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If you’ve ever heard of the IB program and the students that take the program, you have most likely also heard a few horror stories to go along with it. Stories like the students completely losing any type of social life they once had; that it is a program for only the best, brightest, Stephen-Hawking-esque students out there; that students cry themselves to sleep each night dreading their TOK presentation, and that, by the end of the two years, they walk away like mindless zombies, still mouthing the progression of communism and international politics throughout the 20th century. Maybe you've even seen some of them live in nature, walking around asking, "Can I get CAS for that?"
Now, I’m not saying that all these rumours and horror stories aren’t true… because they are (for the most part), but as someone who has survived the IB, I am here to tell you that the brainwashing isn’t that bad. To be honest, it can be quite a good thing. I'll explain some of the main aspects of the IB that have made me appreciate the diploma, but first you must understand a little bit more about the IB.
The IB diploma, or the International Baccalaureate diploma, is a two year international diploma program aimed at students between ages 16-19. The course is mainly aimed toward higher achieving students. It is an international course, so the course can be found in many different countries, and although the course aims for all the schools around the world to be relatively the same, each school is still their own. To anyone who might have taken the IB diploma who reads this, please remember that I can only relay my own experiences, and that my school and my experiences may be different than yours.
There are certain classes and certain aspects of the IB that make the course stand out from other courses. Some of these traits are part of what makes the IB special, but also why they affect the student differently from other courses.
Tackling the biggest and most notorious IB subject first—CAS. It stands for Creativity, Action, and Service. It is a subject special to the IB and one that will have the greatest impact on the students.
The main idea of the CAS subject is that students must spend a certain amount of time on different activities in each category. The student can choose their own activities (although there are certain restrictions) and every student must provide evidence for their participation, planning, and progress in the given activity. These hours must be spent outside of school hours.
So yes, basically the IB is demanding their students to spend time on creative, active, and volunteer work in their spare time as a part of their diploma. To top that off, each student must, at the end of each activity, reflect on that specific activity in an online forum where all the CAS info and evidence is collected.
To foreign ears, this may sound completely mad, and in a way, it is. It makes the students feel as if they’re always in school, but this is, in a way, a good thing.
Most students (in Denmark) studying in gymnasium usually don't seek out of their school or their comfort zone during those years unless they have a job or a certain interest in a certain sport. This means that three years later, when they're heading off to university, they have spent three years of their lives cooped up in their little bobble of school work and social events. Moving to a new city and having to integrate yourself into a new social environment can therefore be somewhat of a challenge. You don't know anyone, you don't have your usual social events such as sports teams, and maybe you're feeling a little bit lonely and you just want to meet new people. All of these tasks can be really difficult and you may even decide that its not worth the hassle, but this is where having done CAS becomes an advantage.
When choosing your activities for CAS, one of the criteria for an activity is that it has to be something new. You have to eg: learn a new skill. Whether that is in action, service, or creativity is your choice, but you have to learn something new. Another is that you also have to create something or be part of something where you're helping to create it. For example, when I was in my second year of the IB I decided to form a free international pilates class for beginners. Many of my fellow students weren't Danish and didn't speak the language very well. This meant that going to regular gym classes was a little challenging. I carried out these lessons once a week, on the school property. It wasn't more than an hour each week, but because I was both creating classes, structuring it, renting rooms, and instructing the class, I received CAS marks in all three categories.
In the end, CAS has helped me push aside the fears of starting something new, immersing yourself into a new culture, being a leader, helping strangers, and most importantly, reflecting on my experiences. Even if an activity didn't go as planned or it was a bad experience, it allows you to actively be aware and learn from your mistakes.
So, despite CAS seeming like an insane subject to inflict on people who are already limited in time, and I don't want to romanticize it because it was tough, it made me much more equipped to enter society after the IB than I believe other courses could have done.
Yes, the IB loves acronyms. TOK, or Theory of Knowledge, is another subject special to the IB. I will admit, many of the horror stories about the IB do relate to TOK, and for good reason. The official statement is that "TOK provides the students with an opportunity to reflect on the nature of knowledge and on how we know what we claim to know."
It is a tricky subject, questioning the knowledge we obtain, how we obtain it, how it can be used, and how we can understand it. I'm not going to lie, it took me a good year to fully understand what TOK was truly about. One consolation is, however, that as soon as you understand it, it actually makes a lot of sense. To all the current IB students around the world who can't wrap their heads around TOK, hang in there. You can and will get there in the end...hopefully before your TOK presentation.
The one good thing this subject leaves you with is the ability to think critically about information. True, many educations focus on critical thinking at some point, whether it is in gymnasium, high school, college or university, but TOK gives you a thorough understanding of the concept of knowledge and how we can use, research, and manipulate it.
This one was almost a deal-breaker for me and the IB when I applied. I'm not exactly sure how exams or finals are conducted in many other countries than Denmark, but usually a student will be able to bring their notes with them into the exam. Some courses in Denmark even allow their students to use computers and the internet for their exams. This is not the case for the IB.
As the IB is an international school, all students across the world, must take the exam in the same way. Unfortunately, there are many students around the world who don't have access to computers, so all IB exams must be written by hand, and here's the kicker: without any form of aid. This means no notes, no internet, no food, no nothing.
If these exams were relatively simple, it wouldn't be such a big deal, but they're really not. The trickiest exams for me were the math, chemistry and history higher level exams. Math and chemistry were difficult simply because you have a limited amount of time (max two hours) and I'm not very good at either subject. History, however, is one of my favorite subjects. The difficult thing for history higher level is the time issue. For a history higher level exam (from 2016) you had to write three essays in the span of two and a half hours. Mind, this was only one of the history higher level exams—there were three in total. IB students have to take written exams in all subjects and there is a minimum of two exams per subject, and depending on the level of your subject, perhaps three.
Now this sounds all rather terrible, so why am I now okay with it? I'm not denying that the time I took my exams was probably the most stressful time in my life, but because everything is by hand and without aid, you have to revise everything, so you know it by heart. This gives a deeper general understanding, for me at least, to the subjects we were taught. True, I might not need to know everything about Siegfried Sassoon and his poetry before, during, and after the first world war, but having a good understanding of general knowledge really helps you to hold a conversation. This said...I probably wouldn't want to do it again. Ever. It's like writing a book or running a marathon; it is nice to have done it, but the leading up to it is perhaps less enjoyable.
If You Are Considering the IB...
If you are considering taking the International Baccalaureate Diploma, there are a few things you must ask yourself: Are you willing actually put in the work and do two to three assignments per week? Are you willing to embrace the ways of the IB? Are you willing to get brainwashed by a diploma program? If you think, Yeah, I think I can do that, then definitely apply! Don't worry, all the scary things in the IB will get easier as time goes along. You will acquire skills and gain experiences that you will sit and reflect on years after you graduate. The IB was a challenge for me, definitely, but it’s a challenge I wouldn't want to live without.
As for the rumours...yes, you will probably lose a little of your social life to CAS, but you can also gain new friendships through your activities. No, it's not just for the best and the brightest students. As long as you are willing to put up the work, give it a shot. About the TOK presentation...yes, that's very true. The history will fade a little, but I can still follow most references to international politics throughout the 20th century. And no, you will never stop thinking, can I get CAS for that?