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Advanced Placement vs. International Baccalaureate Programs: what's the difference?

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If you've heard of International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement enrichment programs before, you may be wondering what the difference is between them. Find out in this brief overview and how they might be right for your child!

IB vs AP
Halifax Grammar School - Photograph by Scott Munn

Amidst increasing competition, Canadian parents often seek enrichment opportunities for their children that will help them get into the best universities. Here is a brief overview of two such enrichment programs, Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB).

AP: Advanced Placement

AP, which the New York-based College Board has operated since 1955, allows students to take university-level courses and exams while still in high school.

At the end of these university preparation courses, students write an examination that the Canadian College Board in Victoria, B.C. administers. If the student scores a four or five (out of five points), he or she may earn a university course credit. In other words, your son or daughter could take one fewer course in university or graduate with an extra credit.

The content of Advanced Placement exams vary depending on which one of the 34 courses a student is in. Nonetheless, they always require quick and critical thinking. Concision and rapidly organizing my thoughts were the most demanding aspects of the AP exam in English Language and Composition that I wrote. Near the end of the paper, my answers were incomplete because I devoted too much time to other responses. Learning how to write quickly is a wonderful tool for university preparation. Indeed, success depends not only on intensive preparation (e.g., reading and practicing), but also on efficiency.

Students should only take AP courses in subject areas at which they excel, for AP exams require a high level of competence in a given field. Students who select AP in courses that do not meet their strengths may feel overwhelmed by its challenging workload. However, taking AP courses comes with multiple benefits, including:

  • A university course credit
  • Preparation for university workloads
  • Increased interest in and knowledge of a given subject

IB: International Baccalaureate

IB is a renowned leader in international education. It was created to combine the strengths of multiple national school systems to create a so-called "curriculum without borders." Throughout its history, IB has continually added to its intellectually challenging curriculum. These courses share a drive to learn through questioning (Socratic method), critical thinking and self-exploration instead of mere memorization, which is a useful university preparation strategy, especially for a future liberal arts education.

As Adam Kovacs-Litman (The York School, Class of 2010) notes, "IB encourages students to discover their passions through a depth and breadth of knowledge that is offered by few other programs."

An International Baccalaureate education is not restricted to the classroom. For example, students must complete at least 50 hours of community service and 50 hours of leadership training every two years, as IB strives to mold global citizens, not just students with rote learning skills.

Unlike AP, IB is a comprehensive approach to enrichment. While AP offers enrichment in one course or subject area, IB is a holistic educational approach that provides programs for students aged three to 19. But, like AP, success in IB depends both on completing an above average workload and high aptitude. Put simply, an IB program is for students who can handle its heavy demands. Despite its difficulty, however, IB possesses multiple benefits including:

  • Preparation for a university workload
  • Increased ambition and confidence
  • Dynamic education

IB vs. AP: Which is better for university acceptance?

Though universities look favourably on both programs, they are more likely to prefer IB. The most important difference is as follows:

  • Advanced Placement will help the student in university (e.g., exam writing, coursework, etc.).
  • International Baccalaureate moulds a student over time and encompasses far more than an AP course can.
—Jake Roth


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