Congratulations on choosing to do the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme! You have two challenging and highly rewarding years ahead of you, and we are sure you are already starting to feel the pressures – and excitement! – of what is to come. If you are in the stages of selecting which subjects you will be taking in the IB, there are a lot of decisions to be made. The subjects you choose will be your focus for the next two years and there are many factors which should play a part in what the best choices will be for you.
When it comes to Maths, you have three main options: Maths Studies, Maths Standard Level (SL), and Maths Higher Level (HL). Please note that this guide will not make reference to Further Maths, as this is not an option offered by the majority of IB World Schools, and is therefore not an option for many students. If you would like further information on Further Maths, please contact your school’s IB Coordinator directly.
There are many influences and considerations to be balanced when choosing your level of IB Maths, from simply the level of love you have for the subject, to future educational and career plans. We decided to ask three members of the Elite IB team why they chose the IB Maths level they did, and what the reality of taking this subject was like…
Why I chose Maths SL
Growing up I always loved Maths. I can remember getting excited about finally getting to multiply at the end of first grade and choosing to do an Algebra class when I was 15 simply because I genuinely wanted to. The older I got however, the tougher the different aspects of Maths also got, and I found that whilst I was still quite strong in certain areas, I also struggled with others such as probability.
When it came to choosing Maths in the IB, it was not an easy decision. I briefly toyed with the idea of doing Maths HL, because I thought I might enjoy the challenge. I knew however, that my future career ambitions of studying International Relations would not require Maths HL, and there were other subjects far more suited for me to choose as my HLs, such as History and English Language and Literature. This was how I excluded Maths HL from my decision-making process.
It then came down to Maths Studies or Maths SL. Maths Studies was rumoured to be the easier of the two – with greater focus on statistics and probability, whereas Maths SL had greater focus on calculus and trigonometry. As earlier mentioned however, I genuinely had always enjoyed Maths at school, and this tiny thought in the back of my head kept ringing “what if you change your future career plans and suddenly need Maths…” I think it was this that made me decide to do Maths SL – finding that middle ground between what potentially a future career might require and what might have been a (relatively) easy 7.
Was it the right decision?
In the end I ended up with a 5 in Maths SL in the IB Diploma, contributing to my 35 points overall. I went on to study Politics and Diplomacy, two degrees that did not require a strong Mathematical background knowledge and I can admit I have not touched a graphic calculator since my IB Maths exam. So my decision not to do Maths HL was spot on. And my decision to do Maths SL over Studies had no greater impact – perhaps I could have got an additional point had I chosen Maths Studies instead, but there is no way of ever knowing that, and it would not have affected my university degree choices either – hence yes, it was the right decision. I enjoyed what I learned and am pleased to at least know that there is a sin, cos and tan out there, despite it not being used in my daily life!
Why I chose Maths HL
Growing up, I was always a strong Maths student, but an all-rounder academically. I feel very fortunate to have attended an IB school as I would have struggled to narrow my studies down to only 3 or 4 subjects at the age of 16 and feel I thrived in an environment which allowed me to pursue all of my academic interests.
As I got older and finished my IGCSEs, my interests slowly moved towards science and computers. Whilst I was a strong Maths student, I certainly wasn’t the best in the class. When investigating my university options, I toyed with Computer Science and Economics (amongst others), but ultimately landed on Engineering. I loved building things, coding projects, and generally understanding how things worked. I loved the elegance of Maths but was even more enthralled by the possibilities of science, Physics in particular, which resulted in airplanes, enormous subterranean tunnels, and computers. I knew I needed to take Maths HL before entering the IB as most engineering courses I was considering, both in the UK and the US, suggested 6s/7s for both HL Maths and Physics.
People build up a big aversion to advanced Maths in many western cultures, but I really enjoyed the journey. My HLs of Maths, Physics and Economics all complemented each other quite nicely, and SL Computer Science meant that virtually all of my subjects played off of each other quite nicely.
I did find the course quite difficult, especially at the beginning, as in order to achieve the top marks in HL Maths you don’t only need an analytical brain, but a patient and creative approach to problem solving, which can only come with practice. I had always relied on ability until that point, rarely working very hard in school and suddenly I was putting in extra hours just to keep up with the pace. I had a bit of a Eureka moment at the end of my 1st year of IB, studying for my mocks, where lots of the more difficult topics in HL Maths, Proof by induction for example, suddenly just made sense. I enjoyed the course the whole way through, and though I was blessed with an excellent teacher, I also put my success in the course down to a methodical approach to studying – revising each component of the syllabus individually, searching for external resources, and reinforcing my areas of weakness through repetition of difficult questions. My strong mathematical foundation meant that I found HL Physics relatively ‘easy’ and I certain benefited from the analytical methodology I could take across to Economics, my Extended Essay and more.
I was a bit spooked by Maths HL Paper 1 as my very first IB exam, and ultimately narrowly missed out on my 7 for HL Maths by 0.2% (and a 45 overall!) after, but I’m so glad to have taken the course. I went on to study Engineering Science at Oxford, and I found much of the Maths in the first year course to be on par with the IB HL course, so it prepared me extremely well!
Why I chose Maths Studies
I’ve always preferred creative and qualitative subjects. Maths was never of particular interest to me, instead the arts and humanities were much more interesting. The idea of spending time indoors for hours struggling over questions that had only one right answer didn’t seem appealing. I preferred to spend my time thinking, getting inspired and using my own thoughts and ideas.
In my IGCSEs I actually did quite well in maths, scoring an A in the final exam. I had the option to do Maths SL if I wanted to, but I felt no inclination to because I preferred to spend more time in other subject areas. At the time I wanted to go to art school, so I also knew that doing studies wouldn’t affect my application in a bad way. Even though I ended up leaving art school and choosing to study Geography, I never regretted taking studies because I knew I’d never choose a subject at university level that requires a high level of maths anyway.
Math studies was straightforward and practical. I actually ended up using what I learnt in statistics for Geography later on. I know that students who take studies often get labelled a certain way by other students (I know I was), but if you know you’re not interested in maths and will not need it later on in life then why would you spend more time than you need to studying it?
For me, studies was a great option and helped me achieve the points I needed to get into UCL for Geography.
As you will see from our examples above, choosing the right level is very much an individual thing- and our profiles will not have touched on even a fragment of the reasons students will provide for their IB Maths choices. You will have to take into consideration what you are hoping to achieve from the course as well as your passion for the subject. If you are considering a degree in Engineering or a similar subject, such as Tim, your university will most likely require you to take Maths HL. Similarly, certain degrees such as Economics will require Maths SL which might make your decision a little bit easier. You might find as Babette did, that Maths Studies came in handy for her future degree at university, despite it not being an entry requirement.
If you will not be choosing a degree that requires a high level of Mathematical knowledge, then your decision will come down to your own passion for the subject and the type of challenge you wish to set yourself and how you hope Maths will play a part alongside your other subject choices.
If you are still not sure about your choice or want a second opinion, why not get in touch or join us at one of our Maths workshops this summer? With opportunities to find out more about the different Maths syllabi and even get a chance to test one for a day, join us at the IB Preparation Course closest to you: