Surviving IB: HL English A – Literature


How do you feel about Literature HL?

A very satisfying two years! I’ve always been a Humanities student, having enjoyed Literature in ‘O’ Levels; but doing Literature HL in IB was a whole different ball game. It was everything I expected, yet nothing I expected at the same time.

The rigor, challenge, and pressure to excel were no surprise. What caught me off guard was how different the IB assessments were from ‘O’ Level essays. The very first few months, I couldn’t hold my own. I lost confidence in my competency, and didn’t consider my own points worth exploring in class. However, I hope this article helps you –  the lost nomad trying to figure out what you want to fall in love with, the wide eyed student looking for a challenge, or even just the perfectionist craving that elusive 7 in all things – and I hope you get to skip all the cluelessness I went through… to go straight to the part where Literature becomes fun.


Most vital survival tips to studying Literature HL

Read loads of academic essays! Actively searching up essays and criticisms outside of class really helped me find my writing style, and also helped me get a sense of what was necessary for a good analysis. Such essays can be found on JSTOR. This genuinely pulled up my grade from a high 6 in Year 5 to a high 7 in Year 6. Editor’s note: It pulled mine up from a 5 in Year 5 to a 7 in Year 6!

Form a personal opinion about your texts. It’s great to love your texts, but it’s even greater to find reasons to criticize your texts. It gives all your arguments more body, and it’s also more fun to hate on your texts with friends than gush about it the way you have to in class.

Think about your texts and their contexts. Think about how Amalfi would have looked like in the 14th century (John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi), think about the disservice of Jim Crow laws (Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings). Ponder words beyond its meaning – consider the reason that it exists. It makes studying, and being engaged, much breezier.


Most vital survival tips to taking Literature HL exams

Make notes while you’re picking apart or working through your text. The nature of IB is that of ruthless rigor: you hardly have time to study for tests, and therefore you have to maximize your studying. Tab your books obsessively so you don’t waste time finding quotes, and organize your notes. I did mine by character, themes, literary devices (e.g. purpose of anthropomorphism, purpose of structure/pacing, etc.), and listed quotes accordingly.

Memorize background knowledge (e.g. when the text was written, whom for, what for, etc.) to show some semblance of contextual knowledge. It boosts the depth of the essay, and is a sure-win especially if you have no quotes in your head.

It might also be useful to have notes on context specifically as IB rubrics credit the audience/ reader response of that time period. If you’re commenting on Duchess of Malfi, an essay should hence focus on the effect of literary devices on the Jacobean audience, as opposed to a contemporary or generic audience. For example, you could discuss the portrayal of Catholicism with respect to the prevailing Protestant-Catholic rivalry at the time. You could also match bits of context to each literary device or theme so you’ve a ready sheet of contextual knowledge to weave into each paragraph in the exam!

Also because it’s the kind of knowledge you can definitely gain in the duration of a bus/train ride.

Know what you’re in for, don’t go into exams blind. Look for past IB questions, and familiarize yourself with the type of questions they ask/how difficult they are. Organising your notes according to question type may also be fairly useful!  

Don’t… read cheat sheets on the internet… Your brains degenerate… I promise… Also teachers see through it like it’s not even there…


Most vital survival tips to Literature HL IAs (and other written submitted work like the Written Assignment)

Peruse past/sample IAs!

Take teacher consultations seriously! It is often hard to keep up with consultations, having them back to back for different subjects (I once tried to fit five consultations into an hour – terrible idea, do not repeat). But keep your computer files organized, and be disciplined in making necessary changes to your drafts.The teachers know the rubric best, so even if it seems awkward or different from your writing style, let them correct you.

Have your friends proofread your drafts! This is the best worst-kept secret, and I cannot emphasize it enough. Don’t be afraid to send your friends your work (especially those who ace every test), and don’t be afraid to mark theirs. It’s extremely efficient (2a.m. emails not confined by “working hours” or “working days”) and has most definitely saved my life on every single Literature IA I’ve ever done.


One thing to look out for?

It is important to realize that Literature HL is definitely a step up from the ‘O’ Levels; not only assessment-wise, but also in terms of the skills demanded of you. Don’t rest on your laurels if you’ve scored well in secondary school – instead, attempt to upgrade yourself everyday. It is no longer enough to use rote memorisation; IB calls for oratorical proficiency, genuine engagement, and written fluidity. Same-same but very, very different.


If I could turn back time…

I would have started earlier on my IOC! There’s really never too much time to prepare, so be sure to start as early as possible.

But of course, to be very honest, I don’t expect anyone to follow this advice. After all, it really is a bitter pill to swallow, with a chest-high swamp of work during that season of IB: prelims, final IA submissions, TOK submissions, etc., all like a deluge. Just be mindful of your calendar, and do IOC prep during small pockets of free time. It does go a long way.


Anything else you have to say about Literature HL/IB?

My mantra, not only for two years of Literature, but also throughout the whole IB journey, is a quote from Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged – “If you don’t know, the thing to do is not to get scared, but to learn”.

Over the next two years, you’ll be bombarded by unfamiliar test formats, and foreign terrain. But you’re also surrounded by friendly seniors, encouraging juniors, passionate teachers, and helpful peers who are most likely on the same learning journey you are. Try not to forget that, and find the courage to cast away your insecurities. There is simply no time for self-doubt, you can do it!


Chow Ee Ning (6.17) is from the graduating batch of 2016. Ning was consistently among the top of the cohort in Literature exams with her incredibly lucid writing. On top of being a 45-pointer, she is best known for her serious involvement in a plurality of interests from water polo to piano to photography. Ning could be the poster-girl for the quintessential all-rounded ACSian!!!

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