High School

AP and IB classes — What should my student take?

By Wendy Worrall Redal

When my oldest child was an 8th grader preparing to register for high school classes, we faced a dizzying array of course selections including “college prep,” Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) options.

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High School Parent | College Parent

Even with the help of a school counselor, it was hard to know which classes to guide him toward as he sketched out a 4-year plan that would ready him for college.

For the motivated college-bound student, particularly one whose sights are set on highly selective colleges or competitive scholarships, a strong high school curriculum filled with plenty of advanced courses is a must.

But questions remain: How do you help your student decide which classes to take? Are AP and IB courses regarded similarly by admissions staff? Is it worth taking these classes if your student plans to start off in community college? Is it imperative to complete the full IB diploma? Should your student take every advanced class available, or is it important to “have a life,” too?

If your student is academically middle-of-the road, don’t rule out an advanced class or two. Many students who struggle with some subjects perform well in others and may find an AP or IB class a stimulating challenge.

Let’s take a closer look at how to navigate the specifics of an advanced curriculum.

Why take AP or IB classes?

  1. Learn more. AP and IB courses cover more material in greater depth and at a faster rate than conventional high school classes. Your student gets college-level content and pacing with the camaraderie of engaged, like-minded peers.
  2. Prepare better for college. Since AP and IB classes use a college-level approach, your student will get more exposure to higher-level academic skills including in-depth writing, critical thinking, problem-solving and research using primary sources.
  3. Attain college credit. Many colleges and universities offer credit to students who perform well on AP exams, and an increasing number are awarding credit for strong IB exam performance. Completing several exams successfully can result in significant tuition savings.
  4. Skip introductory classes. Students who complete exams with a qualifying score can test out of introductory-level courses and begin higher-level studies immediately, often fulfilling general education or elective requirements in the process.
  5. Be a more competitive applicant. The more selective the college, the more important it is for your student’s transcript to show strong performance in the most rigorous classes offered. And grades in AP and IB classes are frequently weighted, potentially boosting your student’s overall GPA.

AP vs. IB: What’s the difference?

Advanced Placement

The College Board’s AP program offers college-level courses in more than 30 subjects. From music theory to environmental science, from macroeconomics to Japanese language and culture, AP courses provide varied opportunities for intellectual immersion. While some schools offer a slate of specialized AP courses, more provide a limited number of “basics,” such as English Literature and Composition, U.S. History or Biology. Check with your high school counseling office to learn which classes are available to your student. Each AP course concludes with an exam scored from 1-5. Many colleges offer credit for scores of 3 or 4 or higher.

International Baccalaureate

Founded in 1968 to further global understanding, the International Baccalaureate program is administered through an international education foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland. While IB also offers primary and middle-years curricula, most parents become acquainted with it through the secondary IB Diploma Program. Diploma students complete assessments in six different subject groups plus three core requirements including an independent research essay, a theory of knowledge course, and a “creativity, action, service” component.

Some schools allow students who do not wish to pursue the arduous diploma to take one or more individual IB subjects. Exams are scored on a 7-point scale, and a score of 5 or higher may provide college credit.

AP, IB or both? What to consider and why

  • For students aiming for highly selective colleges: If your student ‘s goal is admission to one of the nation’s most competitive colleges, he should either plan to complete the IB Diploma or choose a heavy load of AP classes – pretty much anything that’s offered in the foundational subject areas, plus rigorous electives.
  • For students seeking merit scholarships at less selective colleges: The best college fit for your high achiever may be a less competitive school where she is a top candidate. Many schools seeking to attract strong scholars offer merit scholarships, and recipients typically have done well in multiple AP or IB classes, or both.
  • For “average” students: If your student is middle-of-the road when it comes to academic accomplishment, don’t rule out an advanced class or two. Many students who struggle with some subjects perform well in others and may find an AP or IB class a stimulating challenge, as long as he has the proper preparation and is motivated to do the work.
  • For students who want to attain the most college credit: As a rule of thumb, colleges offer more liberal credit for AP than for IB coursework. Some highly selective colleges often give credit only for “Higher Level” IB classes (IB students take a mix of classes at both Higher and Standard levels) or a top score of 7. AP students are more likely to be awarded credit in many subjects, depending on how many classes they take and how they perform on the exams. Check the policies of the colleges your student is considering. Not all colleges give credit for AP/IB.

A final note:

While you may encourage your student to stretch her potential by tackling a demanding set of advanced classes, help her find balance and joy in her academic life, too. I know parents who wouldn’t permit their high-schoolers to take music classes because the grades weren’t weighted, and that’s sad. It’s important to focus on the advantages of AP and IB programs without turning our students into stressed-out test-taking machines.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s new High School Parent eNews and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for a preview of what’s ahead. You can also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow High School parents by joining our High School Parent Facebook group.

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