Preparing for College

AP vs. IB?

Question: We have a high-achieving, loves-a-challenge 8th-grader who will be attending a high school that offers IB and AP. Which of the two do college admissions prefer?

A growing number of high schools seem to be offering both AP and IB, and thus many parents (and students) are befuddled by their options.

In terms of college admissions, it doesn't matter which you choose. College applications ask guidance counselors to indicate whether a student's academic program is "Most Demanding," "Very Demanding, "Somewhat Demanding," etc. when compared with what is offered at that school. Unless a student has a big "hook" (recruited athlete, underrepresented minority, VIP, legacy, et al), then only those in the first category get serious consideration at the most competitive colleges. Both full IB programs and AP-laden programs generally earn the "Most Demanding" designation. You can certainly check with the school counselor to make sure that this is the case at your son's school, too.

Note, however, that I say "full IB programs." In many high schools, students can sign on for some selected IB classes without shooting for the whole diploma, and I've seen admission officials act sort of snooty about that. So, before you commit to either route, be certain that you and your son understand what the complete IB program entails in terms of course selection, time commitment, etc. Your school should have some materials that explain how IB works. You can also check out the official site at or read this very reasonable Wikipedia summary at If you're wary about jumping in with both feet, then the AP road might be the better one to take.

Another consideration to keep in mind is that the more selective colleges often give college credit only for IB classes taken at the "Higher Level" ("HL" in IB lingo). IB students take three classes at that level and the rest at the Standard Level ("SL"). Some colleges give credit only for IB exam scores of 7 (the top); some for lower scores. Thus, even the most outstanding students may only get college credit in three areas, while AP students could end up with credit in many more subjects, depending on how many AP classes the student takes, how he fares on the exams, and what the college's credit policy is. Some parents and students report that they have to jump through more hoops for IB credit than for AP credit, especially when students are not at the most selective colleges. In any case, once you start investigating AP and IB credit policies, you may feel like you need a Cal Tech degree just to figure it all out. Each college seems to somehow manage to come up with an AP/IB credit-awarding system that is just a tad different than the next guy's!

Of course, for many AP and IB students, earning college credit is not a priority. Most students are focusing primarily on having an engaging high school experience and on impressing admission officials in the process. If they're shooting for the Ivies and other hyper-competitive colleges, these students aren't necessarily looking to arrive with credits under their belt nor do they intend to rush through in three years (even though it might save Mom and Dad a bundle of dough).

As you make your plans, also don't forget to also look into miscellaneous "logistical" considerations. Find out how your son's choice of program might affect other options in the school day. For instance, do scheduling constraints mean that IB students cannot sign up for chorus, orchestra or yearbook? Do IB students take all their classes together and are never--or rarely---in class with non-IB students? Do they have a separate lunch period that segregates them even more? (In some schools, this can be a minus, in others, a plus.)

But the bottom line is this: If your son is looking for a challenging high school experience that will also "look good" at college admission time, then he can't go wrong with either AP or IB.

For some additional thoughts, here are links to a Washington Post article by noted education/admissions writer Jay Matthews and also to an IB vs.AP thread on the College Confidential discussion forum: