IB vs ATAR: What’s the difference?

What is this elusive IB thing, you ask? How does it compare with the ATAR? And what is the best option for me? Well, you're in the right place because we answer all those burning questions right here!

2 months ago   •   5 min read

By KIS Academics
Photo by Sincerely Media / Unsplash

Understanding how the ATAR works can be confusing enough for students going into senior high school years, so what’s this whole other program called IB that people are talking about?

What is the ATAR?

At the completion of their year 12 studies, most Australian high school students will receive an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, or ATAR. Rather than a score out of 100 as is commonly believed to be the case, an ATAR is a student’s rank compared to all other students completing high school in that year. It is the primary entry criterion for undergraduate admission to most Australian universities.

While all year 12 students across Australia will receive an ATAR (unless they opt for unscored study or another different pathway), the credentials they receive will vary according to which state or territory they are in. Generally speaking, the specific certificates are:

So, technically, rather than being ranked against every student in the country, a student is really being ranked only against those in their state or territory who are completing the same certificate - although none of this matters to universities, for whom an ATAR from Tasmania or an ATAR from WA mean exactly the same thing.

What is the IB?

IB stands for International Baccalaureate, an international secondary school credential that was founded in Geneva, Switzerland in 1968 for students. Its original purpose was to cater for students who moved across different countries throughout their senior high school years, thus enabling them to complete a qualification that would be recognised internationally. It is now taught in schools across 140 countries including Australia, particularly in private schools. Some Australian schools provide students with the choice between IB and the standard ATAR credentials in their state or territory (e.g., VCE, SACE), while other schools offer solely IB. The IB is a two-year program, thus it covers years 11 and 12 of Australian high school.

How does the IB differ from standard ATAR credentials?

While the actual content of most IB subjects is similar to the equivalent subject taught in standard credentials (e.g., VCE Biology and IB Biology have a lot of overlap in terms of the content they cover), the IB program has a very specific structure and some extra requirements. For starters, in certificates such as the VCE and HSC, year 11 subjects lay the foundations for year 12 study, but results from year 11 assessments don’t count towards a student’s final subject score that is then incorporated into their ATAR.

Conversely, in the IB, both year 11 and 12 content counts towards the final grade. Secondly, the only compulsory subject in standard credentials is English (or a related subject such as Literature), with students free to choose the up to five other subjects that will contribute towards their ATAR. Here again, the IB differs in that students must study one subject from each of six subject areas:

  1. English
  2. Foreign languages
  3. Mathematics
  4. The arts: includes music, theatre, visual arts, or the option of a second foreign language
  5. Sciences: such as chemistry, biology, and physics
  6. Humanities: including economics, geography, history, and psychology

Of these six subjects, while three are taken at “standard level” (a level considered to be roughly equivalent to that taught in senior secondary years of standard credentials), three must be taken at “higher level”, where students need to show greater knowledge, understanding and skill. In addition to passing their exams, IB students must fulfil three other core requirements:

  1. Extended essay (EE) of up to 4,000 words on a topic of their choice
  2. Theory of knowledge (TOK), consisting of a 1,600 word essay and oral presentation on a chosen topic
  3. Creativity, activity, service (CAS), a program similar to the Duke of Edinburgh scheme

Do IB students receive an ATAR?

All IB students around the world sit their final exams on the same day and receive a final score out of 45. Each subject is scored out of seven (to a total maximum score of 42), and the final three points come from combined EE and TOK marks. Unlike the ATAR, which is a rank, IB scores reflect a student’s raw exam (and/or EE/TOK) results. Thus, theoretically, all students around the world could receive scores of 45, or scores of 0, or anywhere in between.

For university admission in Australia, however, IB scores are converted into ATARs, despite IB students not having directly competed against their non-IB peers. Over the years, this conversion has caused some controversy, with some arguing that the conversions are overly generous (e.g., in 2020, all IB scores of 45 equated to a perfect ATAR of 99.95, while all IB scores above 33 translated to ATARs above 90).

From 2022 onwards, the conversion will be changed to try to even the playing field by creating sub-divisions within each IB score (i.e., rather than all students scoring 42 in the IB receiving the same ATAR, they will be divided into three groups receiving three different ATARs).

What’s the best option for me?

For students whose school offers both IB and standard ATAR credentials, the decision can be difficult. Many students feel pressured to study IB due to the generous conversions, which can work out advantageously for many, however, there are also many students who would probably score higher in standard credentials due to their individual strengths.

IB is a good option for anyone considering studying university overseas due to its international recognition. It also suits “all-rounder” types of students who have varied interests and strengths across multiple academic domains, while students who enjoy and excel at many subjects of a particular type (e.g., sciences), might be better suited towards standard credentials.

Students who favour arts and humanities subjects, many of which are scaled down in certificates such as HSC and VCE, might benefit from the IB, while students who excel in mathematics subjects may benefit from the extremely favourable scaling of subjects such as Specialist Mathematics in the VCE.

At the end of the day, each student has individual strengths, passions, and plans for life beyond high school (which it’s easy to forget exists when caught up in the whirlwind of years 11 and 12)! If you’re in year 9 or 10 and want some assistance in deciding whether to pursue IB or standard curricula, consider booking in a free 30-minute study skills consultation [link to find a tutor page] to discuss the pros and cons of each in your individual situation.


Written by KIS Academics tutor Dee Tomic. Dee currently offers tutoring for VCE Maths Methods and Biology. Dee is completing her PhD in epidemiology with Monash University. If you have any questions for her or would like to request Dee as a tutor, feel free to reach out through her profile here [link to Dee profile].

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