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IB vs. AP: How to Figure Out Which Classes Are Best for You

Challenging high school classes look good on college applications, but which ones are the right ones to take? Here's a way to decide between AP and IB courses.

High school–level classes just don’t cut it for some students. If you wish to enroll in college-level courses as a high schooler, the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) programs are probably high on your list. Each program can help you enter institutions of higher learning with more confidence in your abilities, and they carry major weight with colleges and universities when applying for admission. You may even be able to earn college credit for high test scores. But which option holds better prospects for you? Here's how to figure out if you should take on IB or AP coursework.

What are the benefits of each program?

The benefits of IB and AP programs are quite similar. The courses are intended to teach you academic skills and habits to help you succeed in college. In addition, they prepare you for college-level work, improve your writing and problem-solving skills, and teach you how to manage your time and studies to keep up with the challenges of higher education. IB and AP exams can also be used to earn college credit, giving you a head start when you enroll. However, you'll need to check if your preferred college(s) offer credit only for higher level (HL) IB classes or for standard level (SL) classes. AP credits can count toward actual college classes, and exam scores of 3 or higher may get you into higher-level courses as a freshman. It’s important to note that some colleges don't offer credit for AP courses, but you may not be required to take certain introductory courses.

Related: Video: Tips for Taking College-Level Courses in High School

How many classes can you take?

There are a total of 38 subjects in the Advanced Placement program, and you can take as many as you want. However, not every high school in the US offers AP exams for all subjects, and some high schools limit the number of courses a student can enroll in. Because the AP program is challenging, students may overextend themselves if they take too many AP classes in one semester, so choose wisely if you do take AP classes. Exams consist of multiple-choice and free-response questions that can be answered in different formats.

The IB program covers six areas of study at standard and higher levels. IB courses emphasize critical thinking, and students are encouraged to ask questions and develop research skills. Like the AP program, you can choose the courses you want to take. However, to officially earn the IB diploma, you have to take all six subjects—three or four at the more challenging higher level and the rest at the standard level. In addition, all IB diploma candidates must complete the Theory of Knowledge course, which is assessed through an extended essay and presentation and requires students to reflect on the nature of knowledge.

How do AP and IB exams compare in cost?

While taking an AP course is free, the final exam at the end of the semester is not. The registration fee for an AP exam is $96. But many schools offer subsidies to encourage students to take exams in certain subjects like mathematics and science, so check in with the support your school offers before deciding which courses you’ll take. IB exam fees are even higher, requiring both a $172 registration fee and a $119 fee per exam, but waivers or reductions may be available.

Which carries more weight with colleges?

Both IB and AP programs are recognized by colleges and universities in the United States and worldwide. As such, there isn’t really a preference for one over the other. Colleges are more interested in knowing whether you’ve taken the most demanding classes available and challenged yourself academically. Admission counselors pay attention to the rigor of your courses, not just a high GPA. So it’s best to choose your classes with care, keeping in mind the expectations of the colleges and universities you plan to apply to and the degree(s) you wish to pursue. Research what programs and courses your high school offers, and plan to challenge yourself instead of opting for an easy A.

Related: How to Choose Your High School Classes With College in Mind

AP and IB courses are a great way to challenge yourself academically and boost your college applications. But you shouldn’t take on more than you can handle, and doing your due diligence to choose the right courses is important. Use this guide to pick the right program you believe you can succeed in and you’ll see just how far your academic prowess can take you.

We have a lot more advice like this to help guide you on the best path for your goals. Check it out in our Majors and Academics section!

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About Lindsey Conger

Lindsey Conger

Lindsey Conger is a college counselor and tutor at Moon Prep.


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