International Baccalaureate - UK & Global Private Schools

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The American and international schooling systems

Author: Maura Power, Advancement Director, TASIS The American School in England, an American – international school located in Thorpe, Surrey.

What are your child’s educational aspirations? What does he/she enjoy in school? Does your student do better when the learning is teacher-directed, or is he/she a motivated self-learner? In considering the various schooling and curricular options available to students, these questions will be important to ask and to answer honestly.


In American and international education, there are a few different paths: The American High School Diploma, American College Board Advanced Placement courses (APs), and the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. Compared with the British system of GCSEs and A-levels where students choose their areas of interest, and eliminate subjects from their realm of study, the American and international systems are similar to each other in that students study a broad range of topics through to graduation at age 18. Students in the British system gain a detailed understanding of their chosen subjects, and they are put on a focused path of study for university. While they gain in-depth knowledge in three or four specific areas by the age of 17 or 18, their choices of study at university are dictated by the A-level courses they study and are often determined by the final grades on the exams.

In contrast, students in the American or international system will study topics from five to six different areas, and they will also be required to participate in activities such as community service, sports, and the arts. Acceptance to American universities depends on achievement on standardised exams (i.e. the SAT or ACT), averages of grades received over four years of high school, written recommendations from teachers, the level and degree of participation in activities, and a personal statement.

Reputable American and international schools will have robust university guidance programs in place to help assist students (and parents!) through the university selection and application process. In additional, a school that works with expatriate children with international backgrounds should have a University Counseling Office experienced in helping students apply to universities around the world, as well as in the UK and USA.


Advanced Placement (AP) courses offer academic challenge and the possibility of earning credit for university. These accelerated courses are integrated into American high school programs and follow a university level curriculum that has been outlined by the American College Board. Students may choose to take up to four AP courses each year in their areas of strength as early as the tenth grade (age 15). These classes are taken alongside the standard roster of courses.

AP courses are usually limited to students with a history of high achievement in the subject as students need to be motivated and disciplined learners. Teacher recommendations are often required, and, because AP courses require critical thinking and analysis, a student must be able to do more then restate facts that have been memorised.

Success in an AP class is measured by a student’s achievement on the final exam, which is created and marked by the American College Board, not the classroom teacher. The best news for parents is that, depending on their exam scores, students may receive credit at American universities, which, in some cases, means saving up to a year ’s worth of tuition.


In 1968, the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program first sought to create a diploma that would be recognised by universities around the world. The IB’s distinct focus on internationalism and global awareness serves schools with large international populations particularly well. Because of its continuity and reputation for offering a rigorous program, the IB often appeals to families who move often.

Students seeking the IB diploma study a wide range of subjects and choose courses from six areas: Language (the student’s mother tongue), an Additional Language, Individuals and Societies, Experimental Sciences, Mathematics and Computer Science, and the Arts. In addition, students must submit a 4,000-word essay on a topic of their choice; complete a course on the philosophies of learning and knowing (Theory of Knowledge); and fulfil community service (CAS) requirements. The IB Diploma culminates in an examination period at the end of the program, and final grades are based on both achievement on the exams and course grades.


Students in each of these programs have success in gaining entrance to both UK and US universities. In the United States, schools evaluate all aspects of a student’s performance and take the time to understand foreign transcripts. Because of the growth in the number of schools in the United States adopting the IB program, university admissions offices have few questions regarding its curriculum. American universities view the IB as a demanding program where students push themselves in both their areas of strength and weakness. British universities are also well acquainted with the IB and understand the American AP program by equating AP exams with A-levels. Entrance to a particular program at a British university will depend on the number and types of AP courses that have been taken, as well as the level of achievement. Advice from an experienced university/college counselor would be helpful at an early stage to ensure that the right combination and types of AP classes are taken so a student will be in a strong position to pursue his/her goals.

While each of the paths lead to university, deciding on the right match ultimately depends on assessing an individual student’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests, as well as their future aspirations.

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