Why take the International Baccalaureate? We look at the pros and cons of the programme

By Hanna Hipwell Serfaty

In Hong Kong, there is a wealth of exam systems: IB, HKDSE, A-Level and AP. So what's the deal with IB? A recent graduate weighs the advantages and disadvantages

By Hanna Hipwell Serfaty |

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“What does not kill me, makes me stronger”.  For International Baccalaureate candidates, the famous quote from 19th-century philosopher Frederick Nietzsche often seems to ring true. 

By now, most IB students will have received their final grades; the culmination of two years of rigorous work across six subjects. Whatever the outcome,congratulations on getting through the course. Whether or not your results are as expected, there are plenty of options open to you. 

The International Baccalaureate is a secondary school programme which offers students a holistic education, incorporating languages, humanities, maths, sciences and arts as well as a service component. Students must take one subject from each of six compulsory subjects, each with its own demanding coursework.

On top of all this, students must complete their CAS (creativity, activity and service) requirements. The workload is intense - anyone who has survived the programme will not tell you otherwise. 

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There is never a dull moment in IB. This seemingly endless suite of assignments and deadlines, combined with mock exams in February, contribute to make IB a demanding programme. It has definite benefits: a form of analytical training that can follow you to university and beyond. But its drawbacks are that it can leave some students drained, sleepless, and wondering whether IB, in all its prestigious recognition, was the right academic choice for them. 

As an international city, Hong Kong offers a variety of secondary school curriculums for parents and students can choose from: the HKDSE, American AP and British A-levels are all available at schools here. 

So why choose the International Baccalaureate out of all of these?

We look at the pros and cons of the exam system. 


Time management skills 

Being successful in IB is all about balance. Each of the six subjects has its own research project that requires hours of work and numerous revisions and adjustments. You have to learn how to manage a large variety of simultaneous projects with sometimes conflicting deadlines. This experience will give you the upper hand at university, when you will be juggling different courses and exams. Not for procrastinators!

Critical thinking and research skills 

One of IB’s core values is critical thinking. The programme encourages students to examine the world around them through an analytical lens, questioning how knowledge came to be and how reliable research is - particularly in scientific areas. Such a skill is useful in tertiary education because it allows you to interrogate the information you are learning, and perhaps even reasonably challenge a professor who you do not agree with ...

Getting to know yourself as a learner 

We all learn differently, at different paces and with different tools.  The IB helps you know yourself better, your strengths and areas of improvement, and in turn apply your better skills where they can lead you to a successful outcome.  It can also give you a better understanding of the areas where you are still developing and need support and supervision.

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Ofir Razon, a graduate of Elsa High School, who now attends Technion University in Israel, told Young Post: “The massive load of IB, having to keep up with the content of six different subjects along with IAs [internal assessments], EE [extended essay], and all the CAS acitivities really forces you to figure out what type of learner you are, when you focus best and what style of learning works for you.

“Coming to an engineering degree knowing so much about yourself as a learner makes the transition into university life much easier.”

Nicole Fleischer, a CDNIS alumni, and a King’s College London student summed it all up like this: “Having done the IB in high school, I felt very well equipped and confident to tackle university assignments. I have learned fundamental essay-writing techniques, referencing skills and most importantly, time-management strategies.”


IB can be all-consuming, and sometimes with the distance, some IB graduates see the whole experience under a less positive light.  


Because most of the work is research-based, it can be argued that subjectivity plays a large part in the IB academic approach, compared to other exam systems that are based on a more traditional teacher-student coursework model. 

Overwhelming workload  

Some of the work, depth required, and deadlines can be overwhelming, both in terms of volume and variety. Not everyone has the maturity to embrace these things, and so IB simply is not for everybody.

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Former YP reporter Andrew McNicol, a Sha Tin College alumni who took the IB, told Young Post it “was extremely demanding and at times felt a bit forced, especially for those who were already struggling to keep up from [the start of] in the second year. It was just way too much on a 15-year-old’s plate.” 

Too holistic 

Because students have to pick subjects from six distinct study areas, as well as complete  the EE, Theory of Knowledge (ToK) and CAS, IB can be seen as too holistic for those who want to focus on a specific area that they know they are passionate about. Students, for example, who are interested in following a scientific career have to put just as much time into their language and humanities subjects. The A-Level programme, for example, allows you to chose just three or four subjects.

Paco Wong, 17, from South Island School, told Young Post that he chose to do the IB but opted to do the Certificate Programme instead of the full Diploma programme.

“I chose it because I knew what I wanted to do for a career. CP gave me a more concentrated focus on what I wanted to do”. 

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The importance of final exams 

Most of your final IB grade is made up by your results in the end-of-programme exams. This can be difficult for students who do not test well or cannot handle stressful situations.

Olivia Tan, 17, from HKIS, an AP school, told Young Post that the American system was less stressful than IB. “In AP, they look more at the year as a whole as opposed to focusing on final tests, so there’s less pressure when taking those exams than the IB.” 

IB is not for everyone, but if you made it through the last two years and have received, or are anxiously awaiting your results, we wish you all the best of luck!