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What is IB? Making Sense of the IB Diploma Programme

Picture of Cecilia Grano De Oro
By Cecilia Grano De Oro on September, 15 2021 | 6 minute read

Editor’s note: This is a two-part series to help our readers better understand the IB programme, offered at many high schools both in the US and abroad. We’ll be back next week with even more of a breakdown of all that IB has to offer (and what the heck it all means). 

Friends, we’re soaking up the last few weeks of summer, a time that has hopefully brought with it an opportunity to reconnect with loved ones, reflect on challenges faced (and overcome), and recharge our batteries to forge ahead with purpose and intention (lots of re-words there!). For many high school students across the country, the summer months also offer the opportunity to put their most recent school year firmly in rearview (see ya!) while looking towards the upcoming year and the hurdles and successes it may bring. With the start of the new school year being just around the corner, it’s a good time to talk about high school stuff. But just as the summer months offer some breathing room before diving into yet another school year, it’s also a great time to think (just a teeny, tiny bit) about your high school path and how to navigate a journey that is uniquely your own.

One of the questions we are asked most often is how students can make the most of their academic journey when they have access to multiple competitive and challenging curricula. Students often feel the pressure to settle on one option versus the other, which can feel like making a decision that is confusing, stressful, and perhaps too definitive for a young person to take on. If you’re in that boat and you’re still trying to figure out what makes the most sense for you, especially if you’re thinking about two of the most well-known pathways (AP or IB), then you’re in the right place, as that decision is one that can even impact which high school you’ll be attending come fall. Just as an aside, it’s important to know that every high school does not offer the AP program nor are all high schools authorized to teach IB. 

Alright folks, end of general counseling guidance about academic stuff and on to the specifics! Let’s chat about the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme (I realize this is fancy, but I’m following the rules of what they call it!).

Related: How Many AP Classes Should I Take?

What is IB (International Baccalaureate)?

The IB programme has been around internationally for quite some time in various forms, going back to the late 60s when the initial Diploma pathway was first introduced. Essentially, the IB curriculum was created to provide students with challenging academic opportunities that focus on developing and strengthening critical thinking skills while supporting students’ unique learning styles, personal growth, curiosity, and ability to engage in thoughtful analysis. The IB Diploma Curriculum consists of three core elements -- theory of knowledge (TOK), the extended essay (EE), and creativity, activity, service (CAS) -- that provide a framework for courses in six individual subject groups: studies in language and literature; language acquisition; individuals and societies; sciences; mathematics; and the arts. 

Are IB and Advanced Placement the same thing?

Heck no! But first, what is Advanced Placement (AP)? Another acronym, that’s what! All kidding aside, AP is a high school program administered by the College Board (the SAT people) that provides opportunities for students to take college-level courses and exams during high school, with the possibility of earning transferrable college credit while demonstrating mastery in specific academic disciplines, which are offered in a variety of subject areas.

Here are a few notes about the major differences between the two, and it’s important to recognize that one program is not an alternative to (or a better version of) the other. No competition here!

IB Diploma: Comprehensive high school program of study with a two-year commitment (junior and senior years); curriculum focuses on student-centered learning, primarily inquiry-based; assessment occurs in different ways (exams, presentations, essays, projects, labs); courses are offered within six unique subject groups; students receive grades ranging from 1 to 7 (assessment is a bit more complex in the IB Diploma programme, but there’s a good breakdown here) and IB exams are typically administered in late April going into mid-May; passing grades on IB course exams may include the benefit of additional weighting in the student’s GPA.

AP Program: Not a curriculum or comprehensive program, rather individual courses with no unifying core; courses are typically one-year long, content-centered, and lecture-based, culminating in AP exams at the end of the academic year in May; scores range from 1-5; 3 and up is considered a passing score and grades earned in the course may be weightedcheck out the AP score table here.

Is the IB programme for everyone?

Nope! Deciding which academic pathway makes the most sense depends on the individual student and what they’re looking for in their high school learning experience. Oftentimes, there is a knee-jerk reaction to take the most challenging courses just because they are offered or recommended with well-meaning guidance. Still, sometimes that approach can lead to varying degrees of success (or heartache). Let’s be thoughtful and intentional about this! 

Academic rigor is important, but not at the expense of the student’s overall GPA. Keep in mind that a student’s learning experience builds upon itself, so there are always opportunities for students to progress, as they feel more comfortable taking higher-level courses. Also, every student is different, and what is an appropriate level of rigor for one student may prove to be completely overwhelming for another. 

Lastly, explore opportunities to create an individualized curriculum that best fits your student. Many high schools offering the full IB Diploma programme also allow students to pursue a less intense pathway in the form of an IB certificate, where students can take IB courses in their strongest subject areas while choosing other, more appropriate academic levels (i.e., college prep, honors, AP) in areas where they may still need more support or practice. This way, students can take advantage of opportunities to challenge themselves with rigorous IB coursework without overdoing it. Taking on the IB Diploma is a huge undertaking, so be sure to think about important factors like your student’s learning style, intrinsic motivation, ability to take initiative, interest in writing and research, and intensity of extracurricular commitment. Ultimately, it all depends on the student, and, if after much consideration, the IB programme isn’t the pathway that makes the most sense, that’s totally ok! Check back soon for part two of this post, where we’ll take a deep dive into the inner workings of the IB curriculum. 

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