A guide to the IB Economics exam

Timothy Hoffmann

The final Economics exam is broken down into 2 separate 1 hour 30 minute papers for Standard Level, with an additional 1 hour paper for Higher Level. Below we break down the key hints and tips that you need to succeed:

For information on the Economics Internal Assessment, which makes up 20% of your grade, please see our Guide to the Economics IA.

Paper 1


  • 1 hour and 30 minutes
  • 30% of overall grade (HL), 40% of overall grade (SL)
  • 45 mins per question
  • Topics: Microeconomics (Section A) and Macroeconomics (Section B)
  • Choose 1 question from a choice of 2 on each topic
  • 50 marks extended response (2 x 25 marks per question)
  • Each question has 1 x 10 and 1 x 15-mark part


How to succeed:

1. Use your reading time

Using your 5 minutes of reading time is key as it gives you the opportunity to plan which questions you will answer and the diagrams you will use. Each person will have their own favourite topic but typically look for a question that you know you can concisely answer in 40 minutes. Choosing your questions means you can start your plan as soon as the exam begins.

2. Making a plan

When you can start writing, we recommend taking the first 5 minutes of the exam to plan how you are going to answer each question. Highlight the keywords from the question that you will define, note down which diagrams you will use and list the evaluative points you will make. Remember this plan is for you, so it can be as rough as you want it to be. Also bear in mind that this plan will not be marked, so it is important to stick to the 5-minutes allocated to this so that you have enough time to convert your excellent plan into an excellent answer.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters

3. Timings

Structuring your timings is key for paper 1 as you will be pushed for time to get everything you want into your answer. Spend 15-20 minutes on part a, and 25-30 minutes on part b for each question. If you begin with the microeconomics section (which comes first in the question booklet), ensure that you leave enough time to complete the macroeconomics section as well – It is better to do well on both than exceptional in one and poor in another.

4. Do not redraw diagrams

If you have a diagram in a previous section of your answer (unless there is anything that changes) you do not need to redraw it. You are allowed to “refer back to figure 1 in part a” in your answer to part b, which will save you much needed time. This, too, applies to previously defined keywords; however, be aware that some terms (such as short run) have a different meaning in microeconomic and macroeconomic contexts.

5. Definitions, diagrams, analysis, evaluation

The structure of your answer for paper 1 is likely to follow this format. Make sure that you define the keywords in the question, and ensure all diagrams are large enough to read, with full titles and axes labels. The analysis should cover what the graph is showing, its axes, initial equilibrium, shift, and new equilibrium. Finally, the evaluation (only necessary for part b) should talk through the potential implications of your analysis or policy proposals.

6. Stakeholders, Long term vs. short term, Assumptions, Pros and cons

The SLAP acronym is a good way to structure your evaluation for part b questions in paper 1. This will demonstrate to the examiner that you are able to evaluate the question from multiple points of view, considering the impact of any assumptions you make and the trade-off between the short and long term. You can use more than one of these, particularly by embedding long term vs. short term and assumptions into stakeholders or pros and cons, to emphasise your evaluative skills. For more information on what you could include under each of these points, see our guide to the Economics IA where we go into more detail on SLAP.

7. Have a conclusion

Have a definitive conclusion to your argument to show the examiner you have a clear view on this issue. Nevertheless, Please be aware that you do not have to apply a “one size fits all” approach here, and often the best answers are those that conclude with an “it depends on” statement. For instance, concluding that all GDP growth benefits the economy will not be as effective as stating that this is true if it is in the right areas (for example, high skilled labour).


Paper 2


  • 1 hour and 30 minutes
  • 30% of overall grade, 40% of overall grade (SL)
  • 45 mins per question
  • Topics: International trade (Section A) and development (Section B)
  • Choose 1 question from a choice of 2 on each topic
  • 40 marks data response (2 x 20 marks per question)
  • Each question has 2x 2 mark Qs, 2x 4 mark Qs, 1x 8-mark question


How to succeed:

1. Choosing a question

Paper 2 has an extract linked with each question which will form the basis of each question. This means that the reading time is even more valuable than in paper 1, but you must use it wisely! We recommend looking at parts a to c, not part d, to choose which questions to answer. As explained below, definition, list and diagram questions (parts a to c) are easier and quicker to pick up marks on than evaluative questions (part d), so parts a to c should decide which question you answer. Once you have picked your question for section A and section B, begin reading the articles provided, underlining any key quotations and evaluative points that will be useful later on.

2. Definition and List questions

The first section of each question will be 2 definition or list questions. These are the best area to pick up marks on paper 2 as you can gain 4 marks in 2 minutes. Each definition or list question has 2 marks so there will be 2 or 3 key points you need to include. For example, to get 2 marks for a definition of infrastructure you must include:


  • Capital stock
  • Usually provided by the government
  • Essential for economic activity


Practising these regularly and often is the key to success. I would recommend using an app such as Quizlet or Memrise to help you concentrate on the definitions you often struggle with.

3. Diagrams

Like definitions, diagrams are best learnt by regularly drawing them and understanding what is going on. Regularly drawing diagrams from memory (3 to 5 diagrams per week) will help you replicate these during the exam when you may be a little more stressed. Once you know you can draw the diagram, work on increasing your speed so that you can draw all diagrams in under 2 minutes (yes, even a theory of the firm diagram!). Get your parents and siblings to test you on this using flashcards or, better yet, organise a lunchtime group that meets once per week to compete for who can draw the diagrams the quickest (ensuring they are accurate as well).

4. Analysis/annotation

When annotating or analysing a diagram (the explanation underneath), keep this brief enough that it addresses all of the key points without being overly long. A useful structure for this is to start by outlining what the diagram shows in 1 sentence. Then, list the axes labels, followed by the initial equilibrium. Explain the shift that takes place, quoting from the text, and referring to both how (which curve shifts) and why (the underlying economics) the change occurs. Finally, refer to the new equilibrium, noting whether the price and quantity are now higher or lower. 

5. Evaluation

Like paper 1, the evaluative question, part d, requires you to look at different points of view on a policy described in the text. However, for paper 2 you also need to quote from the text, making this the base of your evaluation. This makes it easier to plan, because you can use the text to find evaluative points, but try to extend these, using the SLAP framework above, to show that you appreciate the broader scenario. 


Paper 3 (Higher Level only)


  • 1 hour
  • 20% of overall grade
  • 30 mins per question
  • Topics: All of those on the syllabus
  • Choose 2 questions from a choice of 3
  • 50 marks Maths paper (2 x 25 marks per question)
  • Calculator needed


How to succeed:

1. Frequent topics

Frequently, topics such as:

  • Keynesian multiplier
  • GDP
  • Diminishing returns
  • Fixed and variable costs
  • Demand and supply equations

Appear in paper 3, although the IB usually include a topic that has not come up before. However, knowing these frequently examined areas will help you to prepare for questions that are likely to come up. The best way to do this is through past papers – by practising the questions and marking them you are more likely to learn the correct answers.

2. Be accurate with your maths

A large proportion of at least one of the questions on paper 3 is maths based. When answering this question, ensure that you double check your maths (I find rewriting my answer on a spare piece of paper is useful) and ensure that all answers are to 2 decimal places.

3. Definitions and diagrams

I cannot emphasise enough how important definitions and diagrams are – They are the keys to your success! These are questions which are quick and easy to pick up marks on without a great amount of time spent revising. Understanding here is vital. Economics more than any other subject is about understanding what is happening, not merely memorising a diagram or definition. For example, knowing why a monopoly can make abnormal profit but a perfectly competitive firm cannot will help you to draw the diagram without memorising it. Knowing why is key.


If you want support drawing diagrams or building essay plans please do get in touch with our tutoring team. We have an average score of 43 points in the IB and have a vast amount of tutoring experience, so why not take a look at who our tutors are.


Top revision tips:

1. Practice your essay plans 

When I was revising for paper 1, I would include everything that I needed to answer the question in a bullet point plan. For instance, I would note down what 2 points in the definition would get me the marks, draw any diagrams and set out my evaluative points and examples. This meant I could practice a full essay in 5-10 minutes, meaning I revised more content in less time. My plan in the exam was much more condensed, but doing this also helped me recognise which points I needed to note down in my plan to remember and which points I knew off-by-heart.

2. Use posters

You can convert these plans into posters for your wall as excellent revision prompts. I revised one plan per day, reading the plan and repeating it to myself before I went to bed. This meant I had revised my essay plans 3 to 5 times before the final exam and could reproduce them almost without thinking, leaving more time to write and include more detail.

3. Use examples

Examples are a brilliant way to show that you understand where this economics applies in real life! For example, if you are talking about a natural monopoly you could discuss the London Tube network and the infeasibility of another entrant operating tube trains. From a macroeconomic perspective, when talking about economic growth you can discuss the differing fortunes of the Asian tiger and European economies over the past 30 years. Many examples can be found in current affairs, so keeping up to date by reading a newspaper each week or watching the news every morning will give you plenty of examples to choose from!


We hope you enjoyed reading our hints and tips, best of luck in your Economics exam!

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