IB Overview What is IB?

The IB Subject Dilemma: HL or SL?

Part of choosing your IB subjects is deciding between taking a subject at Higher (HL) or Standard Level (SL). So, how do you decide at what level you should take your subjects in?


Both levels are meant to be taught in a 2-year period, but you can sit exams in advance for some SL subjects. However, take into account that SL subjects require a total of at least 150 hours of instructional time, while HL subjects at least 240 hours (IBO).


Although they both have a compulsory internal assessment (IA), the criteria differs from one level to the other. This is due to the additional requirements and different criteria at HL, such as the Criterion E of the Mathematics IA or the additional IA in HL Film. This could also change the weight of the assessments in the final IB grade.


The core syllabus is the backbone content of the IB curriculum and, thus, is shared across both levels. Furthermore, there’s additional content for HL subjects (that is not taught at SL) to explore the subject more in depth.


You should always take into consideration the subject you want to pursue in university (or any other type of higher education) because many universities require you take certain subjects at the HL (only if you apply with predicted IB grades). 

If your school does not offer a subject at the level you need for university applications, speak with your IB coordinator/counselor to see what options you have available. Remember that, although it is advised to take 3 HL and 3 SL subjects, you can choose to take 4 HL subjects and 2 SL subjects as well.  Usually you do this to satisfy university requirements because the workload is heavier. 

How to Choose

Now that we’ve covered the main differences and similarities of each level, how do you choose between HL and SL? 

  1. Look at the course guide! Syllabi are key to deciding the level, as you’ll see the difference between HL and SL exams and the curriculum. 
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask. Ask your subject teachers, tutors, classmates or even the IBlieve Community about the differences between HL and SL in their subjects. They might help you decide what you should ultimately take!
  3. Consider your interests and aptitudes. It’s always better to take the HL option of the subjects you like the most to boost your motivation. You should also consider how good you are in that subject just in case you fall behind due to its difficulty.
  4. Balance your workload. You will have to study more for an HL subject than an SL subject because there’s more content and assessments. Therefore, you should consider whether it’s worth it to spend more time on a subject that is going to change your workflow. 

As someone who is in IBDP 2, that’s what I did to decide the level for Maths AA. I was torn between Maths AA HL and SL. On one hand, I wanted to take it at HL because I enjoy Maths AA and am good at them; I would challenge myself. On the other hand, this would have been my fourth HL subject and I was not required to take it for university entry requirements, so it was kind of useless. In the end, after looking at the course guide and consulting with my Maths teacher, I chose to stay at SL. I didn’t want to risk my final grade doing Paper 3 (which is only for HL students). Moreover, the quality of the SL Mathematics content is still brilliant without the HL extension. I hope that prospective IB students and IBDP 1 students can benefit from this post!

You may also like…


  1. Omg I’m in the same Situation but I know I’ll be regret ing both options… Both not trying and trying 😪

  2. I have a question – say if I wanted to take an AP exam for an SL course, in 11th grade, (the May before uni application submissions), would that be possible? How much content would be covered by the first year IB. I’m aware that there would be a little extra studying, but how much?

    1. Hi Chloe! I know students who have done both AP and IBDP at the same time, but it is mostly up to each school and what they offer. I recommend speaking with both your IB coordinator and the teacher whose AP subject you would take the exam in about what your options. They can also give you a clearer picture as to how similar or different the syllabi for those courses are. From there, you are the best person to gauge how much studying will be required to do both exams. Best of luck!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: