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What Do Colleges Prefer - AP vs. IB vs. Honors

There are many available options for more academically rigorous classes that help you demonstrate your potential to colleges. In this blog, we provide information and action items for 3 of those options: Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and Honors.


Honors are more academically challenging classes that high schools offer to their students. Typically, honors classes cover the same or similar material as regular classes but provide more depth and insight into the subjects.

While colleges do like to see honors on your transcript, as it indicates that you are challenging yourself academically, honors don’t grant you college credit. Additionally, there is no standardization to what designates “honors.” The structure and requirements of honors classes depend entirely on each school and district. This lack of standardization makes it difficult to compare candidates’ academic performance. As a result, colleges will give honors classes less weight in their decision than other curricula such as the AP and the IB.

So, why do colleges like curricula like the AP and IB?

-These curricula offer college-level coursework and are indicative of academic success at the collegiate level.

-These curricula are standardized and allow colleges to evaluate and compare candidates’ academic skills more easily.

Advanced Placement (AP)

Different colleges have different AP credit policies. Some, such as UC Davis, only require an AP exam score of 3 to receive credit but might award more credits for higher scores. Others, such as Northwestern University, standardize the type and level of credit awarded, for AP scores of 4 and 5. Most selective colleges, including the University of Pennsylvania, award credit to AP scores of 5 only. Some colleges, such as Harvard College, don’t award college credits to AP/IB scores altogether.

It is therefore crucial that you carefully research the AP credit policies of your prospective colleges early on in your college application process. The general rule of thumb is that selective colleges prefer applicants who 1) take the most rigorous courses available to them and 2) take a well-rounded set of courses. This means that not only should you take several AP courses, but you should plan to take a wide range of courses, including subjects in Math, English, History and Social Sciences, Sciences, and World Languages.

But remember: the point is not to “collect them all.” Colleges will not automatically favor applicants with the most AP classes, especially if they start to drag down your GPA, or if you only take “easier” APs that have nothing to do with what you plan to study in college. Instead, colleges want to see that you are challenging yourself and making the most out of the opportunities and resources available to you.

On average, applicants to most selective colleges end up with 7-12 AP courses. How can you fit so many classes into your four-year schedule? The tip is not to wait until junior year to overload your schedule with APs. Here’s a suggested schedule for reference:

* Typically, AP Calculus AB covers topics in the first semester of college calculus, while AP Calculus BC covers the first two semesters or the whole first year of college calculus. If you are planning to pursue a math-heavy major, such as one of the STEM disciplines, it is better to take Calculus BC. Calculus BC also gives you a Calculus AB subscore which can be treated as an AP Calculus AB exam score.

International Baccalaureate (IB)

Colleges like the IB Diploma Program (IBDP) not only because it is a standardized curriculum, but also because the program is known for its emphasis on interdisciplinary learning and holistic approach to education, which corresponds well to the liberal art focus of many institutions. The DP is also highly rigorous program that demands grit and endurance to maintain academic excellence for 2 years. If you do well on the DP, you prove to institutions that you can thrive at their school as well.

Unlike the AP, which allows you to take individual year-long classes, the IBDP curriculum is more fixed: you need to take at least one subject in each of their six subject groups, alongside three core elements (read more about their curriculum requirements on the IBO website ). The plus side of this is that you won’t have to worry about planning to take a diverse set of courses because the well-roundedness is already baked into the curriculum.

On the other hand, the IBDP curriculum offers less flexibility for what classes you can take. It requires at least 3 (but no more than 4) classes in the Higher Level (HL), and the remaining in the Standard Level (SL). This requirement is designed to help students balance the academic rigor of the program. However, it also means that you need to be intentional in selecting your HL and SL classes, as several selective colleges, including Oberlin College & Conservatory, Northwestern University, and Vanderbilt University, among others, only award credit to sufficiently high scores in the HL subjects.

Consequently, when preparing to start the IBDP, think about what you want to pursue in college and after. Remember, you can only take a maximum of 2 classes from any given subject group. If you are planning to major in Materials Science and Engineering, prioritize taking Physics and Chemistry HL. If you want to be a doctor, sign up for Biology HL, Chemistry HL, or Psychology HL. If you want to study Journalism, consider English HL and Global Politics HL. If you are undecided on what you want to study in college, choose HL classes that correspond to your academic strengths and interests, so you can maintain good grades.

Note: You might be tempted to take 4 HL classes (a typical IBDP student takes 3 HL and 3 SL). While this is allowed, it is important to remember that the IBDP is extremely demanding. For many subjects, HL classes cover a lot more depth and material than SL classes. Taking 4 HL classes might not be advantageous for you: 45 is still the maximum score you can earn, and by overloading yourself, you might end up getting a lower total. 3 vs 4 HL classes make virtually no difference to college admissions!

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