How to Approach IB Diploma Subject Choices

Choosing your subject combination for the IB has far reaching consequences for your path to university and beyond. When universities around the world assess applicants, while admissions reviews the grades achieved for the individual Higher Level (HL) and Standard Level (SL) subjects, they also consider the suitability of the subject combination for the course being applied to.

Before diving into advice on IB subject choices, this is a quick breakdown of the requirements in earning an IB Diploma Programme.

Students must choose one subject from each of the five groups (1-5) below:

Group 1: Studies in language and literature

  • Language A: literature
  • Language A: language and literature
  • Literature and performance (also Group 6) 

Group 2: Language acquisition 

  • Language B
  • Language ab initio
  • Classical languages 

Group 3: Individuals and societies 

  • Business and management
  • Economics
  • Geography
  • History
  • Information technology in a global society
  • Philosophy
  • Psychology
  • Social and cultural anthropology
  • World religions (SL only)
  • Environmental systems and societies (also Group 4) 

Group 4: Sciences 

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Design technology
  • Environmental systems and societies (also Group 3)
  • Physics
  • Computer science
  • Sports, exercise and health science (SL only) 

Group 5: Mathematics 

  • Mathematical studies SL
  • Further Mathematics HL
  • Mathematics SL
  • Mathematics HL 

Group 6: The arts 

  • Music
  • Theatre
  • Visual arts
  • Dance
  • Film
  • Literature and performance (also Group 1) 

If students do not want to take an arts subject from Group 6, then they must choose a second subject from Group 1 to 5.

Out of a total of six subjects, students must take three subjects at Higher Level (HL), while the rest should be taken at Standard Level (SL).

On top of the six subjects, students must complete three mandatory, core elements, which cannot be chosen:

  • The extended essay
  • Theory of knowledge
  • Creativity, activity, service (CAS)

For students who have already chosen their university course, it is important to check and mirror the subject requirements for the subject. Each subject or department will publish minimum entry requirements and ideal subject combinations on the university website or undergraduate prospectus.

Leaning towards studying STEM at university?

It would be important to take at least 2 and, ideally, 3 of these subjects:

  • Biology, Chemistry, or Physics
  • Mathematics
  • A second science from Group 4

Many students who apply for science or maths courses at Cambridge take three of these subjects at HL. This makes for a more competitive application. However, if you decide on only taking two, then here are some suggested combinations:

  • Biology and Chemistry
  • Chemistry and Physics
  • Mathematics and Physics

Planning to study Medicine at university?

The minimum requirement is Higher Level Chemistry and at least one Higher Level subject from Biology, Mathematics, and Physics.

Thinking of pursuing Engineering at university?

You should take Mathematics and Physics at Higher Level, and Further Mathematics is highly recommended.

Planning to take Physical Sciences at university?

It is mandatory to take Higher Level Mathematics and Physics, while Chemistry or Further Mathematics is recommended.

* For courses that require Further Mathematics at A-Level, note that the combination of IB Higher Level Maths and IB Higher Level Physics will cover this.

Considering the Arts and Social Sciences at university?

The route through Higher Level options is less rigid than the sciences and maths courses. Choosing one or more of these few subjects to study at Higher Level will help with your academic pursuit in this field:

  • Language A Literature
  • A Language B option
  • History
  • Mathematics

Planning to study Economics at university?

Students who plan to study Economics must take Higher Level Mathematics. It is recommended that Further Maths is taken as well.

These are some other Higher Level subject choices that will complement the subjects mentioned above:

  • An additional Classical language
  • Economics
  • Further Mathematics
  • Geography
  • Philosophy
  • The Sciences: Biology, Chemistry, or Physics

More tips to remember

Always keep in mind what your long-term academic plans and goals are. You should know why you want to take a subject. The reason should be more than “it’s interesting” or “it will be fun”. Think about how a particular subject will add value to your goal of studying X at university.

What if I’m not sure what to study at university yet?

If you’re not sure what you want to study yet, consider whether your subject choices show a balance that reflects your abilities, strengths, and interests.

Still lost and need some guidance? Feel free to reach out to us if you need help with your IB subject choices.