To Take 4 IB Higher Levels or Not?

This blog post is part of the IB collection. I am a former IBer and I want to help IBers around the world survive the IB!

In the IB, you have to choose three higher level (HL) subjects, and three standard level (SL) subjects. You do, however, have the choice to do four HL subjects and hence two SL subjects. Perhaps you have been contemplating whether you should take three or four HL subjects? I am going to help you in your decision; I will present the advantages and disadvantages of so.

My story with HL subjects in the IB is a little strange. I started with three HL subjects (Maths, Physics, English literature) and three SL subjects (Chemistry, French and Economics). Towards the end of the first year of the IB (DP1), however, I got frustrated with SL chemistry; we would learn something in chemistry, which sparked my interest and so I would ask the teacher further questions, in order to dig deeper. What did he reply? ‘Oh, only HL Chemistry students learn that; you do not need to know that at SL’… This happened several times, and so I decided to take action; I moved up to HL chemistry towards the end of DP1. Yeah, that was a bit crazy, because I had almost a year of content to learn! I decided to replace HL English with HL chemistry. Then a similar thing happened with Economics: the SL students did not do any mathematics for economics and they did not learn Theory of the Firm – and these were the most interesting part of Economics for me! So, I decided to move up to HL Economics a few days before our mock exams 😛 I know, that was even more crazy – so I was learning all the HL content just a few months before the real IB exams! Nonetheless, somehow I managed to get 7s in all my HL subjects (read here how), but that was not without some stress as you can imagine.

If you are applying to the UK, it is important that you look up the HL subjects that you are required to take for your course. I know a girl who wanted to study a certain course, but when the time came to apply to the university for the course, shed found out that she couldn’t study the course because she was not taking HL Chemistry. So do check the requirements early.

If you are interested in taking four higher levels, I recommend that you start off with four HLs, because it is easy to drop down to SL in a subject whenever, but it is not easy to climb up to HL in a subject whenever!

To avoid having to learn masses of content a few months before the exam, you should decide whether you want to do four HL subjects early!


  • You are interested in four subjects

This benefit is pretty obvious, but this is the main reason why I chose to do four HL subjects. If you are really interested in four subjects, and can not pick three of them to do at Higher level, then take all four at a higher level!

  • You are keeping your options open

Perhaps you do not know exactly what you want to study in university? This advantage applies mostly to people who are applying to UK universities, where you need to take specific subjects in order to study a course. For example, if you want to study Physics, you have to take higher level physics. So, let’s say that at the beginning of the IB, you do not know whether you want to study Physics or Economics, but you really want to take higher level english and maths. If you take three standard level subjects, you have to choose between Physics or Economics when you may have not even tried the subjects. If you take four higher level subjects, however, you can take both physics and economics and can make the decision a year later when you have tried both subjects.

  • Getting the grades for your offer

Again, this advantage applies to those applying to UK universities. Sometimes, you may need to get 7, 7, 6 in your higher level subjects in order to be accepted into a university. Notice how there are only three grades there? If you take four higher level subjects, some universities say that they will take the three best grades. (Not ALL universities may do this – always check with your university.)

So let’s compare Jill and Jane. Jill wants to study Physics and needs a 7 in HL Physics, a 7 in HL Maths and a 6 in her other HL subject. She takes Chemistry as her other HL subject. She gets her grades back… 7 in HL Physics, 7 in HL Maths but 5 in HL Chemistry. Oh no! Jane gets the same grades as her, BUT she also takes HL Economics, in which she achieved a 6. So Jane will meet her offer, but Jill will not. Thus, taking four HL subjects may increase your chances of meeting the offer. HOWEVER. Please note that taking four HL subjects could actually DECREASE your chances of meeting the offer. Read about that in the disadvantages.

  • You learn time management

Doing four HL subjects is not the easiest thing to do. You will probably have to manage more work than the average IB student. So it is perfect to learn how to manage your time!


  • It makes the IB a little bit harder

The IB can make you stressed sometimes, and taking four higher level adds to the workload. Ask yourself: Do I need to take four HL subjects? Do I have the motivation to take four HL subjects, even if I don’t need to take them all?

  • It may affect your grades in your other subjects

If you take four HL subjects, you will have more work, and hence less time to study per subject. This could adversely affect your performance in the other subjects. This perhaps was my biggest concern. I was worried that taking an extra HL subject would sacrifice a 7 in my other subjects. In particular, I noticed this disadvantage during studying for the real IB exams – I had a lot to study! Studying for the HL part of Economics meant that I had less time to study for HL Maths :/ Overall, this represents an opportunity cost – except that we are not talking about goods, we are talking about time!

  • Taking an extra HL subject does not get you an extra point

This point intertwines with the point above. Taking four HL subjects is not advantageous in terms of the overall points in the IB. 45 is still the maximum number of points! So, taking four HL subjects could result in a lower overall grade in the IB.


  1. Loved your blog. Put so many things into perspective for me. Just a question. I’ve just started my IB and have chosen Physics, Chem and History at HL. Would my application be at a disadvantage if I want to major in physics but I’ve haven’t done my Math at HL? I’m looking at the US, Canada and the U.K.
    If I maybe mosey enough to ask you which university are you at now? What major?
    Thanks in advance

    • Hi Priya, thanks for your question! In the U.K., some universities require Maths HL and Physics HL to study physics at university. In the US, there is usually no such requirement. If you are strongly considering the U.K., then I would choose Maths HL. I am currently studying Physics and Computer Science at Harvard.

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