IB and AP Classes: What is the Difference?

A Guide to the Ways to Earn College Credit in High School


Lara Garay

Both AP and IB classes have the potential to give high school students college credit.

Anais Killian, Contributing Writer

When seeking to understand a student’s transcript in context, colleges have a lot to look at. Of course, they look at a student’s GPA, their extracurriculars, and the classes they have taken, along with the end-of-the-year exams that come with those classes. Many students take the Advanced Placement (AP) exams in an effort to score a 4 or 5 to test out of a college class or receive college credit. However, AP is not the only program that provides high school students with the chance to earn college credit. Just like the AP path, the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB) has certain classes and exams that intend to provide students with college credit. While colleges seem to equally value AP and IB programs, students should be aware of some structural differences. 

First of all, the location and origin of the two programs play a huge role in deciphering them. AP is mostly used in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, and was created by the College Board in the 1950s, while the IB program was developed in the 1960s in Switzerland. Both IB and AP courses are offered overseas, but IB is primarily an international program and is most common in Europe. According to the IB website, nearly 5,200 schools in 157 countries offer the program. However, most high school students in America participate in the AP program. In fact, over 14,000 American public schools collaborate with the AP path, compared with only around 800 for the IB program.

While colleges seem to equally value AP and IB programs, students should be aware of some structural differences.

IB and AP programs are also administered differently. In order to participate in the IB program, students must go to a designated IB school. This means that the school has to have successfully adopted the standards, practices, and requirements of the program, including trained and classified IB teachers. With the AP program, it is not mandatory for a school to have AP classes for its students to take AP exams—students can self-study for as many exams as they want. Junior Gabe Herman, a student who is taking four AP classes at CRLS, said that the difficulty of AP classes “varies so much with teachers that [they are] not very consistent.” In contrast, IB teachers are trained to teach the curriculum in a certain fashion to make IB classes more standardized worldwide.

The IB diploma is a whole package. To earn an IB diploma, students have to go to an IB-approved school and meet the IB requirements: taking classes in the six subject groups, passing the IB exams, and completing additional core requirements such as a 4000-word essay, 150 community service hours, and extracurricular specifications. Students are evaluated using both internal and external assessments, and courses finish usually with two or three timed written tests. Penelope Paxson, a junior at the British International School of Boston, knows this firsthand. Paxson is a full IB student at her school, taking the required six subjects with the addition of Theory Of Knowledge (TOK), a mandatory class of the core IB curriculum. As for the exams, Paxson explained, “IB lasts for two years, and the classes you take remain the same, meaning you get tested on everything you have learned over the past two years during the IB exams. It also requires a certain way of thinking about what is being taught as it focuses on philosophical links to the TOK class with a much more open-ended question style.”

AP students, on the other hand, have to pass their subject exam in order to obtain college credit. Nuriel Vera-Degraff, a sophomore at CRLS taking AP United States History and AP Calculus BC, noted that AP exams are usually “around a whopping three and a half hours. Although it may seem like a lot [of time], there are so many questions that test-takers don’t have a second to lose.”

The greatest difference between the programs is the approach to teaching. AP teachers follow a fast-moving curriculum to prepare students for the exam at the end of the year, whereas IB exams are comprehensive with a focus of writing, critical thinking, and research. IB exams test a student’s way of thinking, not just memorization. IB aims to create a more rounded student, whereas AP aims to create a student who specializes in their fields of study/interest.

In sum, both IB and AP are rigorous programs, both intended to prepare a student for an exam that could possibly give college credit. As Vera-Degraff pointed out, AP and IB “are more challenging than regular classes, and can push students to become better learners, problem-solvers, and critical thinkers.”