HL vs SL: Which to Choose?

HL vs SL: Which to Choose?

It can be difficult to choose between Higher Level and Standard Level for your IB subjects. Here’s our view on how to make your mind up.

Let’s start by assuming you’ve already picked your six IB subjects. That was tough, right? So now you should be ready to go?

Well, no, you still have to choose between Higher Level (HL) and Standard Level (SL) subjects. This is pretty important, as it will impact how much and what you study, maybe even your ultimate score, and (more importantly) if you’ll be in the same class as your crush. So, what do you do?

As the names suggest, HLs are more advanced – they cover more material and are harder. Usually, students take 3 HLs and 3 SLs, though everyone’s heard of that one student at that one school who took 4 HLs and 2 SLs. You can take 4 HLs if you want to, but it is not advisable and there is no real need to do it. But hey, if you want the challenge of having more HLs than SLs and feel capable of doing it, then go for it. Just don’t complain if you can’t go out on Friday night.

So, the issue here is: which subjects should you choose as HL and which as SL? I’m going over my word limit, so I’ll keep it brief. Here are five things to consider when making the ultimate HL/SL decision.

Your Strengths and Weaknesses:
Don’t call me Captain Obvious yet. If you know you struggle with a subject you picked, stick to the SL version. SL subjects are generally slightly easier and cover way less material than their HL versions. Conversely, dedicate more time to your strengths – you will be more likely to get a 7 in a subject you are good at, even if it is HL. Not only you will enjoy your course more, you will feel less frustrated and more successful if you see yourself powering through the IB, which is great for your confidence and mental health – and who doesn’t love that?

Time and Workload:
HL subjects cover more topics than their SL counterparts, so you will spend more time studying these. Also, your teacher will go at a faster pace, so it can be stressful at times. For some subjects, like English Literature, the difference is that you’d have to read more novels and poetry for HL. For others, like Business & Management, the HL topics are supposedly more advanced than the core ones. You should look at the differences between HL and SL in each subject and decide if you are willing to do the extra work. Try to do the ones that you will enjoy the most – or suffer the least.

University Course Requirements:
Many universities, especially top ones, will have their own requirements for the course you want to do. Make sure you check your course and universities you want to apply to; you might find that you must have a specific HL in order to apply. Even if there are no requirements, consider which subjects are better suited to prepare you for your degree. If you want to study Biochemistry at university, why would you do Chemistry SL and Art HL? You want to prepare yourself with the right subjects and let universities know you are prepared for their degree.
If you don’t know what you want to study at university, or if you want to go to university at all, don’t worry; you have time to find out (but start thinking about it, this isn’t an essay you can wing the day before the deadline).

IB Scores:
This one links to the previous point. You can’t get into university without your IB scores, and all universities have a minimum score for applying. You want to get as close to 45 points as possible while doing useful subjects for your university degree. I’m not supposed to say this, but in some subjects, it is easier to get a 7 than in others. So, for example, don’t take Math HL just to show off if you don’t need it for your university app. I mean, would you rather get a 4 in Math HL and 33 points overall, or a 6 in Math SL and 35 overall? For some applications, a 2-point difference can be crucial. Of course, if you want an extra challenge and take harder subjects at HL because you can handle it, then you should go for it. Just keep in mind the importance of IB scores in meeting university offers.

Weight of IAs and Exam Papers:
This tip is a cheeky one, but a common way to help you decide your HLs. Your IA will be worth a different percentage of your final score for that subject depending on whether you do SL or HL. Check these out and be honest with yourself. If you feel like you will not put that much effort into your IA, or that you will probably struggle with the IA no matter how hard you try, choose the option where the IA will impact your score less.
Regarding exams, HL students have to complete either an extra exam paper or spend more time and answer more questions than SL students. While this means you have to study more and know a wider part of the course in depth, it also means that you risk spreads and each question weighs less than with SL. This certainly saved me when I did my History HL exams, with Paper 3 (HL only) making up for my poor Paper 2. Don’t forget that HL exam and IA rubrics are stricter (who would have guessed?), so your work has to be of a high standard.

That’s all for now. Look into your options and choose wisely, but don’t overthink it, really.

Further Reading