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Armaan Ali knows how tough it is to land and keep a spot in an Ivy League school. He’s applying to Princeton University this fall, and has done his research on the highly selective institution in New Jersey.

But the Grade 12 student at Vancouver’s Mulgrave School isn't worried. Through Mulgrave’s International Baccalaureate diploma program, he’s taking courses designed to get him ready for the academic rigours of Princeton, or any university, for that matter.

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“I’m taking history, biology and English at a higher level,” says Armaan, 17. “I spoke with a Princeton alumnus and he told me that what they really teach you at Princeton is how to process information and write, and that’s exactly what I’m learning at Mulgrave.”

Armaan is among the growing number of private school students who are choosing to arm themselves with the advantages of an enriched learning program. In Canada, high school students looking to get an edge in the fierce competition for university spots have two choices: the International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP).

Both programs offer subjects that many universities recognize as equivalent to first-year courses. This allows students to skip certain subjects, and either finish university sooner or take the same subjects at higher levels.

At certain universities, participation in an AP or IB program immediately increases a student’s chance of being accepted. Some, such as the University of Victoria, grant an automatic entrance scholarship to IB students who achieve a certain level of grade points, and offer thousands more in additional scholarship dollars to those with even higher points.

While both programs offer courses taught at university level, there are a number of fundamental differences between the two.

The IB diploma program – there are also primary and middle school IB programs – is built on three core requirements: a theory of knowledge course, a 4,000-word essay, and a “creativity, action, service” component that requires students to take part in some kind of extra-curricular activity outside school. In addition to these core requirements, IB diploma students must take six courses covering five or six subject areas, and at least three of these courses must be taken at a higher level.

“Some students elect to participate by taking just one or two courses at the IB level, so in the end they don’t qualify for the diploma but still get an IB certificate,” says Derek Bouwman, IB co-ordinator at King’s-Edgehill School in Windsor, N.S. “In some cases, it’s because they want to specialize in a certain area, such as science or math, and they feel the breadth of the IB program doesn’t quite fit what they want to do.”

John Wray, head of Mulgrave School, points out the IB’s defining feature: a global perspective in all subjects.

“They all have an international dimension,” he says. “IB courses tend to draw examples from around the world so students develop a cross-cultural understanding and become true global citizens.”

This international slant, which also requires students to learn another language, was certainly a big selling point for Armaan and his parents.

“I moved here in Grade 3 from Bangladesh, and my family stresses the importance of travelling,” says Armaan. “We like how Mulgrave opens your eyes so you see beyond Canada.”

Unlike the IB diploma program, the AP program does not have a prescribed multi-course structure. Instead, students can opt to take any number of courses. And where the IB diploma program requires one course from each of the first five subject areas, the AP program lets students focus their studies on one particular area, or spread it around as they wish.

“We like the individuality the AP program affords our students,” says Geoff Roberts, headmaster of Crescent School, an all-boys school in Toronto. “Some boys may want to take just one or two courses while another might want to take five – the AP program gives them that flexibility.”

Whether they choose the IB or AP route, students and their parents need to be prepared to handle the heavier workload and more intense level of study.

Janis McCulloch, a Grade 12 student at King’s-Edgehill School, describes her academic calendar as “very, very busy.”

“It’s not so much that you're spending so much more time in the classroom as it is that each course has a lot of homework and preparation that goes into it,” she explains. “This year, I have six IB courses, which translates to about an hour of homework for each course each night.”

But the enriched curriculum is worth all the hard work, she says.

“For example, in our English class we have to pick texts that were not originally written in English, and in our theory of knowledge class we’re learning about Descartes and Plato,” she says. “It really is such a rich program and I get such a sense of satisfaction in knowing that while I’m getting this worldly, well-rounded education, I’m also going to be getting credits for these courses when I go to university.”

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Get an edge with enrichment learning

ADVANCED PLACEMENT

What is it?

A program that gives students the opportunity to study and write university-level exams while still in high school. Advanced placement is recognized by all universities in Canada and the United States and by all major universities worldwide.

Who can take it?

Any high school student can study and write exams for advanced placement subjects, but it’s typically taken by students in Grades 11 and 12.

Good to know

Students can pick and choose any number of subjects – from as little as one to more than 10. In Canada, there are more than 30 recognized advanced placement subjects, but the actual number of subjects available in any given school varies.

Cost

Usually US$86 per subject, which covers the cost of the exam administered each May by the College Board in New York. Additional fees may apply at some schools.

INTERNATIONAL BACCALAUREATE DIPLOMA

What is it?

A program that combines higher- and standard-level courses with core courses designed to build strong critical thinking, research, writing skills and social skills. Recognized by major universities worldwide, the international baccalaureate diploma emphasizes a global perspective in all subjects.

Who can take it?

The IB diploma program is a two-year program that begins in Grade 11. Some schools also base their junior and middle school programs on the international baccalaureate curriculum.

Good to know

IB diploma students must complete a theory of knowledge course, write a 4,000-word essay and participate in extra-curricular activities outside the school as part of a creativity, action, service course. In addition, students must take six courses – with at least three taught at a higher level – covering five to six subject areas. IB courses can be taken individually; students get one certificate per course.

Cost

Cost varies between schools, but expect to pay around $500 for the diploma program.

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