fbpx

A Guide to International Baccalaureate Programs

Table of Contents

Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on email

All students want to do well in high school, so they can get into a great college. Part of this is taking the most challenging courses available to them. International Baccalaureate (IB) programs are not as common as AP classes, but many schools offer them, and students often wonder if these courses are right for them.

What are IB courses? How do they work? Which should you take? Can you get college credit from them, like AP courses? We will explore the answers to all these questions, and advise you on what colleges are looking for. Let’s get started!

What is an International Baccalaureate Program?

Founded in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1968, IB was intended to provide academic coursework that would prepare students for university, and for careers in diplomacy or government. The organization is still headquartered in Geneva, and all IB schools must be officially licensed before they are allowed to offer IB courses. This results in a high standard of quality for IB coursework.

While the most popular and well-known IB program is for high school students, they have programs for younger students as well. We will focus on the high school program in this article. The official name for this is the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IBDP).

This program is open to students aged 16-19, so most students will only take IB courses in their junior and senior years. Unlike the pick-and-choose method of taking AP courses, IB programs are more firmly set, with fewer choices for which classes you will take, and fewer course options overall.

There are six subject groups in which courses are offered. These are: 

  • Studies in languages and literature
  • Language acquisition
  • Individuals and societies
  • Sciences
  • Mathematics
  • The arts

Courses may be taken at the standard level (SL) or higher level( HL). Higher-level courses require showing a greater depth of understanding, and cover a wider breadth of knowledge, but are graded and scored the same. All students will take three or four HL classes, with the rest being SL. We recommend you take HL courses in your strongest subjects or those which you wish to major in in college.

These subjects are meant overall to instruct students in core competencies. These competencies are:

  • Theory of knowledge
  • Extended essay
  • Creativity, activity, and service

The extended essay is a self-directed piece of research students are expected to complete. This culminates in a 4,000-word paper. Similarly, students are expected to complete an independent project to represent the creativity, activity, and service competency. Students show an understanding of the theory of knowledge through their coursework, rather than with a specific project.

The exact courses offered through an IB program are determined by your school; each is encouraged to tailor the program to meet the needs of their students and will have slightly different course offerings. Speak with your counselor about which courses are offered, and which will best serve your needs.

IB Examinations

As with AP courses, students complete a series of exams at the end of the IBDP to demonstrate their mastery of the concepts taught. Your work in class observed and scored by your teachers is also counted for some subjects, such as lab work done for the sciences, or speaking for languages.

You receive a grade of 1 to 7 for each subject, with 7 being the best. You need a combined score of better than 24 to graduate from an IB program, with the average student attaining a 29. The theory of knowledge and extended essay is scored separately and can add up to three points to your overall score for graduation. The creativity, activity, and service section is not scored but must be completed to graduate.

The written assessments you complete are scored by the IB organization itself, to ensure that the grades are objective. Since these are for the most part done at the end of high school, you may not be able to report your scores to colleges when you are applying. This does not make IB coursework any less valuable for applying; high grades in these courses are seen as a predictor for the scores you will attain.

Covid Impacts

Due to the pandemic, exams have not been offered everywhere. This year, IB is using a dual assessment model. This means that exams are offered where it is safe to take them, and where it isn’t coursework, and projected scores are used to award final scores. This has received some criticism for perceived unfairness. It remains to be seen how the situation will evolve in the future.

College Credit for IB Courses

As with AP classes, many colleges will grant course credit to students who score well on their IB examinations. How high you need to score, and which subjects you can earn credit in, vary greatly between colleges. Generally, however, you will get course credit for scores of 6 or higher on IB exams.

The more prestigious a school is, the higher they want your scores to be to award credit. Top 20 schools, for example, will generally only give credit for scores above 6, while some schools will grant credit for scores of 5. This can vary within a school, with some subjects accepting a 5, and others requiring a 6.

IB credit can also be used to fulfill language requirements, though some schools have additional testing requirements to prove competency. As with AP classes, IB classes are sometimes used to determine placement or to satisfy prerequisites, especially in math and the sciences. You should check the policies of each college you apply to, as there isn’t any standardized way that schools handle IB coursework, though they all like to see it.

Should I take IB courses?

This depends on your own unique situation, but generally, yes, if they are offered and you are academically prepared. Colleges want students who have challenged themselves academically, especially top schools, and taking the hardest courses available is a good way to demonstrate this.

If, however, you are not confident in your academic abilities, consider giving IB a pass. Unlike AP courses, you can’t easily pick and choose which to take. IB is a system and requires taking all of the courses within it. This can be overwhelming for some students and may hurt your chances if you are unprepared academically.

The chance to gain college credit is one of the most appealing parts of the IB curriculum. College credits are very expensive, and entering a school with a few already can free up time for courses you would rather take, sometimes getting you out of courses or prerequisites.

Overall, we recommend IB courses, but your own situation must be taken into account when deciding what is right for you. 

AP vs IB

Some schools offer both AP and IB courses. Advanced students can and should take both. Since you cannot enter IB coursework until you are 16, AP courses allow you to take advanced coursework in your sophomore or even freshman year. 

Students who do not feel academically prepared for IB courses should focus on taking a few AP courses each year and doing well in them. Doing excellently in a few hard courses is better than a mediocre showing in an overall harder schedule. The best of course is to do amazingly in the hardest courses, but this is not always possible. You should take the courses that give you the best chance for success.

Final Thoughts

More than 800 high schools in the US offer an IB curriculum, though it is still far less prevalent than AP courses. If you would like advice on which AP courses or exams you should take, see our guide on the subject. While you may not have IB at your high school, we advise you to take advantage of whatever academic opportunities you can find.
If you want advice on your academic situation, and guidance on whether an IB curriculum is right for you, schedule a free consultation with us. We have a long experience helping high school students reach their full potential, and are always happy to hear from you.

Need help with college admissions?

Download our "Guide to Everything," a 90-page PDF that covers everything you need to know about the college admission process.

More To Explore

College Applications

Women Only Liberal Arts Colleges

There was a time when all colleges were gender segregated, usually to the detriment of women. Today, all the nation’s top research universities are coeducational,

5/5
Wendy Y.
Parent
Below is my son's review. He was accepted to his dream Ivy League school!

From an admitted student's perspective, I am incredibly grateful to have met Sasha - he has been instrumental in helping me achieve my educational dreams (Ivy League), all while being an absolute joy (he's a walking encyclopedia, only funnier!) to work with.

Many people are dissuaded from seeking a college counselor because they think they can get into their desired college(s) either way. Honestly, going that route is a bit short-sighted and can jeopardize your odds of acceptances after years of hard work. The sad truth is, the American education system (even if you attend a fancy private school and ESPECIALLY if you go to a public school) doesn't really tell students how to write a compelling and authentic application. Going into the admissions process alone, without speaking with an advisor, is like going to court without a lawyer - you put yourself at a significant disadvantage because you don't have all the facts in front of you, or the help you need to negotiate the system.

That said, you need a good lawyer just like you need a good college counselor. And that's where Sasha distinguishes himself from the crowd of people claiming they'll get you into Harvard. I came to Sasha worried about and frankly dumbfounded by the college admissions process. I was unsure what to write about and how to go about drafting the essay that perfectly captured my passion, interests, and self. And I was highly skeptical that anyone could really help me. But, damn, did Sasha prove me wrong. From the beginning, Sasha amazed me with his understanding of the process, and ability to lend clarity and direction to me when I desperate needed it. After interviewing me about my background, experiences, activities, outlook, and vision, he helped me see qualities about myself I had not previously considered 'unique' or 'stand-out.' This process of understanding myself was so incredibly important in laying the groundwork for the essays I eventually wrote, and I'm certain I would've drafted boring, inauthentic essays without it.

Looking back, Sasha's talent is that he can see where your strengths lie, even when you don't see them. The truth is, although we don't always realize it, everyone has a unique story to tell. Sasha helped me see mine, and with his big-picture insight I was able to write the application that truly encapsulated my life and vision. He inspired me to dig deeper and write better, challenging me to revise and revise until my essays were the most passionate and authentic work I had ever written. As clichéd as that sounds, that's really what universities are looking for. In retrospect, it makes sense - in the real world passionate (not simply intelligent) individuals are the ones who make a difference in the world, and those are the individuals colleges would like to have associated with their brand.

In the end, I was accepted to the college of my dreams, a feat I could not have achieved without the direction Sasha lent to me. Essays (and the personal narrative you develop through your application) matter so much, and can literally make or break your application. I have seen so many of my 'qualified' friends receive rejections because they wrote contrived essays that didn't truly represent who they were; conversely, I have also seen so many friends with shorter resumes accepted because they were able to articulate their story in a genuinely passionate and authentic way - I fall into the latter category.

As a former admissions officer at Johns Hopkins, Sasha knows what types of essays jibe well with universities, an invaluable asset to have in the admissions process. He is responsive, flexible, creative, positive, and witty. For anyone who is serious about going into the college admissions process informed and prepared, I highly recommend Sasha.
5/5
Arda E.
Student
I used Ivy Scholars to mainly help me with college applications. Within weeks of using this service, Sasha was able to simplify the already complex process. When it came to writing the Common App essay, Sasha didn’t just help with grammar and syntax, he brought my essays to life. Sasha also worked tirelessly to help solidify my extracurricular activities, including research and internship opportunities. Without his help, I would have never had an impressive resume.

Sasha is not only an extremely knowledgeable tutor, but also a genuine brother figure. His guidance, throughout my last two years of high school, was everything I needed to get me an acceptance letter from my dream schools (UC Berkeley, Tufts, Emory).

When it came to testing, Ivy Scholars worked like a charm. Sasha offered a very comprehensive plan when it came to completely acing my standardized tests. Without his test taking strategies I would have never gotten straight 5s on my AP tests and a 35 on the ACT.

Working with Sasha, I didn’t just become a good student, I became a genuine scholar.
5/5
Samson S.
Parent
We worked with Ivy Scholars during my son's senior year. I was concerned that we may be too late to take advantage of college advising but the Ivy Scholars team quickly and confidently directed us through the steps to ensure no deadlines were missed. Sasha's knowledge about schools, what they looked for in candidates, and how to maneuver the application process was invaluable. Mateo and Ryan worked with my son to help him create an essay that would get noticed and I am so appreciative he had their guidance.

Prior to securing Ivy Scholars, we tried using a less-expensive online service which was a terrible experience. As a parent, Ivy Scholars brought peace of mind to an area that was frankly overwhelming. This service was invaluable in the knowledge that we gained throughout the process. He has also met with my freshman daughter to provide guidance for her high school courses, career paths, extracurricular activities, and more.

Prior to signing with Ivy Scholars, I tried a less expensive online service and was very disappointed.

As a result of our work with Ivy Scholars, I am pleased to say that my son will be attending Stern Business School at New York University this fall! I highly recommend Ivy Scholars. Highly recommend!