Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) in College Admissions
Updated: Mar 22
Most students are aware of how important the GPA is in the college admissions process. While many things are taken into consideration, such as extracurriculars, essays, demonstrated interest, test scores, and letters of recommendation, GPA is the foundation for most review processes. In some ways, this focus on classroom performance can be beneficial for students, allowing them to demonstrate their commitment to hard work and education over a longer period of time. In other ways, the prioritization of grades has led to a GPA arms race amongst students and schools to craft an evermore impressive transcript and school report to send to colleges. While the topics of grade inflation and the importance of GPA merit a discussion, this blog post will hone in on a single piece of this equation: Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs and their role in college admissions.
Table of Contents:
What are AP and IB curricula?
To be abundantly clear, this blog post will not be comparing and contrasting the AP or IB programs in order to determine which is the “best”. Truthfully, most students across the country have very limited access to advanced courses in high school, few have access to an AP or IB program, and even fewer have access to both. Instead, this section is meant to establish a baseline understanding of how the AP and IB programs describe themselves.
According to the College Board website, the Advanced Placement program “could give you an advantage in college by letting you: earn college credit and placement, save money and time, stand out to colleges, and keep your options open.”
On the other hand, the International Baccalaureate website states their program “aim[s] to do more than other curricula… develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who are motivated to succeed. The IB gives students distinct advantages by building their critical thinking skills, nurturing their curiosity and their ability to solve complex problems.”
As you peruse the two websites, you will likely notice a stark difference in messaging and marketing between the two. Regardless of preference, both programs function very similarly for a standard high school student: these programs provide rigorous college-level courses that will serve a student in their learning and application to college/university.
Should you take AP or IB courses?
As I mentioned earlier, most students understand that their performance during high school, including the GPA and the courses chosen, will play a large role in their college application process. Across the board, most students understand what it means to choose an advanced course in either of these programs. In exchange for a more difficult and time-sensitive course, they could be rewarded in a number of ways that might be significant for their college applications. Many students immediately fall into one of two categories:
A student has no interest in taking more rigorous courses, regardless of their potential benefits. These students might already be struggling in the academic realm or they might have significantly more commitments outside of the classroom thus making the level of commitment necessary unrealistic.
A student wants to take every possible advanced course offered at their school. Some students choose this path because they have an authentic love of learning and want to challenge themselves academically. Other students choose this path because they are preparing to have a competitive college application. Most students take these courses because they are on a particular track in their high school that might have an AP or IB course as the natural next step in their education.
Many families ask for our thoughts on the AP or IB programs, and to what extent their student(s) should be involved. More often than not, my best catch-all advice for this question is to take as many rigorous courses in which you can do well. A student is not doing themselves or anybody else any favors by choosing the more rigorous high school schedule, only to become overwhelmed and fall short of their expectations. Receiving a C in an AP/IB course will more often than not look significantly worse than an A in a standard or honors high school course. Something else worth considering is the domino effect that might occur if a student becomes overwhelmed academically early in high school. The harder courses are going to consume a lot of the student’s bandwidth and many students find themselves pulling back from extracurricular commitments or personal hobbies to make room for the challenging courses. The last thing we want to see is an academically overwhelmed student who ends up sacrificing their extracurricular engagement and emotional health. When choosing AP or IB classes, be realistic with your academic bandwidth and consider what you want to prioritize in your life. There is no shame in taking two AP courses instead of four because you want to be engaged in your community, play a sport, interact with friends, and still have a chance to relax.
How can AP or IB programs affect my college application?
For better or worse, the most compelling reason for students and families to brave these rigorous programs is the promise of having an edge in the college application process. While these promises might be exaggerated at times and certainly not uniform across all institutions, there is some truth to their claim.
After all, the idea of a uniform curriculum is enticing to colleges and universities across the country. One significant problem in our education system is a lack of consistency in grading. Most schools grade on a 0-100 scale, using A/B/C/D/F grades, and measure the Grade Point Average (GPA) on a 4.0 scale. Within those frameworks, each school can become quite unique in its implementation. Some schools only grade on whole letters (A, B, C, etc.) while others might choose intervals of letters (A+, A, A -, etc.). Even the 0-100 scale can be implemented differently, such as one school considering 90-100 an A, while another school might consider a 93-100 an A. The use of a 4.0 scale also becomes malleable, with some schools assigning multiple GPA values per letter grade (Ex: A+=4.0, A=3.7, and A-=3.25). There’s also been a significant increase in GPA inflation across the country, in addition to many schools giving honors courses a .5 GPA boost and AP/IB classes a full 1.0 boost. The resulting GPA boost from these advanced courses means that it is common to see students applying with GPAs over a 4.0 (ex: 4.4/4.0). This is also the reason that it has become common for colleges and universities to request the weighted and unweighted GPA from students. Many colleges have created an additional step and actually recalculate the GPA of applicants in order to standardize GPAs from high schools across the country. It’s also important to note that while these are the most common grading scales, there are also schools that use a 7-point GPA scale, a mastery transcript with a narrative as opposed to grades, and many other unique ways of determining a student’s success in the classroom
With the context of GPA out of the way, there are four main areas in which taking AP or IB courses could strengthen your college application:
As mentioned above, the GPA serves as the most critical component of an application for the vast majority of colleges. An easy way to stand out amongst other students is to raise or strengthen your GPA. Traditionally, raising a GPA has meant performing highly in all academic classes in order to achieve a 4.0. Nowadays, even a student who earns all A’s in every standard academic class can have a lower GPA than someone receiving high marks in AP or IB classes. Many colleges have begun recalculating GPAs or asking for an unweighted GPA to combat GPA inflation, but many still see value in a GPA that exceeds the traditional 4.0.
One of the biggest selling points of the AP and IB curricula for schools, families, and students is the promise of potential college credit. Schools want to remain competitive in obtaining families, families want to cut as much of the college costs as possible, and students want their hard work to pay off in significant ways. A good GPA is important and could lead to scholarships, but a strong AP or IB test score can often guarantee some form of college credit. Like other classes, AP and IB programs implement their exams at the end of the school year. Typically, most schools are looking for a 3+/5 for an AP exam and 5+/7 for an IB exam. It’s important to note here that receiving a high score and subsequent college credit does not always mean the student will not have to retake a similar course in college. Sometimes, the exam scores can help waive out of certain general education requirements, and sometimes the exam score will only count as elective credit.
By choosing to engage in an AP or IB curriculum, students are showing a dedication to rigorous and challenging academics, something most colleges value in prospective students Admissions will also take into consideration which classes or curricula might be offered at your school. Some high schools might only offer a handful of AP courses, and only to juniors and seniors. Other high schools offer the full AP and IB curricula with dozens of course offerings starting as early as 9th grade. A college will never expect you to have more academic achievements than your school offers, but they will expect you to take full advantage of any opportunities available. In short, admission offices tend to value applications from students who took advantage of the offerings in their high school, but students are reviewed in the context of their schools and communities.
IB Diploma and AP Capstone
As if AP and IB classes weren’t enough, these programs have developed another hierarchical ranking within their curricula. You can find out more about the AP Capstone and IB Diploma programs by visiting their respective websites. Although the IB Diploma has been around for longer and is more well-known across the globe, both programs aim to create another level of academic rigor and engagement amongst pre-existing AP and IB students. Many colleges will take note of these achievements, and some colleges will even offer additional scholarships for their completion.
How and when should I submit my AP or IB exam scores?
When you are applying to college, most application systems will have a place to list any AP or IB scores you might have already received. This is a great way to temporarily provide any scores that you would like to be considered in the admissions process. After you have been admitted to a college and decide to enroll, you can use the College Board or International Baccalaureate website to send official scores to your selected college. I strongly advise students to avoid sending any official scores to colleges until you have completed your senior year and have received the last of your exam scores.
With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors