“Should I choose a liberal arts college or a national university?” might be one of the most common questions every student probably heard in its many variations, especially when it comes to studying in the U.S.
As you are starting your college search, the vast majority of schools you see will fall into two categories: liberal arts colleges (LAC) vs.national universities (NU). You probably have a general understanding of the differences between the two, but the designations can be confusing. Liberal arts colleges are not necessarily liberal or artsy, and universities do not just refer to massive, research-centric schools.
Selecting your school is still a deeply personal choice, but knowing the institution type can tell you a great deal about the school. So what is a liberal arts college? And how do they differ from universities? Which is a better fit for you?
This article will answer all these questions and clarify significant differences and emerging trends between these two types of schools to help you create a more dynamic school list, as well as inform decisions about which schools have the potential to become your second home.
1. LAC vs. NU: Curriculum
Liberal Arts College (LAC)
National University (NU)
- LACs tend to place more of an emphasis on undergraduate education and offer a more traditional, broad, and general education. They award most of their degrees in the liberal arts disciplines, including social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, and arts.
- LACs require students to take a wide variety of courses to give them exposure to a range of liberal arts studies with a broader knowledge base. In general, they do not focus on career-related classes as heavily as universities do.
- Universities generally consist of graduate schools, professional schools (in engineering, law, business, and medical, to name a few) and undergraduate programs. They may be a better choice for students interested in a technical degree with a career focus in engineering, computer science, or accounting.
- Universities focus on each student’s major with relatively fewer general core requirements. They offer classes more tailored to each student’s specific career needs, especially those who want to pursue a technical career path.
University of Pennsylvania. Source: businessinsider
To give you an example, a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in engineering has options. He can either major in engineering through a bachelor of science program or do a dual degree in engineering through the bachelor of science and bachelor of arts programs. But at a liberal arts college like Amherst College, which doesn’t offer an engineering major, students can still become engineers through majors related to the study, like sciences, mathematics, and statistics, or even through graduate school following Amherst.
In fact, universities are still better known for their required core curriculums and pre-professional programs when compared to liberal arts colleges. However, the beauty of “liberal arts” philosophy is their cross-disciplinary programs and flexible curriculums that encourage exploration and “trying out” different subjects before declaring any major. So, consider this as you assess liberal arts colleges vs. universities. “As a simple way of thinking about it, if you enjoy thinking about complex issues, developing yourself beyond academics or pursuing a graduate degree, then a liberal arts education could be a perfect fit for you. On the other hand, if you’re more focused on professional development and career prospects, then I would recommend pursuing a degree at a national university.”, said Don Le – Stanford graduates, our CEO and Co-founder at Everest Education, who is also taking his role as a Senior Lead Counselor for the College Compass program.
2. LAC vs. NU: Campus and Community
Aerial view of Stanford University Campus – Palo Alto, California, USA
The most recognizable difference in the battle between liberal arts colleges vs. universities is the vibe of their campuses and communities. Undergraduate and graduate populations mingle together at universities, whereas liberal arts colleges only have around 4,000 undergraduate students, give or take.
Liberal arts college students typically live on-campus and can find everything they need for academic and social life without venturing too far from the school grounds. The community is often seen as more tight-knit because the smaller population makes it easier to connect with classmates and faculty members. College buildings and facilities are centrally concentrated, but at universities, campus maps can be sprawling landscapes where getting from one class to another becomes part of your daily exercise routine! Take Stanford’s campus, which boasts over 8,000 acres of space with 700 buildings and 43,000 trees.
In terms of student life, liberal arts colleges have fewer interest groups, clubs, and activities. It is also worth noting that universities have a better history of promoting and achieving diversity within each incoming class. Schools like to attract the best, brightest, and most exciting applicants from different backgrounds worldwide. Still, universities generally have more diverse student populations in terms of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background. The top liberal arts colleges have less diversity, even among their international students. Applicants are somewhat self-selective, a good number coming from private schools or (upper) middle-class backgrounds. Think about what matters to you when selecting the type of campus community you want to be a part of.
3. LAC vs. NU: Inside the classroom
One of the significant differences between liberal arts colleges vs. universities is inside the classroom. When it comes to class size, liberal arts colleges pride themselves on having small, intimate spaces where learning is more personal, prioritizing the interactions between students and professors. The lack of graduate students translates to classes taught mainly by professors or lecturers instead of teaching assistants. Many liberal arts colleges have student-to-faculty ratios of 10:1 or lower. LACs tend to offer seminars rather than lectures, which leads to greater student engagement. Students have many opportunities to speak out during seminars, ask questions and engage in classroom discussions. At LACs, students also have more chances to speak and engage with professors and classmates outside of class.
Universities, on the contrary, can have lectures with 200 or more students, which is especially true for introductory or required courses. Universities are well known for their breadth and depth of research opportunities. Due to their larger student bodies, universities offer more lectures than seminars. Some classes or discussion sections are taught by graduate students serving as teaching assistants (TAs) rather than professors.
Nguyễn Mai Kiều Anh – our College Compass student – delves deeply into how she took advantage of the liberal arts curriculum in her episode with Chuyện du học podcast. Kiều Anh is a College Compass alumni who was accepted to Cornell University but then turned down the offer to study at Williams College – as she fell in love with the liberal arts philosophy there. Williams College is ranked #1 in the 2021 edition of Best Colleges for National Liberal Arts Colleges, according to the U.S.News.
Listen to Kiều Anh podcast at:
4. LAC vs. NU: Financial Aid
Elite private universities can have a hefty price tag at about $55,000 per academic year, yet so do many national liberal arts colleges. However, many of these colleges offer very generous financial aid. The financial aid offices can offer scholarships based on merit, talent, and need. Students often find they have to pay about the same, or possibly less, out of pocket to attend a private college than a public university.
After accounting for scholarships and need-based grants, the top liberal arts colleges are also known for being the “best value” based on US News & World Report findings. This includes Williams, Amherst, Pomona, Wellesley, and Swarthmore. We suggest students and families weighing school fit and academic quality against the financial package before making a firm decision on which to prefer over the other.
5. LAC vs. NU: Career opportunities
Both LACs and universities offer potential career opportunities for students. Given their larger student bodies, universities host more on-campus career fairs and recruitment events. They also boast a larger alumni network, which provides students with connections and career options. In prominent universities, professors are expert researchers in their field. This gives students access to some of the latest research and classes taught by energized and recognized researchers who can help them get ahead in their program of study. By contrast, students at LACs likely have a stronger relational bond with alumni, professors, and classmates. This means students are more likely to be referred to internships and jobs.
Two Sides to Every Coin
The bottom line is, differences between liberal arts colleges vs. universities can be seen as either pros or cons, depending on your perspective. To put it simply, take a look at the table below to keep in mind the key differences:
LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE
Focus on a well-rounded education
Focus on research
Typically small in enrollment size
Typically large in enrollment size
Emphasis on undergraduate education
Graduate, Ph.D., and professional education offered
More classroom discussion
Large lecture classes
Typically few or no teaching assistants
Use of teaching assistants
Small class sizes
Big class sizes
Less competition to attain leadership positions
National name recognition
More attention with faculty
Bigger focus on athletics
Sometimes described as "mini-high schools" because gossip spreads fast
More anonymity on campus
Overall, the boundary between liberal arts colleges vs. universities has blurred over time. Many universities incorporate aspects of the liberal arts education or atmosphere into their schools, with residential college systems and honors programs that offer smaller class sizes. The prevailing image of liberal arts colleges is also shifting, no longer a haven for just humanities and social science buffs, with expanding curriculums that include pre-professional tracks for business, engineering, journalism, and more.
If you think you would thrive at a university, take the time to look into liberal arts colleges, too. And if you are still torn between the two, our consultants at College Compass are more than willing to help.
College Compass is a college admission consulting program by Everest Education. We offer strategic solutions to help aspiring high school students (Grade 9-12) and gap year students get into the best universities and colleges in the world.
Our program is led by experienced admissions counselors/coaches who graduated from top US universities (Harvard, Stanford, MIT, UPenn…) and thoroughly understand the US education system. Our students have been accepted to many top universities globally, including Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, Duke, Williams, Amherst…
We offer a personalized pathway and strategies for you, including school selection, standardized testing, extracurricular activity guidance, essay writing, scholarship applications, etc. No matter which phase you are in, we offer a tailored package to your age, preferences and study goals to help you achieve your dreams.
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– AP and IB are well-known international high school programs that can lead to college credit.
– It’s less expensive to take an AP exam than an IB exam.
– Your child can take AP exams without being enrolled in an AP class, whereas to take an IB exam they must be enrolled in an IB course.
– AP doesn’t have a holistic program as IB does.
– AP might be the right choice if your child is over-scheduled: unlike the IB Diploma Program, which includes extracurricular commitments, AP is solely curricular.
– Colleges view AP and IB similarly.
As your child enters high school, parents will probably hear the terms like IB and AP very often. The International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement programs are two of the more known international curricula in the world, offering high school students challenging coursework and excellent preparation for college. These programs offer college-level coursework to high school students in a variety of subjects, ranging from Spanish Literature or Chinese Language and Culture to Computer Science or Environmental Science. By taking AP and IB exams in high school, students can sometimes earn college credit or place out of introductory courses once they get to college.
While both choices are academically rigorous and can lead to college credit, there are also profound differences between the two programs. So what’s the difference between AP and IB? Does one look more impressive than the other? Which will improve your odds of getting into a top school the most?
This article will answer these questions and more in this post, explaining what AP and IB programs are, exactly, how to choose between them, and the pros and cons of each.
I. Understand the International Baccalaureate (IB)
The IB Diploma Program (DP) is an assessed programme for students aged 16 to 19. It is respected by leading universities across the globe. Students must choose 3 Higher Level subjects and 3 Standard Level subjects from each of the 6 compulsory core areas: Language & Literature, Language Acquisition, Sciences, Maths, Social Sciences, and the Arts.
They must also complete additional components of the course. This includes a Theory of Knowledge module, which promotes critical thinking, as well as participating in at least 3 hours-worth of arts, sport or community service activities as part of their Creativity, Action, and Service (CAS) module. They must also complete an Extended Essay, an independently researched 4,000-word essay on a topic of their choice.
2. Why choose International Baccalaureate
The IB diploma offers a well-rounded education. This makes the course particularly suited to students who are interested in a broad range of subjects but haven’t chosen what they would like to study at degree level yet.
The essay and Theory of Knowledge components of the IB programme also provide ideal preparation for university education, giving students a solid grounding in critical thinking independent research skills.
3. International schools in Ho Chi Minh city that offer IB program
American International School
Australian International School
British International School
Canadian International School
International Schools of North America
International German School Ho Chi Minh City (IGS)
International School Ho Chi Minh City
European International School Ho Chi Minh City
Renaissance International School Saigon
Saigon South International School
Western Australian Primary and High School
II. Understand the Advanced Placement program (AP)
AP (Advanced Placement) course is a program in the United States and Canada created by the College Board, which offers college-level curricula and examinations to high school students. Similar to the SAT Subject Tests, there are AP tests that cover a range of subjects from Biology to European History to Music Theory. There are currently over 38 AP test options, though few high schools offer classes in every subject.
Students that study the AP program will usually undertake three to four courses each year, in the final year up to seven courses may be studied. Each course is developed by a committee composed of university faculty and AP teachers and covers the breadth of information, skills, and assignments found in the corresponding university course.
2. Why choose Advanced Placement?
Nearly all U.S. and Canadian colleges accept AP scores for placement or credit, as do many international universities. AP might be the right choice if your child is over-scheduled: unlike the IB Diploma Program, which includes extracurricular commitments, AP is solely curricular.
Another point worth considering is that similar to A-levels, students can take AP exams without being enrolled in an AP class. If students have proficiency in a language that’s not offered by their school or they want to self-study for a niche subject such as art history, then the AP program will give them more flexibility.
3. International schools in Ho Chi Minh city that offer AP program
American International School
APU International School
International School Ho Chi Minh City – American Academy
Saigon South International School
The American School
III. How the IB and AP Programs Differ
Both IB and AP courses offer students the opportunity to challenge themselves with higher-level classes. College admissions officers often look favorably upon applicants who participate in these programs. According to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, grades in college prep courses such as AP and IB classes were listed as being of considerable importance by nearly three-quarters of admissions officers.
Compared to the AP curriculum, the IB program is relatively small in the US. Fewer than 1,000 US schools offer the IB program while more than 20,000 high schools include AP coursework as an option. Conversely, the IB curriculum is much more prevalent internationally. According to the IB Organization, over 5,000 schools in 158 countries offer the IB curriculum. So, participating in AP courses may be more accessible for students in the US, while the IB is globally more accessible.
Content and Structure
The AP and IB curricula are designed differently, leading to some distinguishing characteristics. AP offers 38 classes that are subject-specific and designed to be taken on an individual basis. IB offers 56 classes (counting HL and SL separately) which are generally broader and require a holistic approach.
The IB program entails a more structured process, whereby students choose 6 subjects and go to classes and study their chosen subjects over 2 years, completing coursework (including research and presentations, for example) along the way. Additional required elements of the IB program include participating in extracurricular activities that focus on creativity, action and service (CAS); Theory of Knowledge (TOK); and the Extended Essay. TOK encourages students to reflect on diverse ways of knowing in their own culture, in the cultures of others and in the wider world. This course prepares students to be aware of themselves as critical thinkers. The Extended Essay is an independent research project in an IB subject of the student’s choice that they conduct under the guidance of a supervising teacher. The process is intended to promote high‐level research and writing skills, intellectual discovery and creativity.
Nguyễn Hải Nam – one of our College Compass students – is a real-life example of a Vietnamese student taking an IB program for 2 years in United World College East Africa. In his episode with Chuyện du học podcast, Nam shared many detailed and valuable information about the IB program. If you have interest, listen to Nam’s episode at:
In contrast, there is no comprehensive program for the AP curriculum. Instead, students select specific courses in an a la carte fashion and mastery is determined by one exam at the end of the course. However, anyone can register for and take an AP exam – completing the course is not required to sit for the exam. So in some cases students who are interested in AP credit but do not have access to the course at their school can self-study for the AP exam and take it on their own.
- Focuses on critical thinking
- Students select 6 subjects to study over 2 years (3 at higher-level and 3 at standard-level)
- IB exams are taken after those 2 years of study
- CAS, TOK and Extended Essay are unique components
- Rote memorization culminating in one standardized exam at the end of the one-year course
- College Board offers 38 AP courses and exams across various subject areas
- Students can take as many subjects as they want either related or unrelated to each other
In short, IB and AP have different study goals. IB has more emphasis on writing and developing critical-thinking skills – and not just on the exams themselves. In contrast, the AP is a program focused on teaching students specific content and testing their knowledge via exams.
Requirements for completion
In the program, students receive a final exam grade, ranging from 1 to 7 (the highest score), for each DP course attempted. To receive the diploma, students have to accumulate at least 24 points and meet certain minimum grade thresholds in their higher and standard level subjects, as well as passing the additional components.
To finish, students have to sit AP examinations for taken courses. AP tests are scored on a scale of 1–5. While every college is different, most schools won't accept AP scores for credit unless you score at least a 4.
Another difference is that IB exams are more expensive for US students than AP exams. Students pay $94 to take an AP exam, according to the College Board, whereas, students pay a $119 per subject exam fee for the IB program.
However, many schools have financial aid and fee-waiver programs for these exams, so your actual cost could be lower. Also, remember that these fees, albeit steep, are much less than the cost of taking the equivalent course in college.
IV. What experts say at Everest Education
When it comes to applying to college, just like with the SAT/ACT, there’s no curriculum that colleges prefer. Admissions officers know that students are learning in a variety of curricula across the globe, and they evaluate applicants with that context in mind. When choosing between AP and IB curriculum, students should take the one that is the better fit for them and their goals. Both will prepare students for the rigors of higher education.
At Everest Education, we have years of experience working with students from international schools who are taking a wide variety of curricula, from AP and IB to A-levels and beyond. “Regarding holistic development, the IB is the most comprehensive, because it’s an entire curriculum. It does not just focus on individual subjects but offers a framework for different subject groups and extra components. IB might be a more realistic preparation for liberal arts college and ensures a well-rounded education. However, depending on what you do outside of academics, AP can be equally indicative of your academic ability. If you choose AP programs, you can of course also do extra-curricular activities to enrich your qualifications.
It is important to keep in mind that although schools are eligible to offer the AP or IB program, not all of the subjects are available at every school. There will be some subjects available in certain schools, so make sure that your desired subjects are available in the program you choose.”, according to Ms. Shannon Rybacki, Chief Operation Officer at Everest Education.
At Everest Education, we have many years of experience providing test prep and tutoring programs for homeschooled students and students from top international schools in Ho Chi Minh city, including BIS, ISHCMC, SSIS, AIS,… Our tutors are experts in math, writing, science, and English – all of the subjects your child needs to master if they’re planning to take the SAT, IELTS, AP, or IB exams. Our test prep courses create customized study plans to get each student the maximum score improvements possible. When facing high-stakes academic exams like these, with Everest Education your child will be equipped with the tools to succeed.
The AP program is an internationally recognized pre-university curriculum created by College Board that offers year 12 and 13 students (or year 11 and 12 in some schools) an opportunity to gain a diploma based on a comprehensive and integrated curriculum that meets international standards.
Students who successfully complete the AP program and achieve a high score for the AP exam demonstrate to college admission officers that they have sought out an educational experience that will prepare them for success in college and beyond. They also receive tremendous advantages like:
– Stand out across admissions
– Earn college credits
– Skip introductory classes
– Build college skills
There are around 38 courses that fall under 7 main categories offered by AP Program. With the completion of the AP courses, students will be considered qualified or well-prepared for some subjects in college.
– AP Capstone
– History and Social Science
– Math and Computer Science
– World Language and Culture
AP Tests occur at the beginning of May every year and usually last for 2 weeks. In July, students, colleges and high schools will likely receive the result.
The test is intended to assess students’ readiness for college and reflect on students’ performance in high school.
– High school students want to pursue a more intensive and more serious academic path through their favorite subjects.
– Students planning to study at a higher education institution for Undergraduate and Graduate courses (optional)
– Scholarship and certification candidate
How is the test conducted?
Depending on the subjects that a student is taking, the format for each subject will be different. Normally, an exam will last about 3.30 hours and has 2 sections where students answer first Multiple-Choice questions and second Free-Response questions. These 2 sections are equally responsible for 50% of the final exam score.
Here are some of the most popular subjects that most students will take exams from:
Part A— 2 problems | 30 minutes (graphing calculator required)
Part B— 4 problems | 60 minutes (calculator not permitted)
AP English Language and Composition
Section I:Multiple Choice | 52 to 55 questions | 1 hour | 45% of Exam Score
Excerpts from non-fiction texts are accompanied by several multiple-choice questions.
Section II: Free-response | 2 hours and 15 minutes (includes a 15-minute reading period) | 3 Free-Response Questions | 55% of Exam Score
How is AP Test scored?
Your AP Exam score is a weighted combination of your scores on the multiple-choice section and the free-response section. AP Exam scores are reported on a 5-point scale that indicates how qualified the student is to receive college credit and placement for their performance:
5 = extremely well qualified
4 = well qualified
3 = qualified
2 = possibly qualified
1 = no recommendation
AP Exam scores of 5 are equivalent to grades of A+ and A in the corresponding college course. AP Exam scores of 4 are equivalent to grades of A-, B+, and B in college. AP Exam scores of 3 are equivalent to grades of B-, C+, and C in college.