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Bringing the IB to university

The University of Rochester organized the very first IB orientation event on 3 September 2017 for first-year university students who completed the Diploma Programme (DP). Here’s how it worked and why students attended.

By Sky Brandt

While much of the US was celebrating Labor Day weekend and having their last barbecue of the summer, I stopped by the University of Rochester in the great state of New York. They are the first university to gather incoming IB graduates as part of a new orientation event. It was billed as a chance to get to know your fellow DP grads and take an honest look at what it means to enter university with an IB diploma under your belt. This was not going to be your typical sit-and-listen orientation. Here’s how it went down:

Part 1: “You did IB too?”

I showed up early, arriving to find an empty ballroom with 100 chairs and a lone podium. I wondered: what if no one attends? Thinking back to my own university experience years ago, I had had plenty of things to do in my first two weeks: would I have skipped an event like this? The Rochester staff happily reassured me, they will show!

The first students arrived a few minutes before our planned start time. Okay, two students … not bad. They wandered up to our registration table, looking around, considering if they had arrived in the right place. The two caught an awkward glance of recognition, smiled, and then it happened:

“Hey, wait … you did IB too?”

With a healthy-sized platter of fruit and cookies as fuel for conversation, I watched as this same exchange re-occurred a dozen more times in the next fifteen minutes. We had printed out name tags with IB World Schools, countries and extended essay topics. Many of these students already knew each other – but hadn’t yet discovered they had a hidden commonality: internal assessments, theory of knowledge (TOK), creativity, activity service (CAS), 4s, 5s, 7s and 4,000 words.

IB students carry with them a common experience. They are asked to think, read, write, reflect and analyze – and were assessed using the same rigorous standards. These individuals came from Kenya, The Netherlands, Turkey, Texas, Nevada, Indiana, New York, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and collided here at the University of Rochester. As it turns out they have a lot in common and it was a lot of fun. We also wanted the event to offer them something unique.

Part 2: Write down your questions

During the orientation, students wrote down questions for third and fourth year students about how their IB education supported their university studies and what they needed to improve.

A dozen juniors and seniors were also invited to attend. They helped us count off new students into eight small groups and headed off to separate corners of the ballroom.

Each small group was then asked to write down five or more key questions that we would pose to a panel of actual Rochester students. How did you translate the IB experience to the academic demands at the University of Rochester? Was your first semester super easy? What was most challenging?

Part 3: Has the IB prepared me for university?

Four of the junior and senior students from the dozen in attendance took the stage. They were selected randomly and fielded most questions. They covered the advantages, the mistakes, and the expectations that IB students bring with them to a campus. Much of this applies to any incoming university student – but IB students arrive with a unique set of strengths and perhaps an Achilles heel or two to keep an eye on.  45 minutes later we had to stop the panel – they had a lot to say and they didn’t hold back.

I moderated the panel, so the notes below are paraphrased. On my flight home, I jotted down what I found most poignant, and most surprising:

Q: Were you ready to write at the university level?

“Easy. Yes. 1,000-word essay? That’s a warmup exercise now – 4,000-word essay, getting warmer. You’ll find that you’re equally or more prepared than anyone else on campus. You’re going to write a lot and it will be a breeze”

Q: Did the DP exams match they style of exams you now encounter here at university?

Yes. “No sweat. IB exams prepare you for exactly what you will encounter. Hands down.”

Q: Does the learner profile still mean something to you?

“Believe us – the learner profile? It sticks with you. Carrying the learner profile attributes with you—caring, principled, knowledgeable, etc.—as funny as that sounds, it will never be a disadvantage.”

Q: Is TOK actually valuable at the university level?

“Absolutely. Consider a pre-med track. Ethical decision making and how to apply your knowledge when working with patients or conducting research is something that you will be asked to study and, believe it or not, TOK was preparation for this.”

So far, I’ve sung the praises of the DP. But, these attributes are the skills that students already have – these serve as reassurances, but the real value of the orientation involved revealing the blind corners of the university experience that you never see coming as a freshman. For example:

Q: What critical skill should we try to develop further?

“Time management. Even simple things like writing an email can be critical and easily overlooked. Write everything down that you want to get done on a given day—I use a whiteboard—when your list is complete, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment and know you can take it easy the rest of the day.”

“Surprise … reading. Yes, you think you read a lot. If you are not a science major don’t be surprised when you find yourself reading a book or two each week.”

Q: How do I anticipate what I will need to know during a class?

Listen and watch carefully. If a professor highlights something, write it down. If they underline something, write it down. Often times, they will find a way to tell you exactly what is important.”

Q: What did IB not prepare you for?

“IB students need to be ready to adapt to new circumstances and keep an open mind. The IB diploma is rigorous preparation, but it’s just one way of learning, don’t expect the learning to stop there or be easy.”

“Asking for help and talking to professors. When you are struggling with the DP, usually your teacher comes to you. At university, you have to go to your professor and talk to them.”

“Not everything can be learned in a book, some things you have to do just do – particularly in computer science. Work in groups and choose students to work with who will teach you something as you complete your assignments.”

The response I found most surprising?

Q: Why don’t I get credit for all of my IB exams, particularly standard level (SL) exams?

“Take the credit for electives, but you might not want it to jump ahead. Consider STEM subjects as an example, the pace of university-level math and science is very fast – much faster than any high school course. You might get credit to skip a semester of calculus; but is it worth it? It might not always be the case. No matter how hard you studied during the IB – you may find yourself better prepared by taking everything in stride your first year. As for that calculus class? It might repeat some material from HL math – but it will also have ten new things you’ve never seen before. If you take that first semester, second will be a breeze and you’ll know the subject matter better than anyone else.”

Do you have additional questions? Put them in the comments below and I’ll help find an IB grad to help provide answer.

Sky Brandt manages communications projects for alumni and parents at the IB. If he’s not editing a story from an inspiring alumnus, you’ll find him exploring Washington, DC.