Throughout your high school career, you will have the opportunity to take classes both classes that are challenging and classes that are a little bit more fun (U.S. Government and Politics vs. Modern Dance, for example). Taking classes in a variety of different subjects is essential to getting a well-rounded education. Showing that you can excel in tougher-than-average classes, however, is going to make you a more competitive applicant when it comes time to apply to college. But what kind of classes are going to set you apart from the pack?

There are two different course designations that indicate material is taught at the college level: Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB). These are classes that come with associated end-of-year exams that may result in college credit or placement out of introductory courses when it comes time to attend college. Not all high schools offer both options. Furthermore, not all high schools offer either option. If you attend a high school that doesn’t offer AP or IB classes, you can still be a competitive applicant. Your prospective colleges are going to look at your transcript and compare it with the classes offered at your high school. Consider taking classes marked “advanced” or “honors,” whichever is the highest designation. You’ll also want to focus on being well-rounded, by participating in extracurricular activities and volunteer organizations.

If your school offers only one option, your choice is made. Don’t fill your schedule with only AP or IB classes, though. These classes are rigorous and the amount of work outside of the classroom will get overwhelming if you take too many. AP classes are offered from freshman to senior year, so try to distribute them throughout your high school career instead of loading up towards the end, as this will only serve to take time away from your college applications and cause your stress levels to skyrocket. Maybe try taking one or two your freshman year, two or three your sophomore year, and three of four during both junior and senior years. This is just a rough guideline, however, and you should only take as many AP classes as you feel you can do well in while still maintaining high grades in your other classes.

Schools offering IB classes generally only offer them during junior and senior year. There is a full two-year curriculum for students, but you aren’t obligated to complete the entire curriculum and can elect to take only one or two IB classes provided you have completed the prerequisites. You will want to talk to an IB coordinator or a guidance counselor at your high school to ensure that you meet the requirements and for help enrolling in your selected classes. If you do elect to complete the IB curriculum, you will be presented with an IB Diploma upon satisfactory completion.

If your schools offers both AP and IB classes, you have a decision to make. Here are a few things that factor into the ultimate choice:

  • Cost: The cost of taking an AP test ($92 each) is significantly less than the cost of taking an IB test (a $164–$168 annual registration fee plus an exam fee of $113–$116 per test). A student who takes 12 AP classes will end up paying over $1,100. A student who takes six IB classes over two years will pay just over $1,000 for half the classwork.
  • Credit policies: When deciding between AP and IB tests, it would be wise to check out the credit policies of your prospective colleges to see which tests and scores they accept. IB classes can be taken at either the Higher Level or the Standard Level, and some colleges may delineate between the two when it comes time to award credit, possibly only accepting Higher Level scores. On the contrary, all AP classes are given at the same level and colleges choose which scores lead to what amount of credit. Even if you don’t have a list of prospective schools yet, you can still search around college websites to determine which scores are more widely accepted.
  • Diploma: If you want to earn a prestigious diploma that is accepted worldwide, for instance if you plan on attending college in another country, the IB Diploma Programme results in an internationally recognized credential. You will have to take the entire curriculum, however, and pass all the associated exams, which is a costly endeavour.
  • Offerings: There is no point in taking an AP or IB class simply to take an AP or IB class. They also need to supplement your curriculum. If the only AP language class that is offered is Chinese, but you are more interested in French, obviously you aren’t going to do well in the class, your GPA would suffer, and taking the test would be useless. Take classes that interest you and that fit your graduation requirements.

That said, you can elect to take a mix of both types of classes if there are specific courses you want to take that are a part of each program. Remember, though, taking challenging classes (and doing well in them) is only part of what makes you a competitive applicant. You also need to do well on standardized tests, participate in extracurricular activities (and preferably stick with the same one(s) for multiple years), volunteer, and/or work. You want to showcase that you are well-rounded, can multitask and be dedicated to not only your studies but your extracurriculars, and that you are choosing to make education a priority. This, more than the types of classes you take, will set you apart from the rest of the pack.

Page last updated: 04/2017