A Guide to Choosing Your IB Classes

Padya Paramita

A Guide to Choosing Your IB Classes

Your friends are talking away about which International Baccalaureate courses they plan to take and how their dream school requires certain classes, and you have no idea how they know these things. Before choosing your IB classes, talk to your counselor so that you understand how the IB works and the courses students at your school usually take. Ask which ones are considered the most rigorous, and think about how you can select your courses to show that you’ve challenged yourself, separating yourself from the rest of your peers.

At most schools, junior and senior years constitute the key time to take IB classes. You definitely want to be up for the challenge by the time the 11th grade rolls around. Take advantage of freshman and sophomore year classes to ensure that you’re ready for these rigorous courses. Know the prerequisites for your IB courses beforehand in order to prepare for the tougher classes. If you want to take IB Literature, for instance, you should take lit courses in 9th and 10th grade to prepare. Take the appropriate preparatory classes before choosing your IB classes.

To guide you through the selection process, we have outlined the basics of the IB exams, the IB subjects that are offered across the disciplines, how scoring works, and strategic tips for choosing your IB classes.

Choosing Your IB Courses: The Basics

The International Baccalaureate, or IB, is a diploma program offering advanced courses in various fields, just like the AP. If you’re planning on pursuing the IB diploma, you’ll need three higher level and three standard level classes (each lasts two years), along with a 1600-word essay known as the Theory of Knowledge, which explores the nature of knowledge itself, and how we know what we claim to know. You also have to write a 4000-word Extended Essay answering a research question about an IB subject of your choosing. If you’re taking a few standalone IB classes, you don’t have to worry about these diploma requirements, but it’s still good to know how the full IB program operates. 

Know Which Courses Your School Offers 

Similar to APs, knowing your choices is a good place to start when thinking about choosing your IB courses. The courses you select for IB will span throughout the 11th and 12th grades, and prepare you for the IB exams at the end of senior year. If you’re completing the diploma, your course selection should adhere to the following IB rubric:

  • Group 1: a first language
  • Group 2: a second language
  • Group 3: a humanities course
  • Group 4: a science course
  • Group 5: a math course
  • Group 6: an arts course or an additional course in any of the other groups

From these, any three can be higher level (HL), and any three can be standard level (SL). You can also take four HLs if you’re confident. The difference between the two levels lies in the difficulty of the exam and the amount of material taught. Naturally, you are going to be more challenged by HL classes. 

You’re probably wondering about your options for each of the groups as you’re choosing your IB classes. Your school won’t offer every single IB subject that’s out there, but you’ll probably have a few choices among each of the groups. The subjects you can choose to fulfill IB requirements are outlined in the table below. Within Group 1, for instance, you can choose to study English in the form of Literature, Language and Literature, or Literature and Performance. For Group 2 you can choose a second language based on your proficiency. 

Group 1: a first language

  • Literature
  • Language and Literature
  • Literature and Performance

Group 2: a second language

  • Language B (for intermediate knowledge)
  • Language ab initio (If you have no background in the language)

Group 3: a humanities course

  • Business Management
  • Economics
  • World History
  • Global Politics
  • Geography
  • Information Technology in a Global Society
  • Psychology
  • Philosophy
  • Social and cultural anthropology
  • World Religions

Group 4: a science course

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Environmental Systems and Societies
  • Physics
  • Design Technology
  • Sports, Exercise, and Health Science

Group 5: a math course

  • Further Math (HL only)
  • Math Higher Level
  • Math Standard Level
  • Math Studies (SL only)

Group 6: an arts course (can be substituted with class from another group)

  • Dance
  • Film
  • Music
  • Theatre
  • Visual Arts

How Scoring Works

You will not have your IB grades in hand by the time you apply to college, as you won’t sit for them until May of your senior year. The transcript your school sends to colleges contains your “predicted grades.” or, what each of your teachers predicts that you will receive after your actual IB exams. Each of your IB courses is graded, and then reported on a scale of 1-7:

  • 7 = Excellent
  • 6 = Very Good
  • 5 = Good
  • 4 = Satisfactory
  • 3 = Sufficient
  • 2 = Fail, with some work required to pass
  • 1 = Fail, with considerable work required to obtain a passing grade

Certain percentages are assigned within each number of the scale just like with any grading system, where there are specific grades or numbers assigned to a range of scores. So, if you decide to complete the IB diploma, your 6 courses will be graded out of 7 each, equalling 42. Your Theory of Knowledge essay and Extended Essay together count for three additional points. So, the maximum score you can aim for in the IB diploma is 45. 

Schools do see your final grades once they come out, but during admissions decisions, they will be assessing your academic skills based on the predicted grades. Usually, colleges value 6’s and 7’s as impressive IB grades, and you may be able to use them for credit or to meet requirements for placement in upper-level college courses.

Strategic Tips for Choosing Your IB Classes

You might be wondering how to make sure you’re taking the best courses out of the options available to you from each group. We’ve outlined some tips to guide you through deciding on choosing your IB classes

  • Think About Your Future Plans - Colleges ask you for your prospective major and tentative future plans through application systems such as the Common Application or Coalition Application. Even if you don’t fully know what you want to do with your life, you probably have certain areas you’re more interested in studying than others. So, if you want to be a Biology major in college, you obviously should take IB Biology, preferably as an HL course. If you state in your college application that you’re a prospective Biology major but you don’t have any advanced courses in the subject, it won’t make sense!
  • Choose Higher Levels Based on Strength - Understandably, HL courses are much tougher than SL ones. Top colleges want to see you excel in your HL classes. In order to shine in them, you should choose your higher levels very strategically. Don’t take IB Physics as an HL class just because all your friends are doing so. If you’re better at English and want to take IB English HL, and a standard level science, do it! Especially if you’re not planning a STEM major, you don’t need to take an HL science. So, if you think you’ll score higher in your lit class, don’t take a higher science only to score a 4 and regret it.
  • Choose the Sixth Subject Based on Interest - If you’re a dancer or a singer or an artist, you should definitely emphasize your talent and take a Group 6 course accordingly. But you might have noticed that you don’t have to take a course in the arts as your sixth subject. You want to take classes that you can score well in, and subjects you’re passionate about. If you’re more of a STEM person, take a second science class. If you enjoy the humanities and are already taking IB Economics, why not choose something such as IB History? When choosing your IB classes, remember that you’re more likely to enjoy and excel in courses that interest you.
  • Don’t Overestimate Your Math Abilities - A lot of IB students tend to think that they have to take Further Mathematics HL to apply to engineering schools. It would look great on your college applications if you do well, but Further Math is not a cakewalk. You can also take Math HL and apply to engineering programs, or pursue other STEM majors. That being said, if you’re not a math or science person, don’t stress yourself out by taking a higher-level math course. The standard level Math and Math Studies (slightly easier) are both good options for those not so strong at math. You’ll have other subjects to take at a higher level which can highlight your strengths.
  • Think About What Will Help Your Extended Essay - Your senior year of high school is going to be made up of many firsts, one of which is a 4000-word research essay, the IB Extended Essay. You may only have experience writing five-paragraph essays, and your research methods might max out at Googling for a class project completed in one day. Your Extended Essay, however, requires a more in-depth study on a topic of interest, a research question you can actually spend pages writing about. And, your essay has to align with an IB subject. So, even though you don’t have to know your topic when you first select classes, make sure you’re interested enough in your courses to want to write a massive essay in one of them! If you don’t take IB Psychology, but want to write your essay on human personalities, a lack of psych background will not benefit you at all. You need to start planning in 10th grade for the next two years! 

Your transcript is an exceptionally important component of your college application and it all begins with the course selection process. Colleges will pay special attention to what kind of classes you’re taking—so be careful when choosing your IB classes. It’s crucial to strategize early on because the decisions you make during your freshman and sophomore years often dictate the choices you make for your IB exams. And once it’s time to select IB courses, think about your strengths, interests, and career choices. Don’t make the decision lightly. Good luck! 

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