The Expert’s Guide to the International Baccalaureate

About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.
Image shows a row of different international flags against a cloudy sky.

How much do you know about the IB?

You should also read…

Beyond a vague notion that its name sounds a bit French, it’s supposed to be quite hard, isn’t it, and you’ve got to study a lot of subjects, that is. Well, a crucial thing about the IB is that it’s on the rise – every year, hundreds of new schools around the world introduce the diploma programme as an option for their students. And universities love it too – not only is the programme widely recognised as being harder than A-levels, but there’s much less evidence of grade inflation in its results. Since 1990, IB grades worldwide have only improved by 4%, compared to a 30% rise in grades for A-level students. In fact, last year, out of the 127,284 students who took the exams, only 154 got the maximum possible score of 45 points.
But despite its increasing popularity and prestige, many students are still put off by the sound of the IB – in particular, the requirement that if you take it, you must study six subjects, with Maths at some level sitting alongside a Social Science and a second language. This article, a general introduction to what it’s actually like to study the programme, is in part aimed at busting some of the myths that surround it.

The really important bit

Image shows people in Budapest standing together to form a peace symbol.
The IB aims to promote international cooperation and mutual understanding.

The ‘About the IB’ section of the foundation’s website reads like empty PR-gobbledegook; it claims to develop in its students the ‘intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world’. Further down the page, the ‘Mission Statement’ elaborates and clarifies the meaning, asserting that the programme ‘aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect… (The) programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right’. And this is not meaningless platitude; the entire diploma is centred on, and structured around, the stated twin aims of promoting understanding and friendship across cultural boundaries, and making its students positive contributors to their communities. For starters, a compulsory part of a student’s first-language literature course is world literature; students can take West Asian History, Peace and Conflict Studies or World Religion as one of their Humanities subjects; and all this without mentioning CAS (which I will discuss below), the essential core of the diploma that’s all-too-often skipped over by parents or teachers lauding the depth and breadth of academic knowledge IB students gain. If you take the IB, you’ll be forced to consider the relevance of almost everything you learn in class to the modern world, and the programme’s central structuring conceit is that the modern world is a decidedly international one.

You have to study six subjects

Image shows a beaker filled with pale red liquid.
Desperate to give up science? Not on the IB!

The thing that puts a lot of people off taking the IB, at the same time as it sets the programme apart from most national qualifications (notably English and Welsh A-levels, both of which allow their students to focus on just three or four subjects) is its breadth. IB students have to take six subjects – and not just any six. Somewhat sadistically in my opinion, the designers of the programme, way back in the 60s, decided that to obtain the full diploma, its students must take Maths at some level, a science, a literature course in their first language, a second language, a Humanities course, and either an art or a second subject from any of the other groups. Of course, this is brilliant if you’re the sort of genius all-rounder who can’t decide whether they prefer advanced string theory or Dostoevsky; but not so great if, like most of us, you’re much stronger in some areas than others. Perhaps even more vexingly, unlike in most other qualifications, in the IB each individual subject counts towards a total final grade – they’re each scored out of seven, and tot up together with 3 ‘bonus’ points (for core modules, discussed below) to form a possible total of 45. What this all means is that if there’s a subject you really don’t like, or find difficult, you can’t just ignore it; doing badly in one thing will affect your overall total, and might mean that you don’t meet competitive university offers.

Image shows a dark background covered with mathematical symbols and formulae.
The Maths you do in the IB doesn’t have to be this scary.

But this all sounds much more daunting and scary than in reality it is. The IB foundation recognises that most students are not all-rounders, and its structure does allow a degree of specialisation. First, IB students choose to take three subjects at Higher Level (HL), and three at Standard Level (SL). The HL courses contain a lot more material than SL ones, and are much more difficult – so most people take their stronger subjects at HL, and weaker ones at SL. And the programme takes into account natural aptitude for certain subjects, as well as the difference in the difficulty of courses students from different countries will have taken before starting the IB. So, for example, it’s possible to take Maths at four different levels. Higher Maths is tough – much harder than the British A-level, and with more material. Students burning with zeal for numbers can also opt to study Further Mathsas a seventh subject. Standard Level Maths is about the same in content and difficulty as A-level – which initially seems very unfair, until one realises there’s a fourth option. Maths Studies, also a SL subject, is designed for those who don’t enjoy Maths, aren’t very good at it, and don’t need the subject for their chosen university course or career path. It’s not very much harder than GCSE, and takes a less academic approach than the other options, focusing on practical day-to-day applications of the subject, and things like Statistics that might come in handy later. So there are options designed for even the biggest number-phobes! And there are similar allowances for ability and interest in every group of courses:

First Language

Image shows a book with pages leafing open.
Literature is the most popular First Language choice.

Depending on what your school offers, and where your interests lie, you can choose to study different options in this course:

  • Literature is the most common option, and the one which will prepare you best if you want to carry on with literary studies at university. Students study a range of prescribed texts in their first language, and ‘world literature’ in translation, and are assessed on essays, commentaries and creative responses to the works they study.
  • Language and literature: This course studies a range of literary and non-literary texts, and teaches critical reading as well as writing skills.
  • Literature and performance: An interdisciplinary subject that is only available at SL, and explores the relationship between written and performed literature. Assessed through exams, written coursework and performance, this is a great option for those who aren’t keen on the idea of endless reading and discussion of texts.

Second Language

Image shows a croissant with some marmalade on a plate.
Is this the only French word you know? No problem!

There are a range of options that mean this subject will be fun, worthwhile and manageable whether you can blab away confidently in a number of languages, or your second-language knowledge is limited to Hola and croissant.

  • Ab initio: Meaning ‘from the beginning’, these courses are for students who have never studied the language they want to take. My school offered ab initio courses in Arabic and Japanese as well as Spanish, French and German. A great option if you want to try something new and different, and only available at SL.
  • Blanguage: Intended for students who’ve had experience of studying the language they’ve chosen. These courses can be taken at HL or SL.
  • Classical languages: This course allows students to study the language, literature and culture of Greece or Rome.

Individuals and Societies

This grandly named group contains what are essentially Humanities subjects, with different options for those who aren’t interested in the conventional canon. So alongside History, Geography and Economics, there are courses in Politics, Philosophy, Psychology, Anthropology, World Religions, IT, and even Business and Management. Something for everyone!


Image shows a clear blue lake.
IB can include subjects not usually offered at A-level, like Environmental Science.

Again, in the Science group conventional academic options sit alongside other, more varied, courses. So you can take Chemistry, Biology, Physics or Computer Science at either Higher or Standard level (and believe me, when I studied it, SL Chemistry was more-than manageable for even the biggest science-phobe) – or if you’re otherwise inclined, you can take Design Technology, Sports and Exercise Science, or even Environmental Systems, an interdisciplinary subject that looks at the environmental, social and ethical implications of the different scientific subjects.


You can choose from a range of Arts courses, including Dance, Music, Film, Theatre and Visual Arts – or, if you’d rather, you can choose any second subject from the other groups.
So there it is. Of course, no school in the world offers every single subject, and depending on the school you go to your choices might be more varied or limited – my school offered a huge range of options, but some schools with a smaller intake, or who run the IB alongside their national programme, might have fewer choices, or offer only the traditional subjects in each group. But don’t be put off the IB just because of the ‘six subject’ rule: as I hope I’ve shown, the structure of the programme does allow students to take multiple courses in their preferred areas, and to dodge having to do anything too hard in subjects they’d rather not bother with! If you’re thinking of taking the IB, my advice would be to research the options available in the schools closest to you, and see if you can put together a curriculum you’d enjoy and benefit from over the next two years.

The core of the programme

Image shows five students sitting on a wall, deep in discussion.
Discussion and debate is an important part of the IB.

Aside from their chosen subjects, every IB student must also complete ‘core’ modules, which combine to make up three points out of the total 45. The core is made up of:

  • Theory of Knowledge (TOK): an (in my opinion, quite hazily-defined) course that claims to centre on grand questions like ‘how do we know what we know?’. When I studied it, the course was certainly a lot of fun and always involved a lot of discussion and debate, but I was never entirely sure what we were supposed to be learning; conversation always seemed to veer off in unexpected directions (my main memory of the course is a ten-minute monologue from our teacher on what it would be like if all the school’s dinner ladies formed an army and attacked the students). It’s assessed through a final in-class presentation on a topic of the student’s choice, and a 1500-word essay. Past essay questions have included:

‘Context is all’ (Margaret Atwood). Does this mean there is no such thing as truth?
“When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to resemble nails” (Abraham Maslow). How might this apply to ways of knowing, as tools, in the pursuit of knowledge?
“That which is accepted as knowledge today is sometimes discarded tomorrow.” Consider knowledge issues raised by this statement in two areas of knowledge.

  • Extended Essay: a 4000-word essay in any subject, which involves independent research by the student. This is usually great fun – a chance to do an extra project in your favourite subject, and to learn and write all about something that interests you on your own. It’s also, in many cases, an opportunity to try out the sort of work you’ll do if you carry on with a particular subject at university.
  • Image shows a puppy tugging on its lead.
    Service could involve volunteering at an animal shelter.

    CAS: The centrality of this part of the diploma is too-often overlooked, simply because it isn’t marked. CAS stands for Creativity, Action and Service, which refer to extra activities that a student must complete outside school, and in their own time. Through Service in particular, students act out the core value of contribution to your community at the centre of the IB’s philosophy – and Service and the Activities are often the thing that students most appreciate and remember about the IB. In my school, every student belonged to one of about ten different ‘services’, with options ranging from helping a local famer, to lifeguarding at a nearby beach, helping with the running of activity camps for kids, or visiting elderly people – and we did service for two hours a day, three times a week. Service doesn’t just look great on your CV, but it is also really fun, a really worthwhile thing to do!

I hope this introduction to the IB has been handy. Please feel free to post any questions in the comments section below!
Last reviewed: September 2015
Next review: September 2016

Image credits: banner; peace; Chemistry; Maths; book; croissant; lake; discussion; puppy