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From IB to AP: Transitioning from International Schools to US Boarding Schools

It's not just about getting into school. It's about succeeding once you're there.

As the Dean of Admissions for a top five US university recently shared in a closed doors alumni seminar I was invited to attend, US university admissions officers care more about coursework and grades than they do about any other component of the application. Accordingly, students applying to top-tier US colleges and universities challenge themselves by taking the most rigorous courses possible, which typically means either the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) or a series of Advanced Placement (AP) examinations. Most international school students take the path of IBDP, selecting three higher level and three standard level subjects, completing two full years of coursework, and sitting for external assessments worth 50% or more of their final IB grades. Most US boarding school students, on the other hand, take courses designed in-house by boarding school teachers and department heads. Later students sit for AP examinations that assess content knowledge and skills sometimes quite different from what is taught in school. Navigating the gap between content covered in school and on AP exams can be difficult for students, especially those already overwhelmed by the challenge of adjusting to life away from home.

Students and and parents of students who are transitioning from international schools to US boarding schools will find succeeding on AP exams more achievable once they understand the difference between IB and AP examinations and the extent to which boarding school coursework supports success on the AP.

The difference between IB and AP coursework and exams

The IDBP integrates coursework and examinations. The IBO governs the number of hours teachers spend covering certain topics, whether Statistics and Probability in Math SL (35 hours) or Mechanics in Physics HL (22 hours). In other words, students who master the content taught in class will, generally speaking, excel on their examinations because the IBO crafts external assessments that test how well students have learned the knowledge and skills taught in their IB courses.

Unlike the IBO, the College Board, maker of the AP and SAT, does not oversee the coursework students complete before sitting for an AP examination. In fact, any student can take an AP exam in any subject regardless of whether that student attends a specific school or has completed a specific course of study. Furthermore, courses that schools call "AP English" or "AP Chemistry" are not affiliated with the College Board or AP exam in any way. Rather, they are courses developed independently by teachers and schools to support students who plan to take these examinations in May. Some of these courses do a terrific job of preparing students for the AP, and others leave students feeling lost and unsupported. Thus there is no guarantee that students who earn top grades in their AP courses will earn 5s in their AP examinations.

The extent to which boarding school coursework supports success on the AP

At many elite boarding schools, coursework does an excellent job of preparing students for coursework at top US colleges and universities, but an inadequate job of preparing students for success on the AP exams. Phillips Andover and Phillips Exeter, for example, do not offer AP courses of any kind. Instead, they maintain that the courses they do offer are sufficiently rigorous as to prepare students for corresponding AP examinations in English, US History, and other subjects. These schools do not see themselves as responsible for preparing students for external standardized examinations, whether the AP or SAT. Rather, students must take control of their own academic success and self-study for the AP alongside their in-school coursework and exams.

While the position of schools such as Exeter and Andover is justifiable and even admirable, still it places tremendous pressure on students already overwhelmed by the transition to a new school far away from home. The stress is particularly acute for students who at home were used to the support of a team of tutors and counselors but now find themselves on a campus in rural America, far away from any such support.

AP exam preparation for boarding school students

US boarding school students should follow a simple three-step method to make sure they are positioned to succeed on AP examinations.

1) Read the language of the school course catalogue or speak to a school guidance counselor to find out whether the school's courses are designed for the AP examination. Some schools, such as Taft, offer courses designed specifically for the AP. Other schools, such as Lawrencevillle, warn that courses " . . . are not explicitly designed with AP test preparation in mind."

2) Download the AP "Course and Exam Description" here. Compare the topics outlined in the document to the syllabus provided by school teachers. Students who take US History courses, for example, inevitably learn some of the content covered by the AP US History exam. Other historical events, periods, and figures they may have to self-study.

3) Make a long-term plan to self-study all content not covered in class, enlisting the help of an experienced consultant or tutor if necessary. While students talented enough to gain admission to top boarding schools are usually able to learn topics on their own, sometimes a professional can make the process more efficient or more effective.

If you need help completing the above three steps, please feel free to contact Dragon Prep. Our team has helped more than 50 students transition successfully from international schools in Asia to elite US boarding schools, and we are happy to provide you with customized learning plans tailored to your school coursework and AP goals. Our teachers regularly provide online instruction to students based in the United States.

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