My experience of the International Baccalaureate programme
My name is Amandine and I recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in English and Scottish Literature. Unlike most university students, I hadn’t done A levels, GCSEs or even Scottish Highers: I did the International Baccalaureate (IB) at an international school in Paris.
Choosing the International Baccalaureate programme
Taking the IB was a natural choice for me, not because I was an international student, but because of the manner in which I prefer to learn – I like to be an active participant in my education. Unlike the French education system, the International Baccalaureate relies on self-motivated work, research, long-term projects and thinking outside the box. As a result, when given the choice between the more rigid French ‘learn-this-then-spit-it-back-out’ teaching system and the more flexible IB, there wasn’t even a question as to what I would choose.
Selecting IB course subjects
The IB consists of six different subjects, which you get to pick. My choices were:
- English literature (higher level)
- History (higher level)
- Spanish (higher level)
- French literature and language (standard level)
- Biology (standard level)
- Maths studies (standard level).
The advantage of this system, in my opinion, is that you can tailor your courses to reflect your interests without inadvertently closing off any possibilities for yourself. When I picked my courses, I was certain I would go on to study a humanities subject at uni, and my choices reflect that.
My sister, on the other hand, wasn’t sure whether she would go on to higher education in the UK or France, and whether she would study theatre or science at higher education – taking the IB allowed her to keep all her options open by taking higher level biology, chemistry and English literature and language, while also taking standard level maths and French. She further compensated for the fact that theatre wasn’t offered as an IB subject at the school by pursuing acting as an extracurricular activity.
Juggling IB core elements
In addition to my six subjects, I also had to complete a theory of knowledge (TOK) course, an extended essay (EE) and 150 hours of creativity, activity, service (CAS). By including the latter in the curriculum – given that it is quite a time-consuming project – the IB teaches you to prioritise and organise your own time.
CAS is a chance to get creative, both with the activities you do and the way you manage your time. About one third of my hours stemmed from ‘traditional’ charitable activities: I volunteered as a mentor for new students; on a class trip to India I spent time teaching English to young children; and at school I set up an activity where penultimate and final-year students would read to primary school students over lunch to encourage them to take an interest in books.
The other two thirds of my 150 hours were spent on activities that were more focused on the ‘creativity’ and ‘activity’ part of CAS as 90 hours came from a musical theatre summer camp I took part in every year. Consequently, I organised my schedule so that I worked off my remaining hours during the holidays, freeing up my time during the term to dedicate to the many other projects of the IB.
Do what you love – my TOK and EE choices
The freedom to determine your own projects was, for me, one of the most enjoyable parts of the IB. The EE, the internal assessments (IAs) and the TOK assessment were all left up to us to personalise. I made the most of this opportunity.
For my TOK presentation, I chose something fun and based it around Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches film, exploring what constitute modern beauty standards. My favourite task though, was the EE. My chosen topic was one I have long found fascinating: espionage. As a result, my project fell under the remit of my history course, the exact title being ‘The success of the British Secret Services during World War II’.
Because the IB depends greatly on self-motivated work, I strongly believe it was my keen interest in my chosen topic that led me to do so well on my EE (I scored 34/36). A big downfall for many of my fellow IB students was choosing a subject they weren’t passionate about because they thought it would be easy or look good on a university application. As a result, they often got bored or ended up hating their EE, which made it very difficult to spend eight months working on it. This was something I witnessed again four years later with university dissertations, which the EE had prepared me for, as it was something of a mini-dissertation.
The benefits of the International Baccalaureate
On the whole, I feel like IB was the best preparation I could have got for uni. On top of learning how to manage long-term projects such as my dissertation or how best to research a topic, I also felt equipped with other academic skills. The sheer amount of in-class discussion during the IB had prepared me for the discussion-heavy literature tutorials, and constantly juggling big projects meant I knew how to manage my time well and didn’t feel swamped having to deal with uni work, a job and social activities.
The one downside was that less was known about the IB in the UK compared with A levels, and so many universities seemed to be at a loss on how to scale their entry requirements for IB students. I was predicted 40/45, the equivalent of being a straight A* student, yet three of the five universities I applied to did not consider this to be enough. This may have changed since I applied to uni in 2014, but it is worth considering.
Is the IB diploma right for you?
If you are considering the IB, I would recommend asking yourself the following questions:
- Are you the kind of person who is sufficiently self-motivated to undertake an eight-month project?
- Are you organised and willing to juggle various important tasks alongside school work and 150 hours of extracurricular activities?
- Do you enjoy research and coming up with your own topics to investigate?
If you do choose to undertake the IB, the work you’ll be faced with at times will seem disheartening. But just remember that if you dedicate a little bit of time to each task regularly, avoid leaving things to the last minute, and chose subjects and topics you love, you’ll be fine.