International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma students: fear not. Yes, exam month is rapidly approaching. And yes, it can be terrifying staring at years’ worth of notes, knowing you’ll have to conquer them all. I know, because I’ve been there.
Two years ago, I sat in my bedroom with a knot in my stomach. Six exams in three weeks? It seemed nearly impossible, especially because the amount of material for one exam alone was comprised of three enormous binders and countless Google Docs. My exams were as follows: HL French, HL European History, HL Research Methods in Psychology, HL English, SL Environmental Systems & Societies, and SL Discrete Mathematics. Definitely daunting.
But, as I got going, I developed a routine that proved indispensable to my study success. I’m not saying I got perfect 7s across the board, here—but I wound up doing well enough to get college credit for three of my four HL tests (my university, like many, doesn’t accept SL exams for school credit). Below are four of my tips and tricks for a successful IB exam period. When it’s over, it is one of the best feelings in the world. If you went in prepared and gave your best, that feeling is even greater.
Mathematics and Sciences: Make Notecards
Nothing helped me better for exams like Discrete Math and Environmental Systems & Societies (the two courses that didn’t come as naturally to me) than making notecards. I prefer the 4×6 size simply because they’re a nice medium between microscopic and enormous. The format I used was basic—on one side went a concept or definition, and on the other went a concise definition or 2-3 bullet points. IB is all about being clear and concise with your wording, so practicing this while making your cards is extremely helpful. Don’t be too wordy! The terms I defined were those that I had clearly outlined over the course of the year and those I was still confused with. No matter the exam subject, IB textbooks are nice because they normally include a clear chapter-by-chapter breakdown of terms you’ll need to know, inside and out. That’s also a very nice reference to have, so be sure to check out those lists. Notecards can seem overwhelming, but they’re also a portable resource—bring them with you on test day, because if you arrive early there’s always time for some extra review with your fellow classmates.
Social Sciences: Concept Maps
Notecards were an invaluable testing tool during my IB exam period, but I’m more of a visual learner. It helps me to see the flow of a larger, more complex concept with multiple parts when it’s laid out in front of me. If you’re also a spatial learner, another helpful tip I’d suggest is to make concept maps. For subjects like IB Psychology and Research Methods in Psychology, I had two years’ worth of material to digest in a matter of weeks before the exam. Don’t go about this thinking that you’ll have to re-learn material that you haven’t seen for a year. Chances are, you’re using a continuation or an extension of concepts from IB Psych in your Research Methods class—maybe without realizing it. Concept maps work perfectly here, because they enable you to physically link portions of a theory or idea. They also allow for the breakdown of particular studies and pieces of research, so that potential essay subjects can be planned for. Color coding is an excellent way to keep your concept maps in tip-top shape. I used 8×11 printer paper, nothing fancy, and found that it was the perfect blank canvas to study from. (I’ve also heard that these are great for sciences like Biology, Chemistry, and Physics!)
History: Plan Your Essays
Perhaps the most frightening sense of anticipation that I went through during exams was that of the IB European History test. It was comprised of three Papers, the lengthiest I’d seen, and each contained nothing but essays, essays and more essays. A helpful tool here was Googling essay prompts from previous years. These were my saving grace because, as most history exams do, ones success relied on memorization and clear writing. Having to study centuries’ worth of our world’s historical events means combing through facts, dates, names, terms, causes, effects, consequences, and more in a short period of time. Using previous prompts enabled me to prepare outlines for whatever could come my way—if a potential question asked about anything from the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Arab Spring, I would have historical context and knowledge to back me up (even in the worst of situations). Your textbooks will help you. Don’t write out entire papers here—I’m just talking an outline. But be sure to clearly reference important key points. Color coding works, people! After review, you’ll have a mental timeline of material.
English: Review Your Texts
Each high school’s IB English curriculum varies, so there are no set texts that you’ll specifically be tested on. Essay questions that aren’t prompt-based will be umbrella-style, where you’re able to reference more than one text to aid in forming an argument. I read about eight novels and plays over the course of my senior year of IB English. In studying for my exam, I typed out reference sheets for each text. My teacher let us borrow a copy of a book if we hadn’t studied it since the start of the year and had handed it back in, which was nice because it allowed me to list one or two quick quotes for each point on my sheet. Each sheet was one side of a piece of printer paper–printer paper works wonders and is SO versatile to study with–and it was a layout of main characters, their traits, the novel’s prevalent themes, the author’s writing style, etc. Try to not stay plot-based–the exam graders don’t want to know how much of the book’s details you’ve memorized. Though it, of course, helps to know what happened, care more about how the book, play, etc. was written and the effects of literary devices. This shows critical thinking, a buzzword that’s crucial to essay success. Having a one-pager per book means that you won’t be flipping through binders of notes on exam day.
*I did have excellent preparation for most of my senior year of high school by my IB teachers—as I’m sure you have had up to this point—so take that into account, as well. There’s no better resource available to you than teachers who have been teaching the IB curriculum for years, because they know the format of these exams like the backs of their hands. Most of my teachers created their own pristine, detailed guide packets for our study benefit. Use these if you receive them! Definitely reach out to your teachers for help: that’s what they’re here for.*
You can do it!