The International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 3, College Apps

ibThat high school senior of ours I mentioned in the last post, in addition to slaying the dragon of the full IB, is simultaneously in the throes of completing college applications. One or the other, IB or college apps, is a lot. The two at once is a recipe for nutso.  I know he’ll make it – we’ll all make it – and I can say so in good faith because with this, our third child, it’s my third time visiting the Land o’ College Applications.  Still, you’d think by now I’d have this college app thing down, well, to an app.

(I’ve checked. No such thing exists.)

If you’ve not yet done college applications with your child, you’ll want to listen carefully as I describe in a sentence or two what I could easily spend several posts discussing. It is here where essentially three qualifications bear sway: the accumulated grade point average (GPA), college entrance exam scores (SAT and ACT), and supplementary strengths. These are a strong personal essay, glimmering letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities including awards of all sorts, i.e., your nomination for a Nobel or Pulitzer, or receiving either a Fields or Olympic Medal. Or getting both (or all four – hey, go for it!) is better. Anything helps.

college mortarboard

Combined, such quantifiers and qualifiers make up the filter for sorting students into schools where they will, 1) merit entrance, 2) be a positive contributor to that community, and 3) thrive. In theory at least, and more than any other factors, those GPA and college entrance exam numbers are supposed to effectively sort applicants with certain strengths (including academic capacity) into the appropriate universities.

Side note: you know as well as I do that standardized tests cannot describe the galaxy-wide breadth of differences in intelligence. And you know from reading this interview that while I value education and lifelong learning, and am a vocal advocate for education as a means of contributing to the welfare of humankind, I do not revere academic achievement for its own sake, meaning in isolation from moral training (including social responsibility) and emotional/spiritual well-being.  And I am wise to know that quantitative measurements not only cannot measure a human being’s worth and potential contribution, but might even distract us, if they become a fixation, from some of the greatest concerns.

Can make us unwell. Sick. Addicted. Even, in the extreme, morally and ethically corrupt. Ignorance and sloth breed a certain corruption. Myopic focus on external measures breeds another.

We’ll come back to that world of thought in future posts. Can hardly wait.



But for now, back to the IB.

Considering the rigor and depth of a program of its sort, you’d expect it would be of practical advantage for the young learner when considering colleges. But this is not necessarily the case.  Why? There are several reasons, and I’ll begin one here:

Grading procedures specifically during the junior year

When one applies for US universities, one normally begins the process of applying now, in the autumn of the first semester of one’s senior (or final) year of high school.  College and universities in the US will in turn respond to these apps by early winter.  The grades that “count” are from the junior year, since the first semester senior year grades come in late, sometimes too late to count for many US college applications.  While those senior grades are relatively important for US-bound students, they are clearly not as important as those junior grades.


Furthermore, many of our family’s high school seniors’ friends do something called Early Decision, which means they apply this month (November) to a single university, (not to four or six or more, as many high school students do) with the understanding that this is the only university they are hoping to attend. Their applications rests solely on a GPA gathered from their junior year. All eggs are in that precarious academic basket, so to speak. The kids know it. The college admissions gatekeepers know it.

The students who’ve done Early Decision find out by December if they are accepted. If they are not, they then begin the scramble for applying to a number of other schools, if perhaps a little bit late. Lots of stress during those holidays, I can tell you. And all that, by the way, while swinging away at the IB dragon.

dragon slayer

If applicants’ grades from their sophomore and junior (and not senior) years are used to prove their academic standing, what happens if a school espouses an IB system, which, as I’m learning can happen, is keenly attuned to European and UK schools? For European and UK universities, the senior – not junior – year grades are most relevant. And in order to motivate the students to up their scholastic game the final, or senior, year, teachers tend to grade harder (lower) in the junior year.

A US-bound student, then, could potentially end up with a lower overall GPA – could end up disadvantaged – with respect to his or her junior year grades, the ones US universities will look at most closely.  Consequently, he or she is submitting grades which might be among his or her lowest.

I have been part of an IB school community where US-bound college applicants, recognizing this tendency to intentionally grade harder in the junior year, have petitioned faculty and administration for to review if not revise that grading approach in that too-telling year. That shift, from what I’ve gathered, has not yet occurred.


Next IB-related posts:

Grades: Inflated? Intentionally Tempered?

To Weight or Not to Weight?

College Prep, But No College Credit?

Extra Curricular. . . Whuh?

Multiple Choice vs. Essay, Dialogue and Debate

Multicultural, Multidisciplinary, Multi-philosophical

A Mother’s Perspective: 5 Reasons Why I Like / Dislike the IB

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