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The admissions officer and the IB

We invited university admission officers to share their perspective on the International Baccalaureate. Director of Admissions at McGill University, Kim Bartlett, sits down for a Q&A with McGill’s IB expert Karen J’bari .


By Kim Bartlett

In 1994, soon after I took a job as associate director in the admissions office at McGill University, I met Karen J’bari who had been assigned to work with me. I learned that for several years she had been secretary to the registrar. My concerns about how she might meet this change went away when Karen greeted me warmly. We were soon sharing accounts of our families, travels and work experiences. Though naturally outgoing, Karen confessed to me a mortal fear of public speaking. Luckily that didn’t prevent her from applying for a new admissions/recruitment officer position in my unit … and she got the job! Twenty-five years later, she is a senior admissions officer at McGill, is a sought-after conference panellist and a frequent presenter at schools around the world.

Karen is one of an impressive group of admission professionals at McGill University, where the diverse applicant pool requires that each staff member know how to evaluate several curriculum types (applicants from CEGEP, Abitur, French Bacc., A-Levels, International Baccalaureate (IB), home-schooled, U.S. high schools, to name a few). We do have designated specialists, mainly senior admissions officers, to oversee the decision making on the most frequently seen curricular types. Karen is the McGill IB specialist. We could call her the, “Queen Bee of the IB.”

I sat down with Karen to find out how she earned this title and what qualities she sees in IB students.

When you started in admissions, what first drew you to the IB and what has sustained your interest?

Karen: From the start I appreciated the well-roundedness of the IB curriculum, I liked that the program had high expectations for young people; I think that encourages students to excel. IB students carry a demanding course load and work hard; they must master the math and sciences, as well as language/social sciences subjects and complete community service. You can’t take short cuts in the IB. I always loved that it was a credential of people on the move or with a global perspective and/or experience.

Beyond the pedagogical attributes, there are practical factors that appeal to me. As a busy admissions officer at a selective Canadian university, I am required to interpret, evaluate and render decisions on thousands of academic documents every year. One of the practical features of the IB that I appreciate is that wherever they originate, the IB is an easily recognisable common program structure with predicted and final grades. The IB’s external exam process has kept grade inflation to a minimum and cases of fraud and cheating are rarely seen. Final grades are accessible online and this has permitted us to begin assigning transfer credits electronically starting in 2021. What a time saver!

When IB courses are modified or new courses created, the IB office is good about warning universities ahead of time and responds to questions promptly. Then, our follow up begins in that we have the appropriate math or science department evaluate the new or modified curriculum. This is a process that can take some time as evidenced by the recent new math curriculum. While there are moments of frustration, it is so important that all stakeholders (IB, secondary schools, higher education) communicate.

Would you convince a secondary school student to enroll in the IB diploma? What advantages would you highlight?

Karen: That’s a trick question! It would be unethical for me to make a pitch for one educational system over others. We don’t do that, nor do we want to. We welcome outstanding students from a variety of systems and would not favour any one!

However, if the student were already in the IB programme and questioning whether all the hard work was going to pay off somehow, I would respond with these advantages:

  • The IB teaches hard work and time management, two key university survival skills;
  • The IB develops open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity which enhances your ability to learn, problem-solve and make vital social connections in the competitive McGill undergrad context;
  • At McGill, IB diploma students with strong final grades are eligible for up to one full year of advanced standing (a saving of time and money)!

How closely do you work with school counsellors in secondary schools that offer IB programmes? 

Karen: I’ve been visiting secondary schools (many of them IB schools) in Europe, the U.S. and Canada for over 15 years. Naturally, I treasure the direct contact with prospective students, but equally valuable to me are the contacts I have made with school counsellors around the world. I have had the opportunity to observe some of the best and have been impressed by their knowledge of universities, their sensitivity to “fit” and their aptitude in communicating with students. They advocate without begging.

In my experience, counsellors, including at IB schools, are so strong and versatile at reaching out and building collegiality. Certainly, this ability is also rooted in the values of the IB program! This collegiality is so important in being able to perform my work to a high standard as the questions go both ways. For instance, if I have a question about a student, it’s wonderful that I can send off a quick, informal email to my colleagues on the other side of the desk, somewhere else in the world, or locally.

One individual who now works with the International Baccalaureate, Bob Poole, was previously one of these coordinators that left a strong impression, in my early days of working with the IB. When I started reviewing applications from IB students, he was working at an IB school in Vancouver, B.C. Bob’s belief in the IB was extremely infectious and I gained much from his vast knowledge.

Karen J’bari is a Senior Admissions Officer at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada.

Kim Bartlett is Director of Admissions (undergraduate and graduate) at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada. She is a current member of the College and University Recognition Committee (CURC).

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