Published January 16, 2024

HL versus SL: How to decide what's best for you

When it comes to beginning your challenging journey in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, one of the crucial decisions you will face is choosing between Higher Level (HL) and Standard Level (SL) courses. Which one is best for you; SL or HL? These two distinct paths offer unique educational experiences, and understanding the differences between them is essential for picking the right path. In this article, we dive into the nuances of SL and HL IB classes, providing insights to help you discern which route aligns best with your academic ambitions and personal preferences. Whether you're a prospective IB student seeking clarity or already on your IB journey, this guide aims to offer a balanced perspective on these options, facilitating your decision-making process.

What is HL?

Higher Level (HL) courses in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program represent a more advanced and in-depth level of study compared to Standard Level (SL) courses. HL students are challenged academically and are encouraged to think critically and use analytical skills. HL subjects involve more extensive content coverage, deeper exploration of subjects, and a greater emphasis on independent research and critical analysis. Students who opt for HL classes are expected to demonstrate a greater level of proficiency in the subject matter, making them an excellent choice for those with a strong interest in a particular field or those considering pursuing related studies at the university level. While HL courses require a higher level of commitment and effort, they can offer a more comprehensive understanding of the subject and potentially earn students college credit or advanced standing in certain university programs. Some examples of HL classes are HL biology, HL math, HL language A: language and literature, and MANY more!

What is SL?

Standard Level (SL) courses in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program provide a solid foundation in a wide range of subjects while offering a balanced workload that allows students to explore various academic areas. SL classes cover essential content within each subject but tend to have a more manageable depth of study compared to their Higher Level (HL) counterparts. SL subjects are designed to provide a well-rounded education and are suitable for students who want to gain a broad understanding of a subject without delving as deeply into it as HL students do. SL students often wish to maintain a balanced workload or who have diverse academic interests across multiple disciplines. While SL courses may not offer the same level of specialization as HL courses, they still provide a strong academic foundation and are widely accepted by universities worldwide. Some examples of these SL courses are SL Spanish B, SL Computer Science, SL economics, and MANY more!

What is the difference between HL and SL?

The key differences between HL and SL courses primarily revolve around the depth and breadth of the curriculum. Firstly, HL courses dive deeper into the IB subject, covering more extensive content and requiring greater critical analysis. This depth is often reflected in the number of topics covered, the complexity of assignments, and the depth of understanding expected from students. In contrast, SL courses provide a broader but shallower exploration of the subject, typically covering fewer topics in less detail. This means that HL courses require a greater time commitment and may demand more rigorous independent research and analytical thinking from students.

Secondly, HL courses often have more difficult internal assessment requirements, including additional exams or longer exams, compared to SL courses. The exams for HL courses tend to be more challenging and may include specialized components that test the deeper knowledge and skills acquired during the course. SL courses, on the other hand, have assessments tailored to their scope, which may be less demanding compared to HL assessments. Additionally, HL courses may carry a higher workload and more rigorous grading criteria, making them a better choice for students who are particularly passionate about a subject or who plan to pursue advanced studies in that field. Conversely, SL courses offer a more balanced workload and can be suitable for students with diverse academic interests or those aiming to maintain a manageable workload while still benefiting from a rigorous education.

Which one should you take?

Deciding whether to opt for Higher Level (HL) or Standard Level (SL) courses in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program is a significant decision, but it doesn't have to be overly complicated. Here's the scoop: If you're super passionate about a particular subject and can't wait to dive deep into it, HL courses are your ticket to the academic adventure. They offer a more thorough exploration of the subject, and with some extra effort, you can master the content and even earn potential college credit later on. Beware, these are more tricky and time-consuming but will yield a greater output in the long run. If you're more of a well-rounded, variety-loving student or looking to maintain a balanced workload, SL courses have your back. They provide a solid foundation across different subjects without the same level of intensity as HL courses. So, it all boils down to your strengths, ambitions, and how much time and energy you can commit to the IB program while ensuring you have a fulfilling educational experience.


What do the IB examinations look like?

The format of IB examinations varies depending on the subject and level, but they generally include a mix of assessment types. For example, in the IB Diploma Program (DP), which is typically taken by students aged 16-19, there are both standard level (SL) and higher level (HL) exams. Here are some common formats:

  1. Written Examinations: Many IB exams include traditional written assessments where students answer essay questions, short responses, and extended essays. These exams evaluate students' knowledge of the subject matter, their ability to articulate their ideas clearly, and their analytical skills.

  2. Multiple-Choice Questions: Some exams, especially in the sciences and mathematics, may include multiple-choice questions to assess students' understanding of concepts and problem-solving abilities.

  3. Oral Examinations: In languages and some humanities subjects, students may be required to participate in oral examinations or presentations. This assesses their speaking and communication skills, as well as their comprehension of spoken language.

  4. Practical Assessments: In subjects like experimental sciences, students may have practical assessments where they conduct experiments or investigations. These assessments gauge their practical skills, ability to design experiments, and understanding of scientific methodology.

  5. Coursework and Projects: Some subjects, such as the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) and the Extended Essay (EE), involve coursework and research projects that are assessed externally. The EE, in particular, is an independent research paper of up to 4,000 words.

  6. Visual and Performing Arts: In arts subjects like Visual Arts and Music, students may be assessed through portfolios, performances, or exhibitions of their work.

  7. Mathematical Exploration: In mathematics, students undertake an individual exploration task, where they investigate a mathematical topic of their choice and present their findings in a written report.

It's important to note that the IB program places a strong emphasis on critical thinking, research skills, and the ability to apply knowledge to real-world situations. Therefore, assessments are designed to evaluate not only what students know but also how effectively they can apply their knowledge and reasoning abilities. Additionally, the weighting of each assessment type may vary by subject and level within the IB program.

What are the best IB study resources?

Having good IB resources is key to being best prepared. One great IB resource is the IB Hub, which has free IB resources like notes, flashcards, and study guides for all of your IB classes made by other IB students. You won't have to waste time making flashcards, either, because Knowt uses AI to create flashcards from your notes. It's a huge timesaver that I use myself! Some prep books from publishers like Barron's can also be helpful, but unlike Knowt's IB resource, you have to pay for it. 

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