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To IB or Not to IB: Is International Baccalaureate Right For You?

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When you’re researching what to do in high school to prepare for college applications, you’re likely to come across mention of “IB courses.” The International Baccalaureate (IB) program offers highly rigorous, well-respected curricula for students of all ages all over the world, and their courses and programs are offered at some high schools in the United States.


You already know that colleges like to see that you’ve taken the most challenging academic courses available to you, so participating in the prestigious IB program might seem like an obvious choice. However, the program isn’t right for everyone; its requirements are strict and its particular approach to education may or may not be a good match for your needs and goals.


Interested in taking IB courses? Read on to let CollegeVine help you decide whether to delve into this high-profile, internationally recognized academic curriculum.


The IB Program: A Brief Overview

The IB program, based in Europe, is an educational organization with international reach. The central IB organization has developed curricula for students as young as preschool, but in the U.S., you’ll find IB educational opportunities primarily offered in the form of the IB Diploma Programme, or IBDP. When people in this country talk about IB courses, this is usually what they mean.


This two-year series of courses, projects, and other requirements is intended for students between the ages of 16 and 19. The full IBDP concludes with a special diploma, but depending on your high school, you may be able to take a few IB courses a la carte without committing to the diploma program.


Like many other advanced high school curricula, the IBDP is designed to introduce you to college-level academic work. What makes IB different is that rather than focusing on what you learn, it focuses on how you learn.


While your IB courses will of course have content for you to learn, the IBDP is more concerned with teaching you how to approach and analyze that content, a skill that will be highly important to your college career. You’ll also get experience researching and writing in the ways that will be necessary in college-level courses, including producing more extensive independent essays and research projects.


For more information about the IB program, its requirements, and its educational philosophy, take a look at these CollegeVine blog posts:



You can also visit the official IB website at www.ibo.org.


Is IB an option for me?

If you’re interested in IB coursework, one very important fact to keep in mind is that compared to the AP course and exam program, there are relatively few opportunities to pursue IB work in the U.S. educational system. Even if you want to take IB courses, your high school may not offer them.


IB courses and the IB diploma program are only offered at certain high schools which have undergone particular teacher training programs and been certified by the central IB organization. Not every high school has the desire or resources to pursue the certification process, which is extensive and requires a financial investment.


Also, the only way to participate in the IB program as a student is by taking a full IB course as one of your high school classes. While exams are part of the IB program, the course curriculum and classroom experience are equally important, and you can’t take the exam without taking the course. Since IB teachers are specially trained, you can’t study an IB subject on your own—without the teacher’s guidance, it’s not an IB course.


This stands in direct contrast to AP courses and exams. High schools don’t have to be specially certified to offer AP classes. You can even self-study AP material on your own and make special arrangements to take the AP exam in May if your high school doesn’t offer the course or it doesn’t fit your schedule.


If you have some freedom to choose where you attend high school, you might take into account whether certain schools offer IB courses in order to make your decision. However, most students won’t have much of a choice—either your school offers IB courses, or it doesn’t. Even if your school offers IB courses, they may not fit into your schedule, and since you can’t self-study an IB subject, that may rule out the program for you.

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The Pros and Cons of the IB Program

To some extent, IB offerings will depend upon your individual high school, but the centralized nature of the IB program means that it’s possible to talk about the general characteristics of the program as a whole. Here’s a quick guide to the upsides and downsides you’ll need to consider as you decide whether IB is right for you.


Pros of the IB Program

  • IB is widely respected for its academic rigor and cohesive intellectual approach.
  • IB is well-known in higher education circles, and the qualifications it awards are recognizable to admissions officers at competitive colleges.
  • The overall IB curriculum, intensive teacher training and certification requirements, and guidance from the overarching IB organization help maintain a high-quality program.
  • IB’s approach to teaching analytical skills may prepare you better for college-level coursework, writing, and research than standard high-school courses.
  • Internationally recognized IB qualifications may help you to meet admissions requirements if you’re considering colleges in countries other than the U.S.
  • Taking on IB coursework shows that you’re committed to challenging yourself academically, and since it’s less common in the U.S., it may help you to stand out in the college admissions process.


Cons of the IB Program

  • The IB program is only available at a limited number of high schools in the U.S. due to its high certification and training requirements and lower demand.
  • The challenging academic material you’ll face in IB courses can be very demanding, especially if your prior coursework didn’t adequately prepare you for its rigor.
  • Succeeding in the IB program requires well-developed study skills and the ability to manage your time effectively.
  • The range of IB subjects is limited and does not include all the academic and career areas you might be interested in or want to prepare for.


Potential Pro or Con: The IB Approach to Education

IB courses are based upon a larger educational philosophy that’s dictated and managed by the central IB organization. This central management helps to keep the program consistent—and consistently of high quality—in the many different countries that offer IB coursework.

You may find that the IB approach to education works well for what and how you want to learn, but on the other hand, it may simply not be a good match for how you operate as a student. You’ll also find a great variety of different opinions about the IB curriculum circulating in the world of higher education; some educators rate it highly, while others have significant concerns.

The particular IB approach may end up being a pro or a con for you, but either way, it’s an important factor in deciding whether you should pursue IB coursework.


Making the Decision: Questions to Ask Yourself

Whether you should take IB courses is ultimately a personal decision; the program definitely has benefits, but even if you’re an academically skilled student looking for a high-level educational experience, it may not be right for you. As you’re making the decision, keep these questions in mind.


  • Can I really handle the material and difficulty level of an IB course? If you’re not sure, try speaking to the teacher who’ll teach the class, or students who have taken the class in the past, to get a better idea of what will be expected of you.
  • What other ways does my high school offer to show my academic skills and drive? Taking the most advanced courses available will reflect well upon you when it comes time to apply to colleges, but IB courses aren’t the only way to demonstrate your academic prowess.  Your other options may include things like AP and honors courses, independent study courses, or taking college classes when you’re in high school.
  • Do my interests lie inside or outside of the IB curriculum? IB courses only cover a limited range of subjects, so if you’re primarily interested in a different field, it may be better for you personally to take courses that better fit your goals and career ambitions. Academic rigor is important, but so is showing specialization and dedication to your particular field.
  • Do I intend to just take a few IB courses, or to go for the full IB diploma? Some schools may allow you to take a few IB courses a la carte. The IB diploma program is a major undertaking with a full slate of requirements, including extensive independent writing and research projects.


Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academicschoosing coursesstandardized testsextracurricular activitiesand much more!


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.