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Insider Tips: Transitioning from the Hong Kong DSE to IB!

Insider Tips: Transitioning from the Hong Kong DSE to IB!

I’m Joanne Yau, a content intern with Millie! Having been studying in a local school for the past 14 years, it has taken a while for me to adjust from the local Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) Examination curriculum to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP). I sat down with an IB full-scorer from a top local school, who shared the same experience with me! Here are some insider tips to thrive in IB!

Wait - what are DSE and IB?

The Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) is the local Hong Kong public exam taken by secondary school students upon completing the six-years of secondary education. Most school candidates may take four core subjects (Chinese Language, English Language, Mathematics and Liberal Studies), plus two to three elective subjects.

On the other hand, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) is an international curriculum for students aged 16-19. It requires students to take all of a wide range of subjects including two languages, humanities, science, mathematics and arts. Although the IBDP is mostly provided by international schools in Hong Kong, several local schools have started implementing the IB system in recent years.

Now that you know what DSE and IB are, let’s dive in deeper!

Time management

"A useful thing to do is to have both a short-term planner and a long-term planner."

People stress on the importance of time management all the time, but this is particularly true for IB students. With 6 subjects, 2 EE, IA for each subject, CAS, plus your TOK essay (Confused with what all these acronyms mean? Check out this IB Survival Guide!), it’s even more crucial to map out your schedule in IB than the local DSE.

A useful thing to do is to have both a short-term planner (daily or weekly) and a long-term planner (Notion is my all-time favourite productivity app, as it has everything from to-do lists to planners in one place!). The short-term allows you to stay on-track for things coming up front, like an English essay due next week. Whereas the long-term one keeps track of important deadlines like EE and IA submissions, or mock exam periods to give you a full picture of the entire IB curriculum. Trust me, you will thank yourself later, especially in the second year of IB when all the deadlines rush to you! Manage your time well from the beginning of IB!


It’s always easier to follow a fixed framework and a set formula, which you could often figure out for standardized tests like the DSE - but not for IB. One of the most unique and challenging parts of IB is how it requires students to think outside of the box, and the Internal Assessment (IA) is the perfect example.

“At the end of the day, it’s a change in the mindset”

From exploring the probability of having the same birthdays as your friends to when you could use the words ‘swimmed’ and ‘knowed’ (which are against the English grammar rules), Mathematics in IB is not just the about repetitively inputting numerals to your calculator, but applying mathematical knowledge to what you find interesting.

Students switching from the local DSE might find this challenging because of this. They often focus on getting exactly as the model answers and hitting the scores, instead of presenting the response as a comprehensive one - which is what the IB wants.

Read more: Millie’s IB Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Internal Assessments

Taking initiative

“Head’s up, pen’s down. It’s no longer drilling on what you already know, but exploring the unknown”

While the DSE also encourages students to take initiatives, unlike the IB, it is not a compulsory part of the curriculum. Known to be a holistic curriculum, the IB includes an integral part called Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS). Even if you get 7s for all your subjects, you still wouldn’t get the diploma if you fail CAS!

Watch more: Millie’s Guide to Volunteer/CAS

The CAS component requires students to start their own CAS Project, to challenge themselves not only academically, but personally as well. From teamwork to leadership skills to taking initiatives, the IB goes beyond the classroom setting, equipping students with skills that are applicable in real life and even the workplace.

Quality over quantity

While doing practice questions is still useful, drowning yourself in years of past paper won’t guarantee you top grades in the IB. Workload for DSE preparation is nothing short of that for IB, but what DSE students might find overwhelming is perhaps the number of essays in IB. Rather than homework and assignments, local students are oftentimes not accustomed to doing so many essays - It’s the qualitative work, not quantitative.

With two 4000-word Extended Essays, an Internal Assessment for each subject and a TOK essay, no matter how much of a STEM student you are, you can’t get away with these essays in the IB. With this much essay and research to do, quality becomes much more important than quantity.

Our last note

You can’t sprint through the final IB examination and get a full score of 45/45. The IB is like a marathon, where continuous effort and input are needed. Make sure you stay on-track and spare time for extracurricular activities (which are oftentimes counted as CAS!), and you shouldn’t worry too much about it!

Still lost? We have more IB Survival Guides on our website!