What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)
Varun Srinivasan
4 IB Guides

What is IB SL and HL?

What’s Covered:


The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IBDP) offers many challenging courses, including subjects ranging from mathematics to psychology. Each course is designed in a manner that promotes inquisitive and explorative thinking, pushing students to question everything they learn and research above and beyond conventional high school standards. 


This two-year curriculum sets students apart in the college admissions process, with IB students usually being more capable of a college-level workload by the time they graduate. That being said, because IB lets students take free reign over choosing their own subjects and given the number of options, students have a hard time picking subjects. In order to tackle this, we will focus on IB’s standard level courses (SL), higher level courses (HL), and which ones you should take. 


What are the Differences between IB SL and HL?


For each possible subject a student can take, there are two versions: a higher level (HL) and a standard level (SL). The difference between HL and SL ultimately boils down to a difference in difficulty, but that doesn’t mean every HL is inherently scary or meant to be avoided. HL subjects tend to delve deeper into the concepts that SL subjects cover, providing more applicable and realistic applications of what you learn. For example, SL math would discuss the theory and formulae behind calculus, but HL math would teach you to then use those calculus concepts to find the rotational inertia of an object! Simply put, SL teaches you the “what” behind concepts and theories, while HL teaches you the “how” and “why.”


Students who take HL classes often find themselves questioning the concepts of their subjects more than SL students, and this is because IB promotes inquisitive thinking that challenges traditional ways of learning. This is why you’d find that the internal assessments for HL classes tend to be much more demanding and rigorous compared to SL. Expect your HL internal assessments to almost feel like extended essays in their own way! 


How to Choose Whether to Take SL or HL


Choosing HL or SL can be difficult, but narrowing it down to the following three factors will definitely help in the decision-making process. Understanding your individual strengths and how they align with your academic goals is very important!




While SL IB classes are already considered to be difficult classes in their own right, HL cases are notorious for being university-level content, which is why most IB students feel more than ready to tackle collegiate-level courses. Difficulty can be different for everyone for each subject, so make sure to think about your interests and how they align with school. For example, if you find yourself more interested in the practical applications of mathematics, math HL might be for you! Finding an HL subject you’d actually enjoy will be more beneficial to you, and will make it seem less hard. 


Relevance to College/University


When you apply to universities as an IB student, admissions officers will check to see which courses you opted to take HL in, and whether or not they relate to the selected major you applied for. Therefore, make sure to pick HL classes that can actually provide relevant information for your major, showing colleges you took the time and effort to plan and succeed in your further education. 


Access to Mentorship


Because IB is a student-centric curriculum, students can take any class they want regardless of whether or not their school can facilitate a teacher for this class. This is interesting because it allows students to self-study for courses that they might find easier and more flexible, but it can also have its downsides. Not having a teacher in a course can lead to students taking HL classes on their own when they might not necessarily be prepared for it, leading to possible failure or dissatisfactory experiences in the class.


Creating a Balanced Course Load


Keep in mind that, though IB content is standardized, the actual differences in difficulty between SL and HL will vary depending on your high school. Also, your school might not necessarily offer both SL and HL for each subject. So, make sure to research your prospective courses specific to your high school to determine which ones will be the most difficult to take.


While you want to demonstrate to colleges that you’re challenging yourself by taking the most difficult classes available, you also don’t want to do this at the risk of sacrificing your GPA. Make sure to build your course load with a good balance of difficult courses while still ensuring that you’ll have sufficient time to get good grades in each.


How Does This Affect IB Scores?


While your actual grades in both HL and SL classes don’t have a big impact on your chances of college admissions, college admissions officers will make sure to check whether or not the HL classes you signed up for align with the particular major you’ve applied for! This makes sense because scoring well in HL classes can earn you college credits (just like with AP classes). In order to better understand what your college admissions chances to your dream school might look like and what factors shape it, use CollegeVine’s college admissions calculator! This tool takes into account your GPA, test scores, and more to determine your unique chances at colleges.

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!