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JAN 03, 2018 • 21 min read
The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IBDP) prides itself on its academic rigour, global outlook, and development of intellectual inquiry; and many schools offer it as a supplement to or replacement for existing final examinations or leaving certificates.
The IBDP’s growing popularity may be explained by its broad focus and international recognition; the latter has universities across the globe introducing separate IB entry requirements.
But despite the increasing clarity of such requirements, a lot of confusion continues to surround the IB program as a whole. What exactly is it? Why are there so many acronyms? And what do the results mean?
Fear not - everything will be crystal clear once you’ve finished reading this blog. As an IBDP graduate myself, I’m going to explain everything to you in intricate detail.
The International Baccalaureate distinguishes itself from other qualifications with its curriculum model, which at its core, aims to broaden students’ educational experience. In other words, it provides opportunities for them to broaden both their knowledge and skills.
That’s why IB students are required to complete three distinct components (in addition to more “standard” academic subjects): the Extended Essay (EE), Theory of Knowledge (ToK), and Creativity, Service, and Action (CAS) hours.
The EE is an essay of up to 4,000 words on a topic of your choice, as long as it falls under the category of one of the IB subjects offered. This isn’t much of a limitation though, given how many there are!
While you don’t have to choose a topic within a subject that you study, it’s a good idea to do so - especially if your area of investigation is within a subject taken at Higher Level (I’ll explain what this means later).
The format of the essay varies greatly with subject area, so take this into consideration before settling on a topic. Essays within Experimental Sciences (Group 4) are comparable to extended practical reports, whereas those within Language and Literature (Group 1) are not dissimilar to critical readings found on academic databases. Humanities (Group 3) essays in subjects such as Psychology or Economics are often highly structured, whereas History essays may be less so. That said, the general organisation of the essay should not be the greatest factor in choosing a topic, but rather your personal interest.
You’ll be assigned a supervisor (a teacher at your school) specific to the topic area, with whom you will have a handful of meetings throughout the process of both planning and writing the essay. The purpose of the supervisor is not to spoon feed you, but rather to guide you by providing feedback on ideas presented. The essay itself is largely self-driven, as most other IB assessments.
ToK is often erroneously framed by past students as “kind of like philosophy”, which is not totally wrong, given how abstract this subject is. It is perhaps best described as being focused on “critical thinking with a sprinkling of epistemology”; that is, ”how do we know what we claim to know”?
In ToK, you consider how knowledge is generated (Ways of Knowing) and evaluated in different disciplines (Areas of Knowledge); a discussion that culminates in an essay (1200-1600 words), and an oral presentation (10-15 minutes).
CAS is perhaps the only component of the IB that is not formally assessed, and aims to involve students in a range of activities alongside their academic studies.
You need to complete a minimum of 50 hours of activities under each category (to total 150 hours) over the course of the two-year program. These are to be documented and given written reflection, with the intent of furthering personal learning.
You also have to undertake a “CAS project”, which must cover at least two of the three CAS components (e.g. both Creativity and Action, or Action and Service), and is recommended to be run over a minimum of one month, from planning to completion. It must be organised by you, with minimal help from teachers, or similar authority figures.
IB subjects are each categorised into one of six groups. These are listed below, although do note that some subjects are offered more readily than others, to the extent that some are of debated existence!
Develops an appreciation of language and literature in an academic context, furthers skills in literary criticism, exposes students to cultural differences in perspective, and advances both oral and written expression.
Develops students’ skills in a chosen language, such that it can be used across multiple contexts. Promotes the understanding of the culture from which said language stems, through explicit study of the country(ies) in which it is spoken, and study of the language itself.
Develops a critical appreciation of human experience and behaviour, the various environments we inhabit, and the nature of social and cultural institutions. Encourages critical analysis of pertinent theories, concepts, and arguments.
Develops understanding of the scientific method through exploration of concepts, theories, and techniques that underpin each subject area.
Note that the IB also mandates a project (often appropriately referred to as the ‘Group 4 Project’) to be undertaken in groups, often at the end of year 1. Based on a broad theme that varies year to year, it encourages students to consider the environmental, social, and ethical implications of science. Its interdisciplinary nature means that groups are formed of students each studying different Group 4 subjects.
Develops logical and critical thinking within the field of mathematics, while also developing mathematical knowledge of concepts and principles.
Develops understanding of the dynamic nature of the arts, and allows students to explore its diversity across time and place. Develops skills of expression, and reflection on own art-making practice.
As part of the IBDP’s holistic nature, you’ll likely find striking links between each of your subjects - not to mention how ToK manages to rear its head in even the most surprising academic contexts!
The interconnectedness of IB subjects is intended to reflect their real-world integration - that is, how different disciplines collaborate to answer global questions.
As mentioned, IB students are required to study six subjects, each falling beneath a different discipline. Beyond choosing the subjects themselves, students must also decide (often towards the end of year 1 of the program) which subjects they wish to take at Standard Level (SL), and which to take at Higher Level (HL).
Students are required to take at least three subjects at HL. It is important to note that there is no benefit - as far as university admissions are concerned - to taking more than three subjects at HL; if anything, this would simply be known as making things harder for yourself.
The technical difference between SL and HL is an additional 90 hours of instruction (with SL at 150, and HL at 240), although these instructional times are ‘minimums.’ This means that this time difference tends to vary between subjects, which shows in disparities in the quantity and perceived difficulty of additional HL content.
While it makes sense to choose HLs based on your best subjects, the difference between SL and HL in said subjects should also be considered, as not all HLs were created equally.
Generally speaking, Mathematics (Group 5) and Experimental Sciences (Group 4) HLs tend to be significantly more difficult than their SL counterparts - Mathematics HL so much so that your “stream” needs to be chosen at the beginning of year 1. They arguably require much more than the recommended 240 hours of instructional time more fitting for the HLs of other disciplines - which is not to say that students haven’t succeeded in them, rather that they seem to require more effort comparative to other HLs.
Conversely, Language and Literature (Group 1), Humanities (Group 3), and The Arts (Group 6) tend to have smaller gaps between SL and HL, to the extent that taking them at SL may be actively discouraged by schools. This is particularly the case for Language and Literature, for which most schools “default” to HL.
The glaring omission to the above generalisations is Language Acquisition (Group 2). A disproportionate number of students seem to gravitate towards SL for this, which is certainly justified - the prospect of assessed speaking, writing, and reading in a language you’ve only been learning for somewhere between two and six years may be daunting. That said, HL is very doable for those comfortable in their command of the language (or ability to develop this command), and provides the opportunity to further a skill that is not only incredibly practical, but will remain with you for life.
The beauty of the IB is that you have to pick one subject from each of the six groups (or, if you don’t perceive yourself as being artistically inclined, two from Groups 1, 2, 3, or 4), which makes the selection process much simpler. You don’t have to consider whether taking four sciences might be overkill, or whether you even want to study a second language - the choices of “broad disciplines” have been made for you, in that you have to do them all.
Picking subjects from each group is fairly simple, and for some it could hardly be called a choice - for example, Language and Literature (Group 1) would naturally be your first language, and Language Acquisition (Group 2), for non ab initio students, would be the language you’d been learning up until then.
For the others, consider the following:
If you don’t have a course in mind - which is fine, as you shouldn’t be expected to chart the course of your life in your teens - my advice is to choose subjects that are required for many courses. For example, chemistry is a prerequisite for most science courses, should you end up going down that path.
Mathematics (Group 5) is a bit of an anomaly in that you don’t “choose” a subject as such, but your level. For this, consider the following:
Note that Mathematics SL is a prerequisite for many courses. If you’re considering a course like this and are struggling considerably in SL, it’s likely that you wouldn’t have a great time in said course anyway. There is no issue with doing Mathematical Studies, particularly if SL is not a prerequisite - there’s no need to make the IB any harder for yourself than it should be.
Note also that you can always “drop down” (e.g. from HL to SL, from SL to Studies), but it’s a bit harder to “drop up”. If you feel that your mathematical abilities sit somewhere between two levels, choose the more difficult one, and see how you fare. Again, you can always drop down if need be.
The highest score that can be attained in the IB is the seemingly arbitrary 45. This is the summation of the six subjects, each marked out of 7, as well as the grades obtained for the EE and ToK, which contribute a maximum of 3 points. To achieve these 3 points, candidates must score at least an A and a B. The point distribution is illustrated in detail in the matrix below:
As mentioned earlier, students must also satisfy the CAS hours required by the program, of which there are a minimum of 50 in each category. While their completion does not contribute to the final IB score, they are needed for the successful completion of the diploma.
A minimum overall score of 24 is required to pass the diploma, with a minimum of 12 points from HL subjects, and 9 points from SL subjects.
The apparent ‘randomness’ of the IB grading system seems decidedly more rational when considering how these scores - out of 7, or a letter grade - are calculated.
Each subject has its own “grade boundaries”, which shift slightly with session (May/November) and year. Grades are given out of 100 for each of the 6 subjects, out of 30 for ToK, and out of 36 for the EE. These are then converted to a mark out of 7 for each subject, or a letter grade.
For most subjects, a reasonable guideline to follow is that a grade of 85+ translates to a 7. Depending on the subject, this may be higher (although rarely), or lower. They are especially lower in the case of Higher Level Experimental Sciences (Group 4) or Humanities (Group 3), given the perceived difficulty of the former, and essay-based nature of the latter. This is as grade boundaries are “scaled” with each examination session, meaning that if the average grade is lower, then grade boundaries will also be lowered.
While most universities will give clear IB entry requirements for individual courses, IB scores may also be converted into a national standard. Conversions vary by country (and sometimes by state) and year, but a quick Google search should produce a detailed table that dispels any confusion.
These conversions are generally highly logical; for example, in Australia, a perfect IB score of 45 is translated to a perfect Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) of 99.95. A 44 translates to a 99.85, a 43 to a 99.70, and so forth.
From a pure grades standpoint, neglecting interviews or other work to be submitted, comparing the scores you received to the scores required for the course should indicate whether you were successful in securing a place.
The importance of subject selection for your desired course cannot be emphasised enough, as most courses will have IB subject prerequisites (including whether these subjects are to be taken at Standard or Higher Level). These are often accompanied by required grades, meaning that even if you got a 44 (an objectively great score), getting a 6 in Higher Level Chemistry when a 7 is required translates to not making the cut.
So, the key takeaway here is to make sure you do the appropriate research on university courses before you choose your IB subjects.
If you’ve watched any number of TedTalks on ‘effective study habits’ or similarly study-focused YouTube Channels (‘How I Got A 40+!’), you will be familiar with the benefits of past papers.
As any former IB student will tell you, past papers are integral to familiarising yourself with the examination format, and providing a somewhat accurate simulation of the actual exam (provided you complete them under timed conditions, and some semblance of pressure).
Given the aforementioned popularity of the IBDP program, these are fairly accessible online. A quick Google search can procure links to Google Drives, “masterposts” in forums such as Reddit, or even Dropbox accounts that have uploaded stashes of past examinations for the use of current candidates. You should also be given papers by your school - if not readily, then by request.
If searching for a particular examination paper, it may be helpful to note the examination paper code in the upper right hand corner of the cover page. An example of this is:
N07/2/ABFRE/SP1/FRE/TZ0/XX/Q wherein ‘N07’ indicates ‘November 2007’, and ‘ABFRE’ indicates ‘Ab Initio French.’
From my experience, I recommend that you begin completing these in the second year of the diploma, but when exactly tends to vary by subject.
Language and Literature (Group 1) gets a headstart, with students being exposed to the poetry and prose extracts presented for Paper 1 commentaries early in first year. Compare this with papers for Experimental Sciences (Group 4) or Mathematics (Group 5), which can only really be effectively completed later in second year, given that most students won’t have covered the necessary content until then.
It should also be noted that exams for Groups 4 and 5 integrate topics that students had previously treated separately, and often introduce unseen data to which students are expected to apply practical knowledge or skills.
Completing past IB papers is a great way to familiarise yourself with the exam style, structure, and work on your efficiency under timed conditions.
But that’s not the only way they can help! You can also use past papers to minimise the stress associated with final exams. Questions in IB exams are often drawn from “question banks”, particularly essay questions such as those used in Humanities (Group 3) subjects. Patterns of content examined in the lead-up to your own examination may be effective predictors of which content will appear - that said, completely focusing all your attention on these areas to the detriment of others is highly inadvisable (although this should be fairly obvious).
For many, the IBDP may appear somewhat intimidating. The overwhelming number of acronyms that you need to familiarise yourself with is partly to blame (although by the end of year 2, it really is the least of your worries!), or perhaps it’s the ‘additional’ requirements that force students to extend themselves beyond the purely academic subjects they’d grown comfortable with.
For this reason, many schools seem to exclusively promote the program to high achievers; those who have excelled academically throughout their entire schooling careers. It has gained a reputation as being too hard, too demanding, andonly for smart students - and this certainly isn’t helped by how vocal IB students are about how stressful they find it.
In my experience, the only real requirement for the IB program is time management, something that most 16 to 19 year olds aren’t great at. That, and a love for learning. If you have the latter, and are at least willing to commit to developing the former, the IBDP is incredibly rewarding.