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Varun Srinivasan
5 IB Guides

Ultimate Guide to the IB Physics HL Exam

What’s Covered:


This blog is going to be about the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, or IBDP for short. For more information about IBDP and what the IB diploma is, please refer to CollegeVine’s guide to IBDP!


IB HL vs SL: What’s the Difference?


IBDP is a two year long program, with six subjects chosen by the student based on six subject groups. Each subject is divided into two variations called Higher Level (HL) and Standard Level (SL). This blog is going to focus on group 4, the experimental sciences, and one of their flagship courses, Physics.


SL and HL courses are varied in difficulty and amount of the coursework available to the student. Such differences must be noted prior to signing up for classes; it’s best to choose your HL selections with what might match your pursuits for further education (college/university). This better prepares you for further education and, depending on your school, might get you extra semester credits. Additionally, while you can do more than three HL subjects, three is already a lot of workload on the student already, so know your limits.


How do IB Physics HL Papers/Exams Work?


In Physics,HL or SL, you take three papers/exams over the course of your examinations. These papers are labeled as paper 1, paper 2 and paper 3. Each of the papers are meant to test the student on different qualities of the coursework, and challenge the student to approach different kinds of problems with different mindsets/perspectives. 


Paper 1 


Paper 1 is an MCQ exam, with 1 hour for 40 questions in the HL variant. You are not allowed to use a calculator during this exam, however you are handed a data booklet. All experimental science exams provide a data booklet, which contains necessary formulae and data relevant to the exam questions. This paper is designed to be difficult despite being an MCQ, with questions that require lots of math/scratch-working. This is also why paper 1 tends to be scored more leniently in respect to grade boundaries, something we’ll get into with more detail later. 


Paper 2 


Paper 2 is a free response, with short and extended response questions. A calculator is permitted for this exam, and for this paper the data booklet is crucial to complete the questions in this paper! The paper is 135 minutes long with up to 95 marks of questions. This paper does make up 36% of your total IB Physics grade, so it’s important to take this exam seriously. The difficulty of the exam is shown evidently in the grade boundaries, with the paper 2 grade boundaries tending to be relatively lower. 


Paper 3


Please note that IB students for examination sessions in 2022 will NOT have to write paper 3, but future examinations might. 


Paper 3 is an hour and 15 minutes long free response exam, worth up to 45 marks. You are allowed both the booklet and a calculator for this examination, both of which you will be thankful to use for this paper, given the amount of calculation-based questions there are. Paper 3 uses a lot of data-based problems with free responses based on experimental work from your time in the lab. The paper checks your knowledge of the scientific method, application of experimental methods specific to this class, safety procedures in a lab, and many more technical aspects of the class. It is, however, considered to be the easiest of the three papers.


How are the IB Physics HL Papers/Exams Scored?


Grading for the exam is done based on a rubric associated with each paper. For paper 2 and paper 3, this rubric is going to not only have the right answer that the student must arrive at, but also the right working/method in which this student should come to this answer. 


IB schools will give students access to previous examinations for most subjects or at least what’s taught at school, including previous exam rubrics/mark schemes. So, if you study the rubric of an olderexam, with their respective past papers for practice, you will get better at writing the papers and you’ll learn to work towards answers the way IB expects the student should. This can help maximize the number of points you can grab out of each question, leading to a better grade!


In order to calculate your grade for the subject out of 7, IB uses a grade boundary (as mentioned earlier). Keep in mind, each year has a different set of boundaries for every IB subject, so make sure to check in with your school for the most recently updated one. The following is an example: 



“Practical Work” is the same as the internal research-based assessments done within the classrooms with teacher supervision (example: lab time), as a part of the overarching core of the IB’s group 4 subjects.


To calculate your final grade out of 7, use the following formula:

Paper 1 Score + Paper 3 Score + Paper 2 Score + Practical Work Score30 + 35 + 50 +24 * 100


This formula will provide a percentage, which can then be compared to the “Final” column in the grade boundaries table. Depending on where the calculated percentage sits on the column, you’d know your score from 1 to 7. Keep in mind to pass a subject, you must get a four. This process is done again with all six other subjects in order to adhere to the overarching grading system in IBDP.


Final Tips


Exam season is very stressful for students around the world, and especially so for IBDP students. However through stress management and certain tips, you can make the most out of the exams and make them less harsh of an experience! 


Spend More Time in the Lab


HL, more than SL, requires a deeper understanding of the technicalities and meticulous forms of work in the lab. Lab work is not only what makes a better scientist, but also greatly helps you score points on what might be considered the easiest exam in physics, paper 3. Paper 3 is a trove of free points if you prepare enough for it, so don’t lose on this opportunity!


Revise Your SL Concepts 


If you find yourself struggling with the contents of the coursework, you might be lacking a strong foundation/beginning. To solve this, refer to SL coursework temporarily, because it usually has easier questions for the same concepts shared with HL, just in a format that is usually easier to read, understand and execute. Practicing and mastering SL is the key to forming an amazing foundation for HL. 


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


It’s important to remember that your scores in exams aren’t as important regarding your college/university admissions as you might assume. What’s actually more important is showing that you’re dedicated to being a determined student by taking difficult classes and sticking through with them when you apply. To make more sense out of admissions and your shots at universities, try using CollegeVine’s free admissions calculator. The innovative calculator uses standardized test scores, GPA, extracurricular and more information about you to determine your chances of admissions into a university!

Short Bio
Varun is a junior at Arizona State University, Tempe. He aims to share his knowledge of college admissions and the IB Diploma Program with high school students. In his free time, he can be found making music or trying a new recipe!