What is the International Baccalaureate (IB)?

IB students asking questions in class
Learn about the IB diploma programme, including subject choices, what else you’ll study, assessment methods and grading.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma is a qualification aimed at 16–19 year olds. It’s taught all over the world, including at some schools and colleges in the UK. Universities accept the IB for entry onto undergraduate degrees (courses aimed at those going to university for the first time), so it’s an alternative option to taking A levels, Scottish Highers or a BTEC level 3 qualification.

What do you study on the IB?

The IB website states: ‘The programme aims to develop students who have excellent breadth and depth of knowledge – students who flourish physically, intellectually, emotionally and ethically.’ As such, you’ll study a range of academic subjects plus have a number of other commitments to make sure you are well rounded.

IB subject choices

On the IB you’ll study six subjects. You must take at least one subject from each of the following subject groups:

  • studies in language and literature – includes literature (studying literature in your own language); language and literature (studying both literature and other written and spoken materials); and literature and performance (which connects literature and theatre).
  • language acquisition – includes modern languages (with options to learn a new language or to continue with one you’ve already studied) as well as Latin and Classical Greek.
  • individuals and societies – includes history; geography; economics; psychology; philosophy; global politics; business management; world religions; social and cultural anthropology; information technology in a global society; and environmental systems and societies.
  • sciences – includes physics; chemistry; biology; computer science; design technology; environmental systems and societies; and sports, exercise and health science.
  • mathematics – includes maths and further maths.

There’s also a sixth subject group:

  • arts – includes visual arts; music; theatre; dance; and film.

You can either take a subject from the arts group or choose a second subject from one of the other groups.

As you might have noticed, environmental systems and societies appears in two groups. This gives you a bit of flexibility. You can decide which group you want to class it as your option for, or class it as your option for both groups (meaning you don’t have to take any other subjects from the sciences or individuals and societies groups) so you are free to pick another subject of your choice from any group.

Standard level and higher level

Three or four of your IB subjects need to be at what’s known as higher level, which goes into the subject in the most depth. The other two or three will be at what’s known as standard level, which is a bit less in depth.

Higher-level courses involve more teaching time: 240 teaching hours, compared with 150 for standard-level courses.

Are higher-level courses harder than standard-level ones? It’s likely to vary a bit in terms of subject. For example, with maths you probably will find higher level harder than standard level, whereas with literature you’ll probably analyse texts in very similar ways but just study more of them at higher level.

NB some courses are only available at standard level, such as modern languages courses for beginners.

How are your IB subjects assessed?

IB students are mainly assessed via exams. However, you’re also likely to have a coursework assignment for each subject, which will count towards your final grade.

Other academic work on the IB

IB students also need to:

  • learn about theory of knowledge – this looks at the nature of knowledge, including whether and how we can know what we know and the assumptions we may hold.
  • complete an extended essay – this involves carrying out an independent research project on a topic of your choosing that relates to one of your IB subjects.

For theory of knowledge you’ll have to give a presentation and write a 1,600-word essay. You’ll have some theory of knowledge lessons, but not usually as many as for your other subjects.

Your extended essay will be 4,000 words long. You’ll have a supervisor who can give you some guidance but you’ll have to research your topic by yourself rather than writing about something that you’ve studied in class.

Creativity, activity, service

As well as your academic work you’ll be expected to take part in a range of activities that relate to creativity, physical activity and service to a community. It’s up to you what you do – examples could include:

  • participation in dance, music or drama
  • taking the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award
  • playing sport
  • volunteering in a hospice.

As part of this, you’ll need to carry out at least one project. This will involve setting a goal that will challenge you, planning how to achieve it, working towards it, reviewing progress, and having a definite outcome that you can then reflect on.

For example, playing water polo with a local club would count as a regular activity; deciding to set up a taster day at the club to encourage children to try out the sport and join, then organising and promoting it, would count as a project.

How IB grades work

  • For each of your six subjects, you’ll receive a grade between 1 and 7. 1 is the lowest and 7 is the highest.
  • Your theory of knowledge and extended essay can give you up to another 3 points in total.
  • These scores are all added together to give an overall score – the highest possible grade is 45 (7 x 6 + 3). And yes, higher-level and standard-level courses carry exactly the same weight towards your overall score.
  • To be awarded the IB diploma you need at least 24 points, and there are certain other criteria, such as minimum grades you need in your subjects. For example, you can’t pass the IB if you get a 1 in any subject, or if you get more than two grade 2s or more than three grade 3s. You can find out more on the
    IB diploma programme regulations pdf
    (see page 9).
  • Universities and employers are likely to be interested both in your overall grade and in your grades in any subjects that relate to the course or job you’re applying for.
  • You don’t get marks for creativity, activity and service, though you have to have done them to be awarded the IB.

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