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MAR 18, 2020 • 14 min read
So you’re trying to work out whether you should take the International Baccalaureate or not.
It’s a tough one. There are so many factors at play, and making the wrong decision could have serious implications down the track, like limiting your options for what and where you study later.
Seriously, the last thing you need as you approach the stressful end of high school is a case of "curriculum regret".
So what do you do when struggling with a decision of this magnitude? You make a list of pros and cons!
The best part?
You don’t even have to make the list, ‘cause I’ve done it for you!
Whether you’re just hearing about the International Baccalaureate for the first time, or you’re already deep into the decision-making process, look no further.
My job with this blog is to arm you with the knowledge to make an informed decision.
There’s even a “Should I Take the IB” quiz further down to help you decide!
Okay, let’s get into it!
You can’t go past the most obvious point in the IB’s favour – the international aspect.
The IB Diploma Program is recognised by all leading universities, which instantly puts you on the world stage and contextualises your application.
Regardless of where you sit your IB exams, the results mean the same thing, and they’re understood by admissions officers.
Country specific programs don’t have the same global reach, so it’s harder for universities to understand the results and compare you fairly to other candidates.
However, it’s important to understand that recognition doesn’t necessary equate to value. As we talked about in this blog, the IB means more to US universities than it does to UK universities, so how much of a “pro” this is will depend on where you want to study.
The IB Diploma is effectively a “university preparation program”, in that it teaches you skills and ways of learning that will set you up to do well at a tertiary education level.
After two years of practice, it’s fair to say that you will have mastered fundamental skills such as university style report and essay writing, source citing, and how to conduct independent research.
So when you get to uni and your first assignment is a 4,000-word research report complete with academic references, this won’t come as a shock because you’ve been there, done that in the Extended Essay (EE) component of the IB.
While other students are looking up referencing guides and working out how to structure such a long essay, you’ll be on your body paragraph, keeping up with source citations as you go.
More broadly, you’ll be an expert at time management and self-study.
The IB’s heavy workload forces you to get into good study habits and work on ways to better manage your time, and these are most certainly important skills for university, where you’ll be in charge of your own learning.
Many students start uni on the backfoot and have a hard time getting accustomed to the huge leap in difficulty, but not IB students! IB subjects (particularly the higher level ones) are on par with first year university content, which will also make your transition easier.
In the IB, you are not tested on your ability to memorise facts and theories (which could be said for other curriculums), but rather your ability to understand how facts are presented and how theories are applied.
Not only this, but you will have learned how to think critically. That is, how to view things from different perspectives and not to cloud judgement with preconceived ideas and beliefs. The philosophy-based component of the course, Theory of Knowledge (TOK), will train you to think outside the box and develop an enquiring mind.
This expanded thinking is necessary for university, where you’ll be exposed to many different concepts, opinions, and of course, people!
The breadth of study is something that the IB offers that no other curriculum comes close to.
You’re exposed to a much wider range of subjects in the IB than you are in other curriculums.
Not only do you have to choose a wider range of subjects in the IB, but you have a much wider range to choose from. Courses offered in the IB Diploma include psychology, philosophy, film, computer science, and global politics, which you won’t find on many school subject lists.
But it’s necessary to provide choice in order to develop “well-rounded students”, which is one of the goals of the IB Diploma Program.
Being a well-rounded student doesn’t mean you’re a jack of all trades and master of none. On the contrary; it shows your adaptability, strength of character, and ability to push yourself.
No one is great at everything, and that’s one of the reasons the IB is so challenging.
It’s also one of the reasons the IB is so rewarding, because it’s in your weaker subject areas where you really have to step up your study game to do well.
A score of seven in history (your favourite!) is not going to be as sweet as the six you scored in maths, which, though a lower score, took significantly more study hours and hard work to pull off.
You’ll get a much stronger sense of achievement in the IB, because you can’t only play to your strengths.
However, you do have the option of studying the subjects you like more intensely.
In the IB, students will take some subjects at higher level (HL) and some at standard level (SL), where the former comprises 240 teaching hours, and the latter 150 teaching hours.
This means you can focus more on your best three subjects (or four if you’re extra keen), and less so on your weaker subjects.
In the IB, you grow not only as a student, but as a human.
Not surprising coming from a country known for its neutrality, one of the IBO’s aims for its IB programs is to create a more peaceful world by creating more socially conscious adults who will go on to make meaningful contributions long after they’ve completed their education.
We could certainly benefit from a few more of those!
This is where the Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) component of the IB comes in, which places emphasis on emotional and social development by getting students involved in activities outside the classroom.
Not only does it force you to take a break from the books and have a balanced approach to your studies, but you have the chance to develop softer skills like empathy and teamwork.
Other curriculums are purely academic and do not focus on character building in this way.
And now for...
The IB is no walk in the park. In fact, it’s not a walk at all. Think of it more as a run – but a marathon, not a sprint.
You need to be a “long distance learner” to do well in the IB. It requires consistent work and solid performance over a two-year period. While everyone else has to be “on” for one year, you have to be on for two.
Exams aren’t spread out, either, which means that come the end of your final year you’ll be tested on two years, and you’ll have to have just as strong an understanding of the material taught at the beginning of the course than at the end.
It’s important that you know what you’re getting into with the IB; you’re making a two-year commitment, which can seem like a lifetime when you’re young!
In the IB, not only have you got all the coursework and assignments that come with the six mandatory subjects, but also the essays, presentations, and projects that you need to do for the three core components: EE, TOK, and CAS.
This makes it a much more demanding and content heavy course, and it’s why being diligent and organised is more important than being smart. You need to be able to manage your time really well to fit in all the activities as well as keep your grades up consistently with all the different assessments going on.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible without severely cutting into your sleep time or testing your sanity (or both!). Just look up #IBproblems on Twitter and Instagram and you’ll see what I mean…
Even with so many subject choices, there’s less flexibility in the IB due to the compulsory breadth of study it requires.
The IB Diploma is a rigid curriculum with a six subject allowance dispersed across six categories, or rather five if you forgo the arts category, which is about as flexible as it gets.
If you don’t take an arts subject, you can “double dip” in another category, but there’s no triple dipping. This means you can take two sciences, for example, which for most people might be enough.
However, if you’re set on studying medicine at university, you’d be better served by your school’s standard syllabus where you can load up on science to your heart’s content.
Not only this, but the amount of subjects available to you have depends on what your school offers. So the illusion of choice might be just that… an illusion.
Okay, it’s decision time.
Now that you know the pros and cons, it should be an easy one, right?
We’ve identified that there are good and bad things about the IB, but it’s important to understand that these aren’t the same for everyone.
There are a few other factors to consider.
Well, actually four, if you count the fact that your school needs to offer the IB curriculum for it to even be an option for you. Yes, perhaps an obvious one, but not to be overlooked!
After each section, pick the option that best describes you and tally your points at the end.
The IB is best suited to “all-rounder” types who are interested in or excel in quite a few disciplines.
Students are expected to show achievement across a broad range of academic disciplines, so if you excel in humanities based subjects but can’t do long division to save your life, the IB is not going to be the best fit because you need to pass maths!
The IB’s structured approach to learning means there’s no hiding from the subjects you don’t like or you’re not good at.
If you’re not quite great at everything but don’t yet know what subjects you like and want the exposure, then the breadth of the IB will benefit you, but you need to be hard worker.
+ I’m pretty great at everything! 4 points
+ I do really well in some subjects and am determined to improve in others: 3 points
+ I do well in most subjects and will get help from an IB tutor in my weaker subjects: 3 points
+ I’m a hardworking student but not sure what subjects I like yet: 2 points
+ I do well in most subjects but no amount of study or tutoring could improve my performance in [insert your worst subject here]: 0 points
+ I don’t like structure and prefer to have the freedom to choose the subjects I want: 0 points
You need to be highly motivated and self-disciplined to do well in the IB. It’s a rigorous curriculum that requires long term commitment.
Be honest with yourself: are you going to be able to maintain the same level of motivation and dedication over two whole years?
Your school’s standard curriculum won’t require as much dedication and effort, which means your non-IB friends will have more free time than you, so you need to be okay with a bit of FOMO!
+ I’m motivated, self-disciplined, and have the strongest work ethic of anyone I know. What is FOMO?!: 4 points
+ I love to socialise but never let it get in the way of my studies. It’s called priorities: 3 points
+ I’m a good student who wants to be challenged but not sure I can commit myself to something for two years: 1 point
+ I’m willing to put in a bit of extra study time but there’s no way I’m getting less than eight hours sleep a night… EVER: 0 points
+ Wait, exactly how much time will I have to party if I take the IB? Because YOLO: -1 point
Another factor to consider before you decide to take the IB is where you want to go to university.
We’ve established that all the top universities around the world recognise the IB qualification, but what’s really important is how highly valued it is by these institutions.
UK universities place emphasis on in-depth knowledge of a subject (you can literally do a whole degree in English if you want), and are therefore likely to favour a curriculum that allows you to focus on one or two areas.
If you want to go to uni in the UK, it’s best to stick with the HSC, VCE, WACE, or NCEA (or equivalent), or if you’re looking for an international alternative, take the CIE.
On the other hand, US universities tend to place more value on an IB qualification, as it’s more aligned with their liberal arts education system and therefore a good indication that you’ll do well as a college student.
They also think you’re pretty amazing if you do well in HL IB subjects, and they show this by granting you course credits for your efforts!
So, make sure you consider how your prospective universities will view an IB qualification.
Having said that, if you want to be best prepared for uni, take the IB. As I discussed earlier, the hard and soft skills you learn and the study patterns you develop will ensure you start uni wayyy ahead of everyone else.
+ I want to go to university in the US: 4 points
+ I’m not sure where I want to go to university but want to be as best prepared as possible: 3 points
+ I’m a Kiwi and want to go to university in Australia: 2 points
+ I want to go to university in the UK: 1 point
+ I want to stay in my home country for university (excluding US): 1 point
12 or higher: Take the IB!!! You’d be silly not to.
9-11: You’re a definite candidate for the IB. My advice is go for it!
6-8: You’re a strong candidate for the IB, but I recommend getting some advice from an IB expert to make sure it’s right for you.
5 or below: You will perform better in your school’s standard curriculum.
A lot of what the IB has to offer cannot be matched by its local counterparts, but where there are pros, there are cons.
The IB is not for everyone. And if you choose to do it, make sure it’s for the right reasons. Those who are suited to the program will thrive, but it can be a very different story for those who aren’t.
That’s why you shouldn’t base your decision on what will supposedly make you look smarter to your prospective university, but rather on what is the best fit for you.
You want to perform at a high level in the right surroundings for your academic and intellectual growth, whether that is the IB or any other option.
US colleges may value the IB, but that doesn’t mean you can rock up and expect to get in with poor grades. Put it this way: you have a much better chance of getting accepted into a top-ranked university if you do really well in your school curriculum than if you do “just okay” in the IB.
If you’re planning on going to a top university overseas, you’ll need to study hard, regardless of the curriculum you take.
Ultimately, the decision to take the IB will be personal to you, so use the information in this blog and your quiz results to make the right one, and stick with it!