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Guide to AP, IB, and A-Levels

This Command Education Guide helps students understand the relative merits of AP, IB, and A-Level exams at U.S. colleges and universities.

In the increasingly globalized landscape of higher education, many students in the U.S. and the U.K. are considering international education as a possibility for their college career. However, understanding and preparing for the different testing formats and metrics by which students are evaluated can be overwhelming, and may even deter some students from considering international study. Even for students planning to study in their home country, understanding the slight differences in the AP and IB programs can be challenging. This guide offers a comprehensive overview of the Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and U.K. Advanced Level Qualifications (A-Levels) so that students can make informed and strategic decisions about their high school course of study!

What is the AP curriculum?

The AP program is predominantly embraced in the United States, where approximately 35% of high school graduates have engaged in AP coursework. It offers students the opportunity to engage in college-level courses while still in high school, with the potential to earn college credits through successful completion of AP exams—some programs allow students who earn a 4 or 5 (out of 5) on an AP test earn a course credit (students should research individual colleges’ policies to determine whether this could be an option for them). Additionally, students can choose to take AP exams (and potentially earn college credit for them) even if they have not enrolled in AP classes. AP courses are offered in a wide array of subjects in the sciences, mathematics, arts, and humanities. The program’s hallmark is its flexibility, allowing students to choose courses based on personal interests and strengths.

What is the IB curriculum?

Both in content and implementation, the IB program is more global in its approach. While IB is implemented in only 900 American high schools, it was offered at 5,700 schools in 159 countries as of 2021. Additionally, the subject matter of IB courses tend to focus more on global issues and the development of students into responsible and informed global citizens, whereas the AP is more conventional in its academic model. Students may choose to enroll in single IB courses through their institution or the complete IB diploma program. Designed to foster well-rounded graduates, the IB diploma program requires three core subjects, including Theory of Knowledge (TOK), Extended Essay (EE), and Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS). Its emphasis on critical thinking and international-mindedness sets it apart. Like the AP curriculum, students may be able to receive college credit for IB courses, but policies vary depending on the institution.

What are A-Levels?

A-Levels, offered in the British education system, present a more tailored approach, offering a pathway for students to seek specialization and expertise in their specific fields of interest. Over the course of about two years, students prepare for their examinations by choosing three or four subjects for in-depth study, allowing them to thoroughly explore their chosen disciplines. Students can also elect to take the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) after taking 3 A-Levels, allowing them to conduct independent research on a project of their choosing that will enhance their knowledge and boost their resume at both universities and vocational jobs. The A-Level examinations themselves require a considerable amount of writing, and students should keep this in mind as they prepare. As with any testing path, students should research institutional requirements at their target school, as some have specific disciplinary expectations for students applying to particular majors.

When choosing A-Levels, students should consider the following factors:

1. Interest and Skill Set

It’s crucial for students to select subjects they are genuinely interested in and have an aptitude for. A-Levels require a significant investment of time and effort, so studying subjects that align with their passions and strengths can make the learning experience more enjoyable and rewarding. Additionally, students should consider how their chosen subjects might relate to their future career aspirations or academic pursuits.

2. Academic and Professional Goals

Students should research the A-Level requirements for their desired university courses or future career paths. Some universities and employers may have specific subject requirements or preferences, so it’s essential to choose A-Levels that keep these goals in mind. Students should also consider the potential impact of their A-Level choices on their future options, such as whether certain subjects are prerequisites for particular degree programs or professions.

3. Complementary Disciplines

When choosing A-Levels, students should consider subjects that complement each other. For example, if a student is interested in studying engineering at university, taking A-Levels in Mathematics and Physics would be beneficial as they provide essential skills and knowledge for the field.

Distinguishing Factors Between AP, IB, and A-Levels

1. Depth of Curriculum

Of all of the programs, AP tends to be the most broad in its subject matter. IB strikes a balance between breadth and depth, encouraging students to engage with multiple subjects while fostering critical thinking skills. Conversely, A-Levels offer significant curricular depth, allowing students to specialize in a limited number of subjects and develop expertise in their chosen fields.

2. Assessment Methods

AP courses culminate in standardized exams, providing a quantitative measure of student performance that is graded on a 1–5 scale. IB employs a multifaceted assessment approach, combining coursework, examinations, and more comprehensive diploma programs.

3. Skills Focus

AP focuses on subject-specific knowledge and the development of analytical and problem-solving skills. IB places a strong emphasis on critical thinking, research skills, and intercultural understanding, while A-Levels prioritize in-depth knowledge and mastery of specific subjects.

4. Subject Matter Flexibility

The IB program presents the least individualized path, as it is a pre-structured, holistic curriculum. Students cannot take IB examinations without going through the IB program, and the program itself is oriented toward the overall development of a student. Conversely, the AP curriculum allows flexibility both in choosing subjects to study and in allowing students the option to test without taking AP courses. A-Levels are the most flexible and allow students to select their own path to prepare for their chosen examinations.

How can students decide on the right program for them?

The AP, IB, or A-Levels will likely be a student’s first foray into college-level coursework, and as such the choice is an important stepping stone for a student’s college career. Certain factors may limit a student’s choices—such as their high school not offering IB or being located in the US and therefore unable to take A-Levels. However, for students who have a choice, career aspirations, learning styles, university requirements, and personal interests all play pivotal roles in this decision-making process. If one thrives in a specialized and focused academic environment, A-Levels might be the right fit. For those who enjoy a holistic and interdisciplinary approach, IB could be the ideal choice. Meanwhile, AP offers flexibility for exploration and the opportunity to tailor the academic journey to individual interests.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do colleges prefer AP or IB?

Colleges and universities do not assign greater weight to one program over another—both AP and IB courses/tests can demonstrate your preparedness for college-level coursework and even earn you college course credit, depending on the college’s policies!

What scores should I report to colleges?

Typically, students only report scores that will count toward college credit. Depending on the school’s policy, scores that qualify are a 4 or better on the AP and IB exams.

Can you take both IB and AP courses?

Technically, students can take AP and IB classes at the same time if their school offers both programs. However, the IB Diploma Programme is more intensive and may not be compatible with taking AP classes. Students should consult their advisor or college counselor for more personalized strategy for AP and IB enrollment.

What are the differences between AP, IB, and A-Levels?

AP is more broad in its focus, allowing students to take select courses in their areas of interest. Similarly, A-Levels allow students to explore their interests by studying for exams in their field, though the A-Levels require a more intensive 2-year sequence of study. IB is the most restrictive and programmatic of the three options, with students taking a holistic curriculum oriented toward both academic and professional growth.

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