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How to Earn an IB Diploma
If you’re a student who intends to take academically challenging classes in high school, you’ve likely heard of International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. While IB course options are not as commonly available in the United States as, for example, Advanced Placement (AP) courses, they have a worldwide reputation for quality and rigor.
When people in the United States speak about “the IB program,” they’re usually referring to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, or IBDP, which is a two-year academic curriculum available to students aged 16 through 19. The IBDP is just one of a number of different educational programs offered by the worldwide IB organization.
If you’re interested in taking just a few IB courses, most high schools with IB programs will allow you to do so. If, however, you’d like to more deeply immerse yourself in the IB curriculum and educational philosophy, receiving an IB diploma through the IBDP may be a compelling option for you to consider.
In this post, we’ll go over the steps you’ll need to take to earn your IB diploma and how to get the maximum benefit from your experience in the IBDP.
A Brief Introduction to the IB Diploma Programme
The IBDP curriculum consists of a range of courses and other requirements that are designed to teach students not only particular facts in a given subject area, but also how to become critical thinkers. It’s somewhat similar to the AP program, in that both offer high school students the opportunity to take advanced, rigorous classes in a widely recognized program.
Close to 900 high schools in the United States currently offer the IBDP, which requires teachers and administrators to undergo special training and certification. This training requirement is one reason why the IBDP is less popular in the US than the AP program. However, popular or not, the IBDP is respected worldwide, and an IB diploma is a valuable asset.
You can learn more about the IB organization and the IBDP in our Beginner’s Guide to the International Baccalaureate Program. We’ve also addressed the topic of how to decide whether to take IB courses in our post Should I Take Honors/AP/IB Classes?
It may be possible for you to take a few IB courses in high school without completing the IBDP. However, undertaking the full diploma program comes with some special benefits, as we previously described in our post What Are The Benefits of Earning an IB Diploma? In this post, we’ll go into more detail about the specific requirements of the IBDP and what you’ll have to do to earn your IB diploma.
First and foremost, the IBDP is a curriculum that provides an overall plan for the coursework you’ll need to take in order to receive the diploma. Just as with your normal high school diploma, in order to receive the IB diploma, you’ll need to complete a certain number of courses in certain subjects at a certain academic level.
The IBDP groups its courses into the following six topic areas:
- Group 1: Studies in language and literature.
- Group 2: Language acquisition.
- Group 3: Individuals and societies.
- Group 4: Experimental sciences.
- Group 5: Mathematics.
- Group 6: The arts.
To receive an IB diploma, each student must take courses in all six subject groups. There are a few variations on this requirement: some high schools offer courses that fulfill multiple subject group requirements at once, and students can also substitute an approved course from subject groups 1 through 5 for the required course in group 6.
Besides breaking down courses into these six categories, the IBDP also splits courses into two different academic levels: Standard Level and Higher Level. Standard Level courses are designed to require at least 150 total hours of instructional time per student per year, while Higher Level courses require at least 240 hours.
To complete the IBDP, you’ll need to take three or four of your subject groups at Higher Level, and the rest at Standard Level. You’re free to choose which subjects to take at which level (within the bounds of what’s offered at your school) in order to customize your academic program to fit your strengths.
In addition to the schoolwork that your teacher grades, each of your IB courses will require you to take a multi-day exam at the end of the school year, which will be graded by an outside evaluator. Your exam grades translate to points on a seven-point scale, and you’ll be subject to additional requirements regarding how many points you earn in total and your average point score across all your IB exams.
Extended Essay Independent Project Requirement
The Extended Essay component of the IBDP requires you to undertake your own independent research on an approved topic of your choice. The eventual product of your research is your Extended Essay, a research paper of up to 4,000 words.
In choosing your Extended Essay topic, you’ll have the freedom to explore a subject or question that personally interests you, but you’ll also need to meet certain requirements—for instance, your topic should be neither too broad nor too narrow for an essay of this length. Your topic also needs to fit neatly into one of the six IB subject groups we listed above; interdisciplinary topics are not permitted.
Throughout the Extended Essay process, you’ll be aided by a faculty supervisor, who will be particularly helpful to you during the research phase. This supervisor will help you to find an appropriate topic, and also to locate and obtain the research materials you’ll need to complete your project.
Like the year-end exams in your IB courses, your Extended Essay will be graded not by your teachers themselves, but by outside IB evaluators. They’ll assess your project on the basis of both general criteria and criteria that are specific to your subject matter.
The IB evaluators will give your Extended Essay a score out of 36 possible points—24 for general criteria and 12 for subject-specific criteria. That score is converted into a grade between A, the highest grade, and E, considered a failing grade. In order to receive your IB diploma, you’ll need to at the very least receive a passing grade on your Extended Essay.
Theory of Knowledge Course Requirement
The Theory of Knowledge portion of the IBDP is based upon a class that you’ll take in school, but this class is different from most classes you’ll have encountered up to this point. Rather than building your knowledge of a particular subject, this course is meant to teach you how to think and how to learn.
The exact content of your Theory of Knowledge course may vary based on your teacher, but across the board, it’s focused on thinking and talking about the idea of knowledge itself, how we know things, and how we assess knowledge claims. It draws heavily from the field of epistemology, or the philosophical study of knowledge.
This may seem like an unusual and challenging topic for a high school course, and it is. Few high school students are explicitly asked to grapple with issues of this type—it’s content you’d expect to find in a college class. However, the Theory of Knowledge course is a key component of the IB curriculum and philosophy, and this boundary-pushing course is one of the reasons why the IBDP enjoys worldwide respect for its rigor and quality.
You can expect your Theory of Knowledge course to require around 100 hours of time in the classroom, which is generally spread across the two years you’ll spend in the IBDP. In addition to taking part in the course and its regular assignments, you’ll need to complete two more projects to meet the Theory of Knowledge requirement for your IB diploma.
First, you’ll prepare a 1,200 to 1,600-word essay which, like your Extended Essay, will be graded by outside evaluators. You’ll choose from a list of provided topics, all of which require you to demonstrate your analytical ability and originality when considering questions about knowledge itself and ways of knowing.
Second, you’ll give a presentation individually or with one or two other students. You’ll choose a topic that applies what you’ve learned in the course to a real-life scenario, and your presentation can take almost any form except that of simply reading an essay aloud. Your presentation will be evaluated by your own Theory of Knowledge instructor.
As with the Extended Essay, your performance in Theory of Knowledge will be expressed as a letter grade on the scale from A to E, and passing Theory of Knowledge is necessary in order for you to receive your IB diploma.
Creativity, Activity, Service Requirement
The last IB diploma criterion you’ll have to meet is a little different from those we’ve covered so far in this post. Known as the Creativity, Activity, Service requirement, or CAS, it’s not an academic course or project, but a rule that you must participate in a certain quantity and variety of extracurricular activities while in the IBDP.
While the IBDP is primarily an academic program, it also recognizes that students can grow a great deal through their extracurricular commitments, and that these other activities are a valuable addition to the rigorous IB coursework. The IBDP divides extracurriculars into three categories—Creativity, Activity, and Service—to help ensure that students explore a variety of different opportunities.
In order to meet the IBDP’s standards for CAS participation, you’ll need to participate in two activities in each of the CAS categories, for a total of at least six activities. You’ll also need to demonstrate that your range of CAS activities has allowed you to achieve the intended outcomes of the CAS program, which are:
- Undertake new challenges
- Plan and initiate activities
- Work collaboratively with others
- Show perseverance and commitment
- Engage with issues of global importance
- Consider ethical implications
- Develop new skills
In the past, the IBDP mandated that each student complete and report a specific number of CAS hours in order to receive their diploma. This requirement has since been dropped, in part to encourage students to focus on the meaningful qualities of their activities rather than their duration. (Some individual high schools may still have specific rules regarding the number of CAS hours you’ll need to complete.)
At present, the IBDP requires that you participate in some CAS activity each week, though you don’t have to participate in every activity every week. You should expect to regularly spend three to four hours a week on CAS activities, and at least one of your CAS projects needs to be a commitment of one month or longer in duration.
Though your CAS participation is not as strictly managed as some other aspects of the IBDP, you’ll still have to undergo some assessments to ensure that you’re meeting IB standards. In part, this includes keeping a log or other records of your CAS projects, including the signatures of activity advisors, so that you and your school can review your CAS experience.
For More Information
To learn more about the IBDP, its philosophy, and its requirements, you can visit the official IBDP website. For CollegeVine’s expert perspective and advice, be sure to check out our Beginner’s Guide to the International Baccalaureate Program.
Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academics, choosing courses, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and much more!
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