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IB Survival Guide for Savvy Students Part One: Subject Selection

By Megha Parwani

This is part one in a series of articles about how to face each (of the many, many) challenges the IBDP throws at you. What gives our advice credibility? Well, not much besides the fact that we’re coming out of the IB in one piece and within the ballpark of good mental health. Take our words with a grain of salt.

It’s that time of the year. You’re lurking about in that strange lull. IGCSEs are just around the corner, but not close enough to inspire mortal panic, and mocks have just dealt their blow. Depending on your worldview, you’re either in the calm before a beastly storm or tuning your instruments to play a career-making symphony.

Then you get the white packet.

A4, embellished with the UWCSEA logo, and eerily like a college acceptance letter: this is your IB subject packet. Your future, your legacy, your everything.

Just kidding. But the packet is still pretty darn important.

The envelope is big and scary, in the periphery you can see the DP coordinator and your new head-of-grade moving about on stage, sharing guidance of some sort. But all you feel is weight in your hands.

Where you go from this assembly depends vastly from person to person. Some will go running to sign up for their three Higher Levels (or six if you’re particularly ambitious), while others will stuff the envelope away, willing it to spontaneously combust. Many could probably not care less, but the tone of this piece is mock-dramatic, so just go with it. I’ll admit, I was in the latter group. Blue-shirt me couldn’t choose between ketchup and honey mustard at Sublicious: how was I expected to seal my fate for two years with this 6-by-6 subject selection grid? Now, kids, make not my mistake, nor that of the overzealous child. Here’s our sage advice:

Talk (and listen) to your teachers, parents, and inner voice

Believe it or not, they actually know what they’re talking about. Having been teenagers themselves, going through heaps of education, and actually teaching the IB has taught them a thing or two about how to navigate this process. They also like talking to you, and their advice is probably more savvy than that from It’s up to you to optimize interactions with them: don’t ask stupid questions (How easy is it to get a 7?) and inquire if there are any resources that could give you an idea of the nature/bulk of content.

Go to the IB subject-selection evening, and listen to the students actually experiencing these courses. Ask questions (this is becoming a pattern). Be shrewd when accepting advice. In most cases, these kids are amongst the most passionate in their classes, so while they can show the extent of devotion a class is capable of inspiring (which should be a green light), remember that their experience will not necessarily be yours.

Consider which doors you’re opening (and closing) with your package

The UAC website has a beautiful matrix of the university requirements. Be sure to check them and chat with your family about how university might look for you in two years’ time. Its sad to discover an amazing program, only to find you do not meet the subject requirements.

Select subjects you will enjoy for all 370 days (don’t feel pressured to take a subject by your teachers or parents)

During exams, economics students fills up ⅔ of the hall. A third of these kids worship econs, myself included, but others dread every diagram. Half of these kids probably want to study Economics at a higher education, while others cannot coherently justify their subject choice. With all due respect to the lovely subject, it isn’t for everyone. Don’t let subject stereotypes (e.g. Geo students have few career prospects) and decontextualized statistics (e.g. only 5% students get a 7 in HL Bio) replace actual reflection about what subjects to take. And, please, don’t take Economics just because you want to make heaps of money in the future.

Bonus: Don’t take 4 HLs

Just don’t do it. IB is challenging enough as it is, and most universities recognize this. As someone who dropped their fourth HL two weeks into Grade 11, I can say it was one of the best decisions I’ve made ever. Commit fully to three HLs and live a little during these two wonderful and painful years.
Good luck and remember what they say: new shirt, new you.

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