The International Baccalaureate (IB) Program

Jul 2024

9 Minute Read

Tagged as: Building a Résumé

A discussion of the IB curriculum, core components, assessment and preparation for college

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, abbreviated as IB, is an intense program of academic study designed for students aged 16-19 years old. Designed in Geneva, Switzerland in the 1960s, it is provided at IB schools all over the world, and standard assessments ensure a consistently rigorous curriculum. In its 40+ years of existence, the IB program has developed a strong reputation with many top global universities.

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IB Curriculum

The IB Diploma program has three core components:

  1. Theory of Knowledge (ToK), a program that explores topics like the difference between belief and knowledge, as well as how people create ways of knowing;
  2. The Extended Essay (EE), which is a 4000-word independent research project on a topic chosen by the student with some help from their advisor; and
  3. Community Action Service, a project incorporating creativity and service.

Beyond the core requirements, each student must select and complete six IB courses in each of the following categories:

  1. Studies in Language and Literature
  2. Language Acquisition
  3. Individuals and Societies
  4. Sciences
  5. Mathematics
  6. Arts

Students may also elect to replace the Arts course with an additional Language Acquisition, Individuals and Societies, or Sciences course.

Difficulty level of courses

IB courses are offered at two levels: Standard Level (SL) and Higher Level (HL). HL and SL courses differ in scope but are measured according to the same grade parameters. Students will be expected to demonstrate a greater body of knowledge, understanding and skills in HL courses. Each student takes at least three (but not more than four) subjects at higher level, and the remaining courses at standard level.

The IB diploma requires every student to study two languages. Students take these courses at two levels: A (for native speakers) or B (for students learning a foreign language). Typically, students take their native languages at the A level and will study both literature and writing in that language. Their "B language" will be any second language they have prior experience in. However, students are allowed to take both languages at the A level if they choose to.


IB assessments are an essential part of the program. Each course taken receives a score from 1 to 7, with 6s and 7s being considered strong scores. Additionally, some colleges require either 4 or 5 as a minimum score for admissions or placement purposes. The assessment score is a composite of External Assessments (official IB program exams) and an Internal Assessment that the student’s teacher puts together. Upon completion of the program, the assessment scores from all courses are combined to determine the student’s Diploma Score. A minimum score of 24 is required to become an IB Diploma recipient.

International Baccalaureate and college admissions

The IB Diploma Programme can provide advantages for college applications, but these may vary depending on the university system a student is applying to.

In the UK system, students apply directly to a specific course of study (roughly equivalent to a major in the US system). When students apply to their chosen courses, either the university declines their application, or provides a contingent admissions offer. These offers, when made to IB students, typically require minimum Diploma Scores and/or minimum scores for individual IB subjects. The student will not be officially accepted to the university unless they meet these requirements and submit their scores as soon as they are available.

In the US system, university admissions decisions are typically made in the late winter or early spring. Due to this schedule, IB students will typically take their assessments and receive scores after decisions are made. That being the case, participating in the IB Diploma Programme provides an advantage because of its rigorous academics. However, it may not be as helpful as exams whose scores are available before applying (such as AP exams taken before grade 12). However, students may submit their predicted IB assessment scores (provided by their school), which are valid for university admissions.

Additionally, students who have completed the IB program and earned high scores on their assessments are eligible for credit from many US universities. This may result in credits for individual courses, or in some cases, eligibility for accelerated courses of study. For instance, Harvard’s Advanced Standing program allows students to either graduate in 3 years (instead of the usual 4-5) or to obtain a master’s degree in their fourth year of study.

Regardless of university admissions advantages, the IB program offers the kind of university preparation that few similar programs can. Particularly if a student is interested in a research-focused career, the IB program’s emphasis on self-direction and independence helps promote research skills many do not acquire until late in their college career.

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