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What are the Hardest IB Subjects?

What are the Hardest IB Subjects?

10 min Read|April 11 2024
|Written by:

Charles Whitehouse


Choosing the right IBDP subjects to study in high school can have a profound impact on your academic journey and future aspirations. While personal interests and abilities should be the primary drivers of your choices, it's equally crucial to consider the difficulty level of each subject.

Examining expert opinions of teachers as well as statistics provided by the IB can offer valuable insights into subject difficulty. These statistics reveal the distribution of grade achievements, indicating which subjects are more likely to yield higher scores and which ones may pose greater challenges in achieving the coveted top IB grades.

It's important to strike a balance between pursuing subjects that genuinely interest you and being aware of the demands they entail. Finding the right equilibrium ensures not only a fulfilling learning experience but also maximises your potential for academic success.

Moreover, consider exploring subject-specific information and historical data provided by your school. These resources can offer a glimpse into the performance of past students, highlighting areas where students have excelled or encountered difficulties within your own academic community.

In this article, we delve into the topic of the hardest IBDP subjects, examining both subjective and statistical measures of difficulty. By understanding the challenges posed by certain subjects, you can make well-informed decisions that align with your passions, strengths, and aspirations.

What Makes a Subject Hard?

Determining the level of difficulty of an IB subject can depend on various factors. While the perception of difficulty may vary from student to student, there are some common aspects that contribute to the overall challenge of a subject. Here are several factors that can make a subject harder:

1. Conceptual Complexity: Some subjects require a deep understanding of complex concepts and theories. The ability to grasp abstract ideas and apply them in different contexts can pose a significant challenge.

2. Rigorous Content: Certain subjects have extensive content that needs to be covered within a limited timeframe. This can demand strong time management skills, effective study strategies, and a disciplined approach to learning.

3. Mathematical and Analytical Skills: Subjects such as Mathematics, Physics, and Economics often involve advanced mathematical and analytical skills. Proficiency in problem-solving, logical reasoning, and data interpretation can greatly impact performance in these subjects.

4. Practical Applications: Subjects like Sciences and Design Technology may require practical experimentation, research, or project work. The hands-on nature of these subjects can add complexity and require additional time and resources.

5. Language Proficiency: Language Acquisition subjects, such as Language B or Ab Initio, may present challenges for non-native speakers. Developing fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills in a new language can be demanding.

6. Essay Writing and Analysis: Subjects like History, English Literature, and Social Sciences often involve in-depth analysis, critical thinking, and essay writing. Constructing coherent arguments and effectively conveying ideas can be demanding skills to develop.

7. External Assessments: The structure of external assessments, including exams, oral presentations, or practical examinations, can impact the perceived difficulty of a subject. Some subjects may have a higher weightage on external assessments, requiring students to perform well under timed and high-pressure conditions.

Top 10 Hardest IBDP Subjects

Hardest IBDP Subjects

Results from a survey of 200 teachers and university lecturers about what they believe to be the hardest IB subjects

Here are the results, starting from 1, the most difficult IBDP Subject:

1. IB Maths Analysis & Approaches

2. IB Chemistry

3. IB History

4. IB English Literature

5. IB Computer Science

6. IB Maths Applications & Interpretations

7. IB Biology

8. IB Arabic B

9. IB Physics

10. IB Economics

Additionally, here's what Dr Zhen Shao, a lecturer at Oxford University has to say:

"As an IB tutor, I have found Maths Analysis & Approaches to be one of the most challenging subjects for students. It requires a strong foundation in mathematical concepts and the ability to think critically and analytically. The subject delves into complex equations, abstract reasoning, and problem-solving techniques that can be quite demanding. Many students find it difficult to grasp the intricate concepts and navigate through the mathematical complexities."

IBDP Subject Information

Unlike A-Levels, the IB Diploma Programme curriculum is organised into six subject groups, and students have to select subjects from each group. Equally important in your subject selection process is considering the level of difficulty for each subject. The IB program offers two levels of difficulty: Standard Level (SL) and Higher Level (HL). Standard Level subjects are tailored for students with a foundational understanding of the subject, while Higher Level subjects are designed for those seeking a more advanced level of knowledge.

Additionally, for certain languages, an Ab Initio level is available, intended for students with minimal or no prior knowledge of the language. Selecting subjects at an appropriate difficulty level is crucial for setting yourself up for success within the program.

Distribution of grades in IB subject groups

Distribution of grades in IB subject groups

Above is a breakdown of the grade distribution according to subject group. Let's delve deeper into the different groups and the most challenging subjects in each group.

Have a look at our comprehensive set of IB Study Notes and IB Practice Questions, developed by expert IB teachers and examiners!

Hardest Group 1 (Studies in Language and Literature) Subjects

When examining the Group 1 (Studies in Language and Literature) subjects in the IB program, three subjects stand out as particularly challenging due to various factors:

1. English A Literature: With a mean grade of 4.73, English A Literature HL is widely recognised as a difficult subject. The complexity lies in its rigorous literary analysis and critical interpretation. Students are expected to delve deep into literary works, dissecting themes, exploring symbolism, and analysing complex literary techniques. The subject demands strong analytical skills, critical thinking, and the ability to effectively articulate ideas in written form. For students facing challenges in these areas, working with an IB English tutor can provide guidance and strategies to enhance understanding and performance.

2. Spanish A Literature: Although the statistics can vary due to the smaller number of students taking the subject, Spanish A Literature HL is renowned for its difficulty. The challenges stem from its emphasis on advanced literary analysis in Spanish. Students are required to analyse a range of Spanish literary texts, exploring cultural nuances, understanding sophisticated literary devices, and unraveling complex themes. Proficiency in Spanish language skills, along with an in-depth understanding of the cultural and historical contexts, is essential for success in this subject.

3. Persian A Literature: Persian A Literature HL, with only a limited number of students taking the subject, is considered challenging. The difficulty lies in the comprehensive study of Persian literary works, which often encompass classical and contemporary texts. Students need to possess a deep understanding of Persian language, literature, and cultural contexts to navigate the intricate literary nuances present in the texts. The subject demands extensive analysis, interpretation, and critical evaluation of Persian literature.

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Hardest Group 2 (Language Acquisition) Subjects

Group 2 in the IB program focuses on language acquisition, involving the learning of a language that is not the student's first language. It offers a wide range of language options to choose from. Among these subjects, several stand out as particularly challenging:

1. Spanish B: With a mean score of 5.04, Spanish B SL is considered one of the most challenging Group 2 subjects. Students are expected to develop a solid grasp of Spanish language skills, including reading, writing, listening, and speaking. The subject requires a comprehensive understanding of grammar rules, vocabulary usage, and the ability to effectively communicate and comprehend written and spoken Spanish.

2. Latin: Latin SL emerges as another demanding Group 2 subject, with a mean score of 4.26. The difficulty lies in the intricate nature of Latin grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. Students need to develop strong analytical and translation skills to decipher and interpret Latin texts accurately. The subject demands a thorough understanding of literary devices, historical contexts, and the ability to analyse Latin literature in a scholarly manner.

3. Arabic Ab Initio: Arabic Ab Initio SL poses challenges for students, as indicated by its mean score of 4.91. This subject is designed for students with little or no prior knowledge of Arabic. It requires learning a new alphabet, mastering pronunciation, and developing a basic understanding of Arabic vocabulary and grammar. Arabic Ab Initio SL demands consistent practice and dedication to become proficient in the language.

Hardest Group 3 (Individual and Societies) Subjects

Group 3 in the IB program encompasses Individual and Societies subjects, offering a diverse range of disciplines to explore. Let's take a closer look at the subjects that are considered the most challenging within this group:

1. History: Among the popular Group 3 subjects, History HL stands out as the most demanding. With an average grade of 4.65, History HL presents significant challenges to students. It necessitates a comprehensive understanding of historical events, critical analysis skills, and the ability to construct coherent arguments within the context of historical inquiry. Attaining top grades in History HL can be particularly arduous, with only 3.7% of students achieving a score of 7. With a low rate of top grades, students often benefit from the guidance of an IB History tutor to enhance understanding and essay skills.

2. Economics: Economics holds the position of the second most challenging subject in Group 3. Although statistics are not provided for specific levels, Economics is renowned for its complexity and rigorous analytical demands. It explores fundamental economic principles, models, and theories, requiring students to apply economic concepts to real-world scenarios. Mastering economic analysis, quantitative skills, and critical thinking is essential for success in this subject. Success requires strong analytical abilities, making an IB Economics tutor invaluable for students aiming to improve their grasp of the subject and application skills.

3. Art History: Art History SL is recognised as one of the more challenging subjects overall, with an average grade of 4.48. Despite having a smaller number of candidates (212), this subject demands a deep understanding of art movements, cultural contexts, and the ability to analyse and interpret artistic works.

Hardest Group 4 (Sciences) Subjects

Group 4 in the IB program comprises the Sciences, offering a range of subjects to explore. Let's examine the subjects that are considered the most challenging within this group:

1. Chemistry: Chemistry is recognised as one of the hardest Group 4 subjects. With a mean grade of 4.99 for Chemistry HL and 4.54 for Chemistry SL, it demands a deep understanding of complex chemical concepts, theories, and practical applications. IB Chemistry tutor recommend students to practice and possess strong analytical skills, problem-solving abilities, and a solid foundation in mathematical concepts in order to succeed.

2. Biology: Biology stands out as another challenging subject within Group 4. With a mean grade of 4.73 for Biology HL and 4.56 for Biology SL, it requires students to grasp intricate biological processes, concepts, and terminology. Students need to develop skills in data analysis, critical thinking, and scientific inquiry to excel in this subject. An IB Biology tutor can help you make sense of complex topics and improve how you think about and understand biology.

3. Physics: Physics is known for its difficulty in understanding abstract concepts and applying mathematical principles. With a mean grade of 5.09 for Physics HL and 4.64 for Physics SL, it demands a strong grasp of mathematical and analytical skills, along with the ability to visualise and interpret physical phenomena. An IB Physics tutor can be really helpful in breaking down these tough ideas and making them easier to understand.

Hardest Group 5 (Mathematics) Subjects

Group 5 in the IB program comprises mathematics subjects, offering students a choice between two options. There is no easy option, and as all students are required to study the subject, many choose to hire an IB Maths tutor. Let's explore the difficulty level of these subjects:

1. Mathematics Analysis and Approaches: Maths Analysis HL, also known as Maths AA HL, is regarded as the most challenging IB mathematics subject. Although the mean grade for this subject is not provided, it is important to note that Maths AA HL is considered the most difficult due to its advanced content and rigorous curriculum. Students should not solely rely on the statistical mean grade, but instead, be guided by their own aptitude, interest, and passion for mathematics.

2. Mathematics Applications & Interpretation: Maths AI HL, or Maths Applications and Interpretation HL, is the other mathematics subject available within Group 5. It has a mean grade of 4.79, indicating a challenging curriculum that focuses on applying mathematical concepts to real-world contexts. This subject involves problem-solving, data interpretation, and statistical analysis.

Hardest Group 6 (Arts) Subjects

Group 6 in the IB program offers a diverse range of subjects within the arts, and it is optional for students to choose a subject from this group. Let's explore the difficulty level of these subjects:

1. Visual Arts: Visual Arts SL is considered the most challenging subject within Group 6, with a mean grade of 4.11. This subject demands creativity, artistic skills, and critical analysis in exploring visual arts. Achieving top grades in Visual Arts SL can be particularly difficult, with only 1.6% of students scoring a 7.

2. Theatre: Theatre HL emerges as one of the higher-scoring subjects within Group 6, with an average score of 4.96. This subject focuses on the theory and practice of theatre, including performance, play analysis, and theatrical design. It requires students to demonstrate a deep understanding of dramatic techniques and the ability to effectively communicate ideas through theatrical.

How Should I Use This Information?

While this information provides insights into the perceived difficulty of IB subjects, it is important not to use this as the sole basis for deciding which subjects to avoid. Your personal ability and interest should be the primary guiding factors in selecting your subjects. Consider the following advice when making your choices:

1. Consult with Teachers: Engage in discussions with your teachers to gain their insights and recommendations. They can provide valuable guidance based on their understanding of your strengths, learning style, and interests. Their expertise will help you identify subjects that align well with your abilities and aspirations.

2. School-Specific Information: Explore school-specific information, such as past exam results, to gain an understanding of subjects in which your school has historically achieved high grades. This information can offer insights into the teaching quality, resources, and support available within your school for specific subjects.

3. Personal Ability and Interest: Prioritize your own abilities and interests when selecting subjects. Choose subjects that you genuinely enjoy and excel in, as this will greatly contribute to your motivation and overall success in the IB program.

4. Long-Term Goals: Consider your future academic and career aspirations when choosing subjects. Select subjects that are aligned with your intended field of study or career path, as this can provide a solid foundation for your future endeavors.

5. Utilise IB Resources: Take advantage of the wealth of IB resources available, from official IB materials to online forums and study groups. These resources can provide additional insights into the curriculum, examination strategies, and subject-specific tips. Resources from websites like TutorChase provide past papers, subject guides, and are invaluable for deepening your understanding and preparing effectively for assessments. Here are some of the best IB resources available:

Remember that the IB experience is not solely determined by the difficulty of subjects but by your commitment, engagement, and personal growth. Embrace the subjects that inspire and challenge you, and approach your studies with dedication and a growth mindset.


Choosing your IB subjects? Think about what you like and what you're good at. Teachers and stats can help show which subjects are tough and which ones students do well in. But, really, it's about picking subjects that you're excited about and match your future plans. Go with your gut, chat with your teachers, and dive into subjects that light you up. It's your journey, after all, make it count!


How can I determine which IB subject is right for me?

Determining the right IB subject for you involves considering your academic strengths, interests, and future goals. Reflect on which subjects you enjoy and excel in, as passion and aptitude often lead to success. Consult with teachers for their insights and recommendations. Also, consider your future academic and career aspirations. Some university courses require specific IB subjects, so research your desired field of study. Lastly, review the IB subject briefs on the official IB website to understand the curriculum and assessment criteria.

What resources can I use to better understand the difficulty of an IB subject?

The official IB website provides comprehensive subject briefs detailing the curriculum and assessment criteria for each subject. Additionally, consult with teachers and current IB students for firsthand insights. Online forums and blogs can also provide student perspectives on subject difficulty. Remember, difficulty is subjective and what one student finds challenging, another may find manageable.

How does the difficulty of an IB subject impact university admissions?

Universities typically look at your overall IB score rather than individual subject grades. However, some competitive courses may have specific subject requirements. While challenging subjects can demonstrate academic rigour, it's crucial to balance this with your ability to achieve high grades. Universities value students who show both academic capability and a passion for their chosen subjects.

Where can I find IB study and revision notes?

At TutorChase, we offer a comprehensive collection of free revision notes and questions answered by expert tutors, explore them here:

How can I balance my interests with the difficulty level of IB subjects?

Balancing interests with difficulty level involves strategic subject selection. Choose subjects you are genuinely interested in and have a natural aptitude for. Your interest can motivate you to overcome challenges. For subjects you find difficult but are necessary for your future goals, consider seeking additional support like tutoring. Remember, the IB programme values well-rounded learners, so a mix of subjects that reflect both your interests and academic strengths is ideal.

What strategies can I use to succeed in the hardest IB subjects?

Success in hard IB subjects requires effective study strategies. These include regular revision to reinforce learning, practicing past papers to familiarise yourself with exam style and format, and seeking help when needed. Time management is also crucial to balance the workload. Additionally, maintaining a positive mindset and resilience in the face of challenges can greatly enhance your performance.

How can I improve my study habits for challenging IB subjects?

Improving study habits involves setting a regular study schedule, breaking study sessions into manageable chunks, and taking regular breaks to avoid burnout. Use active learning techniques like summarising information in your own words, teaching concepts to others, and using flashcards for memorisation. Regularly review past material to reinforce learning. Lastly, stay organised with your notes and assignments to keep track of your progress.

What role does my school's historical data play in choosing IB subjects?

Your school's historical data can provide insights into which subjects students typically perform well in, indicating strong teaching and resources in those areas. However, this shouldn't be the sole factor in your decision. It's crucial to choose subjects that align with your interests, strengths, and future aspirations.

How can an IB tutor help me with the hardest IB subjects?

An IB tutor can provide personalised guidance and support, helping you understand complex concepts, improve study strategies, and prepare for assessments. They can provide feedback on your work, help you identify areas for improvement, and boost your confidence. Tutors can also provide valuable exam tips and practice, enhancing your exam performance.

How does the difficulty of IB subjects relate to the IB grading system?

The IB grading system assesses your understanding and skills in a subject, not the subject's difficulty. Each subject, whether at Standard Level (SL) or Higher Level (HL), is graded on a scale of 1-7. While more challenging subjects may require more study time and effort, they are not necessarily graded more harshly. Your grade reflects your mastery of the subject's content and skills.

How can I manage stress and workload in challenging IB subjects?

Managing stress involves maintaining a balanced lifestyle. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate sleep can boost your physical and mental health. Break your workload into manageable tasks and set realistic goals. Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga. Don't hesitate to seek support from teachers, parents, or counsellors if you're feeling overwhelmed. Remember, it's okay to ask for help.

What are the best IB schools?

The best IB schools are those that provide a rigorous and challenging education that prepares students for success in university and beyond. For a complete list read our article on the Best IB Schools in the World.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

Charles Whitehouse

Written by: Charles Whitehouse

Oxford University - Masters Biochemistry

Charles scored 45/45 on the International Baccalaureate and has six years' experience tutoring IB and IGCSE students and advising them with their university applications. He studied a double integrated Masters at Magdalen College Oxford and has worked as a research scientist and strategy consultant.

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