Is IB Worth It?

I get asked whether the International Baccalaureate program is “worth it” every year, and it’s one of those questions with no obvious general answer.  Certainly the curriculum and expectations seem to be good preparation for university, from what we see on our side.  But whether the extra challenge, time commitments, cost etc. are “worth it” has to be more of an individual family decision.  For example, if you had to commute 2 hours a day to an IB school and give up your sports and part-time job, maybe that’s not “worth it”.  I don’t know.  I can point out that Waterloo Engineering (and most Canadian engineering schools as far as I’ve seen) does not grant credit for IB courses, so it won’t save you any time or money in university from that perspective.

However, the other common part of the question is this:  “if I do the IB program, will my chances for admission to Waterloo Engineering be compromised?”.  The assumption here is that the grades will be lower than they could have been in a regular high school program.  This question I can answer (to a certain extent), using an analysis of our admissions data as follows.

Method

I selected a recent year of admission data, using only Ontario applicants.  This provides a nice homogeneous data set, with over 4000 applicants in a regular Ontario high school program (so all the courses are the same) and over 300 applicants in a full IB program in Ontario (I excluded IB certificate applicants, because it complicates the analysis).  I used statistical methods to compare the two groups on two different criteria:  1) do IB applicants tend to have lower admission averages than regular applicants?, and 2) do IB applicants have a different chance of getting an offer?

Results

For admission averages, I found that IB applicants had a mean admission average of 90.3%, while regular Ontario applicants had a mean of 88.2%.  The difference is statistically significant at the 99% confidence level.  This suggests that IB applicants are not at a disadvantage when it comes to grades.  I say “suggests” because there is possibly a self-selection bias in the data (meaning that it is possible that only higher achieving IB students applied to Engineering, which would skew the analysis).  Definitely there is no proof of disadvantage.

Looking at the chances of admission, 55% of the IB applicants got an offer, while only 39% of the regular high school applicants were successful.  Again, this difference was statistically significant at the 99% confidence level.  So based on this criterion, again we can say that there is no evidence that IB applicants are at a disadvantage for admission.

One might be tempted to conclude that IB gives an advantage, and you should go into it to boost your admission chances.  I would strongly discourage that interpretation however.  That would be mixing up cause and effect, and ignoring possible bias problems in our data.  Going into an IB program when you’re not committed or ready for it is more likely to lead to disaster than successful admission.

So the bottom line is that if you’re in Ontario and in IB (or thinking of going into it), there is no systemic evidence to suggest that you are putting yourself at a disadvantage for grades or admission to Waterloo Engineering.  I suspect that the same holds true for other provinces and countries, but I just don’t have sufficient data to statistically demonstrate it.

(Disclaimer:  I have no connection with IB schools or programs, and this is not an endorsement of IB.  I believe and know that good applicants can come from any school system.  If you are interested and attracted to the IB program for its own sake, then certainly go for it.  But if you would rather spend your time and energy on other things, that’s OK too as far as I’m concerned.) 

27 thoughts on “Is IB Worth It?

  1. Hello Professor,
    You mentioned that 55% of IB applicants received an offer, which coincides with the static on the official waterloo website, stating that applicants with an average of 90-94 have a 55% chance of receiving an offer.My question is; what makes the distinction? how do you stand out from the 45%? It is only based on AIF? and if so, what score on the AIF would be sufficient to be placed in the 55% category? (I read your article about the AIF and saw that a 3.0 was the average, so would getting a 3.5+ mean you are likely to get in)

    Thanks

    • Those two 55%s are coincidental; completely different populations. Some of those unaccepted 45% had lower marks and weren’t competitive. Basically the same reasons anyone else doesn’t get an offer. A higher AIF score helps, but only to a limited extent and doesn’t make up for grades that are much lower.

  2. Interesting post. The selection bias in the IB program is quite strong. Most often only the high achieving students would enrol in and finish an IB program in the first place. Statistically, we would never be able to see how the average non-IB student would do in an IB program. While it is true that the existing IB applicants are clearly not at a disadvantage, regular achieving high school students that did receive admission could have had their chances compromised if they had decided to join IB.

    • Yes I agree that the self-selection issue is likely a big factor. It’s impossible to know how well someone might have done on an alternate path, unless we could explore some parallel universe like on Star Trek.

  3. Those are interesting numbers in your study, however, wouldn’t a more accurate approach to whether IB is “worth it” be to examine the performance of the two different groups in the same first year classes at the university itself? The assumption your brief view of grades makes is that all percentage grades that come from high schools are equivalent, but with no moderation of the grades from an outside source, what is a 90 at one high school is not necessarily a 90 at another. For IB grades, each student is subjected to moderation of their grades by an outside source, with possibly several reviews of a student’s mark. My point being that the better measuring stick for whether it is “worth it” would be to examine first year performance, not entrance, because the scales that determine entrance aren’t as comparable as you’ve made them out to be.

    • Good points, but the purpose here was to examine whether IB is a disadvantage for admission chances. A number of years ago we looked at first year performance of IB versus other Ontario students. There was possibly a small advantage for IB, but nothing dramatic. Maybe our sample size was too small.

      Regarding IB grades being standardized (because of the external exam), for admission purposes they are actually not. We have to rely on school-assigned mid-term grades (or predicted grades) because the IB exam results don’t come out until the summer, when it’s far too late for use in our admission decisions (which happen in April/May).

  4. Prof. Anderson, can you please explain what IB applicant’s “admission average” means in your original post?
    For Ontario applicants that take a full IB program in high school which marks does Waterloo consider for admission?
    a) Their IB grades, just like for international applicants
    or
    b) Their Ontario high school grades?
    My understanding is that for IB students their Ontario high school grades are their IB grades to which a greater than 1 coefficient is applied so the result are higher Ontario grades.
    There was a controversy this year in the news because this IB coeffient was increased in order to better reflect the harder IB requirements when compared to the regular academic Ontario high school course requirements.
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/elite-ib-program-to-boost-marks-in-response-to-grade-inflation/article17953433/

    • For Ontario IB applicants, we receive and use the Ontario course grades (e.g. ENG4U, etc.), through the OUAC electronic data exchange. We are aware of the coefficient/conversion method, but we don’t play any role in it and use the grades as received.

  5. Prof. Anderson,
    Further to Dave’s question about correlating student success during their first year and their background program of entry ( IB/ regular) , information posted by Waterloo admissions web site indicates admission data/ entry acceptance offers are adjusted to reflect historical performance of students based on different schools after enrollment into the engineering programme. Does this data reveal anything regarding the survival/success rate of students from IB/regular program beyond your initial study? Thanks for the great post.

    • Our data suggests that IB students generally do well, but it’s very difficult to quantify exactly because of various other factors. For example, the performance of IB students can sometimes apparently vary according to region/country, but this is more likely due to personal transition issues than the actual academic background or abilities.

  6. I’m an IB student and a lot of my classmates are going to apply as regular students because it shows their percentage instead of their levels. It also allows them to apply with courses that they may have done in summer school that they didn’t get to take in the IB program and remove their course for second language as it tends to be one of the lower marks. So I’ve got 2 questions.

    1) Are the AIF markers aware of the mark conversions between each level?
    2) If I apply as a regular student, can I still talk about the fact that I was in the IB programme in my AIF?

    • AIF reviewers can’t see the grades, they only focus on extra-curriculars, communication skills, awards and work experience. Since you have to supply school transcripts, there isn’t really a choice between applying as a regular or IB student. We can see all the courses.

  7. Hi, if we are currently taking the IB program, and we are taking Higher level math, english, physics, and chemistry. Will universities take this into account when considering your admission average for engineering courses? Because the final mark for higher level IB courses will most likely be lower than what we could have obtained in a standard level course or non-IB course. Thanks.

  8. Hi Professor Anderson,
    I’m an IB student outside Canada and just finished my Grade 11 year.
    I’m interested in applying to Mechanical, Electrical or Software Engineering in your university.
    Though I have some concerns about my subjects mismatching the program requirements.

    First of all I didn’t take Chemistry. All I have are some prior knowledge and experience from IGCSE Chemistry which is a middle school course. Will this be a large obstacle for admissions?

    Secondly, I was advised to take Math HL when I was finishing Grade 10 but I didn’t because I wasn’t exactly aiming for an engineering degree back then. I’m currently getting strong 7s in Math SL, and recently got a 750 in SAT 2 Math 2 which I’m planning to retake to get an 800. I know that SAT 2 Math 2 is not equivalent to Math HL, but will it be reflected if submitted?

    Lastly, am I required to take SAT I or ACT even though I’m an IB Diploma student? My Canadian friends told me that SATs and ACTs are not required in Canada, but I found somewhere in the UW website that states it is required.

    Although I’m an above average student pulling 36~38 points out of 42 (excluding TOK and EE), I am worried about not taking Chemistry and Math HL (I am taking Physics HL). I do know that AIF is a large part of the admissions process, but I also know that these essential subjects are crucially important. Can you make any comments about the acceptance chances without these subjects?

    Thank you for all the informative posts you posted on this blog, they are truly helpful.

    • The IGCSE Chemistry is minimally OK, although we prefer to see AS or A level Chemistry (or IB Chemistry, or Ontario Grade 12 Chemistry). If you are borderline competitive for admission, we might take someone else with stronger chemistry background. SL Math is OK, although HL is better, but a strong grade in SL is fine.
      SAT and ACT are not required, unless you’re in an American curriculum (which you are not). However if you have strong SAT or ACT results it can help strengthen your application, so go ahead and submit them.

  9. I am a student in Pre-IB in an Ontario Highschool, I am in Grade 10 and debating whether or not I should stay in IB vs regular strand. My main question is what other things to Universities look at when accepting students. I know that grades are a major factor but am curious if things like extra curricular’s , awards, and school involvement help to decide who is accepted. I assume that they would be as you guys would want active involved students but I am still unsure.

    I achieve low 90’s in pre-ib and I think I could improve it in to mid 90’s regular strand while being able to be more involved in my school because of the extra time.

    • All of those things are potentially important, but it’s impossible to say what any one individual person should do. You should follow the path that you find most interesting and rewarding, and the rest will generally follow.

  10. I am a parent of a student in a gifted congregated class in Ottawa (French immersion). Like many “gifted” students, he has strengths (mathematics in his case) and weaknesses (language arts).

    I have several options, such as whether to keep him in immersion throughout high school, to keep him in the gifted program (french immersion or not) throughout high school or just in one/.more years prior to grade 12. I have the impression that high marks are important, regardless of the program (gifted, immersion, IB).

    Do admission committees give any weight to those in gifted classes upon graduation? This consideration may determine where he goes to high school and into which program.

    Ottawa is the home to some excellent public schools, such as Lisgar Collegiate (gifted, but not immersion), and Colonel By Secondary School (no gifted program, but with IB program).

    Frankly, I do not think he is an “IB type”. Mathematics comes easily to him and he is near/at the top even now in the gifted class, but he sometimes struggles with writing assignments ( in either language) sometimes scoring B pluses sometimes Cs.

    I appreciate your insight

    Thank you

    Full disclosure. He is now in grade 6. Perhaps it is early to ask, but I think it is good to begin to inform myself. Also, the school which he attends has a middle school, after which I would have to decide (in about a year or two).

    • As the post mentions, we give some preference to applicants in enhanced/gifted programs, but it’s difficult to quantify precisely. Someone with grades in the 70s is not going to be competitive, no matter what program they are in (for example). Basically, there is no good answer for planning purposes. I also see cases where very bright students do poorly in a regular program, because they are not challenged enough and lose motivation. I guess it comes down to matching your child’s interests, motivations, and abilities to the right program and atmosphere where they can best succeed.

  11. Further to some of the comments from others and Prof Anderson, since IB is completely elective and applicants who end up completing the IB program most definitely did not participate by random (very strong self-selection, such as that going on by readers of this blog post), IB applicants are most certainly a biased sample, as evidenced by their 55% success rate vs. 39%. The key (impossible-to-answer) questions are actually: would more than 165/300 (55%) of those IB applicants have been admitted if they had not done IB? Would less than 1560/4000 of applicants have been admitted if they had done IB? (This is the “fundamental problem of causal inference”)

    So for students who suspect they will not do well in an IB program, it is still certainly possible you may put yourself at a disadvantage for admission. The 90.3% vs. 88.2% and 55% vs. 39% cannot tell us anything about students that have not yet gone through the regular or IB treatment; they are statistics about self-selected students who already did and did not go through IB.

    What Prof Anderson did not discuss, and what I’m sure many are wondering about, is whether and how much adjustment Waterloo engineering admissions assigns to OUAC grades for IB SL or HL grades, for each course, or for the averages from an IB applicant, or for students from IB schools.

    IB also comes with embedded extracurriculars (CAS), advanced coursework (HL), a philosophy-like course (TOK), multidisciplinary research projects, extended essay (EE, thesis), external examination… all of which won’t fit onto a transcript and goes into the AIF.

    The specifics of how any of this IB stuff is accounted for are likely confidential, but Waterloo engineering admissions does discriminate by high school (~10% of them https://uwaterloo.ca/engineering/future-undergraduate-students/application-process/ranking-high-schools ). This would mean that it is likely, if students from a particular school with IB have been doing unexpectedly well in university relative to their high school grade average, that future students from that school/program will receive an adjustment to their grades. (if that school has been sending enough students to Waterloo to produce significant results)

    It would also make sense that more difficult courseloads such as HL courses would call for additional adjustment.

    Anyway, asking “Is IB Worth It [for the purposes of gaining admission to university or for university credit] is a limited perspective into the question whether IB can be “worth it”.

    IB often provides excellent preparation for university (for those suited for IB). It also provides a well-rounded holistic education. Regarding IB for Waterloo engineering, I found it particularly useful given that we miss out on a certain liberal arts experience of university (more prominent in US (private/elite) colleges). Since Waterloo Engineering starts in 1st year, students get pigeonholed immediately. There is a severely limited opportunity for free electives in accreditated engineering programs and IB helped counter-balance my educational experience. It reminded me that engineering isn’t everything and that there were other areas of knowledge that were worthwhile and important as well.

  12. I have a question. I heard that if one wants to do Engineering in Waterloo, this person has to have an average of 90-94 to have 55% of chance to receive an offer. I am in Pre-IB right now, I knew that I could do pretty well in Maths and Science, but I struggle with English. I am considering going into normal classes, but I am still anxious if I can get a good mark in normal English. So should I do more extra-curricular activities to boost the 45% more chance? Even 5-10 percent?

    • Many applicants have English marks that are somewhat lower than the others. I would only do extra-curriculars that have significant interest to you, not just for some uncertain boost in chances. Part-time or summer work experience is another way to stand out from many applicants.

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