A Quick Guide to Subjects (and the IB)

The International Baccaleaureate (IB) is fantastic. It’s an international organization set up about a few decades ago to provide students with a wide range of subjects, aiming at developing the student holistically. This means that, with the IB, school isn’t the only thing that counts. You also have to take part in CAS (Creativity, Action and Service) – or as they are called at LPC, Quan Cais (QCs).

Other features of the International Baccaleareate are the Extended Essay (EE, pronounced “ee-ee” – a max. 4000 word essay on a topic of your choice – with limitations) and Theory of Knowledge (TOK – pronounced “tee-oh-kay”, or, if you’re fancy, “tock”), a compulsory philosophy course culminating in a TOK presentation and a TOK essay.

Your final IB score will be out of 45 (you take 6 subjects, where you can get a maximum of 7 points in each subject, plus 3 available points based on your combined TOK and EE grades). The three points available from the TOK grade and the EE grade are explained toward the end of this page.

When it comes to choosing subjects in the IB, you can take six subjects – in general, one subject from each of the six different subject areas:

  1. Group 1 – Languages. The Group 1 language(s) are typically referred to as Group 1 subjects or A languages, and are native or near-native language courses. The IB offers Literature (e.g. English Lit) as well as Language and Literature (e.g. English LangLit) courses in these. At UWCs, it is common for students to take their Group 1 subject as a self-taught subject.
  2. Group 2 – Languages. The Group 2 language(s) are non-native languages, where the focus is on building vocabulary and being able to communicate. These subjects can be B-subjects (e.g. French B, for someone who has taken French for 3-5 years) or ab initio subjects (e.g. Mandarin ab initio, for someone who has little or no experience with the language in question).
  3. Group 3 – Humanities/Social Sciences. The Group 3 subjects vary in type.
  4. Group 4 – Natural Sciences. The Group 4 subjects are typically Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Environmental Systems and Studies is a subject that counts as both a Group 3 and a Group 4 subject. This particular subject will be discussed later.
  5. Group 5 – Mathematics. Maths is compulsory for all IB students, but the level of maths is chosen by the student.
  6. Group 6 – Arts.

When it comes to subject areas in the IB, the general rule is that you have to take one subject from each subject area (One group 1 subject, one group 2… you get the picture). There are, however some exceptions:

  • Instead of taking one group 1 subject (Language A) and one group 2 subject (Language B or language ab initio), you can take two group 1 subjects.
  • As Environmental Systems and Studies (ESS) counts as both a Group 3 and a Group 4 subject, it “frees up” a subject space. This can be used for taking an “extra” subject in any of the subject groups (except maths). For example, one can take ESS and two Group 6 subjects, or ESS plus Chemistry. There are endless possibilities.
  • Group 6 is not a compulsory subject group. The Group 6 subject can be “replaced” by a Subject from groups 1-4 (e.g. I take Chemistry and Biology – both group 4 subjects – but I don’t take a Group 6 subject).

When you have chosen your six subjects, it is time to look at the Higher Level/Standard Level split.

With the IB, you must take at least 3 of your subjects to Higher Level (HL), and at most 3 of your subjects to Standard Level (SL). The subjects you choose to take to HL will mainly depend on what you are planning to study later (e.g. if you are planning to study Physics at university, it would be a good idea to take both Physics HL and Maths HL). Taking 4 HLs is permitted, but having 4 SLs is not. When choosing subjects, it is a good idea to be aware of the following things:

  • Self-taught A languages (Group 1) cannot be taken to HL (at least at LPCUWC – ask if you are not sure about your school). You cannot write an Extended Essay in a Self-taught A language (at least at LPCUWC).
  • Ab initio languages (Group 2) cannot be taken to HL. You cannot write an Extended Essay in a Self-taught A language.
  • ESS is an SL-only subject (at LPCUWC), as is Business and Management (at LPCUWC).
  • Some subjects are considered “soft” subjects by universities. Generally, “soft” subjects will be subjects that cannot be taken to HL (excluding languages), such as Business and Management, or they will subjects not “traditionally” examined in high schools. Normally a university will not have a problem with you taking one “soft” subject, but taking multiple “soft” subjects may cause them to be hesitant in letting you in.

Different IB schools will offer different subjects, so it is important to look at their list before making a subject decision. Below is a list and a short description of the subjects I take, and how I feel about them.

Group 1 – Norwegian self-taught (SL):
I love self-taught. Imagine sitting in a classroom where the languages spoken range from Armenian to Urdu. Having students speaking such diverse languages sitting in the same room and discussing the same social issues is a very special experience. The course (at least at LPC) is set up so that we finish the subject in our first year here. This means that during our second year, we get more time to focus on our five remaining subjects. The structure of the self-taught course is good – the vast majority of the self-taught assessments are things we get to prepare in advance (like Part 1, which is an essay that I wrote over the Christmas holiday of 2014, or Part 4, which is an oral commentary based on bullet points I am going to write at some point over the next three weeks). Self-taught students at LPC are taught in-class by English teachers, who help us with class discussions and with the general matters of the course. We also have our own self-taught tutors, who help us with language-specific matters. Self-taught is a very stressful course if taken over one year only, but is a very interesting subject that will provide you with lots of free time over the second year!

Group 2 – Mandarin ab initio (SL):
Mandarin is also pretty great. I can say lots of things in Mandarin – like “you are my close friend” (你是我的好朋友) and “I am going to watch the acrobatics” (我去看杂技). With that being said, this is a subject that requires good study techniques, a steady hand and a lot of patience. As Mandarin is a tonal language, I sometimes find it quite difficult to distinguish between the tones. With that being said, the local students at LPC are a great resource – I have a Mandarin buddy (Tiana) who puts up with my awful foreigner’s accent and helps me with my stroke order whenever I need it. And who doesn’t like being able to say that they can speak (some) (poor) Chinese?

Update as per 31/08/2018: I went to university in the UK to do a 3-year Bachelor of Laws. In Year 1, I did a Chinese evening class. In Year 2, I did a credit-bearing Chinese module (and did pretty well). In Year 3, I will be auditing Level 4 Chinese (the classes only go up to Level 5, so I’m happy with that).

Group 3 – Geography (HL):
Geography is possibly my favourite subject at LPC. At LPC, this subject is taught almost entirely paperlessly. In Geography, we don’t just look at where countries are and their capital cities. So far, we have looked at everything from Gender Inequality to the Millenium Development Goals and to the Demographic Transition Model. Geography teaches lots of things that are useful to know, and connects the information to other subjects and themes within the course. I very much enjoyed it.

Group 4 – Chemistry (HL) and Biology (HL):
I based my plan for my future on these two subjects. I was quite apprehensive when I first arrived at LPC, because I had no previous experience with these subjects – I only had experience with the general subject named “Science”. In the beginning, I felt like I had lots to learn and catch up on. At the end of the first term, though, I felt that (almost) everyone in the class was up to the same level. I really enjoy Chemistry and Biology – I find it immensely interesting to learn about things related to everyday life in the simplest possible ways. Sometimes I hear people wondering about things out loud to themselves – ever since I began with Chemistry and Biology, I find that I can reason my way to more and more of the answers to those questions!

Note as per 31/08/2018: I definitely had an advantage in these subjects over other Norwegian students in that I spoke fluent English before even arriving at LPC. Also note now that I ended up changing my mind in my final year at LPC and completing a Law degree in the UK. Applying for and getting into Law with high school focus on Science subjects was not a problem.

Group 5 – Mathematics (SL):
I spent two months in Higher Level Maths, looking around and wondering whether no one else understood it either, or whether I was just a complete idiot. I paid attention in class and copied all the notes, but still ended up spending an entire weekend revising for our first test. When we received it back, I got a reasonably high score, but I decided I was done with spending entire weekends cramming maths – not to mention that the Internal Assessment exploration is significantly harder for HL students than SL students (note from the future: my Internal Assessment in SL Maths was still awful). My advice for choosing subjects: if you don’t need it, don’t take it. Studying Engineering, Physics or Maths at university will always require you to take HL Maths while completing the IBDP. Some Economics programs also require HL maths, but most other programs are more than happy to accept decent SL grades.

Other information to consider:

  • I did not take English as a subject. As I have already finished the English curriculum back home, I didn’t really see the need to re-take the subject. Also, I figured that since I was born in the UK, I could magically convince the admissions people at university to let me in. That turns out to be false – I will be taking the IELTS in March/April, so I can prove to the admissions people that I speak English. Taking English is a good idea – if you have at least a 5 in English A, universities will normally be satisfied.
  • My subjects while at LPCUWC were geared towards applying for Science degrees. I didn’t have a very essay-based subject (such as History) while completing the IBDP, but admissions officers at universities in the UK didn’t seem to care too much. It was more about engagement and doing well in the subjects that I had taken.

CAS – Creativity, Action and Service

When it comes to the IB, they want well-rounded students (as demonstrated by their rules for choosing subjects). In addition to taking and passing your subjects, you must also take part in 150 hours of CAS (or QCs, as they’re called at LPC). These activities can range from cooking to volunteering, and are often extracurriculars you will put on university applications later. They must be documented in the form of “reflections”.

Being completely honest, getting enough CAS hours is something you won’t need to worry about at any UWC. There are more than enough activities to choose from, and if you can’t find one that’s suited to your tastes, you can propose a new activity in your first year, that you will then lead in the second year.

TOK – Theory of Knowledge

Theory of Knowledge is a compulsory philosophy course. Your TOK grade together with your EE grade can give you up to three “extra” points in the IB. The TOK grade is taken from a TOK presentation and a TOK essay. At LPC, the Theory of Knowledge course is taken from October in the first year to October in the second year.

If you have any questions or comments about the IB system, don’t hesitate to contact me on the “Contact” button at the top of the page!

5 thoughts on “A Quick Guide to Subjects (and the IB)

  1. Tusen takk for masse informasjon! 🙂 Veldig gøy å få lese detaljert om IB og de forskjellige fagene/faggruppene. Skal selv sende søknaden min nå om ca en uke, og er utrolig spent!

  2. Pingback: Last chance to apply… | Emma in Hong Kong

    • Hi Clinton, thank you for the compliment and great question. Apologies for the delay in getting back to you!

      For someone wanting to continue on to pre-med programs, I would say going with two Natural Science subjects (subject group 4) at Higher Level would be a good option, probably Biology and Chemistry. If a student is doing two natural sciences to Higher Level, they would want to do Mathematics (subject group 5) at either Standard Level or Higher Level (i.e. they would not want to do Mathematical Studies Standard Level). That leaves the student with three subjects left, which must be two languages (subject groups 1 and 2) and a Social Science. Which languages you take do not matter so much, as long as you meet language requirements for where you want to study after high school (if in doubt, ask a careers advisor or contact the schools you will be applying to). For the Social Science, I would look at what you enjoy and think you would do well at.

      Note: It is a good idea to know which country in which you want to complete pre-med programs, as some jurisdictions will have specific subject requirements before they permit you to continue studying Medicine. For example, in Norway, it is a requirement for students to have completed a certain level of Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics (but not Biology) before beginning to study Medicine at university.

      Best of luck with your subject selection! Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance.

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