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The Myth of the IB HL Arms Race

Marie Vivas is the IB Americas University Relations Manager. She has overall responsibility for university recognition in the Americas region, working closely with admissions professionals counseling university bound students.

By Marie Vivas

I would like to thank my dear colleague Parke Muth for starting a thought-provoking discussion on this topic. In his blog post from June 9th he makes some very interesting observations about the perceived value of different curricula, and how students and parents feel tremendous pressure to “up the ante” by taking more A Levels, more APs, more IB Higher Levels. This is a matter that concerns us all, and I ask myself if we should be taking a step back from this arms race and focusing on quality rather than quantity.

From an IB perspective, I would like to share some interesting statistics that may make our colleagues in IB schools breathe a little easier in the next registration session. While it is probably true that students at a school like Raffles may regularly be taking 4 IB HL courses, over the past three years, the percentage of IB Diploma Candidates taking 4 HL courses has stayed quite steady at around ten percent.  It has not skyrocketed even with the growth in IB Diploma candidates. For May of 2013, just over 5,400 students registered for the IB Diploma with 4 HL courses, and the pass rate actually went down from previous years (84%) to just over 80%.

HL Graph

Taking that into account, the total IB Diplomas awarded with 4 HL courses was just over 4,300.

Typically, students only send their IB transcripts to the universities they will attend. Sending additional transcripts is costly, and there is generally no need to do so, since IB scores aren’t released until after most students have committed to attend a specific university.

Keeping this in mind, we looked back at where we sent scores for the May 2013 cohort, and came up with some interesting numbers:

Number of final transcripts sent to the University of California campuses – 1,788

Number of final transcripts sent to the Ivies, MIT and Stanford – 1,167

Number of transcripts sent to Oxford, Cambridge and LSE – 417

Number of transcripts sent to McGill, UBC and University of Toronto – 4,616

Without entering into any debate about rankings or prestige, all of these universities can be recognized as top choices for outstanding students worldwide and the IB is well represented at these institutions. These numbers show that almost 8,000 IB students matriculated at these top universities – twice as many as the number of IB students who took 4 HL courses.

So, even if we assume (probably incorrectly) that every single student who obtained an IB Diploma with 4 HL courses achieved high enough scores to be competitive, and actually matriculated at a top university, students who had the recommended 3 IB HL courses matriculated at prestigious universities in at least equal numbers.

When I speak to my admissions colleagues about what they value in the IB, they speak to the proven rigor of the program and the reliability of the scores. They like to see the full IB Diploma because it means that the student has committed to a holistic program which requires that they stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone, while still providing opportunities for in depth study in their strongest subjects. Whether students score a 24 or a 45, whether they take 3 or 4 HL courses, research shows that the IB Diploma is an excellent preparation for university studies.

The IB is more than a set of exams. It asks students to inquire, to reflect, to take risks, to communicate effectively. It expects them to learn how to research and write academic papers. It requires them to move beyond their classroom experience into the community and to reflect upon this experience in CAS. The IB is not about accumulating a bunch of scores; it is about becoming a critical thinker who has the skills and knowledge to be a lifelong learner, and work well beyond cultural and linguistic barriers.

It is important to remember that the IB is an international credential and that Diploma candidates from all over the world will apply to the most prestigious universities in the world. From my own experience in over 25 years in the field, I have learned that universities are looking to build a diverse class with representation from different regions. The IB is all about balance and perspective; it is about truly learning and applying knowledge.

My advice? Make your HL policy clear to universities. Encourage students to excel, but also encourage them to be reflective, to take advantage of the many ways of learning encompassed in the IB curriculum. Avoid the arms race and focus on what is best for your students.

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5 Responses to The Myth of the IB HL Arms Race

  1. Michael H Hayes June 19, 2014 at 02:48 #

    Nice well done good insight and with great fact and figures. Very helpful indeed, I will use it when speaking with my students next week and with parents also. Thanks for that useful information

  2. Eric J Pollock July 14, 2014 at 09:56 #


    You bring up some great points. I believe the whole question actually centers around an outdated philosophy that more is always better. The more exams one takes, the smarter one thinks one will become. But, if a student has weak or mediocre learning and instruction, there isn’t an opportunity for that student to ever become better. More mediocrity tends to yield mediocre results. The best philosophy and approach to take is more is not better; better is better. if one optimizes learning, instruction and other personal learning approaches then one will certainly become better, smarter, and more efficient. Only when things are improved will students and teachers become better. I always tell my students that more is never better; better is better.

    It’s like salad dressing or pancake syrup. Too much is terrible; just the right amount of a high quality topping is wonderful.


  3. veronique November 19, 2014 at 10:48 #

    Hello Marie
    Thank you for this well done explanation. But now what do you think about IB diploma and IB bilingual diploma ?? Is there an advantage for University to have both diploma ?
    Thank you

  4. Marie Vivas December 3, 2014 at 11:47 #

    Dear Veronique,

    The bilingual diploma is a way to obtain a high degree of proficiency in a second language. This can be helpful for students who may not be native speakers of the language of instruction at their university. It also gives students the ability to place out of basic language courses and pursue in depth study of a language.

    Many students feel it has been useful in applying for internships and jobs later on in their careers.



  5. Augusto Gonzales August 11, 2015 at 12:23 #

    Estimada Marie:
    Asistí al Taller El Arte de presentar a nuestros alumnos y programas a las universidades de USA y Canadá.
    Nuestro Colegio Peruano Británico de Lima- Perú, desea ser parte de la organización a fin de aprovechar estas oportunidades.
    Te agradecería si nos alcanzaras tus Phones e emails para contactarnos y ver los procediimientos a seguir para lograr este objetivo.
    Augusto Gonzales Torres
    Phone 0051-995358040 ó 0051-1-995358040
    emails: ó

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