Choosing subjects in the International Baccalaureate

Rail tracks

Your choice of Higher Level subjects will be important, even with the flexibility offered by the broad IB curriculum. Credit: Martin Fisch

The subject choices you make within the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma curriculum can have a significant impact on the course options available to you at university. This page provides useful advice to ensure that the decisions you make when choosing your IB subjects, (and equally importantly when deciding which ones to study at Higher Level) will not unduly limit the opportunities available to you should you decide to apply to King's in the future.

As you will be aware, IB students take six subjects which are chosen from specific subject groups. Normally three subjects are taken at Higher Level and three are taken at Standard Level. Students also complete an Extended Essay, study the Theory of Knowledge and have Creativity, Action and Service requirements. For full information about the structure and options in the IB Diploma Programme, please see the IBO exam board website for: 

We generally prefer applicants to have taken certain subjects, or combinations of subjects at Higher Level in the IB, because we believe that they are more likely to provide an effective preparation for study at the University. When assessing applicants, we consider not only the individual subjects taken but also the combination of subjects and (especially for particular courses) which ones have been taken at HL and which ones at SL.

If you will be studying qualifications other than the IB Diploma Programme, there is a more general version of this information which you will probably find easier to read. If you have any queries, do email us at undergraduate.admissions@kings.cam.ac.uk for further information.  

Do you know the course that you want to study?

Open book

Can you can use your Extended Essay to research a relevant topic for your university choices in greater depth? Credit: Honou

Many Cambridge courses require specific knowledge of certain subjects and we will expect you to achieve grade 6 or 7 in these subjects at Higher Level. Occasionally applicants may be asked to achieve a 7 in a particular subject, depending on individual circumstances, but in most cases we do not specify which subjects your 7's must be achieved in.

If you have already decided on a course that you would like to study, we recommend that you check the following information before you finalise your IB subject choices: 

You might also wish to do this for the same course - or similar courses- at other universities.

Do you want to keep your options open?

Choosing subject combinations that genuinely keep your options open is trickier than you might think, even with the broad curriculum of the IB Diploma Programme. We often encounter students who have chosen to take a mixture of arts and science subjects at Higher Level because they believe it will keep their options open. While such a combination does provide a suitable preparation for many arts and social science courses at the University, it can make you a less competitive applicant for Cambridge's broad-based science courses.

There are certain Higher Level subjects that are considered either essential or desirable for a number of courses at Cambridge. Therefore, choosing one or more of these to study at Higher Level will help to keep your higher education options open. These subjects include:

Other Higher Level subjects that also facilitate course choice at Cambridge include Further Mathematics (normally taken in Group 6, in addition to Mathematics in group 5) and Biology (group 4 or 6).

If you want to keep your options open but you think you are likely to want to study a maths/science or arts/social science-based course, see the information below.

Are you inclined towards the sciences / maths?

If you think you would like to study a sciences course at university but are unsure which one, then you are advised to take at least two, and ideally three, of Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics at Higher Level in the IB.

Caution sign

In practice, the vast majority of applicants for science / maths courses at Cambridge take three of these subjects at Higher Level.
Credit: Henrique Pinto

Some pairings of Higher Level subjects are more natural than others. The most natural pairings are Biology and Chemistry, Chemistry and Physics, and Mathematics and Physics. Another useful combination is Physics (group 4), Mathematics (group 5), and Further Mathematics (in group 6). NB. We are aware that it is not possible to take Biology, Chemistry and Physics in the IB curriculum.

  • For Computer Science, you must take Higher Level Mathematics, and if you are applying for the Computer Science with Maths first year option, you must also take STEP papers.
  • If you are planning to study Medicine, it is essential to take Higher Level Chemistry, and please read the specific advice for IB students in the Medicine subject requirements.
  • For Engineering you should take the following subjects at Higher Level: Mathematics, Physics. You will read that for A level students, Further Maths is recommended. Please note that IB HL Maths and HL Physics can be substituted for Further Maths.
  • If you are planning to study Mathematics, you must take Higher Level Mathematics and STEP papers. Higher Level Physics is recommended but is not a requirement
  • For Physical Sciences you must take Higher Level Mathematics, Physics, and we recommend Chemistry or perhaps Further Mathematics (in group 6).

Other possible subject choices, for instance Computer Science or Design Technology may be useful preparation for some of our science courses (though in many cases Biology, Chemistry, or Physics would be more useful choices in Group 4).

The science courses offered at King's are: Chemical Engineering; Computer Science; Engineering; Mathematics; Medicine; Natural Sciences (Biological and Physical).

Are you inclined towards the arts or social sciences?

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For many arts and social sciences courses, there is no set route though the HL options - a range of subjects can provide good preparation. Credit: Scott Wylie (cropped)

If you think you would like to study an arts or social sciences course at university but you are not sure which one, then Language A Literature, History, a Language B option, Classical Languages and Mathematics are good 'keystone' subjects to study at Higher Level: choosing one or more of these will provide a good foundation for your subject combination.

Other good Higher Level choices to combine with these 'keystone' subjects include: an additional Language B option, an additional Classical language, Economics, Further Mathematics, Geography, Philosophy, and sciences (Biology, Chemistry, or Physics). These subjects could be taken either in their normal subject groups or as a group 6 option.

Other possible subject choices, for instance Social and cultural anthropology, Music, Psychology, are useful preparation for some of our arts and social sciences courses.

The arts and social sciences course offered at King's are: Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic; Asian and Middle Eastern StudiesClassics; Economics; English; Geography; History; History and Modern Languages; History and Politics; History of Art; Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS); Law; Linguistics; Modern and Medieval Languages; Music; Philosophy; Theology and Religious Studies.

Other Cambridge courses

Chetwynd Court

Some courses don't fit the advice for 'arts and social sciences' or for 'sciences' - preparation may depend on your interests within the course.

We also offer courses in:

These have not been listed in the sections above because they are difficult to allocate to one of the two groups. Advice about suitable subject combinations for these courses is available in the applying section on the relevant subject page.

Other Higher Level subjects

There are, of course, many other Higher Level IB subjects that we have not mentioned at all on this page. The fact that we have not mentioned them does not mean that we think they are not individually worth taking. However, they are rather specialised in focus and so not a good choice if you are looking to keep your options open, or else the way in which they are taught and assessed means that they do not provide a good preparation for the courses offered at King's. If you are thinking of applying to Cambridge our advice is to ensure that among your Higher Level subjects you are doing no more than one of these other subjects.

Standard Level subjects

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It is not unusual for the balance of your interests to change a little during the Diploma Programme. Credit: GollyGforce

We advise you to take courses that you enjoy and think will be useful at IB Standard Level.

The flexibility of the IB curriculum can be an advantage if your interests change in the course of the Diploma Programme. Many schools will allow you to change from Standard Level to Higher Level and vice versa in the subjects where this is possible. Do talk to your school if this may be relevant for you.

If you will apply for a sciences course and are taking a Standard Level Maths (Group 5) option rather than Higher Level, please be aware that Mathematical Studies (SL) is not suitable (where you are studying Maths at Standard Level this should be Mathematics Standard Level). If you are applying for an arts or social sciences course other than Economics (for which Higher Level Mathematics is required), Mathematical Studies (SL) is fine if you want to take it.

Much of the information on this page is based on the University of Cambridge Subject Matters leaflet.

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