The thing about the IB is that it’s like a mountain-not a real mountain, although many have compared the academic journey to climbing one, but it is an abstract mountain of information.
So how on earth do you go about revising all of this information? What is the best way to organise and schedule your revision as you prepare for your IB final exams?
I faced the exact same questions in mid-2014 when my IB final exams were looming on the horizon like grey clouds.
In this blog post, I will share with you the exact process, tools and techniques that I used in the lead up to my IB final exams, so that you can use them too.
Get motivated and stop procrastinating
When a fire starts burning under your butt, procrastination no exists because it cannot exist.
In the months before my final exams, I felt unmotivated to actually put in the hard work because there were still “months of time left.” Not a good attitude. The good news is that there is no better way to becoming instantly motivated than realising just how underprepared you are for your final exams. Here’s what I did, and you should do the same after you finish reading this post or, at least, later tonight.
So here’s what I did. I printed out an IB past paper for one of my subjects (I forget which one exactly). Remember, this is about 5 months before my finals. No revision at all. In my mind, I knew I was unprepared, but I didn’t feel unprepared. That’s a big difference. The goal of doing a past paper totally unprepared is to make you feel unprepared. About 2 questions in, I quickly realised just how much work I had cut out for me in the remaining time. In 5 minutes, my mindset shifted from “I have so much time!” to “I have no time! S%*t! Let’s get to work!”
Doing Attempting a past paper totally unprepared works wonders for your motivation and procrastination.
First focus on your weaker subjects
Scoring well in your IB finals is about being pragmatic and focusing on the things that are easiest to improve. There are simply too many potential things to do and improve in all of your 6 subjects. What you want to do is to define your focus and ignore the rest of the mountain.
Answer this question: What are your most troubling subjects? Confine your answer to 2 subjects.
These subjects will be where most of your energy needs to focus during the initial stage of preparation. Sure, you can push your Chemistry from a 6 to a 7, but it’s probably easier to go from a 4 to a 5 in another subject, simply due to the law of diminishing returns.
Think strategically about which subjects will give you the greatest reward for the smallest amount of effort. Focus on the low-hanging fruit before aiming higher up in the tree.
For me, I was doing well in all of my subjects before my exams, but I did know that English Literature SL and Mathematics HL would be the subjects where I might slide down from a 7 to a 6. So I doubled down on these two subjects and spent more time on them during the initial stage of preparation.
First focus on your weaker syllabus topics
Preparing for anything is about focusing your energy on where it counts.
I made a list of the main syllabus topics for every subject, and then I crossed off the things I knew I was confident at. There’s too much information to worry about all at once. If you worry about too many of your weaknesses at the same time, then nothing will ever get done.
How do you figure out your weakest areas? I used two ways to find out.
- Go through the subject syllabus. The task is to see if you can recall all the important facts to do with every point. By doing this, you will very easily realise which topics are weak.
- Go through IB QuestionBank. There’s a trick that lots of IB students don’t know. You can actually narrow the questions down to the syllabus sub-topic. Here’s a how-to video.
Here’s the deal. Priority #1 is to bring your weakest topics in your weakest subjects to an acceptable standard, and then you can worry about the rest. Hopefully you’re getting the theme now. Preparing for anything is about focusing your energy on where it counts.
Make or join a small study group
For your weaker subjects, consider joining or making a study group with 2 or 3 other people. I had a small study group of four people for English. We would meet during the mornings in the school library once a week. During these study sessions, we would discuss past paper questions for Paper 2. We’d brainstorm our own ideas for a past paper the night before, and share our ideas with each other. My study buddies (who were all really smart in English) not only motivated me, but also taught me lots of tips and tricks.
So reach out to your peers and make some study groups! Also, don’t just choose your closest friends to be in the group. Reach out to people who are roughly at the same level as you and who are motivated to excel and improve.
How much time should I devote to making or reading notes?
It goes without saying that doing practice questions is essential in exam preparation.
But what about notes? The answer varies. The time I used to review my notes depended entirely on the subject in question. For some subjects, note are really important and need to be prioritised, whilst for other subjects, notes are a genuine waste of time.
- For mathematics, notes are almost entirely useless. Do not waste your time making in-depth notes for maths, although succinct summaries of problem solving techniques and formulas are good to have around. For maths, almost all of your time should be spent on doing IB QuestionBank and IB past papers. A lot of people spend lots of time reading through the textbook, but they fail to realise that reading about maths is very different from being asked to do the maths…under time pressure…and in an exam.
- For English, making and revising notes is essential for Paper 2. I made an extensive quote bank to memorise all of the quotes that I needed to know. How do you make this quote bank? Just make a word document and include 20 of the most important quotes for every Paper 2 text you have. There’s a lot more detail to making a quote bank, but I’ll leave that for another blog post. Anyway, I read through this quote bank twice a day in the one week before my Paper 2 exam. Start early; give yourself at least a month of memorising the quote bank.
- For Group 3 subjects, notes are essential.
- For Group 4 subjects, notes are essential. A word on science notes: If you’ve done QuestionBank questions, you would have realised that the wording of your answers is extremely important to whether you get the mark. If you miss a key word, then no mark, sorry. What you want to do is make, revise or edit your notes based on these QuestionBank mark schemes. Make sure your notes are ‘compliant’ with the style and wording of official IB answers.
Using IB past papers
When to start
You don’t want to start too early (except for the motivation trick-that’s an exception), and you don’t want to start too late. You want to make sure that you have a decent understanding of the subject content before beginning, otherwise you’ll just be wasting past papers, since they are a finite resource.
My approach to preparing for Maths HL (links to one of my Quora answers) generalises to all subjects in terms of when is the right time to move from textbook questions to QuestionBank questions to past papers.
I started my Maths HL papers too early and finished all of them about 2 weeks before my final exam, which meant that I didn’t have something to simulate exam conditions before the real deal. It was pretty terrifying.
Here’s what I would do if I could go back in time. Luckily, you don’t need to go back in time. You can avoid my mistake the first time!
- Figure out exactly how many IB past papers I have (or plan to complete) for a specific subject
- Next, figure out how many weeks I have left till my exam in that subject
- Then, figure out how many papers I should be doing per week by dividing (1) by (2)
How to use IB past papers effectively
I took every past paper very seriously, and you should too. It’ll only help you. You’re reading this because it’s just months before your finals, and now is the right time for you to be hard on yourself and complete the exams under real exam conditions. No phones, no Google, no notes.
Here is how I approached my past papers. I would try to complete the questions as much as I could. I would leave unfinished questions unfinished, just like in a real exam. If I didn’t know how to answer most of the questions, then I clearly wasn’t ready for past papers yet. If you find yourself in the same scenario, you need to take a step back, work on memorising and understanding content knowledge through notes and QuestionBank practice, and then come back to past papers-wiser and stronger.
The most important part of the past paper process isn’t the exam itself. It’s what happens after the exam: the marking stage. Chances are that you didn’t get 100%. Your goal is to find out exactly why you didn’t get 100%, what marks you lost, and how you can avoid it. And don’t just use a red pen to circle incorrect things. Re-write the answer in perfect form so that it’s full marks. For English specifically, the mark schemes are a bit of joke-they’re super vague and only give an indication of rough ideas relevant to the text. If you have a study group for English, set up a system where you mark each other’s essays and give feedback.
The point of doing past papers is not to celebrate what you know. It is to identify and fix the things you didn’t know you don’t know. So rejoice when you don’t know something. That’s the whole point.
By being serious about it, the past paper would give you an accurate measurement of your current level. It needs to be accurate otherwise you will be getting a false sense of security.
This is a work in progress. Comment below to ask further specific questions. It’s been two years since my IB finals preparation, so I have definitely forgotten some things.
Here’s a summary of the important points for preparing for IB exams:
- Go from notes to textbook questions to QuestionBank to past papers in this order.
- Focus your energy and attention.
- Tackle weaknesses first.
- Take past papers seriously. The most important part is the marking stage where you fix up your mistakes and improve.
- Notes are really important for all subjects except for mathematics.
- Active doing and practice are essential to all subjects.