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For College Admissions,

Does an IB Diploma Make

a Difference?    


William Conley
William Conley

Over my 32 years in college admissions work, and particularly in the past 10 years as dean of enrollment and academic services at Johns Hopkins University (with its 18 percent admission rate), I often have been asked by superintendents and other school leaders to assess how a move toward or away from Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or class rank would affect their students’ prospects for admission to highly selective colleges.

My answer always has been prefaced with the same two words: “It depends.”

Indeed, while some common ground exists in the world of college admissions, there is also considerable variability. The 2011 State of Admissions report published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling cited grades in college-prep courses and strength of curriculum as the two highest-rated factors in the admission decision — with 84 percent and 66 percent, respectively, of all colleges rating them as “considerably important.” Well back in 10th place among 15 factors was subject test scores (AP, IB) with a 10 percent rating.

When parsed by colleges admitting fewer than 50 percent of applicants, these data points shift dramatically. Grades (96 percent) and curriculum (94 percent) increased in importance, while 24 percent judged subject test scores as considerably important. Among highly competitive colleges, it is a universal practice to factor International Baccalaureate coursework in assessing the strength of curricula, but there are no absolutes when it comes to weighing the IB as a single factor in an admission decision.

Comparative Rigor
While Johns Hopkins and Bucknell University both view IB and AP as equally deserving in the assignment of academic rigor, two highly competitive colleges, one on the West Coast and the other in the Midwest, judge IB course work to be more rigorous than AP. This would seem to tilt the scale a bit in favor of the IB applicant at those institutions.

On the other hand, several admissions deans took the middle ground, contending the IB diploma candidate was granted greater rigor but the “a la carte” IB applicant was on the same footing as an AP candidate.

All competitive colleges contacted for the purpose of this article appreciate that the IB’s test platform is primarily free-response questions compared to the AP’s greater reliance on multiple-choice questions. In the words of an admissions dean at a highly selective East Coast university: “The IB seems to cultivate more of the broad-minded, intellectually curious approach that many of us in education like to see in students.”

Among highly selective college deans there is general agreement, save some nuance, that IB course work bestows on an applicant a highly motivated, academically ambitious halo. In fact, the trend line for IB credibility as represented in NACAC’s State of Admissions report (which is published every two years) is very positive. In 2009, 19 percent of selective colleges attributed “considerable importance” to subject test scores (AP, IB) compared to 24 percent in 2011. In a period of just two years, this is a remarkable uptick for the IB profile.

Nonetheless, such a positive trend does not translate to a de facto advantage for IB students in the selective college admissions process. As the 2011 NACAC report states: “[B]ecause applicants to the most selective institutions often have similarly high grades and test scores, these colleges need more information with which to evaluate each applicant … and their admission process is more ‘holistic.’”

For schools like Johns Hopkins and Bucknell that attract large numbers of self-selecting, high-achieving applicants, the holistic approach means that it is less likely that a single factor, be it IB or class rank, will rule the outcome for an applicant. Then consider colleges like a Stanford or a Harvard that admit fewer than 7 percent of their applicants. It is unlikely an inquiring denied applicant would ever be told: “If only you had pursued an IB curriculum.”

Context Rules
Selective colleges, first and foremost, judge an applicant on her or his individual merit. Although the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s bi-annual report does not include school quality among the factors rated, the quality of the applicant’s high school does play a contextual role in the admission decision.

As in the case of evaluating applicants, no universal methodology exists for ranking high schools. The presence of an IB curriculum contributes to an assessment of quality along with such factors as the proportion of graduates attending four-year colleges and percentage of AP test takers scoring above 4 and IB test takers earning a 5 or better.

By adopting the IB program, a school does not, in the words of one admission dean, “somehow become a better school right away.” The best schools are judged to be those that do best by their students.

What is not debatable is the assertion that “students who complete a rigorous high school curriculum are much more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than those who complete less rigorous curricula,” a point made in the “2011 State of College Admissions.” However, to answer the question “How do selective colleges view students’ IB experiences as part of the admissions process?” … Well, it depends.

William Conley is vice president for enrollment management at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. E-mail: bill.conley@bucknell.edu


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