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.

Our series – The ABC’s of Secondary School Curricula – will consist of individual blog posts explaining each of these programs, concluding with a final post comparing and contrasting the three. As Part I of our look at alternative secondary school curricula, let’s begin with the highly respected International Baccalaureate (IB) programs.

While the IB curriculum’s holistic approach to education is continuing to gain increasing popularity within the United States, it’s already well-established throughout the world. In order to grasp a better understanding of what this “holistic approach” really means, below is an overview of the IB curriculum and assessment techniques.

IB Programs

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The International Baccalaureate is a non-profit educational foundation that offers four different programs for students aged three to nineteen: IB Primary Years Program, IB Middle Years Program, IB Diploma Program, and IB Career-Related Certificate. 869 high schools in the United States currently offer their students the curriculum and an opportunity to graduate with an IB diploma.

Each program works to cultivate students’ “intellectual, personal, emotional, and social skills to live, learn, and work in a rapidly globalizing world.” For the purpose of this post, we will be focusing on the Diploma Program, which is offered to students ages 16-19. However, the three 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 Diploma Program (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 Program Curriculum

The IB curriculum is divided into six groups of content knowledge, similar to areas of concentration. To ensure breadth of knowledge and understanding, IB students must choose one subject from each of the first five groups. In addition, students may choose either an arts subject from the sixth group, or a second subject from the first five groups.

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  • Group 1: Studies in Language and Literature
  • Group 2: Language Acquisition
  • Group 3: Individuals and Societies
  • Group 4: Sciences
  • Group 5: Mathematics
  • Group 6: The Arts


One facet that sets IB apart from other honors programs, including Advanced Placement, is that students are required to take courses in the six subjects simultaneously.

Subjects are taken in either higher level (HL) or standard level (SL). At least three (and no more than four) subjects are taken at higher level (240 teaching hours), while the other subjects are taken at standard level (150 teaching hours).

Students are free to choose their sixth subject, which might include an entirely new creative course or a second science, social science, etc. With respect to course planning, it is vital to select the ‘best-fit’ subjects with respect to a student’s academic and career goals.

The IB program cultivates higher-level thinking skills and self-discipline. “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.”

Assessment Approach

Students are assessed through teacher observation (“external assessments”) and testing (“internal assessments”). Forms of testing include: essays, structured problems, short-response questions, data-response questions, text-response questions, case-study questions, and multiple-choice questions.

Teacher observations include oral work in languages, fieldwork in geography, lab work in the sciences, investigations in mathematics, and artistic performances. The internal assessments begin in January of junior year and conclude in February of senior year, while 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 (out of a possible 45) 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 a research paper.

Although students are encouraged to enroll in the comprehensive IB Diploma Program, some schools, like Locust Valley High School in New York, 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.

Benefits of Participating in an IB Program

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

A 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. When in college, IB DP students report feeling prepared to succeed and indeed 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 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 provost and director of admissions at the University of Texas—Austin.

  • 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. Watch for our next blog in the series, focusing on AP Curriculum.


Below is a chart detailing the policies of several selective schools. Check the websites for the most updated information.


School IB Program Recognition Policy
Brown University Three HL courses can be assigned six course credits. With departmental approval, an SL course with a superior mark may be counted for one credit.
Columbia University Grants 6 points of credit for an IB HL exam score of 6 or 7, provided the score is in a discipline that Columbia offers as an undergraduate program. However, the maximum number of points a student may receive is 16, and no points are awarded until the first year of study is completed.
Dartmouth College Grants up to six course credits for superior HL scores in fields of study offered by Dartmouth’s Arts and Sciences departments (typically one course credit for each HL exam score of 6 or 7; a second credit may be granted, subject to departmental determinations.) These credits may be used to reduce the number of courses required for graduation, but may not normally be used to satisfy any other degree requirement.
Duke University Placement and credit are available for IB HL exams with scores of 6 and 7.
Georgetown University Credit will be awarded for specified HL subjects with scores of 6 or 7.
Harvard University Students who have earned the IB diploma with a grade of 7 on at least three HL exams may qualify for Advanced Standing.
MIT Only exams taken at the IB HL are recognized.
NYU IB HL exams with grades of 6 or 7 may be considered for credit and/or placement depending on the area of study and/or program requirements. Typically, 8 semester hours of credit (equivalent to two terms or one academic year of a specific subject) will be awarded for each HL.
Northwestern University Results of HL IB exams are evaluated for possible award of academic credit.
Princeton University Uses exam results for advanced placement purposes only. A score of 6 or 7 on the HL exams is normally accorded advanced placement recognition.
You can use advanced placement in three ways; to enter upper-level courses; to fulfill the foreign language requirement; to become eligible for graduation in three or three and one-half years (advanced standing).
Tufts University Recognizes the IB for admissions purposes, advanced placement, and individual course credit for a maximum of eight credits. With eight credits from the IB, students may graduate in six full-time semesters instead of the eight normally required. Typically, individual course credit is offered for HL exams with scores of 5 through 7. No credit is given for SL courses except for scores of 6 and 7 on English and for scores of 5 or higher in foreign languages.
Tulane University Awards credit or advanced placement for IB scores of 5 or greater on HL exams. No credit or placement will be awarded for SL tests.
University of Michigan Awards credit for IB HL exams only for appropriate academic subjects. No credit is given for SL exams.
University of Notre Dame Students must present scores of 6 and 7 HL exams in order to qualify for credit in specified courses.
University of Virginia Students matriculating in the College of Arts and Sciences will be considered for advanced standing and credit for qualifying scores on HL exams.
Williams College Students presenting scores of 6 or 7 on HL exams may be placed in advanced courses and/or may receive course credit toward the major or concentration. Credit is not awarded for SL courses. IB credit may be used as a prerequisite or in partial fulfillment of the major or concentration requirements. IB credits MAY NOT be used to reduce the normal course load of any semester, to make up a deficiency incurred at Williams, to satisfy the Distribution Requirements, or for acceleration, i.e. completion of the degree in fewer than four years.
Yale University Yale awards as many as two acceleration credits (the equivalent of two Yale courses) in certain subjects to students who have received either a 6 or 7 on the HL exams. These credits can be applied if the student wishes to graduate early, and the decision to accelerate is made during sophomore year. No acceleration credits are awarded for SL exams. Students who score a 6 or 7 on HL exams may also use these scores to place into more advanced courses in some disciplines.


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!