Mathematics: Higher Level or Standard Level?


Both Sides of the Fence

Q: What is your current subject combination? What was your initial subject combination? 

A: HL Mathematics, Economics and Language & Literature with SL Physics, Chemistry and Tamil B.
My initial subject combination was Physics, Economics and Language & Literature HL with Mathematics, Chemistry and Tamil B SL.

Q: What was your reasoning behind your original subject combination?

A:  I wasn’t sure whether to pick Physics or Math HL, and ended up with Physics after seeing my seniors suffer through Math HL. I was initially considering HSP as well but decided that the HEE combination might be too limiting for my future endeavors.

Q: Why in particular did you take Math SL?

A: As someone quite decent in math, after listening to the complains my seniors had about Math HL I decided to go for SL, viewing it as one less subject to lose sleep over.

Q: Why did you decide to change subjects halfway through the year? What were the consequences like?

A: As someone inclined more towards the humanities and math, I was struggling quite badly in Physics HL. I’d been told by seniors that Physics HL was a ‘free 7’ but I was frustrated with not being able to understand or apply the course content and I was only getting 3s on tests.

At the same time, I found that while I had seemingly dodged a bullet by not taking Math HL, I was finding SL math to be extremely unchallenging, so it seemed suitable for me to swap.

Being someone who had appealed for my initial combination, I can’t say the teachers were extremely pleased to see my performance in physics and were even less pleased to hear about my intentions to drop it to SL after having appealed for it in the first place. Going through with my decision to switch more than halfway through the year was difficult, but I felt that it was justified given how much I was struggling, and the benefits my new combination would have in the long term.

Q: How would you compare the syllabus for Math SL and HL?

A: Math SL can best be described as a hybrid of Year 4 level Core and Advanced Math, with a few new topics thrown in. I didn’t personally find it challenging, and I think that anyone who was able to maintain a 5 point grade in both maths in Year 4 should have absolutely no issue with coping.

Math HL is a truly massive step up, as very few of the topics are familiar, and even those familiar topics are merely underlying concepts for a much broader, more complex topic. The transition was certainly not easy, and I had to enroll in tuition to make up for the 6 months I’d lost while doing math SL instead. Overall though, I found no particular issue with keeping up as long as I paid attention in class (mostly) and did the work that was assigned.

Q: Are there any career considerations you had in mind when you decided to switch subjects?

A: The turning point for me occurred when I was casually reading up on university courses that I might consider in the future. My personal aspiration was to study finance or a related course in the United States. While I previously assumed that under their liberal arts programs there would be no specific subject requirements, I discovered upon talking to a friend in an Ivy League business school that having HL Mathematics credentials would give me a great advantage over someone with SL credentials when it came to applications to top tier business schools. I decided that I’d rather not have my subject combination handicap what would otherwise be a perfectly viable prospect, and that it was therefore time for a change.

Q: If you were to go back to the start of Year 5 when choosing your subject combination, what would you do differently?

A: I’d probably have taken Math instead of Physics HL (obviously). The rest of my combination is pretty fun. A word of caution though: if you don’t think you have enough passion for English, save yourself the trouble and take it at SL. I personally find it fun but it takes a lot of effort and passion to do well in it. Double science SL is a lot better than it sounds (seriously) because they’re generally easy to score in and I believe it’ll help with implicit technical knowledge and stuff without being the centre focus of my combination.

Closing words

As ironic as this bit of advice seems here, don’t listen to your seniors. Ultimately, you’re the one doing the IB and as I learnt from my own experience, what worked for other people didn’t necessarily work for me, and vice versa.

The HL vs. SL Math debate is one that has been beaten to death, and it is truly impossible for one to objectively claim either as being better than the other. As much as HL is significantly tougher than SL, it also opens up a number of prospects such as engineering and economics. That being said, it depends on the individual- if you personally feel that you won’t be able to cope with a major jump over the Year 4 syllabus then spare yourself the burden.

One thing I should’ve done myself and I’d recommend future batches to do before picking a combination is to do the necessary research and have some clarity on what you want to do after IB, and what it takes to get there. Typically, Year 5s have until the end of Term 1 to make changes to their combination, and I highly advise everybody to use the opportunity well. Both Physics and L&L HL weren’t off to a great start and had I made a change earlier, I’d have avoided annoying higher administration and minimized setbacks I faced later in the year.

Finally, ensure that you enjoy your combination. I took Chemistry under advice from parents and peers, despite having failed it in Year 4 (go ahead, laugh) and expectedly, failed it again during the common test. However, looking back, while I could’ve taken another subject such as B&M and History, I’m happy to build my core foundation in the sciences and an excellent teacher finally helped me get a 5 point for promos. Until my teacher reached out and offered to personally help me with the subject, I frankly hated it and believed my IB career was doomed.

Regardless of the choice you end up making, it’s ultimately up to you to make it work. Pay attention during the subject briefings (seriously) and ensure that your gut feeling is comfortable with the decision you’ve made.

With this, I conclude. Welcome to IB and have a wonderful 2015.

Tanmay Shankar (6.12) is from the graduating batch of 2015.

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