10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started IB.


I want to share some of the lessons I learned along my two-year journey as an IB student in this blog. It’s funny how sometimes, in retrospect, you wish you knew some of the things you know today. I know it is unrealistic to hope that you, my readers, will take each of these lessons on board and not learn them the hard way as I did. But even if you avoid one of the tough lessons required for these insights, it would have been worthwhile to write this blog. I have decided to order the lessons in terms of priority. So if you only have a minute to read this blog, read the first one or two lessons as they are the most important. Anyway, let’s get to it:

1. Past papers will make or break your IB.

My first two final exams for Physics HL were Paper 1 & 2. Those of you that do Physics HL know that is arguably the most demanding IB subject… Besides the subject’s inherent difficulty, I walked into the exam poorly prepared. I spent most of my two years in class relying on marking rubrics to make sense of everything, which gave me a false sense of understanding. Unsurprisingly I walked out of these exams broken, contemplating my existence, convinced I’d fail IB. After feeling sorry for myself for a couple of hours, I came up with a plan. I would do every single Physics Paper 3 out there to salvage my grade. After every three papers, I’d complete, I’d meet up with a newly acquired tutor and work through my mistakes. Within the three weeks between my first exams and the Paper 3, I had worked through 12-15 Paper 3 past papers. I walked into my Paper 3 exam & aced it, narrowly missing a 7/7. For Paper 1, I had received 4/7 and 3/7 for Paper 2. So, in the end, my strategy worked, I received an overall grade of 5/7. It’s pretty crazy to think that these 12-15 past papers made up for two years worth of highly inefficient “learning”.

2. Prioritise a work/life balance.

At some point, I remember one of my classmates saying, “IB is a marathon, not a sprint”, and this is crucial to realise with regards to work/life balance. Many people, including myself, frequently forget that your mind only functions efficiently for short periods and only when you’ve got a clear headspace. What I mean with headspace is that you don’t have any emotions or thoughts lingering and distracting you. For this reason, I came up with a sacred rule for myself: leisure time from Friday’s at 17:00 till Sunday morning at 09:00. The only exceptions were made for grade influencing exams or assignments, e.g. IAs. This rule led to me attending 12 music festivals in the first 12 months of IB. While these festivals, their resultant hangovers, or other leisure time activities may have cost me some marks in-class tests, they nonetheless kept me sane and gave me something to look forward to at the end of the week. They were the symbolic “light at the end of the tunnel” and the distraction that I needed to give 100% during the workweek.

3. Put extreme effort into assignments and exams that CONTRIBUTE to your FINAL GRADE, learn from everything else.

I touched on this in the two previous paragraphs, so I’ll keep it relatively short. Teachers will always give you class tests and assignments based on the content you’ll be tested on in your final exams. But remember, these are NOT your final exams, so don’t stress yourself out about them and use them as a learning experience. Let me give you a nice anecdote: some time at the end of my first year, I received a 3/7 for Mathematics SL as my end of the quarter grade. Why? I focused solely on writing my Geography IA and Economics IA. Both of which did not reflect in my end of quarter grade but contributed to my final grade for the subjects. My Maths teacher and parents were distraught, making me worry. I started asking myself: will I fail Maths? In my finals, I got a 7/7 for my Geography IA, 6/7 for my Economics IA, and my final Maths grade was 6/7. Moral of the story: focus on what counts! Had I done what others did, balancing Maths and my IAs in that quarter, I would’ve received the same final grade for Maths but subsequently had lower IA grades….

4. Having a schedule or a diary will ensure your sanity.

If you still don’t have a diary by this point in IB, get one! I still remember a friend of mine making jokes about how I would religiously enter and cross out tasks every day. This kept me on track, and to be honest, crossing out a task is surprisingly satisfying. It also helps you get things done before the deadline, especially when you have several things due on the same day. If you use a diary combined with a calendar, such as iCal, which syncs to all of your devices, you will be on top of things! Or at least know when you are not 😉. Coming back to my friend, who laughed at me and preferred to use occasionally use notes on his laptop to write down tasks. Well, when IA deadlines started arriving, he had several nervous breakdowns and begged for extensions from teachers. It’s pretty simple: Don’t want to be that guy? Get a diary.

5. If you are consistently struggling, get a tutor (there is no shame in receiving help).

Teachers usually teach a large number of students. They don’t have the time nor the energy to spend sufficient time explaining all the concepts in an individualised manner that best suits the particular student. Tutors do. If you’re consistently struggling, get a tutor. I’m not just saying this because I founded AlumnIBtutors. I’m saying this because I had two tutors during IB, thanks to whom I did a lot better than I had hoped. If you feel shame about speaking to your parents about getting a tutor or don’t want your friends finding out, then let me say one thing. At the end of the day, no one will ask whether your grade can partly be attributed to getting additional support; all they will care about is your final grade.

6. Don’t take the IB too seriously (you will probably get into the programme you want to get into).

During IB, I was one of those kids who would compare their grades to the grades needed to get into certain universities after every quarter. My older sibling got into a top 20 university, and I felt like I needed to get the grades to get into a top 100 university. Every time I hit the 35 point mark, I was happy but doubted my ability to maintain it, and every time I scored below that mark, it confirmed my doubts. In the end, I hit 38 points and only needed 34 points to get into my current programme. However, most of the other programmes I had in mind only ended up requiring around 30 points. I would’ve known this had I spent more time researching and less time worrying about the future. Most IB students who took IB relatively seriously will tell you the same tale. So don’t take IB too seriously; all will be good in the end. Worst case, you can resit one or two subjects.

7. Integrate all of your hobbies into CAS (you will be surprised how quickly the hours add up).

I would be willing to bet that most of you who are reading this do at least 2 to 3 hours of extracurricular activities during the week. Before IB, I played football for a club three times a week, which amounted to roughly 5 hours per week and would occasionally do kitesurfing lessons on weekends. So all I did in IB was occasionally write journal entries about the training sessions, matches or lessons, and within three months, I was already bordering 75 hours for Action. After the football season was over, I joined the school football coach in running his youth training sessions, got into teaching primary school children German and joined a peer’s CAS project that purely consisted of Creativity and Service hours. Before the end of the third quarter of IB, I had completed all of my CAS hours and logged all of my journal entries. Pro tips: take photos, write many short journal entries and include travel hours

8. Let other people do the work.

Now, most of you reading this will be confused about what I mean. If an IB teacher reads this, they might even break out in sweats. So let me clarify; what I mean by “let other people do the work” is get as much assistance as you can within the boundaries of plagiarism. Let me give you some examples: After you write your English IA, get another English teacher at your school to read over it and make suggestions. If you are struggling to come up with a subject for your EE, meet up with a tutor who is well versed in the subject and listen to their suggestions. Instead of making notes on an entire subject, studying the content and then doing past papers; rather see if you can find an exam training in which a tutor has done all the work for you. The more you get support from knowledgeable people, the less time you spend hashing it out yourself and the better the quality of your work.

9. Do all of your CAS hours in your first year of IB.

This should be a no brainer. Get your CAS hours done in the first year because you will spend most of your second year afternoons working on IAs, your EE and studying for exams. Moreover, first-year content is more introductory and straightforward. So both the workload and the complexity in the first year is less. If your CAS supervisor tells you, “CAS should accompany you throughout your Diploma Programme”, do what I did, which is the bare bare bare minimum in your second year. If you’ve got your 150 hours, they won’t fail you for not doing much CAS in your second year.

10. Start writing your EE and IA’s early and make sure they are on topics that are simple & match your interests.

My suggestion is the following: as soon as your teachers have outlined the criteria for your IAs and you’ve chosen the subject in which you’d like to write your EE, start thinking about potential topics. I know teachers love to emphasise that you should write about something that interests you, and even though this is cliché, I must agree. In some cases, this will be difficult if not impossible, for example, in the sciences or for mathematics. In all the other subjects, this is very manageable. Take particular care when selecting your EE topic because, trust me, you’d rather spend 50 hours writing about something that interests you than something you don’t care about. I wrote my EE in Geography about the effects of seawater pollution on the City of Cape Town, and I enjoyed it. The 50 hours flew by, and I continued reading about the topic months after I had completed my EE. Lastly, always choose an easy topic. It is easier to go into the complexities of a straightforward topic than to simplify a complex one.


Written by Michail Thunert


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