You want to get into an impressive college or university – and you may also want to save money when you go. If your school happens to offer Advanced Placement Courses and the International Baccalaureate, which one will you choose? It’s a complicated question, and the answer may be different for each student. Both AP courses and the IB offer significant rewards for students willing to put in the work.
But both are interpreted differently by colleges and universities, and have a cost disparity. We are going to take some time today to look at both systems, why they were invented, and whom they serve. That way, a student can make an informed choice as to which one to attend and for what reasons. We do want to stress that both programmes have been shown to be impressive for most students. What we are going to look at is what an average student would get out of either course/class selection.
What is the Advanced Placement course?
AP courses are comprised of a total of 38 subjects; some of them may not be offered at your school. That said, you can take the AP test in any of the 38 subjects whether or not you took the course. Of course, passing the test will be much easier if you do take the course. Each exam costs 94 USD to take. Most schools have scholarships and student aid that will help offset the cost of taking the exam. Beyond that, getting a passing grade on the exam generally means you don’t have to take that class at college or university, which will save you much more than $94. AP courses are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best grade possible.
Getting a grade of 3 or better is considered enough to pass the class and receive college credit at most universities. Some students have managed to get enough credit through AP exams to graduate from college or university a year early. Another excellent benefit is that students have the ability and flexibility to complete a second major in university. Other students use the AP exams as a way to avoid taking required courses in college, giving them the freedom to take more elective courses.
This early investment of your time could make college or university much more productive and less of a grind. That said, even a score of a 1 or a 2 isn’t necessarily bad. If you’ve taken the AP course and passed, it shows universities that you are willing to apply yourself to tougher tasks than your peers. Beyond that, if you take your AP classes during senior year, colleges and universities won’t see your exam grade when evaluating your application. They will simply see that you are taking the course, and what your current grade is.
That means your score really only matter when it’s time to earn college credit. Participation is often enough to impress schools that you are serious. All of this wraps up in a nice little package. You can take just the courses you want and know you will excel in. You can get financial aid for the classes. And the experience is enough to make you look like a solid candidate for colleges and universities. If you are particularly gifted in one subject you can simply take the test and not worry about the course itself. Therefore, AP courses and tests are the most popular in America – with a total of 30% of students taking at least one test. This is also the reason that so many international schools place such great value on the AP programme.
What is the International Baccalaureate?
Generally known as IB, the International Baccalaureate was invented in 1968 in Switzerland. As such, it is much less focused on the needs of American students than AP courses, which are run by the makers of the SATs. The IB is designed to create a well-rounded student who is prepared for university. Rather than allow students to pick and choose what courses to take, it has several set course packages that students need to take in order to get their diploma. When it comes time to take the tests, it will cost you a one-time $172 registration fee plus $119 per exam.
This can get costly when you realise you’ll need to take five or six exams. In general, this is not covered by scholarship programmes or financial aid. An IB programme does help create well-rounded students. If you are considering going to a university in Europe, it is a useful tool to have at your disposal It is graded on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 the highest grade you can get. Between the five or six courses and tests you must take, you need to earn a minimum of 24 combined points. That does give you some leeway to excel in one subject but do less well in others. A 1 is still a point towards your goal of 24 total points. Unlike the AP tests, you cannot simply take the IB exam. You must take the courses, and then the tests themselves.
This can become a challenge if your school only offers six IB courses, and the ones you would do the best in are not offered. You will also be graded on essays and field work during your time in an IB classroom. You also have to take a Theory of Knowledge class, it does not count towards your points and is graded on an A to F grading system. In that setting, IB is exceptional because a wide variety of classes are offered and students can pick the IB course load that will help them the most. IB does a solid job in building the kind of well-rounded student that will excel in international relations.
Unlike the AP, which is designed to test specific skill sets, it challenges you to think on all levels. Well-rounded people will be needed as the world becomes ever more connected. An IB diploma will help you attend foreign schools and fit in with your peers. That said, on the home front IB is a different story. While AP classes and tests are nearly universally accepted at American colleges and universities, that is not the case with the IB. Some colleges will accept them and give the student credit for taking the course. Many however will not. If you want to find out if the IB will be accepted at a university you are considering check with the school itself. If they do accept your credits, that’s great – but don’t count on it. Getting an IB is more for international study and the overall result of becoming more well-rounded as an individual. Not that there is anything wrong with that! As noted earlier, the IB is a wonderful course programme that will help you become an exceptional person down the line.
The downside to AP courses
AP courses do have some downsides you should consider when comparing them to IB classes. They are quite specialised, and give credit for learning very specific facts in very specific ways. The courses are taught with the exam in mind, and you will learn exactly what you need to know in order to pass the course. That’s useful for getting college credit – but not so great for you as a young person trying to learn about the world. You simply take the course, learn the subject, and take the test. If you pass it, you get college credit. If you are planning to go to college in America and simply want some of the classes out of the way before you go, then you’re in luck. Not all AP classes will be offered by your school. If you want to take an AP test you think you’ll pass, you’ll simply have to pay for a tutor or study for it on your own. That can end up being very expensive – more so even than simply taking the class in college.
In addition, if you are going to be applying for colleges outside the United States, AP courses and tests probably won’t get you college credit for them but each school places value on AP and schools in Thailand are starting to give credit for AP tests. Overall, these downsides are not earth-shattering. But they should become a part of your decision to take AP courses or the IB programme. Both courses are perfect for individual students – but knowing what kind of student you are is key.
The downside to the International Baccalaureate
The main downside to doing an IB programme is going to be access. It is offered in fewer schools and often access to the programme is problematic. You can’t simply get a tutor and take the test. Beyond that, as a course load of at least five or six classes, there are going to be some classes that simply won’t be in your wheelhouse. With the AP tests, you can pick and choose your courses based on where you excel. That is not the case when it comes to IB programmes. Overall, IB programmes are a good choice for students who are good with what are known as “liberal arts.” The way the programme is designed to be an overall programme, without the focus on STEM that is common with AP courses, makes it an optimum choice for those students.
That said, credit in the courses won’t be accepted by many, if not most American and Canadian colleges, as they stand behind the AP classes when it comes to getting college credit. The extra expenses in taking the various tests must also be factored into the equation. Comparing the cost per test vs the AP makes a strong case for the American version vs the Swiss version. Of course, for international study the IB is going to a boon. The skills it assesses are in demand at schools around the world. Simply because they will not be recognised by American schools should not stop you from an IB programme if you are not planning on studying in the US in the first place.
So which is better? AP or International Baccalaureate?
Looking at the positives and negatives for both AP and IB courses, for the majority of students looking at colleges in the United States, Canada or other Western countries, AP is the winner. Just from a practical perspective, the number of universities that will accept AP is astounding and a reason to choose them. You’ll have those classes out of the way, and then in college can focus on getting a more well-rounded experience. The Thai-Chinese International School (TCIS) was one of the early adopters of the AP programme in Thailand. Dr John McGrath, Head of Schools at TCIS said, “we put AP at the top of our high school agenda because of both the rigorous nature of the programme and the relevancy to Western universities.
We have also found that our students get accepted to the best schools in America and Canada because we put tremendous effort into incorporating AP into our trilingual approach to education. When our students graduate from TCIS, they are able to speak three languages and they are passing these challenging AP exams in multiple areas.” The fact that you can choose which courses to take and play to your strengths also helps us select AP classes as a better option. You want to show colleges what you are good at – not a mix of where you excel and where you are weak. Not that the IB track is bad. It is simply designed for a market that often does not include colleges or universities in the US or Canada.
If you are planning on studying at Oxford or the Sorbonne, then of course it is a great choice. But many international students are looking for options to study at universities in the US and Canada. Therefore, focusing on the less expensive choice that delivers the most results is very important. Both AP and IB courses are great. But as Patrick Welsh wrote in the New York Times, “I have known students who have saved parents thousands in tuition by gaining a full year of college credit after acing AP exams.” For the average international student, AP is simply the better of two amazing choices.