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What Is the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program?

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program is the gold standard of high school curriculum, according to Barmak Nassirian, a former executive at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.


The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program is a comprehensive and rigorous two-year curriculum for high school students beginning in the Junior year or second-to-last year of secondary school. Among the objectives of the IB is the facilitation of geographic and cultural mobility & the promotion of international understanding; in fact, the IB Diploma Program was originally established to provide a unified curriculum for internationally mobile families. The curriculum emphasizes study across disciplines and aims to develop global citizens who are life-long learners.

Founded 50 years ago, the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) is headquartered in Geneva, with Global Centers in Bethesda, Den Haag, and Singapore and an Assessment Center in Cardiff. Only schools that are officially accredited by the International Baccalaureate Organization are authorized to offer the curriculum and present candidates for examinations leading to a diploma. There are currently 5400 IB World Schools in 159 countries, with 1207 in the United States. Those in the US are primarily public schools (1100), although the IB is offered in private schools as well.

In addition to the Diploma Program for high school students, the IBO also offers the Primary Years Program (PYP), for students ranging in age from 3 to 11, and the Middle Years Program (MYP) for children aged 11 to 16. The PYP and MYP programs may be taught in any language, while the Diploma Program must be taught in one of the IB working languages - English, French or Spanish. Schools may not have accreditation in all three programs; the Diploma Program is the one most often offered, and the one on which we will focus here.


The Diploma Program requires (i) comprehensive integrated study in six subject areas, (ii) an extended essay (4,000-word thesis of original research), (iii) the Theory of Knowledge course, and (iv) CAS (Creativity, Activity, and Service to the community). The last three elements link the academic studies to what the IB characterizes as a broader learning experience.

The six subject areas of study are (i) studies in language and literature of the student’s first or best language, (ii) study of a second language, (iii) study of individuals and societies, including economics, history, and psychology, (iv) the sciences; biology, chemistry, or physics, (v) mathematics, and (vi) the arts and electives, music, theatre, visual art.

The extended essay requires students to engage in independent research through an in-depth study of a question relating to an area of particular interest. Supported by a faculty mentor, students start the process early in the second-to-last year of secondary school and submit the final paper to the IBO in January of the senior year.

Theory of knowledge is a course designed to encourage each student to reflect on the process by which we acquire knowledge and the biases associated with the sources of knowledge. Students critically examine different ways of knowing, such as perception, emotion, language & reason & different kinds of knowledge, such as that acquired through the natural sciences, social sciences, history, arts, ethics, and mathematics.

The creativity, action & service (CAS) component emphasizes the importance of the world beyond the classroom. Students are asked to generate their own unique portfolios in the areas of creativity, activity & service & they will be asked to demonstrate that they have achieved certain specific learning outcomes, including, for example, that they have identified their own strengths, as well as areas with opportunities for growth.

Student Profile

As the IB Diploma Program is quite rigorous, students who are successful often exhibit certain character traits. They have a strong love of learning, are self-motivated & have an interest in challenging themselves intellectually and academically. They typically possess strong critical thinking skills, can synthesize information are open to & tolerant of new ideas & different beliefs. IB students are adept at, or willing to learn how to acquire, good time management skills. They are articulate and have strong writing skills. Their interests tend to be broad, they are active in the school and local communities & their inclination is to be collaborative.

Assessments & Grading

Academic performance for all subjects is evaluated using both internal assessments specific to the high school where the student is matriculating and external assessments mandated by the IBO. The external assessments include final exams given worldwide in May (usually in Northern Hemisphere schools) and November (usually for Southern Hemisphere schools). Exams may include multiple-choice questions and essays & require a demonstration of a range of skills. Each student will receive a grade for each subject, on a scale from 1 to 7, integrating internal and external assessments and awarded by the IB Curriculum and Assessment department in Cardiff. These grades, in conjunction with the CAS, Extended Essay, and Theory of Knowledge requirements, will determine whether the IB Diploma is awarded.

College & University

The IB Diploma is very highly regarded as an admissions credential to colleges and universities in the United States and across the world because of the program’s academic rigor, focus on critical thinking, and the research and writing skills it fosters. Many colleges view IB courses as Honors courses, and while policies regarding the award of college credits for IB results vary widely, many colleges and universities award credit for high IB grades.

In conclusion, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program prepares students for the challenges they will face in college and beyond. For more information, please visit the IBO website,

Annemiek Young is an Independent Education Consultant based in Philadelphia. Once the Director of Lower School Admissions at The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and formerly Director of Admission and Enrollment Management at Friends Select School in Philadelphia, Annemiek has more than a decade of experience in guiding families through the complexities of understanding a school’s curriculum, community, and program. She has worked with families from all around the world, offering them a framework with which to assess school options as they navigate an unfamiliar education system and determine which setting would be optimal for their child. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University School of Law, Annemiek completed her final year of law school at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and most recently has been accepted as an IECA associate member.

Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by helping them make informed decisions about the best-fit schools for their children; with our guidance, they secure placement in preschools, private day schools, public/state schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, including schools with particular programs, such as special needs support.


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