IB vs. AP

September 29, 2006


When I worked in admissions I was often asked the question whether there is a difference between how colleges treat the IB (International Baccalaureate) curriculum and AP (Advanced Placement) courses.


The short answer: no.

Most students are familiar with at least one of these options for advanced coursework and have one available at their high school. I’ve written before about the importance of taking advantage of upper level courses, but some students still worry that their school’s advanced courses are not as competitive as other schools’.

The IB curriculum and AP courses are weighed equally. To colleges, choosing one of these advanced programs does not represent anything more specific than a demonstrated effort to challenge yourself. Most schools do not offer both IB and AP so you are not expected to take them simultaneously. And if your school does not offer either, but you have taken courses at a local community college, fear not, that is respected as well. The bottom line is that colleges want to see that you are challenging yourself. That can come in the form of an IB curriculum, AP coursework, college level classes, summer school courses to supplement your education etc.

Furthermore, at each college, an admissions officer is responsible for your school and has, as part of his or her job, the responsibility of familiarizing him or herself with your school’s curriculum (meaning also, that you do not need to explain your school’s course offerings to the college).

They get it. It’s their job.

Your job is to worry less about what admissions officers are thinking and more about the work you are doing. You only have so much time and energy, use it for things that matter.


Early Decision/Early Action

September 27, 2006


People love to speculate and strategize about early decision and early action. At some colleges, the acceptance rate is significantly higher for the early pool than the regular pool which leads many students to play their odds and apply early in hopes of increasing their chances of getting in. Other students apply early because they know, without much doubt, that their first choice school is far above their second choice on their preference list. Some people apply early because they just want to be done by the holidays and don’t want to have to think about it anymore.


First, for clarification, some terms.


Early Action – schools that have early action programs allow students to apply earlier than the regular deadline (November 1 or 15, as opposed to January 1 or 15) but do not bind students to attend if accepted.

Early Decision – schools that have early decision programs allow students to apply early (November 1 or 15, also) but if an early decision applicant is accepted, he or she MUST attend that school.


Early decision is binding. Early action is not.

Harvard recently did away with its early action program and stirred up much discussion about the impact and consequences of these early programs. Brown University is a school that has flip flopped between early action and early decision. Yale, too, has switched in recent years. I have stopped keeping close track because colleges have compelling reasons to adopt each option, or do away with it entirely, and they may well continue to alternate between the two. Let schools fuss about their policies. Your job is to find schools that you think would be a good fit.

For students, apply early if:

  • you know which school you want to attend and your #1 choice is clear,
  • you have taken care of your standardized testing and your recommendation requests in advance,
  • you are an athlete being recruited by the coach and have regular contact with that coach (if you fall into this category you will know it) and it is your top choice school.

Do not apply early if:

  • your junior year grades aren’t your strongest because schools will not see your senior year grades. At best, they will see midterm grades.
  • you’re doing it because everyone else is doing it,
  • you think it’s the only way to get in.

A note on the statistical difference between acceptance rates of early options and regular decision.

In my experience, the early decision/action pool has a high concentration of recruited athletes (who have been carefully prescreened by coaches and stand a good chance of being admitted), and legacies (who usually have a greater acceptance rate anyway). Students who can afford to ignore senior year grades are likely to have consistently strong grades from 9th-11th grades, activities, recommendations such that they do not need to rely on the success of senior fall (and all the leadership potential and coursework that accompanies it). Basically, yeah, acceptance rates for early decision/action are often higher because the pool is a stronger pool. And by stronger, I mean that it includes many students who colleges and universities admit at higher rates anyway. It means very little for the applicant who does not fall into a special category.


Clearly, debates can and do occur around the issue of legacies and athletes and the special preference they receive, but until that debate is settled and so long as application deadlines are approaching, most applicants do not need to concern themselves with these issues. They will not be fought and won in the time between now and when admissions officers are reading your application.


Focus on what you can do for yourself and don’t believe the hype about having an easier time getting in early versus regular decision. Colleges are well aware of the categorical differences in the two pools and reserve plenty of spaces at regular decision. Trust me, its no fun to have to reject people in regular admission. Schools want to leave themselves options and one of those options is to accept the best from both the early and regular decision pools. It’s ok to pace yourself through this process and not apply early. Yes, everyone seems to be doing it, but your college application process is too important and personal to rely on the trends of your peers.

If you’re a junior, you may be starting to pay attention to the college admissions process. Some schools begin meeting with juniors and their parents this year to help them plan ahead. This can be exciting for some families but can also bring about all sorts of anxiety. Don’t be anxious… not yet at least. There’s plenty of time to worry, if you must, next year.

Assuming the word on the street is the same as it was when I was in high school, junior year is supposedly the most challenging and most important to colleges. Many of my classmates spent junior year in a mild state of panic – worried about every test, every homework assignment, every game, audition, performance and activity. Now that I am many years past this experience, with my own admissions process and four years of college behind me, with the additional benefit of having talked to hundreds of high school juniors, I can very safely say that none of this panic does any good.

Juniors, relax.

The additional benefit of stressing about every detail of the second half of your high school career is negligible. The cost, however, can be considerable.

The most compelling applicants I read were the ones who seem to maintain a steady, strong, and sincere outlook and focus. Veering off the course of stability and groundedness may become visible in your application. Even the most polished application can potentially display as nothing more than a thinly veiled mess of perfectionistic achievement for the purposes of college acceptance. Don’t be that applicant.

Continue to be whoever you are and maintain whatever you believe sets you apart. Distinctiveness carries much more weight than perfection.

Common Essay #2

September 24, 2006


“Everything I need to know I learned on the football field. From pre-season two-a-days to practices after school, I learned about perseverance, determination, teamwork and leadership.”


At which point you go on to discuss the homecoming game where your team was down at the half and came back to win or the championship game which your team lost in the last minute. These essays can be effective but know that they’re very common. You will be unlikely to set yourself apart with this essay. That said, sports analogies can work as long as you make them specific, narrowly drawn and above all else avoid clichés.

Got an imperfect transcript?

September 21, 2006


Got straight As? This post won’t be for you.


You may be panicked that you got one B in 10th grade and you’re sure that will keep you out of Yale. You may be worried that your freshman year grades don’t reflect your abilities. You may wonder how it’s going to look that your science grades are lower than your other grades. Or, you may wonder whether admissions officers really mean it when they say that it’s better to have a B in an AP or IB course than an A in a regular class. These are very common concerns, but your transcript stands as it is. You can’t change it so stop worrying about it.


Your guidance counselor will help you decide which schools are within reach, but if your dream school is a stretch and your counselor advises against applying, remember that you’re the one applying and potentially attending the school. Don’t be discouraged too easily from applying where you want – just keep the perspective of a counselor in your mind as you manage your expectations.


Admissions officers who say that it’s better to get a B in a higher level course than an A in a lower level class do mean it. Your GPA will be examined in the context of your course selections and admissions officers like to see that you challenge yourself. They also realize that you have strengths and weaknesses. Often, colleges will be more interested in a student with an imperfect GPA who is willing to take chances and accept challenges than a student with perfect grades who looks to have coasted. You are not expected to be perfect.


Some students like to include notes, and place asterisks next to parts of their record in order to explain reasons behind lower performances. If your one B was because you had mono that semester, or had a 102 fever the day of the exam and had trouble seeing straight, or had a cast on your writing hand and had trouble finishing the test in time, go ahead and let the admissions officer know. Or, better yet, ask one of your teachers or your guidance counselor to address that in a recommendation. Otherwise, trust that your acceptance will probably not hinge on one grade on your transcript and you do not want to sound like you’re making excuses.


If, on the other hand, your one B was because your AP Biology teacher tends to grade more harshly than the other AP Biology teacher, don’t put that in your application. May seem crazy to do such a thing, but it’s been done. Admissions officers recognize that this is all part of the nature of courses, grading, and the misfortune of high school placement.


If your grades trend upwards, great, admissions officers like that. It can be viewed as a sign of maturity, growth, focus and also a pattern that may continue once you get to their campuses.


If your grades trend downward, know that the most selective schools will frown upon such a trend and may very well select other students for acceptance. Keep in mind, though, that what matter tremendously is the context. Many situations exist where a downward trend can be contextualized and justified. Your job is to present your best self and accept and stand behind your coursework.

From today’s New York Times:


Common Essay #1

September 5, 2006

“Last summer, I saw abject poverty like I had never seen before. I traveled to [country] to participate in a community service project through [organization] where we built [schools/hospitals/irrigation systems]…”

At which point you go into discussions about the limited resources, friendships formed and your overall changed worldview. I’ve probably read some version of this essay more than any other in my years as an admissions officer.  I think the New York Times even ran a story in the magazine section a while back about these sorts of trips and the true motivation behind them: college acceptance.

Even if the above topic hints at what you want to write about, keep it very specific, because there are many students out there trying to show how they are unique with this same message. And think twice if the experience of an expensive summer service trip stands alone as the only experience of its kind on your record.

If this type of experience is a natural extension of what you see your life’s work being – great. If you’ve done other community service activities and a summer experience complements or furthers work you’ve already done – write on.

 If, instead, it is an effort to woo admissions officers into seeing a side of you that may not exist but you feel could be marketable, stop yourself and reconsider. They’ve seen it before.