The IB Diploma Programme is widely regarded as one of the most rigorous high school curriculums in the world. Its numerous requirements, annoyingly British lingo and seemingly infinite acronyms can scare the pants off of any freshman. It’s a curriculum that is certainly not for the fainthearted: rigorous courses combine with extra community service hours, a constantly mind-bending theory of knowledge course and a thesis-like extended essay, all of which will certainly make your time in high school the opposite of a cake walk.

Believe it or not, there is a way to make attaining the coveted IB Diploma even more difficult. The IB Organization doesn’t talk about it much, and your guidance counselor could gasp at you if you even bring it up. Nonetheless, there are people who willingly take on this extra level of academic pressure, and I’m one of them. We are the few, the proud, the unbelievably stressed; we are the people who take 4 HLs in the IB Diploma Programme.

What Does Taking 4 HLs Even Mean?

To satisfy the IB Diploma requirements, you must take three HL (higher level) classes and 3 SL (standard level) classes. This is what the majority of IB candidates do, and it definitely looks great on college applications. However, some schools may allow students to take 4 HL classes and 2 SL classes (my school requires special permission from the guidance department). This option still satisfies the Diploma requirements.

What’s Different With 4 HLs Instead of 3?

If you’re aware of the differences between SL and HL classes, you know that the primary distinction between the two levels is that HL classes contain more hours of instruction than SL in all subjects and courses. So, right off the bat, you’re going to have more class periods where you’re being taught the course material and fewer class periods where your teacher gives you a study hall or works on non-curriculum material with you. Basically, you’ll be a full-time IB learner in four of your classes instead of three.

But the other differences vary course by course. Most teachers explain HLs as “not harder, just more”, but obviously you’re going to have a more difficult time with more work. This doesn’t just mean more homework; it means more quizzes, tests, projects, and extra material that the SL students don’t have to learn. In some classes, it might also mean that your IA (internal assessment) contains more requirements and stipulations. You’ll also have to memorize and apply more BS for your exam.

Is It Harder to Get Your IB Diploma With 4 HLs?

The short answer is yes. The IB examination requirements are very confusing, but it’s important to know that if your total exam points amount to a 24-27, you can’t score lower than a 3 in any of your HLs. For candidates with 4 HLs, the odds are ostensibly more likely that this will happen (but not if you study!).

Another important thing to note is that, at the same total score level, at least 16 of your points must come from HL classes instead of the minimum 12 points for 3-HL students. So if your HL scores are: 4, 4, 4, and 3, you earn 15 points and thus enter a failing condition (which means, you guessed it, you fail), even though the last score was still above a 2. However, if that last class were to be SL and you got the same score, you’d be in the clear because 12 of your points would come from HL classes (satisfying your 3-HL requirements).

More Work and Tougher Requirements—Why Would Anyone Want to Do This?

The philosophy behind HL classes is that they’re supposed to enrich you further in your chosen subject. Thus, if you are genuinely interested in four of the subjects you’ve chosen, taking them HL would be a more interesting experience. For example, my four HLs are English (Language A), Biology, Latin, and Economics and my SLs are Music and Mathematics. I chose my course selection on a case-by-case basis: I picked each class’s level individually based on my interest in it, and it just so happened that four of them were HL. The obvious incentive for taking 4 HLs is the GPA boost. I know many IB students who take an extra AP class virtually or as an elective simply to make their GPAs more heavily weighted. Doing 4 HLs logically eliminates the need for that one AP class. If you’re really into climbing up your class rank, 4 HL classes can help you, assuming you do well in them.

Colleges may also be impressed with that extra HL when you’re applying, which is also another class you can get college credit for if your scores are high enough. The way IB classes are taught at your school can also encourage you to take 4 HLs (though it might not be a reason for doing so). For example at my school, all IB classes– except for mathematics– contain both SL and HL students. In most of these classes, HL students are taught full-time while SL students have occasional breaks when HL-only material is covered. However, in English and Economics, my teachers structure their classes to teach what is generally the same material to all students, with little to no HL-only days. Personally, it almost became a no-brainer to bump up a level in these classes—I’m already learning the material, why not get the credit for it? I realize that this setup is very, very rare—but, if you find yourself in a class where both HL and SL students are taught essentially the same things, think about switching up to HL.

OK, So Should I Do It?

Think long and hard about the kind of student you are. Are you a super committed artist or athlete who will just barely be able to survive by taking the normal IB Diploma track? The added stress of an HL, however minimal, could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. If academics is your main focus and you want to get the absolute most out of the IB Diploma Programme, it’s definitely a good idea to consider an extra HL class.

However, don’t take four HLs just because you can. Your HL classes should be subjects you have a genuine interest or passion in—that’s the only way you’ll be able to get through all the extra work. If you already have three HLs and your only other options are classes that you feel required to take, don’t force yourself to take one of those classes at HL—it’ll just be miserable.

Overall, I don’t regret the IB courses I chose. Though my HL classes are definitely hard, they’re my most rewarding classes. Though whether it creates four times the fear or four times the fun is debatable, taking four HL classes definitely adds another dimension to any IB experience.

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  1. Kaan ISIK on April 21, 2016

    As an pre-IB student, I’m required to decide on my HL-SL classes and when I told this to our IB coordinateur he said “4 HLs will push you to your limits, not just academically or mentally but physically” and he mentioned one of diploma program students who took 4 HLs hospitalised this week and this makes me a little concerned and nervous. Last, I would be glad if you can inform me a little more about 4 HLs .
    Thank you

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