The AP and IB Arms Race

Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes are fast becoming the status quo in local high school curricula. Sometimes more challenging coursework is a good thing for students. And sometimes more is too much.

Illustration by Alex Beck

Margie Adams* remembers being wary when her daughter, Natalie*, begged to take that fourth Advanced Placement (AP) class during her junior year at Yorktown High School. Natalie wanted to be in the same class with her friends. But it wasn’t long before her homework load and after-school activities reached a tipping point. Sleep-deprived, the 17-year-old began taking sick days just to get caught up on schoolwork.

“She was really reluctant to drop [the class], because she thought, What’s wrong with me? I’m supposed to be smart. Why can’t I handle it?” Adams says. “She was very stressed and very unhappy.” In the end, Natalie dropped the class.

Other parents tell similar tales of kids on the overachiever track who are teetering on the edge of burnout. Mary Thomasson’s daughter was recommended for AP World History as a freshman at Washington-Lee and took the class, but soon regretted the decision.

“It was way too much for her and frequently required three to four hours of homework a night,” says Thomasson, herself a W-L alumna. “She totally imploded.” Though her daughter initially resisted dropping the class for fear of disappointing her parents, she eventually backed out. Her mom now believes she wasn’t ready for weighted classes until junior year.

“Pushing [advanced placement] on kids who aren’t ready yet is a big mistake,” Thomasson says in retrospect. “It took my daughter the rest of high school to get her academic confidence back.”

Local high schools in Arlington, Falls Church and McLean offer as many as 25 different AP classes, and it’s not uncommon for some students to take three, four, or even five such classes in a single year. Others dive into the rigorous curricula required to earn a full International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. But the pressures that come with these academic commitments can be formidable.

Anxiety and depression are commonly associated with heightened academic stress—especially when students overextend themselves in an attempt to keep pace with their peers, says Todd Kashdan, a professor of clinical psychology at George Mason University and author of The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment. “When the motive is for social comparison and not the intrinsic values of the student, the [potential for] anxiety [goes up],” he says.

Woodson High School in Fairfax County has seen five suicides in two years, and parents at the school have questioned whether excessive stress from AP classes is a contributing factor.

That isn’t stopping local teens from taking on increasingly demanding course loads. To the extent that AP and IB classes are viewed as the academic gold standard, many see them as a prerequisite for admission to the nation’s most prestigious colleges.

“We’ve had an exponential expansion of AP in the last 30 years,” says David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the Arlington-based National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). “This is a very deliberate strategy on the part of the College Board, which owns the AP curriculum. They have worked very closely with state and federal policy makers to essentially ingrain the notion that Advanced Placement equals college prep.”

Statistics bear this out. Nationally, the number of public school students taking AP classes nearly doubled over the last decade. (At the same time, the number of low-income students—defined as those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—taking an AP exam quadrupled.) The U.S. high school Class of 2013 took nearly 3.2 million AP exams over four years, according to the College Board.

In Virginia, students’ test scores have become the subject of educational bragging rights. Last year, 28.3 percent of Virginia high school seniors who took an AP exam earned a score of 3 or higher on a 5-point scale, making Virginia the third-highest-scoring state for Advanced Placement.

In Arlington, the numbers are kicked up yet another notch. Three out of four members of the Arlington Public Schools (APS) Class of 2013 completed at least one AP or IB class over the course of their high school careers, with more than half (65 percent) earning at least one “qualifying” score.

Since 2009, APS has seen a 29 percent increase in the number of students taking AP exams and a 46 percent increase in the number of exams taken. In 2013, some 2,274 students took a total of 4,873 AP exams.

The number of APS students taking IB exams increased 51 percent over the same time period, with a 45 percent increase in the number of exams taken.

Some observers feel the frenzy over advanced placement has gotten out of hand. McLean High School PTSA President Wilma Bowers is one such critic. She is now leading the charge against what she views as a parental arms race that pushes kids to take on more than they can handle.

“That hyper-intensive, competitive mode of operation is probably only appropriate for about 5 percent of our students,” Bowers says, paraphrasing Madeline Levine, a Stanford University psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.

Others, like Yorktown parent Margie Adams, see teachers and school administrators as equally culpable. When Adams suggested that her daughter forgo a sixth year of an advanced language in order to have a free study hall period during her senior year, a teacher reportedly told Natalie that doing so “looks bad” on college applications.

Jon Remedios, now a senior at Duke University, recalls how a well-meaning teacher tried to persuade him to take a fourth AP class his senior year at Wakefield High School, even though he was already class president, yearbook editor and captain of the basketball team. “I had to monitor what I wanted to do, what I really wanted to accomplish,” Remedios says. “Look at the full picture, not just academics. It’s not the only thing, and I think lots of kids miss that.”

But some students contend that they don’t always have a choice when it comes to downshifting their academic load. Those who complete algebra or geometry by eighth grade, for example, are often left with an AP math class as their only logical next step—even if math is not their area of strength. So they end up taking the AP class, for fear that college admissions officers will frown upon a transcript that doesn’t show a math class every year.

And then there’s the friend factor. Peer pressure to overachieve is a powerful force in D.C. suburbs such as Arlington, where 37 percent of adults have a graduate degree and “average” is seen as less than acceptable. Many area students have begun to view regular classes as curricula for “slackers.”

Jay Mathews, an education columnist for The Washington Post, argues that students and their parents are partly accountable for the ever-rising academic bar.

“The Washington-area suburban high schools do not make students take lots of AP courses. The colleges and the students’ own culture are the culprits,” he says. “Selective colleges make it clear these days that they will not consider candidates that have not done AP or IB. Students also are far more likely to take a lot of APs because their friends are doing it. They want to be a part of that crowd.”

Of course, Mathews is sometimes accused of doing his part to fuel the fire. Since 1998, he has been the force behind The Washington Post’s Challenge Index (see sidebar at right), a national ranking of high schools that’s formulated based on the number of students taking advanced academic tests at each school. Critics have noted that the Challenge Index score reflects only one limited measure of a school (how students actually score on the tests is immaterial to the index). Nevertheless, the index is often interpreted by parents and the press as a showcase of the “best” schools.

Recognizing the fallout for certain students, some experts are beginning to question the conventional wisdom around advanced academic classes and testing. “Some worry that [AP] has been oversold, distorted, and that real collateral damage is being wrought, straining schools, rewarding rigid, superficial memorization, and discouraging true intellectual curiosity in students,” researchers at Stanford University summarized in a 2013 study.

The study, conducted for the Stanford-based educational nonprofit Challenge Success, also investigated whether there is, in fact, a causal relationship between AP classes and college achievement. “Studies that simply establish that students who are involved with the AP program in high school perform better in college do not necessarily provide proof that the AP program caused the students to be successful in college,” lead researcher Denise Pope (who co-founded Challenge Success with Madeline Levine) observed in the study. While correlations have been noted between AP classes and positive college performance, other factors, such as family background and student motivation, also come into play, she says.

Students and parents often blame the Ivy League and other selective colleges for perpetuating the current cutthroat environment, insofar as such schools advise taking “the most rigorous academic program available” (as stated on the University of Virginia’s admissions website).

“What parents are saying is that ‘until colleges change their message, I’m not going to let my kid be the sacrificial lamb,’ ” Pope observes.

But colleges say it’s the literal interpretation of this advice that gets students into trouble.

“What admission officers almost always say…is focus on what lights your fire and take advantage of the most challenging offerings in those areas,” urges NACAC’s Hawkins. “That’s a very different message from, ‘Take all of the AP classes.’ ”

In fact, overemphasizing advanced academics can backfire, notes Jeannine Lalonde, senior assistant dean of admissions at UVA. “We don’t have any expectations as to a certain number of AP or IB classes,” she says. “There’s a balance to be struck on every transcript. In recent years, people have been leaning really heavily on strength of curriculum and then the student has a hard time sustaining good grades.”

This is particularly true, she says, for first-semester high school seniors who are trying to fit college applications in with burdensome homework loads.

Furthermore, AP and IB applicants have grown so common that they no longer stand out on their academic merits alone. “Colleges have hit an upper limit in the ability to absorb Advanced Placement from the admissions perspective,” Hawkins says. “There are so many students taking it now that it’s very difficult to use it as a differentiator during the admission process.”

As a result, some students are finding that their hard work doesn’t reap the rewards they had hoped for.

“A lot of my friends who didn’t do full IB got into the same colleges as I did,” says Madison*, who recently graduated from Washington-Lee with a full IB diploma. “Colleges don’t realize that IB is so much harder than AP classes or really appreciate that.”

Most colleges continue to grant course credits to freshman entering with high AP and IB scores, but some are raising the bar. While most high schools count an AP score of 3 as passing, for example, Harvard accepts only 5’s (the highest possible AP score) in order to give the student college credit for the high school course. It accepted 4’s up until 2002.

The same is true of IB exams, which are scored on a scale of 1 to 7. Most elite colleges today will grant course credits only in exchange for IB “higher level” scores of 5 and above (IB courses fall into two strata, “higher level” and “standard level”), even though most high schools count a 4 as passing.

Dartmouth College no longer grants course credits for high test scores—the faculty do not believe that AP or IB classes can replicate the college experience—although it still exempts AP and IB students from taking certain base-level courses.

And there is no guarantee that a backbreaking AP or IB course load will ultimately result in an acceptance letter from a student’s first-choice college. “You could take every AP known to man and still not get into Harvard,” Pope says.

Not all students who take AP and IB classes are succumbing to pressure from their parents and peers, however. Some may actually need a little push to challenge themselves. And some take advanced classes because they’re bored.

During her first two years at Wakefield High School, Priscilla* earned mostly A’s and routinely finished her homework in less than an hour, often doing it during other classes. Encouraged by her teachers, she enrolled in Summer Bridge, a weeklong summer program at Wakefield that teaches time management, organization and research skills to kids who plan to take AP classes the following semester. An African-American student, she also joined United Minority Girls (UMG), a support group at

Wakefield that helps promising girls of color plan and prepare for college. She subsequently took two AP courses (English and U.S. history) during her junior year, spending two to three hours per night on homework.

“I feel like I’m around smarter people now, so the classes go more smoothly,” says Priscilla, who plans to take three AP classes as a senior. “I like being challenged.” She says she aspires to attend either Stanford or UVA.

Priscilla counts among the many success stories at Wakefield, which in recent years has embraced the AP curriculum as a means of narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students. (Last year, the school’s student body was approximately 44 percent Hispanic, 24 percent black, 17 percent white, 11 percent Asian and 4 percent kids reporting multiple ethnicities, according to APS data.)

“Minority students have traditionally been underrepresented in advanced-level classes,” says Wakefield Principal Chris Willmore. “We’re proud of the fact that our AP classes look like Wakefield.”

That wasn’t always the case. In 2000, only 15 of the 514 black and Latino males attending Wakefield were taking AP courses. Those numbers began to rise after a team of educators at Wakefield began identifying additional AP candidates (by their PSAT scores and other factors) and encouraging them to take more challenging courses, with the aid of support programs such as Summer Bridge.

Enter Cohort, a boys’ program similar to UMG that hosts weekly meetings and maintains certain requirements. The 140 boys who participated last year had to attend seven of nine meetings each quarter, maintain good grades and wear a collared shirt and tie on designated Cohort days.

Cohort also sponsors an annual two-day, four-college tour (so does UMG) that allows participants—many of whom aspire to be first-generation college students—to envision themselves on a college campus. For the past 14 years, a private sponsor has donated thousands of dollars in support of the Cohort program to make these trips happen.

Alan Beitler, the minority achievement coordinator at Wakefield, is proud of the results, noting that 87 percent of Cohort graduates have gone on to attend a two- or four-year college. An important factor in male minority success is “embracing an ethic of struggle,” he says. “It’s the attitude that ‘I can take challenging classes, and I will fight to learn.’ ”

While the number of minority students taking AP tests has increased in Arlington—115 black students took AP tests in 2008, compared to 160 in 2013, and the number of Hispanic students taking the test over that same time period jumped from 281 to 449—their success rate still lags behind whites.

Seventy-three percent of white APS students taking AP tests in 2013 earned a score of 3 or higher, while only 51 percent of Hispanic students and 43 percent of black students did. That same year, 589 white students scored a 5, compared to 73 Hispanic students and 14 black students.

Still, these numbers are significantly higher than the national average. Only a quarter of black students nationwide who took an AP exam in 2013 received a score of 3 or above. For Hispanic and white students, the numbers were 32 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

Across town, Gregg Robertson is equally bullish on AP classes as a means of narrowing the achievement gap, though his approach at Washington-Lee has been different from Wakefield’s. When Robertson took the helm as W-L’s principal in 2003, only 23 percent of W-L students were enrolled in AP or IB classes. “That’s the year we set the goal of 100 percent participation,” he says.

Last fall, Robertson identified 59 kids in the Class of 2014 who had not yet taken an AP or IB class. When those students arrived at school to start their senior year, they found themselves enrolled in AP Government, even though most had not requested it.

“I’m not really focused on the [AP] test as much as for the kids to participate and to build their self-esteem…to give them an opportunity to succeed in a very rigorous course, in a college-level class,” Robertson says.

Executing that mandate, however, required some ingenuity. The teachers Robertson hired to teach the class—Margaret East, a former college professor, and her assistant, Nicole Fritz—soon discovered that the college-level textbook was “inaccessible” to certain students, many of whom spoke other languages at home or struggled with reading challenges.

“Those two letters—AP—struck fear into their hearts,” says East, who ended up incorporating hands-on teaching and vocabulary building, and gave up her planning period so that she could divide three large classes into four smaller ones. She also bent some of the rules, allowing students to retake quizzes and tests, which rarely happens in most AP classes.

The modified curriculum made a big difference for students Farzin* and Alicia,* who graduated in June. When they learned they’d been automatically enrolled in AP Government, both say their first instinct was to run to the front office and switch to a regular-level class. But they later changed their minds. “The teachers explain it at a level anyone could understand really well,” Alicia says.

Farzin, who worked in food delivery and home health care for eight hours after school each day, sometimes struggled with the homework. If he didn’t finish it, he’d meet with East during the Generals period, which provides time for students to receive extra help. Both teachers also made themselves available after school two days a week.

“I’m really glad they put me in AP,” Alicia says in retrospect. “Once I adapted, I thought, This isn’t that bad.” She and Farzin both plan to enter Northern Virginia Community College’s “Pathway to the Baccalaureate” program, which helps students make the transition to four-year colleges. Both hope to receive some college credit for taking the AP exam.

Some academic observers (including Washington Post columnist Mathews) have called Robertson’s 100-percent mandate “daring,” but the principal also has his critics. A few have questioned whether such practices constitute a watered-down or spoon-fed version of AP, given the accommodations that are needed to help certain students succeed (an approach some educators refer to as “scaffolding”). The very fact that such modifications are necessary, some would argue, is evidence that certain kids aren’t truly ready for AP classes. Others question whether the small classes and co-teachers needed to achieve 100 percent participation are economically feasible.

Still, Robertson sees the experiment as a success. “I don’t view it as an extra cost,” he says. “I just want to make sure kids have an opportunity to take an advanced course and see that with the right kinds of support, all things are possible.” He plans to offer the same AP Government course to a similar group in the Class of 2015.

When it comes to healthy versus unhealthy academic stress, counselors, teachers and administrators at area high schools realize they are walking a fine line. Most schools make a point of keeping an eye on students with heavy AP or IB loads, and some require students to seek permission before enrolling in three or more advanced classes.

“In high-achieving communities there’s a big concern that teenagers have a hard time setting boundaries for themselves and saying no,” says Asheesh Misra, the former IB Director at George Mason High School in Falls Church City. (He now manages “Bridging the Equity Gap,” a program of the International Baccalaureate organization.)

At Yorktown, students in the York-town Scholars program—a track for which students must take six AP classes over three years, maintain a B average and participate in enrichment activities—are assigned mentors and receive additional support from a gifted-resources teacher. “We don’t allow mandatory schoolwork over any of the breaks or summer,” says Assistant Principal Meghan Henning, who heads up the program. “We really try to strike a healthy balance.”

Schools use the term “balance” a lot, but many students and parents still struggle to find it. Nearly 1 in 3 high school sophomores and seniors surveyed in the 2010 Community Report Card of the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth & Families reported “depressive symptoms.” (Though the survey did not identify potential causes, one might assume that academics are a factor.) Similarly, more than a third of 12th-graders who participated in the 2012 Fairfax Youth Survey—a collaborative study conducted by Fairfax County Public Schools and the county Department of Neighborhood and Community Services—reported “feeling so sad or hopeless for two weeks in a row in the past year that [they] stopped doing some usual activities.”

“It’s no good if they burn out,” says Dawn Allison, a college and career counselor at McLean High School, who, with her colleagues, has worked with PTSA President Bowers to construct a spreadsheet that helps students see how their commitments—including sleep—add up to 24 hours or occasionally more. (Arlington Public Schools similarly publishes a number of “companion documents” to help parents and students map out academic plans with realistic goals.)

Such tools are designed to give students and parents a much-needed reality check. “Are you willing to sacrifice your child’s health for the potential that they may or may not get into a selective school?” Bowers asks. “We’re trying to get parents to realize this, because they’re the ones who coach the kids. You can’t complain that your child is sleeping four or five hours a night and [simultaneously] allow them to take four or five AP [classes].”

Still, there are those competitive students and their competitive parents who can’t help wondering whether that one extra AP class—and the sacrifice that comes with it—could mean the difference between acceptance to a first-choice school versus the consolation prize of a back-up “safety” school.

“There are some kids who can handle [the demands of a full AP load] and those are the kids these high-ranking schools are looking for,” says Pope. “Everyone’s trying to prove that they are that kid [even though] percentage-wise, that doesn’t work out.”

The competition is indisputably real. In 2014, the acceptance rates at most Ivy League schools hovered around 10 percent. At Stanford, the acceptance rate was 5 percent.

Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Murphy acknowledges the stress this places on students, but believes that the benefits of advanced academics continue to outweigh the negatives.

“Historically, the schools division [APS] has demonstrated great success with more rigorous classes,” says Murphy, who in May was named “Superintendent of the Year” for the state of Virginia. He cites increased participation among minority students as a particularly significant success story in Arlington.

In February, Murphy issued a letter to families of APS high school students, encouraging students “to consider enrolling in at least one” AP, IB or dual-enrollment course.
Murphy denies that the APS push to get more kids to enroll in AP and IB classes has anything to do with The Washington Post’s Challenge Index.

And while he acknowledges the tales of kids who overcommit and run themselves ragged, he deflects the notion that high schools are to blame for this high-stakes phenomenon. “This is a balancing point of what’s right for your child, what’s right for your family, and those decisions are really family decisions at the end of the day.

“One of the things I hear is ‘Oh, you want kids to take four or five AP classes.’ That’s not at all what I’m saying,” he clarifies. “I’m saying have a balance, but in some area stretch yourself. Play to your strengths.”

Still, some say it’s hard not to interpret the annual letter that APS mails to fifth-grade parents as a dire warning: “Decisions you make now may cast the die for your child’s future well beyond middle school.”

The letter then encourages students to start earning high school credits while they are still in middle school.

In her next life, Amy Brecount White, a former AP English Literature teacher who loves to read and write, will enroll at a full IB school.

A Controversial Index

How does The Washington Post’s Challenge Index arrive at its rankings? Columnist Jay Mathews divides the number of AP, IB and Cambridge tests taken by the total number of graduating seniors at each school. (Cambridge is an advanced academic program not widely used in Virginia schools, though there are a few that use it.) For the most part, public schools that achieve a ratio of at least 1.00 (meaning they had as many tests as they had graduates) make the national list. In 1998, 243 schools nationwide qualified for the first Challenge Index listing. By 2014, that number had risen to more than 2,100. How well a student actually scores on the exams is immaterial to the index.

The index has become a powerful force in the competitive academic landscape. Consider its effect on Arlington’s H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program, which in 1998 was ranked eighth in the nation by the Challenge Index. The school subsequently found itself overrun with new applicants for its lottery system. “The index made more tension around the lottery and was also increasing the sense that everybody has to be taking all these AP classes and put a lot of emotional pressure on kids,” says Randy McKnight, who chaired the H-B English department for 25 years until his retirement in 2009. He is now a counselor with AGM-College Advisors in Arlington.

McKnight laments that the recent emphasis on AP classes at H-B—which is known for its experimental, student-driven culture—has made the school “less educationally alternative” and less able to offer independent studies.

In 2011, a motion to request that H-B be removed from the Challenge Index nearly passed at a “town meeting” (H-B’s term for a weekly gathering during which students and faculty members play equal roles in making decisions that affect the school environment). “We discussed the concern that being at the top of the Challenge Index was reductionistic,” says H-B Principal Frank Haltiwanger. “Some felt like people were applying for the wrong reasons.”

In 1998, H-B’s Challenge Index score was 2.2342, earning it a national ranking of 8. In 2014, its score was 6.590, giving it a national ranking of 58. Interpreters say this decline in rankings isn’t an indication of faltering academics at H-B, but rather of the widespread expansion of AP and IB curricula across the country.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the Challenge Index has influenced high schools around the country,” says Denise Pope, a Stanford University lecturer and co-founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit educational advocacy group. “Anytime you have a ranking like that you’re creating a competition that people want to win.”

Mathews, who in 1988 wrote a book about Jaime Escalante, the inner-city Los Angeles AP Calculus teacher who inspired the movie Stand and Deliver, feels the nationwide expansion of AP curricula is a positive. It means that more students—including those on the losing side of the achievement gap—have the opportunity to take more-challenging classes, he contends.

But Mathews has his critics, including fellow Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss.

“What happened in [the D.C.] area over the years…is that [schools] wanted to be higher on the list, so they kept pushing more and more kids to be in AP, even kids who probably shouldn’t have been, and tried to get them to take the test,” Strauss says.

The result, she says, is a widening disconnect between AP coursework and actual college performance. “At the same time that we’ve had this enormous growth in AP, we still have college professors saying that kids aren’t prepared. So shouldn’t there have been some movement on that score? Exactly what the AP courses are accomplishing, I’m not really sure, in terms of preparing kids for the rigors of college.”

AP vs. IB

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are offered in 37 subjects. In order to claim the AP moniker, a high school must submit its course syllabus, teaching materials and other data for approval by the College Board, the same nonprofit that designs and administers the SAT test. Some courses, such as English Literature, are skills-based and allow teacher flexibility, while others, such as science and history courses, have come under fire for requiring too much memorization. (The College Board has been known to redesign courses if the public outcry is loud enough.)

Public and private schools in Arlington, Falls Church and McLean currently offer up to 25 AP course options. Most schools offer a weighted grade point average bonus to AP students, although students are required to take the AP final exam to get that bonus. (For example, an A in a regular class earns 4.0 points, while an A in an AP class earns 5.0 points.)

Many schools nationwide do not offer AP classes until junior year; however, most schools in the greater D.C. area offer them to sophomores. In Arlington, Wakefield and Washington-Lee allow freshmen to take AP classes. Bishop O’Connell offers students a foundational college prep class their freshman year and one AP class—Modern European History—their sophomore year, with a few exceptions.

As an alternative to AP, some schools also offer International Baccalaureate (IB) curricula. Washington-Lee in Arlington and George Mason in Falls Church City both offer IB, which many praise for its academic depth and emphasis on writing.

Which option is better? It depends on who you ask.

Katie Remedios, an Arlington mother of four, had kids in both programs. She says her two sons thrived in the AP programs at Wakefield, while her two daughters both earned full IB diplomas at Washington-Lee. “AP prepares you for the workload of college and to listen to more-intense subject matter. AP teaches you to spit out a lot of facts, and they’re giving you a lot of information,” Remedios says. “IB teaches you critical thinking.” She cautions, however, that IB isn’t for every student, because it is very reading- and writing-intensive.

Some kids feel more comfortable in an AP class that has clearly defined parameters and expectations. “If you learn better in a lecture-and-drill setting, then AP is for you,” says Abby*, a 2013 W-L grad, who took both IB and AP classes. “IB is all about application and analysis and writing.” She ultimately decided not to do full IB, because the requirements—which include 150 hours of a creative activity, community service and a 4,000-word extended essay—felt too demanding.

Madison*, who graduated from W-L in June with a full IB diploma, has mixed feelings about the experience. She says she now feels very prepared for college, but was surprised by how time-consuming the program’s other requirements proved to be. For example, the deadline for the extended essay fell on Jan. 15, which meant that she was writing her IB essay while also completing college applications.

Jeff Williams, who graduated from George Mason in 2008 with a full IB diploma, feels in retrospect that the load was too heavy. “I got a very good foundation for college, but we all felt incredibly overworked in our last two years [at Mason],” says Williams, who went to UVA and is now in grad school at the University of Wisconsin. “It was pressure from our parents and ourselves, because we wanted to get into the best schools. I would snap at people a lot.”

Nevertheless, Mason and W-L are both quick to claim success when it comes to their IB programs. At W-L, 74 percent of IB test takers in 2013 scored a 4 or above (with 7 being the highest possible score). At Mason, the number was 86 percent.

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