Colleges evaluate applicants’ academics within the context of the curricula offered at their secondary school. In the United States, many high schools offer an AP (Advanced Placement) curriculum and the IB (International Baccalaureate) program, and abroad, many English-speaking countries provide yet another curriculum, the A-levels.

In a previous blog post, we outlined the nuts and bolts of the Advanced Placement (AP) program, which offers college-level courses to high school students. In this post, we’ll provide an overview of the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs’ curriculum and assessment techniques, and what their “holistic approach” entails.

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The International Baccalaureate is a non-profit educational foundation that offers four different programs for students ages three to 19: IB Primary Years Programme, IB Middle Years Programme, IB Diploma Programme, and IB Career-Related Certificate. 952 high schools in the United States currently offer their students the curriculum and an opportunity to graduate with an IB diploma.

Each program works toward the goal of “developing inquiring, knowledgeable, confident, and caring young people.” The four programs are philosophically aligned, each centered on developing attributes of the IB learner profile. The profile aims to develop learners who are:

  • Inquirers
  • Knowledgeable
  • Thinkers
  • Communicators
  • Principled
  • Open-minded
  • Caring
  • Risk-takers
  • Balanced
  • Reflective

The IB curriculum cultivates higher-level thinking skills and self-discipline. As reporter Gail Robinson writes on, “IB students are responsible for their own learning, choosing topics and devising their own projects, while teachers act more as supervisors or mentors than sources of facts. IB emphasizes research and encourages students to learn from their peers, with students actively critiquing one another’s work.”

For the purpose of this post, we will be focusing on the Diploma Programme, which is offered to students ages 16 to 19. The IB Diploma Programme (DP) is a rigorous academic program with final exams that prepares students for success in college and a lifelong love of learning. It has been designed to address the intellectual, social, emotional and physical well-being of students.

The IB Diploma Programme Curriculum

The IB curriculum is comprised of the “DP core” as well as six subject groups. The DP core contains three required components, which in total aim to “broaden students’ educational experience and challenge them to apply their knowledge and skills.” As described on the IB website, the three components of the DP core are:

  • Theory of knowledge, in which students reflect on the nature of knowledge and on how we know what we claim to know.
  • The extended essay, which is an independent, self-directed piece of research, finishing with a 4,000-word paper.
  • Creativity, activity, service, in which students complete a project related to those three concepts.

As for the six additional subject groups, each contains a selection of courses, and can be taken at either higher level (more involved, at 240 teaching hours) or standard level (less involved, at 150 teaching hours). Students in the Diploma Programme must take either three or four subjects at higher level, and the remaining subjects at standard level.

These six subject groups are:

One facet that sets IB apart from other honors programs, including Advanced Placement, is that students can take an entirely IB curriculum rather than just a handful of classes, and completing the IB Diploma Programme requires taking these courses simultaneously. With respect to course planning, it is vital to select the “best-fit” subjects with respect to your academic and career goals, and to the requirements of the universities to which you plan to apply.

Although students are encouraged to enroll in the comprehensive IB Diploma Program, some schools, like Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland, allow students to elect to take fewer than the six subjects. In these cases, students who fail to satisfy all requirements or elect to take fewer than six subjects are awarded a certificate for exams completed, instead of the full IB Diploma.

Assessment Approach

Students are assessed through testing (“external assessments”) and teacher observation (“internal assessments”).

Testing. Forms of testing include: essays, structured problems, short-response questions, data-response questions, text-response questions, case-study questions, and, in rare cases, multiple-choice questions. The external exams take place in May of senior year.

A student’s examination performance in individual subjects is scored on a scale of 1–7 points with an additional 3 points available based on performance in the theory of knowledge (TOK) and the extended essay components. Students who display satisfactory levels of performance across all subject areas and achieve a minimum of 24 points are awarded the IB diploma.

IB tests are graded by a third party, outside of school, and exams are the same worldwide, regardless of where a student lives. In addition to testing, students completing the IB Diploma Program must participate in community service and write an “extended essay” of 4,000 words based on independent research.

Teacher observation. Teacher observations include oral work in languages, fieldwork in geography, lab work in the sciences, investigations in mathematics, and artistic performances.

Benefits of Participating in an IB Program

  • Students are more prepared for the academic rigors of college.

A 2012 study of IB Diploma programs in Chicago found that when compared to a matched comparison group, students in the IB DP are 40 percent more likely to attend four-year colleges and 50 percent more likely to attend more selective colleges. More recently, a 2020 study of students who graduated from US high schools in 2013 found that IB students were more likely than other students to go to college right after graduating from high school, attend the same college the next year, and graduate. When in college, IB DP students report feeling prepared to excel in their coursework, often stating explicitly that their experiences in the IB DP taught the specific skills and behaviors demanded of them in college.

  • College admissions officers look favorably on IB Program courses.

According to Marilyn E. McGrath, Harvard’s former Director of Admissions, “Success in an IB program correlates well with success at Harvard. We are always pleased to see the credentials of the IB Diploma Program on the transcript. GPA is not nearly as important a factor in university admission as the IB Diploma. If a student has to choose, choose the Diploma over protecting the GPA.”

“We’re looking for students who are engagers—students who are maximizing opportunities in and out of the classroom. What’s very unique about IB is that through its curriculum it allows students to be able to satisfy the requirements of the types of students that we’re looking for,” states Dr. Kedra Ishop, Vice President for Enrollment Management at the University of Southern California.

  • By participating in an IB Program, you might be eligible to earn college credit or place into more advanced courses, depending on your IB exam scores.

Colleges differ in their policies of whether they grant credit for both SL (Standard Level) and HL (Higher Level) exams and what scores are required. Some colleges automatically provide credit for certain scores, whereas others rely on department heads or deans to decide.

Most importantly, colleges differ in how IB credit may be used by students: typical options include the ability to waive out of courses, take upper-level courses, satisfy distribution requirements, and/or graduate early. In this respect, IB credit offers a similar array of options as AP credit. As an IB student, you always have the option of taking an AP exam (without the attendant AP course) in order to maximize your chances of earning college credit. 

Deciding which advanced program of courses to pursue can be a daunting process. Collegiate Gateway is happy to help in planning your high school course options to maximize your academic potential and college admissibility. Feel free to contact us!