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What's the Difference Between Honors, AP®, IB®, and College Classes?

What's the Difference Between Honors, AP®, IB®, and College Classes?
Ruth Wilson

College prep high school curriculum is designed to help high school students meet graduation requirements, and also be prepared to meet college admissions standards and to perform well in college classes once attending. Many students want to boost their competitiveness for college admissions even further by showing advanced coursework on their high school transcript, and many schools competing for the most advanced students offer many kinds of accelerated courses.

Given the numerous options available in many schools, students need to be aware of the demands of each and also how their choices appeal to the admissions directors so that they can select the courses at the right level. In general, the rule of thumb is to take the most challenging classes that are available. However, it is equally important to understand the demands of the courses and to ensure that the student has the proper prerequisites to be prepared to tackle the challenges and increased workload that often accompanies such courses. An admissions director will not be impressed to see a student pushing themselves towards a very demanding course load if the student is unable to achieve passing grades.

Below are the general pros and cons of each type of accelerated course to help students determine which is the right fit for their current situation and future aspirations.

Honors Classes

Honors classes are the most readily available as most high schools offer this option in many different subject areas. The benefits include the ability to select a range of honors and standard courses to match the student's abilities and interests.

However, there isn't a great deal of consistency between curricula offered at different schools, or even in the way the advanced content is delivered. In some high schools, honors students take separate courses that involve instruction in more advanced concepts than similar, non-honors courses. Other schools integrate honors students into all classes, having these students study the same content but earn the honors designation on their transcript by completing additional assignments, or by having their work on the same assignments be graded based on a more advanced set of standards or a rubric with more challenging benchmarks.

This uncertainty between whether honors courses represent greater depth of content or deeper production on assignments has long been a source of frustration for gifted students, particularly those who struggle to keep up with work production requirements but comprehend content at a very rapid pace. A high school profile can help the admissions director understand the caliber of the courses taken, but still, honors classes have the greatest variability and thus, they generally carry the least credibility for college admissions. For example, a student with a high GPA earned by completing many honors courses but who earned a low score on the SAT and/or ACT may cause the admissions team to question whether or not the student is adequately prepared for the rigors of college-level curriculum.

Advanced Placement® (AP®) Courses

AP courses are authorized and regulated by The College Board. They meet the higher expectations of the most advanced students with predefined standards for the courses, and culminate with an exam that is scored on a 1-5 point scale. Some colleges and universities issue credit or allow placement in a more advanced course when students score a 4 or 5 on AP exams.

Because this curriculum is a name brand, any school offering AP courses must first go through an application process to ensure that their proposed course meets the AP standards and appropriately prepares students for the AP exams. Individual teachers may also request approval to teach AP courses. This ensures consistency in AP courses regardless of where the student takes the course, and provides college admissions directors an opportunity to compare apples to apples when reviewing AP scores and course grades of similar candidates.

The uniformity of AP courses makes them a known quantity, but it also can restrict the flexibility that some students need. Because all AP exams occur in May, students must follow a traditional school calendar. Also, these courses generally emphasize breadth of content and the tight timeline to make the May test dates ensures that the pacing will be quick. For students who prefer a slower pace and the ability to delve into a topic in greater depth, this may not be the right match.

AP courses are well known and widely offered in many high schools, although all 30 courses may not be available everywhere. When a particular course isn't offered locally, students may also enroll in additional online credits through online school offerings or other alternative programs. Through AP courses, students have the ability to handpick as many AP classes as they believe is appropriate for them, showing accomplishment in a single area or strength across the board in all academic areas.

International Baccalaureate® (IB) Courses

Like AP courses, IB courses are tightly regulated and offer a great deal of consistency in curriculum not just in the United States, but worldwide in a total of 146 countries. IB courses require that the final exam or paper is graded blindly by a grader who has no idea who the student is, never taught that specific student, and adjudicates only on the quality of the work.

Unlike AP, the IB courses are a full program so that the student either takes all of them or is not in the program. This can be a negative for some students who have uneven abilities, and for students who need more processing time or who prefer more time to produce work. The very heavy workload required in a full IB program may cross a student's threshold for challenge and become highly frustrating instead. In fact, many schools who offer IB programs also offer pre-IB courses in lower grades that are specifically designed to prepare students for the intense rigors of an IB program.

Because an IB curriculum offers a very high level of study across all academic subjects and keeps students held to the same rigorous standards regardless of who is teaching the class, it is considered the gold standard of advanced courses and the most definitive way to demonstrate the ability to complete a rigorous program. However, IB programs require so much training and advance planning that few schools are able to offer the full program. Thus, it is a clear positive to show participation in an IB program on a transcript, but it is rarely a negative for those who don't because access to this option is so limited.

College Credits

It is possible to earn college credits before graduating high school, and is an excellent way to demonstrate readiness to study a collegiate-level curriculum. All 50 states offer some type of dual enrollment program, which allows students to attend community college programs while still in high school.

In addition to the advanced curriculum, college credits also enable students to pursue career courses not generally offered in high school or to jump-start degree prerequisites by earning actual college credit for their studies. College credits offer an extra benefit of transferring into the high school credit system at a higher ratio. For example, a quarter credit college course may transfer back to high school as a full year high school credit, even though the student completed this credit in only one quarter. Therefore, it is an excellent vehicle to show a higher amount of credits on a high school transcript in addition to representing the more rigorous coursework.

Academically, college courses may be a good fit, but attending a community college campus places teenage students side-by-side with adults, so high school students pursuing this option need to have appropriate social skills and maturity to be comfortable in the environment. They will also need to work closely with their high school counselor to work out an acceptable schedule because many of the desired classes will overlap with times the student is required to attend at the high school. Enrolling in college-level online courses is one way in which students overcome the logistical challenges associated with earning college credits during high school.

Determining the Right Fit

Each of these options are appropriate for students who want to study the most rigorous curricula, put forth the most competitive college application possible, and demonstrate an ability to persist through difficult challenges. There are differences in how the courses are structured, and where instruction is delivered that students will have to evaluate to determine which curriculum is the right fit for their abilities, schedule, and aspirations.


*Advanced Placement® is a registered trademark of the College Board.


Ruth Wilson is the Founder and Director of Development at Brightmont Academy. She is a certified principal and a board certified educational therapist. She has led multiple teams and served on several non-profit boards, including the Washington Branch of International Dyslexia Association. Ruth continually seeks to expand and share her educational expertise through postgraduate coursework, collaborations with other educators, and consulting and public speaking events.


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