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Duke University
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Varun Srinivasan
4 IB Guides

Ultimate Guide To IB Chemistry HL Exam

What’s Covered:


The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) is known as an exceptional alternative to the APs when it comes to a quality highschool curriculum. One of the factors that have contributed to this success is IB’s set of science subjects. IB science subjects are some of the most practical science classes a student could take, thanks to the emphasis on the lab-first style of learning instead of a traditional textbook-based class.


IB’s Chemistry HL may be one of the most popular science subjects taken by students, and it’s well known to be as difficult as it is recognized by universities. This guide will break down IB Chemistry HL and its examination format. 


IB HL vs SL: What’s the Difference?


All IB classes are separated into two sets, Higher Level (HL) and Standard Level (SL). THe biggest difference between the two sets can boil down to difficulty and amount of coursework expected of the student to study.


HL classes are considered the best subjects to take if you want to streamline your major selection in university, as the content you learn is usually the stuff you’ll learn in your first year of university. Simply put, HL can be considered equivalent to freshman/sophomore year chemistry course at a college/university, which is also why HL classes can earn credit in most universities. 


How Do HL Papers/Exams Work?


There are 3 papers in Chemistry HL, just like SL! They are structured as follows: 


  • Paper 1: 40 Points (MCQ) / 60 minutes long
  • Paper 2: 95 Points / 2 hours 15 minutes long
  • Paper 3: 45 Points / 1 hours 15 minutes long


Paper 1 is the MCQ exam. You have about 1 minute and 30 seconds per question, so speed is an essential skill for scoring well on this. The calculator is not permitted for this exam, however you do get a chemistry data booklet, a set of documents with the exam that contain all the formulas, values and data required to complete the examination. The lack of a calculator can make this exam tricky, but practicing mathematical operations mentally and memorizing information can be a great way to become more time efficient with the test, giving you more time to work on questions that you’d find hard without a calculator. 


Paper 2, usually considered the most rigorous and difficult exam in IB, is full of structured written-response questions. You get about 1 minute and 25 seconds per question, which is what really makes this exam hard! The small amount of time to answer free-response questions can be very difficult and the reason why most students fail this paper. Unlike paper 1, however, calculators are permitted for this, along with the data booklet. 


Paper 3 has two sections unlike the previous papers. Section A has just one question with numerous subquestions, and it’s a data-based problem. This selection tests the student’s knowledge on practical concepts and lap techniques in chemistry. Section B has a mix of short and long response questions, and the concepts on which you’ll be tested are based on which option you selected for your HL course.


Options are a choice of an extra, additional chapter or topic on top of the required coursework for the class. In this case the options for Chemistry HL include:


  • Material Sciences
  • Biochemistry
  • Energy
  • Medicinal Chemistry


Based on the selection you made, your paper 3’s section B will have varying questions. It’s always best to select an option that not only interests you, but one that you think you could score well in.


How are the IB Chemistry HL Papers/Exams Scored?


With each set of seasonal examinations, there are rubrics/mark schemes attached to each paper (this applies for any IB subject). Rubrics help you understand not only what the correct answer for a question on a paper is, but the most ideal way to arrive at this answer too! This is why it’s suggested that students study past papers to prepare for exams, along with their relative rubrics!


As for how the papers are scored and used to form a grade out of 7 for the subject, IB uses grade boundaries such as this one:


Please note that the grade boundaries change every examination season. For the latest versions, please reach out to your teachers and your school.



“Practical Work” refers to any internal assessments (IAs) done. IAs are essentially assignments and school-based projects that are graded by the school and its faculty as opposed to an external grader. These IAs can include time in the lab, which is usually logged with a lab supervisor.


The overall grading system uses all these scores for each paper, along with the practical work section. The percentage of points earned from all sources is then divided by the number of total points that can be earned. This value is then compared to the “final” column. Based on where this value lands between 15 to 100 (this range is for this class), you can identify what your grade is, ranging from 1 to 7. 


Final Tips


Swapping for SL


A common misunderstanding is that swapping to Chemistry SL is an easy alternative  if HL is too hard. But make no mistake, because you still need to have 3 HL classes in IB, so if you choose to do this, then one of your other SL classes will become a HL class! 


However, if you feel that this change is an overall positive one and could benefit you and your academic performance, then go for it! Switching to SL will help you by loosening the workload on a subject you may already find difficult enough.


Practice Paper 2 Without a Calculator


Although a calculator is allowed for paper 2, try practicing as much as you can without one! You might find that you can pull off a lot of the shorter responses with mental calculations and memorization, which saves time for other questions. Then, when you do end up taking the actual exam you might find it much easier with the availability of a calculator.


How Does the IB chemistry HL Exam Affect My College Chances?


In short, it doesn’t. Your scores matter less to college admissions offices than you might assume. However, taking these classes is still important to prove you’re willing and determined to stick with hard classes, which is something colleges care about. There are a multitude of other factors that determine your chances of getting a university, and with CollegeVine’s intuitive admissions calculator, you can find out what your chances look like! This tool takes in your GPA, extracurriculars, standardized testing scores and more to present you with your chances of getting into a school you’re applying to!

Short Bio
Varun is a recent graduate from Arizona State University, Tempe, with a degree in Computer Science. He aims to share his knowledge of computer science, the IB Diploma Program, and all things college-related with high school students. In his free time, he can be found performing DJ sets or cooking!