International Biology Olympiad

If I may say so, the ultimate dream of every single budding biologist is probably to get to the IBO. In 1990, the first IBO took place in the Czech Republic, where six countries participated. Since then, it takes place annually in a different country. Competition to get one out of the four places in the national team is raising so if you want to qualify for it, you need tounderstand what it’s all about.


Basically, the IBO is a competition aimed at secondary school students. A national team is usually comprised of no more than four students. The objective of the championship is to bring together the most gifted students interested in biology. There are some strict rules with regardsto who can take part in the competition. You have to attend school in the country you’re representing and can’t have started studying at university. Now, a very important rule is that you can only participate in the IBO twice. So if you are in the 9th grade, it’s best to focus on building your knowledge and shoot for the IBO in 11th or 12th grade. Although it isn’t anofficial rule, some countries prohibit participation in two or more international competitions atthe same time. This means you won’t be able to take part in both the IBO and IChO in the sameyear. However, do check with your national coordinators – maybe your country allows this. Keep in mind that preparing for two international contests is hard work and this can really affect the quality of your studies.

Medal Allocation

What I love about the IBO is that there aren’t just three medals (bronze, silver, and gold) in total. In fact, there is a 60% chance that you’ll come back with a medal, which is awesome! So how are the medals allocated? The final ranking is based on the t-score method and the medals will be allocated according to the following percentages:

Number of gold medals = 10%

Number of silver medals = 20%

Number of bronze medals = 30%

Also, quite recently, certificates of merit have been awarded to some of the students so the chances of receiving some kind of awards in the IBO has increased even more.

The Exams

The examination is comprised of theory and practical parts, each lasting for 6 hours. Fortunately, there is a day in between the two examinations which allows you to recuperate and recharge your brain batteries. Most importantly, all exam papers are translated into your native language so there is no need for you to perfect your English skills, but I highly recommend it for the social aspect of the olympiad (e.g., for making friends)!

In order to make marking straightforward and quick, all the questions in the theory part (and some in the practical part) are precoded (closed), meaning you won’t usually need toprovide your own answers (such as writing a small explanation as is required in typical school exams). Another thing is that the IBO questions are usually concise. This means that you can expect more pictures, graphs, pathways, schemes or tables in the questions and less text.

In the practicals, you’ll usually get four different experiments to do, each lasting for 1.5 hours. Most likely, you’ll get:

A Plant Biology practical, which typically involves preparing cross sections of plants, classifying different plants specimens, identifying different species using a given identification key, or answering theory questions about plant structure and physiology;

A Biochemistry or Molecular Biology practical, where you may have to do an experiment in which you dilute solutions and then calculate concentrations, or it could be to digest a plasmid with restriction enzymes and run a gel electrophoresis experiment;

An Evolution/Ecology/Ethology practical where you analyze the behavior of organisms, and answer questions about ecology or rebuild a phylogenetic tree using given specimens. In this exam, the use of video and/or audio is quite common

An Animal Anatomy and Physiology practical where you might get tiny invertebrates to dissect. Note that in the IBO, animal dissection is only allowed on invertebrates and fish, or individual vertebrate body parts or organs that are available for human consumption.

Prior to the practical examination, you’ll have some time to become acquainted with the specific or unusual equipment that will be used in the examinations. This is quite awesome as your mentors and teachers might have never trained you to use it. Calculators can be used in both the theoretical and practical exams, but you can’t bring your own as it’ll be provided uponyour arrival at the competition site.

The theory part used to be a written exam made up of Part A and Part B. However, since 2013 the exams have usually been delivered on either tablets or computers. The questions testthe students’ ability to apply general biological concepts and theories, and to analyze andinterpret data. They focus more on reasoning, problem solving and understanding, but not on factual recall. Usually, there are around 100 questions in the theoretical exam. If you look at the most recent exam, multiple choice questions (MCQs) are almost completely absent and the majority of exam questions require judging a set of statements on whether each is right (true) or wrong (false). Typically, there will be no overlap between questions and there shouldn’t be anyquestions requiring the correct answer of the previous question.

The IBO’s official language is English but all tests can be translated into different languagesby chaperones who accompany students to the competition. They are usually post-docs, PhD students or established researchers. Honestly, if you understand English, in the IBO consider doing the exams in English as chaperones are humans too and they do make mistakes which can affect your score (I’m telling you this from my experience with translated versions).