Image from Pexels

Image from Pexels

After two years, I can proudly call my myself a graduate of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program! I’m specifying the whole form of the acronym because there was literally a kid at our school who thought IB stood for International Board.

Personally, I grew up in India, where the education system is such that children specialize in their fields at 16, and of these there are just three: commerce, arts, and science. India’s highly documented focus on academics is worse from the inside, and the pressure was terrible.

Anyway, when I heard of the IB, which gave me flexibility in choosing all my subjects, I jumped at the opportunity. I realize that this will not be the reason for many to choose the IB. The most common reason to enter this program is when a student is looking for a rigorous program to add to his repertoire of high school courses to be the most competitive applicant for colleges that they can. This ‘one size fits all’ approach is very flawed, and the IB is not meant for everyone.

IB Students

A huge misconception that people have about the IB is that the students who enter it are academic ‘nerds’. While academic strength is important to succeed, this is the case with doing well in any academic setting. Personally, I entered the program from a background in the Indian national board, in which I was somewhere above average, but coming to the IB upped my academic reports. Doing well in the IB isn’t related to the number of hours dedicated (though those are a lot). It’s about a student being open to learning about new ways of approaching a topic, so in time seeing the topic in several different ways becomes second nature. The person who truly masters this will never be able to watch a movie peacefully without some part of his subconscious analyzing it (thus ruining us for the promised land of college and its tales of Netflix).

The System Itself

So about the system, the basics go thusly: you pick one subject from the six pre-determined groups of English, foreign languages, humanities, sciences, math and the arts, which are known as groups 1 through 6 in that order. You have the option of picking another subject from group 3 or 4 (humanities or sciences) in place of a group 6 subject (arts). English, math and one foreign language are mandatory, but can be taken at any level.

This brings us to the levels in the subjects offered. A candidate can take a subject at either standard level or higher level. A course taken at standard level indicates 150 hours of classroom teaching over the 18 months of the IB Diploma. It prepares students up to the normal high school level, albeit with the IB twist of self-studying and 3000 word labs (in environmental sciences). A high level course entails 240 hours of teaching, a larger syllabus, and heavier assignments. These will typically align with your interests and eventually your major. Most colleges only offer credit for higher level courses. There are even lower levels in certain subjects, such as the Studies level in math for students who will be entering fields such as media and art, so they will not be held back by lower math scores or have to waste time studying a subject which they will not require in college. In foreign languages, students who do not score a certain level on their GCSEs or wish to study a new language altogether can take the ab initio level, which is offered in several languages including Spanish, French, and German. This system is useful for students who do not have much interest in a subject, but still need to take it to adhere to the IB’s wide syllabi.

The subjects, however, are only the peripheral to the trifecta of CAS, EE, and TOK that form the core curriculum. Before you panic about these abbreviations I threw at you, know that these are the single most important part of the curricula. Non-submission of even one of these crucial parts will mean that you will not receive a diploma and will be a certificate student instead. While the IB does not have a pass/fail system, getting a certificate is the closest thing to failing. There are a specific set of rules as to the combination of marks you have to get, but the general rule of thumb is that you have to submit all the components and get 24 grade points.


The marking system is slightly complicated to hear from the first time, but it is actually clear-cut. Each subject counts for 7 grade points with 1 being the lowest and 7 being the highest, the total of which comes to 6*7=42 grade points. There remaining three points are for the core components of the extended essay and theory of knowledge (I’ll come to that in a minute). So the final score is out of 42+3=45 grade points. Easy as that.

Back to the core, the EE (Extended Essay) is a 4000-word document that must be independent study conducted in the subject of the student’s choosing over the 18 months of the program. Students typically write their EE in one of their HL subjects. (Remember Higher Level?)

The next part is TOK (Theory of Knowledge), which, to be frank, will at first not make any sense. But from the testimony of several students at our school during graduation, we’ve come to the conclusion that TOK ties up all our knowledge at the end of the program. It teaches us how to think, to question perspectives and paradigms, and to write a Malcolm Gladwell-esque essay of 1500-words (which is actually something that will become the norm for you at the end of the program). There is also a presentation that will be recorded, so people with stage fright (hello, kindred spirits!) will be more than cured of it by the time that the IB is done with. This is a beginner’s guide, and the advanced one would tell you that you have to give presentations (note the plural) in English and your foreign language, and one of the English parts is unseen.

The EE and the TOK markings combine to form the 3-point matrix shown here. They are not graded on a numerical scale, but an alphabetical one. While these may seem like small fry in the grand scheme of things, these 3 points may be the difference between a 39 and a 42.

The final component is CAS, which stands for ‘Creativity, Action, Service.’ Some say that this is the IBO’s attempt at covering the entire experience of life under the program. I say that this is yet another example of the IB’s organization skills. 50 hours of each must be completed, with creativity meaning activities such as writing and editing for the school yearbook or newspaper; action referring to sports, and service obviously being community service. This is an excellent way of filling up college applications, so if your freshman and sophomore years have been lackluster in terms of extracurriculars, you should consider doing the IB (though the lack of initiative doesn’t bode well). At the end of IB, a CAS report will need to be formulated, so again we see the need for organization. Incompletion of the required 150 hours will mean that your diploma will be withheld. I know of a senior who went back to school to get his diploma because he hadn’t done his community service because he was so busy studying. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose, seeing as he went to college a year late?

With the technical parts out of the way, I return to my stance that the IB is not meant for everyone. They seem simple when you read through them, but these are two years of your life that can be more of a transformative process than college for some. It is not something you can “win” overnight.

Universities don’t just like the IB because it suggests academic rigor. They like it because it shows that the candidate has time management skills, organization, an inquisitive mind, and perseverance. Ultimately, colleges want to see that you succeed in your academic setting, so if you have no chance of doing well in the IB, stick to your normal course load and do well there.

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  1. Sahajanya Balaganesh on July 5, 2014

    Bless you for not falling into pits of the Indian system and only to climb out without learning anything.

  2. Tarwinder Saran on August 17, 2014

    Thanks for an excellent summation of the IB!

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