that you're adequately prepared for assessments.

4. Focus on Well-being: It's essential to take breaks and ensure you're looking after your mental and physical well-being. Incorporate relaxation techniques, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises, into your routine. Regular physical activity can also help alleviate stress.

5. Understand the Requirements: Both IB and AP have specific requirements, from internal assessments in IB to end-of-course exams in AP. Familiarise yourself with these requirements early on to avoid any surprises.

6. Stay Engaged: Engage actively in class discussions and seek out additional resources if you're struggling with a particular topic. The more engaged you are, the better you'll understand the material, making it easier to manage the workload.

7. Consider Your Future Goals: If you're aiming for a particular university or course, research their preferences regarding IB and AP. This can help you decide where to focus your energies.

Final Thoughts

In the ever-evolving landscape of education, both the IB and AP programs stand out as premier choices for high school students aiming to challenge themselves academically. While each program offers its unique set of benefits and challenges, the decision ultimately boils down to individual preferences, future aspirations, and available opportunities. By understanding the intricacies of both programs, students can make informed decisions that align with their academic goals and personal interests. Regardless of the choice, both IB programs and AP serve as robust platforms that prepare students for the rigours of higher education and beyond, equipping them with the skills and knowledge to thrive in a globalised world.


How much do IB and AP exams cost?

The financial aspect of education is a crucial consideration for many students and their families. For the IB Diploma Programme, each subject exam is priced at approximately $119. However, this is a base fee, and schools might incorporate additional administrative or service charges. It's always recommended to check with your specific institution for a detailed breakdown. On the flip side, AP exams have a more straightforward fee structure. Within the U.S., U.S. territories, Canada, and DoDEA schools, each exam costs $98. For students taking exams outside these regions, the fee rises to $128. Specialised exams, such as AP Seminar and AP Research, have a universal price of $146. It's essential to note that there are fee reduction programs available for students demonstrating financial need, which can significantly reduce these costs.

Are there scholarships available for IB or AP exams?

Education should be accessible to all, regardless of financial standing. Recognising this, the College Board offers a fee reduction of $36 for AP exams for students who can demonstrate significant financial need. Some states and schools also provide additional funding or subsidies to further reduce the cost. For the IB, while there isn't a universal scholarship program, many schools and local education bodies might offer financial aid or payment plans to assist students. It's always a good idea to have a chat with your school's AP or your IB class coordinator about any available financial support options.

How are IB and AP graded?

The grading systems of the IB and AP programs are distinct yet universally recognised. The IB employs a grading scale ranging from 1 to 7, with 7 being the pinnacle of achievement. This grading encompasses both internal assessments, such as coursework, and the final exams. The AP program, in contrast, uses a 1 to 5 grading scale for ap coursework and its exams. A score of 5 is indicative of a student being "extremely well qualified" in the subject. Universities across the globe recognise these scores, and high achievers often receive college credit or advanced placement in their chosen courses.

Can I switch from IB to AP mid-year?

The decision to transition between the IB and AP programs mid-year, while possible, is not straightforward. Both programs have their unique curricula, assessment methods, and course structures. Making such a switch would require careful consideration of the academic implications, potential credit transfers, and the logistical challenges of adapting to a new curriculum. It's always recommended to consult with academic advisors, teachers, and school counsellors before making such a significant decision.

How do universities view the IB's CAS component?

The CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service) component is a hallmark of the IB program, emphasising holistic education and personal development. Universities, especially those with a global outlook, view CAS positively. It showcases a student's commitment to community engagement, leadership roles, and personal growth outside the traditional classroom setting. The experiences and skills gained through CAS activities often provide valuable talking points during university interviews and can set a student apart in competitive application processes.

What's the difference between AP classes and AP exams?

AP classes and exams, while interconnected, serve different purposes. AP classes are the coursework, the day-to-day learning experiences that equip students with the knowledge and skills in a particular subject. These classes prepare students for the culminating AP exams, which assess their mastery of the subject. While it's common for students to take the exam after completing the class, it's not a strict requirement. Some students, especially those with prior expertise or those who have self-studied, opt to take the exam without enrolling in the class.

Are there online resources for IB and AP revision?

The digital age has ushered in a plethora of online resources tailored to assist students in their IB and AP revision. Official websites for both programs provide a wealth of materials, including guidelines, past papers, and sample responses. Beyond this, platforms like Khan Academy, Quizlet, and various educational forums offer tailored study aids, mock tests, and community discussions. Leveraging these resources can significantly bolster a student's preparation and confidence.

How do IB and AP compare to A-levels?

A-levels, a staple of the British education system, are subject-specific qualifications. Unlike the comprehensive nature of the IB, which includes core components like TOK and CAS, A-levels allow students to delve deeply into a select number of subjects. AP, with its flexibility, sits somewhere in between, allowing students to choose subjects of interest without the broader core requirements of the full IB diploma. All three are rigorous and respected, but the choice often hinges on a student's academic preferences, future university plans, and the offerings of their particular school.

Can I take AP exams without the course?

The AP program offers a level of flexibility that's quite appealing. While most students opt to take the AP exam after completing the corresponding course, it's not a strict prerequisite. Some students, driven by passion or prior knowledge in a subject, choose to self-study and then sit for the exam. This approach, while commendable, requires a high degree of self-discipline, resourcefulness, and commitment.

What's the pass rate for IB compared to AP?

Pass rates are a common metric students and educators use to gauge the difficulty and success rates of academic programs. For the IB, the global pass rate has historically hovered around the 80% mark. AP exam pass rates can vary significantly based on the specific subject, with some exams boasting pass rates above 60% and others falling below this threshold. It's always a good idea to consult the latest statistics from official sources to get an accurate and up-to-date picture.

Are there any prerequisites for IB or AP courses?

Both the IB and AP programs aim to challenge students, and as such, some advanced courses have prerequisites to ensure students are adequately prepared. These prerequisites can be in the form of prior coursework, specific grade achievements, or teacher recommendations. Schools typically provide this information during the course selection process, ensuring students are well-informed and set up for success.

How do colleges view the IB Extended Essay?

The Extended Essay, a cornerstone of the IB program, is a 4,000-word independent research project. It offers students a unique opportunity to delve deep into a subject of their choice, honing their research, analytical, and writing skills. Universities, particularly those with rigorous academic programs, view the Extended Essay in a positive light. It's indicative of a student's ability to undertake independent research, akin to the kind of work expected at the undergraduate level. The Extended Essay showcases not just academic prowess but also commitment, discipline, and passion for a chosen subject. For many admissions panels, it provides valuable insight into a student's intellectual curiosity and readiness for university-level research.

Can I retake an IB or AP exam?

Both the IB and AP programs understand the importance of giving students a second chance. For the IB, students can opt to retake exams to improve their scores. These retakes can be done immediately in the subsequent session or even later, depending on the student's needs. The AP program also allows for exam retakes, but these typically occur in the following academic year. It's essential to weigh the benefits of a retake against other academic commitments and to consider the implications, especially in terms of college applications and associated deadlines.

How do TOK grades affect my overall IB score?

Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is an integral component of the IB program, focusing on the nature of knowledge and the process of knowing. Alongside the Extended Essay, TOK can contribute up to three bonus points to a student's overall IB score. These points are determined by a matrix that considers the student's performance in both TOK and the Extended Essay. Achieving high scores in both can significantly boost a student's final score, potentially making the difference in meeting university entry requirements or achieving an IB diploma.

Are there study abroad opportunities with IB or AP?

While the IB and AP programs themselves don't directly offer study abroad schemes, their global recognition can be a significant asset for students eyeing international education opportunities. Many universities worldwide recognise and value IB and AP credentials, often granting course credits for high scores. This recognition can ease the application process for international programs or universities. Additionally, some schools and external organisations offer study abroad or exchange programs specifically tailored for IB or AP students, further enhancing the global learning experience.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

Charles Whitehouse

Written by: Charles Whitehouse

Oxford University - Masters Biochemistry

Charles scored 45/45 on the International Baccalaureate and has six years' experience tutoring IB and IGCSE students and advising them with their university applications. He studied a double integrated Masters at Magdalen College Oxford and has worked as a research scientist and strategy consultant.

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