The IB: What is it?


If you’re applying to US colleges from the Philippines, you may have already heard of something called the IB or the International Baccalaureate. In your college research, you will have probably discovered that US colleges love this and something else called AP (that’s pretty rare here in the Philippines and we won’t talk about it here) Very few high schools in the Philippines offer the IB as part of their curriculum choices (there are only fifteen at last count) but many candidates are curious and want to know what it is (addressed in this post) and how it will affect their applications going forward (addressed in the next post).

The International Baccalaureate Organization ( was founded in 1968 in Geneva as a way for students studying outside their home countries to obtain the necessary qualifications to go to college in their home country. Over the years it has expanded to four different programs: the Primary Years Programme, the Middle Years Programme, the Diploma Programme, and the new Career Related Certificate. For the purposes of this post, we will limit our discussion to the Diploma Programme (by the way, this is their spelling, not mine) which covers the high school and is what universities are interested in.

The Diploma Programme (DP) is a two year commitment begun in the junior year of high school (11th grade or High 3), continues onto the senior year (12th grade or High 4) and culminates in final exams after the second year. These exams are administered worldwide by the IBO office in Geneva in May and November. Students here normally take the May administration and yes, if you are doing this you need to return to school in May after you graduate in March to take the exams. You cannot do the DP for only one year…it’s two years or nothing and you MUST take the final exams (external assessments they call them) that will cover TWO years of material.

If your high school offers the IB, it will normally have you leave the regular curriculum stream of your high school and go into the IB stream. The IB curriculum requires that you take six IB classes in each of six distinct areas: language acquisition (a language outside your native language), language and literature (normally English for us), individuals and society (social science, business, psychology), mathematics, science (normally physics, chemistry, and biology for us), and arts (drama, film, dance, music). Students have the option of forgoing arts and picking up a second course in any of the five other areas (usually students pick a second science). Three of the six courses must be taken at “higher level” (HL) and the other three at “standard level” (SL), the choice of which courses to take HL or SL is left up to the student and will normally correspond to the student’s interests (or lack thereof) in the various subjects. Each of the courses is marked 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest). In addition to the classwork, a DP candidate is required to take a class called Theory of Knowledge (TOK), submit an extended essay (I call it a term paper), and perform Community, Action, and Service (CAS) hours. To get your diploma, you must get at least 24 points (you get the number of points equal to your grade in each of your 6 IB classes and anywhere from 0 to 3 points for CAS, TOK, and your extended essay). The perfect score is 45 points (get all 7s in your six classes and all three points for your CAS, TOK and extended essay).

For example, I have two students who took the IB and here are their course lists and results

Student A:

Math HL: 7 Physics HL: 7 Geography HL: 6
Chinese SL: 5 English SL: 5 Chemistry SL: 6
CAS/TOK/Extended Essay: 3/3

Total Diploma Points: 39

Note that this student did not take the Arts class and instead substituted it with a second science

Student B:

Business Management HL: 6 English HL: 6 Visual Arts HL: 4
Math SL: 5 Physics SL: 5 Chinese SL: 4
CAS/TOK/Extended Essay: 2/3

Total Diploma Points: 32

Note that this student did the Arts class and did it at Higher Level.

In both cases, the student was awarded the Diploma. Note that in addition to the minimum 24 points, there are other requirements.

IB spongebob

If after reading all that, you decide that the IB must be very hard, then you’ve come to a fairly accurate conclusion. I say “fairly accurate” because I would say that the IB is rigorous rather than just plain “very difficult”. The IB classes require much much more than rote memorization, taking multiple guess exams, and writing the occasional trite essay. It demands depth of understanding and thinking that most high school students (even the very best ones) are not accustomed to. This is where most of the perceived difficulty of IB lies. That said, the IB was not designed solely for the smart, it really was aimed at average students. Given that, the true challenge of IB is time management. It is really easy to become swamped in the myriad requirements, assessments, and preparation required to succeed in the IB.

The question you must be asking yourself now is: is it all worth it? How will this affect my chances at the most competitive US colleges if my high school does not offer IB? All this and more in our next episode….


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