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Pros and Cons of the International Baccalaureate

30 APR 2021

In preparation for university applications, many high school students enroll in International Baccalaureate (IB) courses as an alternative to Advanced Placement (AP) courses to challenge themselves academically and set themselves apart from the competition with college-level coursework. So what are the pros and cons of taking this route?

If you’ve got big dreams of attending a world-leading university, it’s critical to take higher-level courses throughout your high school career. Enrolling in Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes allows you to challenge yourself academically with a college-level curriculum and rigorous coursework. Further, electing to take AP or IB classes illustrates your willingness to take initiative, explore areas of interest, and handle more demanding courses with more autonomy — all qualities that admissions officers look for in top applicants.

Additionally, taking AP and IB courses and scoring well on their respective exams can translate into class credits or allow you to skip introductory courses when you head off to college!

However, it can be difficult to decide which curriculum is a better fit for you. This is why it’s important to compare both AP and IB to understand the pros and cons of both! To learn more about what AP courses are and which ones may appeal to you, check out our blog on the hardest and easiest AP Classes.

To learn more about what IB courses are and why they may or may not be the right choice for you, keep reading!

What is an IB Diploma?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Program is an internationally recognized curriculum that aims to foster internationally-minded and well-rounded students. It is offered by around 5,000 schools globally and is composed of six academic subject groups.

The Pros of the IB Program


1. Global Recognition

You can’t go past the most obvious point in the IB’s favour – the international aspect.

The IB Diploma Program is recognised by all leading universities, which instantly puts you on the world stage and contextualises your application.

Regardless of where you sit your IB exams, the results mean the same thing, and they’re understood by admissions officers.

Country specific programs don’t have the same global reach, so it’s harder for universities to understand the results and compare you fairly to other candidates.

However, it’s important to understand that recognition doesn’t necessary equate to value. As we talked about in this blog, the IB means more to US universities than it does to UK universities, so how much this “pro” weighs for you will depend on where you want to study.

2. University Preparation

The IB Diploma is effectively a “university preparation program”, in that it teaches you skills and ways of learning that will set you up to do well at a tertiary education level.

After two years of practice, it’s fair to say that you will have mastered fundamental skills such as university style report and essay writing, source citing, and how to conduct independent research.

So when you get to uni and your first assignment is a 4,000-word research report complete with academic references, this won’t come as a shock because you’ve been there, done that in the Extended Essay (EE) component of the IB.

While other students are looking up referencing guides and working out how to structure such a long essay, you’ll be on your body paragraph, keeping up with source citations as you go.

More broadly, you’ll be an expert at time management and self-study.

The IB’s heavy workload forces you to get into good study habits and work on ways to better manage your time, and these are most certainly important skills for university, where you’ll be in charge of your own learning.

Many students start uni on the backfoot and have a hard time getting accustomed to the huge leap in difficulty, but not IB students! IB subjects (particularly the higher level ones) are on par with first year university content, which will also make your transition easier.

In the IB, you are not tested on your ability to memorise facts and theories (which could be said for other curriculums), but rather your ability to understand how facts are presented and how theories are applied.

Not only this, but you will have learned how to think critically. That is, how to view things from different perspectives and not to cloud judgement with preconceived ideas and beliefs. The philosophy-based component of the course, Theory of Knowledge (TOK), will train you to think outside the box and develop an enquiring mind.

This expanded thinking is necessary for university, where you’ll be exposed to many different concepts, opinions, and of course, people!

3. Well-rounded Education

The breadth of study is something that the IB offers that no other curriculum comes close to.

You’re exposed to a much wider range of subjects in the IB than you are in other curriculums.

Not only do you have to choose a wider range of subjects in the IB, but you have a much wider range to choose from. Courses offered in the IB Diploma include psychology, philosophy, film, computer science, and global politics, which you won’t find on many school subject lists.

But it’s necessary to provide choice in order to develop “well-rounded students”, which is one of the goals of the IB Diploma Program.

Being a well-rounded student doesn’t mean you’re a jack of all trades and master of none. On the contrary; it shows your adaptability, strength of character, and ability to push yourself.

No one is great at everything, and that’s one of the reasons the IB is so challenging.

It’s also one of the reasons the IB is so rewarding, because it’s in your weaker subject areas where you really have to step up your study game to do well.

A score of seven in history (your favourite!) is not going to be as sweet as the six you scored in maths, which, though a lower score, took significantly more study hours and hard work to pull off.

You’ll get a much stronger sense of achievement in the IB, because you can’t only play to your strengths.

However, you do have the option of studying the subjects you like more intensely.

In the IB, students will take some subjects at higher level (HL) and some at standard level (SL), where the former comprises 240 teaching hours, and the latter 150 teaching hours.

This means you can focus more on your best three subjects (or four if you’re extra keen), and less so on your weaker subjects.

4. Personal Development

In the IB, you grow not only as a student, but as a human.

Not surprising coming from a country known for its neutrality, one of the IBO’s aims for its IB programs is to create a more peaceful world by creating more socially conscious adults who will go on to make meaningful contributions long after they’ve completed their education.

We could certainly benefit from a few more of those!

This is where the Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) component of the IB comes in, which places emphasis on emotional and social development by getting students involved in activities outside the classroom.

Not only does it force you to take a break from the books and have a balanced approach to your studies, but you have the chance to develop softer skills like empathy and teamwork.

Other curriculums are purely academic and do not focus on character building in this way.

Want to get great IB results? At Crimson, our online tutoring engages the world’s best teachers and tutors in specific curricula to help students reach their high school and university admissions goals.

The Cons of the IB Program

1. Length of Study

The IB is no walk in the park. In fact, it’s not a walk at all. Think of it more as a run – but a marathon, not a sprint.

You need to be a “long distance learner” to do well in the IB. It requires consistent work and solid performance over a two-year period. While everyone else has to be “on” for one year, you have to be on for two.

Exams aren’t spread out, either, which means that come the end of your final year you’ll be tested on two years, and you’ll have to have just as strong an understanding of the material taught at the beginning of the course than at the end.

It’s important that you know what you’re getting into with the IB; you’re making a two-year commitment, which can seem like a lifetime when you’re young!

2. Heavy Workload

In the IB, not only have you got all the coursework and assignments that come with the six mandatory subjects, but also the essays, presentations, and projects that you need to do for the three core components: EE, TOK, and CAS.

This makes it a much more demanding and content heavy course, and it’s why being diligent and organised is more important than being smart. You need to be able to manage your time really well to fit in all the activities as well as keep your grades up consistently with all the different assessments going on.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible without severely cutting into your sleep time or testing your sanity (or both!). Just look up #IBproblems on Twitter and Instagram and you’ll see what I mean…

3. Less Flexibility

Even with so many subject choices, there’s less flexibility in the IB due to the compulsory breadth of study it requires.

The IB Diploma is a rigid curriculum with a six subject allowance dispersed across six categories, or rather five if you forgo the arts category, which is about as flexible as it gets.

If you don’t take an arts subject, you can “double dip” in another category, but there’s no triple dipping. This means you can take two sciences, for example, which for most people might be enough.

However, if you’re set on studying medicine at university, you’d be better served by your school’s standard syllabus where you can load up on science to your heart’s content.

Not only this, but the amount of subjects available to you have depends on what your school offers. So the illusion of choice might be just that… an illusion.

As part of our Admissions Support program, Crimson can help you navigate and manage your time if you would like to sit the IBs as part of your university applications.

Final Thoughts!

A lot of what the IB has to offer cannot be matched by its local counterparts, but where there are pros, there are also cons.

The IB is not for everyone. And if you choose to do it, make sure it’s for the right reasons. Those who are suited to the program will thrive, but it can be a very different story for those who aren’t.

You want to perform at a high level in the right surroundings for your academic and intellectual growth, whether that is the IB or any other option. You have a much better chance of getting accepted into a top-ranked university if you do really well in your school curriculum than if you do “just okay” in the IB!

If you're interested in taking IB courses but need help managing the rigorous coursework or maximizing your performance for the best possible outcomes, Crimson is here to help! We offer online tutoring for AP, IB, and SAT/ACT exams to help students nail their academics for college applications.

And if you’re still unsure which curriculum is best for your strengths and interests, schedule a free one-on-one consultation with one of our Academic Advisors who can help set you on the path to success.

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