Which Courses Make the HARDEST IB Diploma?

The IB is notoriously hard. But how hard can it get? In this blog, we discuss the IB subject combination with the lowest average score according to the 2019 IB statistical bulletin! We looked at all the courses with over 7,000 candidates in 2019 and considered which courses have the lowest average score!

NOTE: this blog should not guide your choices of IB subjects, as the average score for a subject at your school may be wildly different from the world average. Additionally, there are a variety of factors outside of the difficulty of the course that cause the world average for these courses to be what it is. This is just an interesting look at the statistics provided by the IB!

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Group 1: Studies in Language and Literature

English A Literature HL – Average Score: 4.67

According to the statistical bulletin, this is the course where the average score is the lowest for any English A course. Only 2.5% of candidates got a 7, and the average score is around 0.35 points lower than any other English A course! 

Group 2: Language Acquisition

Spanish AB. SL – Average Score: 4.96

While Spanish B HL has the highest average score of any foreign language, Spanish Ab initio has the lowest average score! This looks strange upon first glance, but naturally there may be a variety of factors pulling this number down (like students who change school and thus have to take ab initio classes, or inexperience with studying foreign languages before), so this number shouldn’t automatically suggest that Spanish Ab initio is the most difficult language course. In fact, a surprisingly high amount of students actually got a 7 in this course. So, this may be one of those situations where the stats give us a bit of a skewed perception of reality. 

Group 3: Individuals and Societies

History HL – Average Score: 4.29

Perhaps unsurprisingly to some, History HL is the social science with the lowest average score that the IB offers. The average score sits at 4.29, with 3x as many people failing the class as getting a 7. Would we at Lanterna recommend staying away from History, though? No! History is a great course to take to learn about how to research and write proper essays – crucial tools for the future (and even in the rest of your IB classes). That being said, be prepared for a word-heavy subject and a lot of essay-writing if you do decide to embark on the journey of History HL. 

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Group 4: Experimental Sciences

Chemistry SL – Average Score: 4.01

An interesting observation is that all SL sciences have significantly lower average scores than their corresponding HL counterparts. This isn’t to say that SL sciences are easier than HL sciences, but there may be a variety of factors that feed into the score for SL generally being lower than HL. The most obvious factor is that those who take science at HL might have a greater interest or passion for the sciences and, thus are more likely to do well. Out of the SL sciences, Chemistry was the one with the lowest average score in 2019, with around 18% getting a 2 or lower! Don’t let this lull you into thinking that you should be taking an HL science because it’s ‘easier’, though! Of course, the HL sciences are more difficult, but the selection bias we end up with looking at these statistics skew our perception. 

Group 5: Mathematics

Math Studies SL – Average Score: 4.17

This is definitely down to selection bias. The people studying Math Studies SL may be those who don’t think of the area of mathematics as their strongest discipline and thus will have a hard time achieving high scores. Clearly, Maths SL or Maths HL are more difficult courses, but by the letter of the law, this one is included in our ‘hardest’ IB subject combination!

Group 6: Arts (or additional Group 1-5 course)

Visual Arts HL – Average Score: 4.26

Visual arts rounds out our ‘hardest’ IB diploma. There is no large difference between the average scores in the most common arts subjects (Music, Theatre, and Visual Arts) but visual arts ended up with the lowest average score in 2019. Like with any of these courses, make sure to research what the average score is for each of these subjects at your own school, as the quality of teaching may largely impact how you’re going to do as compared to the world average! 

Extended Essay: 

Individuals and Societies – Average Score: C

Although the average score for writing an EE within Individuals and Societies is the same as it was within the ‘easiest’ EE subject (Studies and Language and Literature), you’re much more likely to get a D (and much less likely to get an A) if you choose to write your EE in the social sciences! Only 25% get a B or higher in Individuals and Societies, compared to 37% in the sciences and 44% in Language A. This may be impacted by the sheer amount of students that write their EE within the Individuals and Societies because it seems like an ‘easy’ topic. It is also completely possibly to write a terrific EE in this subject, and we’ve seen it done many times! 


Average Score: C

Of course, the IB doesn’t publish what the ‘hardest’ TOK essay was, but the average score in 2019 was a C.

TOTAL: 27.36

What does this tell you? Well, the perfectly average student taking the 6 courses listed above would get 27.36 points. That’s a full 2 points lower than the world average! So just by taking the ‘hardest’ courses, on average, your score would be below the world average by 7.7%! Keep in mind that these are all comparisons to world averages, and the averages at your school are bound to be wildly different!

Perhaps you realize that you’re taking some of the most difficult subjects and you need some help? Fear not! We’ve got expert tutors on hand who will make sure that you can ace even the hardest IB diploma out there! 

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