The DP is tough.

If you’re a junior, you’ve probably come to terms with this pretty recently. You feel like you’ve learned more in the last few months than in your entire MYP career. The prospect of EEs and university are still but a distant fantasy, and your TOK teacher has you wondering whether or not life is a simulation. As a senior, I assure you: we’ve all been there.

But seeing zombie-like mobs of 12 graders drag their heavy, sleep-deprived bodies to class every day is sure to fill you with dread. What nightmarish hell awaits me? you wonder. Is it that bad? Or are they just exaggerating? 

Well, don’t worry (that much). This article is here to answer all those burning questions, soothe those lingering anxieties, and act as a gentle warning about the final stretch of the IB. Here’s what you need to know.

Subject Choices

It’s normal to have doubts about subject selection, especially if you’re in 10th grade. It can play a huge part in university applications, and there’s nothing that makes DP harder than having to study for a subject you don’t enjoy.

So, which subjects should you be taking?

Most universities (especially in the UK) only really look at your Higher Level subjects (HLs). More often than not, they’ll either tell you the individual points required for each subject (eg: 5,5,6) or the total points (eg: 16 points). If you have an idea of the course you want to do, you should definitely check these out; universities have these requirements on their official website. Take Lancaster, for example.

What I mean by all this is that, if the university doesn’t ask for it, and you think the subject is tough or boring, don’t take that subject at HL, or at all. A common example is Math HL. Yes, I know taking Math HL is a huge ego boost, but it won’t be if you have to pull all-nighters daily to get that 5 so you have enough IB points to study biomedicine. Why not take Math at SL, which requires less effort to get the same grade? It’s a win-win situation. Don’t sacrifice grades or your mental health for nothing more than pride.

What if you need a subject, but you hate it, or find it too hard? In that case, I would suggest looking at other universities. Requirements can differ for the same course: for example, I know some Canadian schools that only ask for Chemistry SL for Medicine, rather than HL. If this isn’t the case for you, consider looking at a different course, or talking to your teacher about it. It may be a little early to decide if a subject isn’t for you. I hated stoichiometry, too.

And finally, if you want to change a subject, do it early. I can’t stress this enough. Taking a subject you don’t enjoy is stressful, but switching to a different class in the middle of the year after missing important material may be even more stressful. Don’t hesitate to talk to your parents and DP coordinator about switching a subject if you feel ready!

The Extended Essay

Though the 4,000 words seem daunting, EE provides great preparation for assignments in university. My major piece of advice to you juniors is understanding that the real reward for this assignment is not the grade you get, but the organizational skills you develop while writing it.

EE Coordinator and DP English Teacher Aliza Robinson says, “Within the EE, students must plan, research, scaffold and develop a topic into an essay of the sort that they will complete during university. Because they have a supervisor and the support of a coordinator, librarian, and other faculty, they can learn to write a developed and long piece in a supportive environment, which will enable them to excel when they leave AISB.”

As far as advice goes, just make sure to stay on top of things – be it outlines, reflections, or full drafts – and you should complete the essay just fine. “The students who struggle the most are those who miss all of the little deadlines along the way,” Robinson adds. “And before they know it, it’s senior year and they are behind.”

Do I really have to do an outline? Yes. With as much detail as possible. EE graders are very nit-picky about structure and organization. Simply diving into the essay head-first – or worse, not completing your draft on time – is a recipe for stress, burnout, and eventual disaster.

Also, keep in mind that although it is advised that you choose an essay subject based on your HL classes, don’t feel pressured to do so. Also, don’t force yourself to write an essay based on the course you wish to pursue in university. It’s a shame, but many universities simply look at the Extended Essay as a grade from A to E, or a number added to your total IB points, unless they explicitly tell you otherwise. They really, really won’t care all that much. Choose a topic you think will be easiest and most interesting for you to write. This essay is going to take hours of your DP career, so you might as well enjoy writing it.

For those struggling to meet the required IB points, the EE can be a huge help, and you might need to prioritize it more. But in general, for both EE and TOK, don’t worry too much. If it’s stressing you out excessively and taking time away from more important subjects, just finish the essay at a quality that can be deemed passable. This is just one essay in a sea of many more important DP assignments. All you need is a D.

CAS

Contrary to popular belief, CAS doesn’t actually ask too much of us. To pass, you need at least 3 reflections for each outcome and one CAS project. Quentin Young, our CAS supervisor, will give many mini-deadlines throughout the year, but as long as you’re doing one Creativity, Activity, and Service at all times until the end of CAS (excluding breaks, of course), that’s all you need.

My biggest advice for CAS is to lean towards activities you already do– be it drawing, working out, making music, mediation… the possibilities are endless. “Take a passion you have and run with it,” Young advises.

More often than not, it’s not the activities themselves that cause students to hate and/or fail CAS; it’s the reflections. It’s tedious, but if you want to get that diploma, make sure to write one reflection on each activity on a monthly basis, if not more often. Preferably, soon after something meaningful happens, so your memory is still fresh. To make life easier, take videos, audio, or pictures for reflections. Those take much less time to upload than written ones. They tend to be more engaging, too.

“If you organize yourself, CAS can keep you sane during the pressures of the DP,” explains Young. “Having a balanced lifestyle helps you to focus on the workload whilst still making time for your personal development.”

Plus, though it may not seem like it, CAS can do wonders for your university applications. No university is looking for the top grades only. CAS not only lets universities know what sort of person you are, beyond a numerical value, but CAS encourages balance, time-management, leadership skills and even work experience. Without these qualities, universities are going to see you like any other student. That’s not a position you want to be in.

Being well-rounded in areas other than the course you’re studying gives you a special edge that other candidates won’t have. That’s no exaggeration. I wouldn’t be off to med school next year if not for Hospice, and the numerous other activities I committed myself to. So instead of seeing CAS as another DP chore, see it as a vital opportunity to explore more extracurricular activities! And if Mr. Young chases you down for reflections… let him.

TOK

Finally, we come to TOK: the source of most IB memes, and the biggest mind-breaking subject in the DP. Because it’s so unlike anything in the MYP, don’t freak out if it seems really hard right now. It is hard. It’s still hard, for us seniors. 

But the aim of the subject is to expand your mind, not tear it down. It really is interesting once you stop thinking about being assessed. Nevertheless, here’s some tips for the essay and the presentation.

Essentially, all TOK essays ask you to do is examine a knowledge-related question, and how it connects to different subjects, called “Areas of Knowledge” (like Math, The Sciences, and The Arts). TOK Teacher Ian Edwards (above) tells us about what makes TOK essays so unique:

“What makes it an essay is that you have to establish a response… with regards to a question, but… the position you take could be a bit more open-ended than with traditional academic essays. That sometimes frightens students because it’s not what they’re used to.”

In general, for both the essay and the presentation, the examiners are more concerned with your thinking, and less about the answer itself. With a subject that asks you to question, “How do we really know what we claim to know?” (Mr Edwards), you can actually have a lot of fun with these assignments.

“Try not to get bogged down thinking about marks,” says Edwards. “The best TOK essays I’ve read have been ones where students aren’t actually worried about the marks they may or may not get.”

In short, like with all assessments, take your grades with a grain of salt and approach it with an open mind. Your learning and ease of mind is worth more than three IB points. You don’t need that A. Trust me.

Planning Your Time + Studying

There are so many assignments to complete in DP, along with all the material you have to learn. Getting it all done while staying sane all depends on time efficiency. It’s not about how long you study, it’s how you study that can make or break your sleeping schedule. Here’s a couple of tips from our students.

“Write short notes. It gets harder to study for exams if you have long notes to study.” – Umay E.

“For skill-focused subjects (like Math, English Paper 1, Chem, etc), make sure you’re always practicing your skills (past papers) and you can start revising the learned material about a week before. For memorization-heavy subjects (Bio, History, etc), rely on your short-term memory and start revising a week or two in advance.” – Lavinia V. 

“Mental health is more important than school. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re just gonna crash and burn. I listen to music, play the piano, draw… I just try to create time for myself.”Liam P.

“Try to do your work as soon as you get it, because it helps with spreading out heavier workloads throughout the first semester. And don’t stress.” – Sophie B.

Here are my top tips:

  • I use an app called Pomodoro to organise my time: 25-minute study sessions with 5 minute breaks in between, with a 15-minute break every 3 sessions.
  • I study for each subject I have every day to retain information better. Believe me, studying regularly is a lot less taxing than pulling an all nighter before a test. 
  • I rewrite class notes (or notes from study guides online) in a separate folder, so they’re much shorter, neater, and easier to study when exams come around.
  • Reject the temptations of procrastination. Tell your brain that you should do it now so you don’t have to do it later. Breaking that toxic thinking cycle is the key to getting things done when you need to.
  • Spend most of your time studying two days before a test. Read over notes the night before. That’s how I retain information best, and reduce stress levels.
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed and the test isn’t all that important, don’t study for it. It feels nice to do well on a test, but at the detriment of your mental health, it isn’t worth it.
  • Stretch, drink water, eat three meals a day, and do things you love during your breaks–preferably, as far away from a computer or phone screen as possible. That’s what your brain needs to keep doing its best.

Oh, and don’t forget to use Google Calendar. That app saved a couple of lives this year.

*Some past paper websites are here, here, and here (in “Topical Past Papers,” select IB Diploma and a subject of choice. You can choose specific units, years, and papers, just to name a few possibilities. Note that this website only includes papers for Math and Science students, excluding Design.)

Stress Levels

Something that all DP students can agree on is that it’s not the workload itself that makes grade 12 so hard. It’s having the mental strength to cope with it.

Stress by itself is not a bad thing. You may be familiar with a term called “eustress:” a healthy type of stress that serves as motivation. When we feel stress from having a lot of tight deadlines, our brains becomes hyper-focused on the task – the present – which pushes us to accomplish our goals. And because there are so many deadlines in the DP, this is the sort of stress you should be experiencing in 12th grade. It’s how we get things done.

“It’s normal that we all have some stress present in our lives,” DP Counselor Lindsay Kehl explains, “but it’s when it feels insurmountable that it’s time to ask for help.”

Essentially, when stress levels get too high, it becomes detrimental to our mental health and productivity. So, how do we maintain a healthy level of stress?

DP Counselor Sommer Blohm explains how the way we think about stress can actually improve or worsen it: “As psychologist Carl Jung stated, ‘What we resist, persists’… Generally, our levels of stress tend to feel much higher when we are caught up in thinking patterns that have us ruminating about a past experience or outcome, worrying about the future, or focusing only on the things that we feel are out of our control.”

So there you have it. Whether it’s logging off from technology, practicing yoga, hanging out with friends, or even creating art: take your mind off of what has happened, and what is yet to happen. It has no affect on the ‘now.’ Embrace what is happening in the present, whether good or bad. And hang in there. It’ll all be over soon.

How To Spend Next Summer

Sophie B. in South Africa last summer.

Summer is by far the most important break in DP– a long, much-needed pause right between 11th and 12th grade. So how do you make the most of it?

Here’s what a couple of current seniors did:

“I volunteered at a vet clinic.” – Alesia M.

“I went to a summer camp.” – Seongjin K.

“I went to volunteer in South Africa for wildlife conservation and research. I also traveled to Mozambique, Qatar, and Austria.” – Sophie B.

“I went to a pre-IB course in Cambridge.” – Mehdi M.

“I went on a mission trip to Kenya with my church.” – Andrew W.

And here’s what they wish they did:

“Even if you can’t write your EE, you HAVE to outline it, or you’re gonna die in October when you have to write it 6 hours beforehand. Also, do some stuff that will look good on your CC.” – Alesia M.

“With how busy the beginning of the year is, you need to take time for that EE. Even if you’re a huge procrastinator.” – Lea M.

“I wish I could’ve finished all my uni essays and studied more.” – Seongjin K.

“Enjoy that summer.” – Jillaine S.

Personally, I managed to do two internships, draft my Written Assignment and Extended Essay, study ahead for my science classes, plan my Math IA, and do some CAS, while also allowing time to rest. I wish I got even more rest, though. You don’t get a lot of that in senior year. 

Overall, don’t take all that free time for granted. Relax and destress as much as humanly possible, but also find ways to make senior year easier for yourself. It’s better you do it now than later.

Predicted Grades and University

2019 graduate Tola having fun at the University of Leeds. Despite not achieving the required grades in chemistry, she nailed her interviews and volunteer experience, which got her that acceptance letter anyway.

Other than your final IB grades, predicted grades are the most crucial qualification from your DP career that universities use.

…Or are they?

The answer is no. Predicted grades, for the most part, aren’t nearly as important as you think they are.

But first, what are predicted grades? Well, it’s in the name: they’re an estimation of the score you’re expected to get by the end of grade 12, based on evidence. This comes from both your actual grades and your ATLs; for example, a student who’s been getting high 4s may be predicted a 5 if the teacher thinks they can work hard enough to achieve it. 

In terms of academics, teachers will primarily use your work from 11th grade to weight your predicted grades–especially your end-of-the-year exam, as it covers all the work you did so far. But this can vary based on university deadlines. Someone with an application deadline in December may have a lot more time to improve predicted grades, since your teacher will have more evidence to use. In fact, many teachers will offer optional assessments at the beginning of 12th grade if you’re in dire need of bumping those grades up. So, don’t sweat it if you’re not getting the grades you want right now. Chances are, they’ll have no effect on your predicted’s. Plus, grades don’t define you anyway.

Now we come to my main point: how important are they? In most universities, predicted grades are used as a cutoff. Anyone who doesn’t meet the minimum requirement isn’t accepted or invited for interviews. This also means that anyone above the requirement doesn’t get any special advantages, unless the university explicitly mentions it in their ranking system. Some universities don’t even look at predicted grades at all, and focus on achieved grades; either from MYP, or your final DP grades.

Instead, universities will approach their students with a more holistic judgement. What sort of work experience do you have? What extracurriculars do you do? These are the sort of attributes that can make or break college applications.

In short, the best school isn’t always the one that asks for the highest predicted grades. If a school won’t accept you based on their requirements, then find a school that does. Whether it’s high predicted grades, volunteer work and shadowing experience, high SAT scores, creative portfolios, engaging college essays, or stand-out performances in interviews, there’s a university out there for every type of student.

If you don’t feel ready to head off to college, take a gap year. And if you’re not planning to go to university at all, predicted grades shouldn’t even be on your mind. 

The path to success isn’t linear. All you need to know is that you’ll get there somehow.


That’s it for my advice. What other concerns do you have about senior year? If you’re a senior, what’s something else you wish you knew before 12th grade? Let us know in the comments!

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