Who can participate in an IBO?

Students who want to participate in an IBO must first become one of the top four students in their National Biology Olympiad (NBO). NBOs select the contestants for IBO in typically 3-5 consecutively more difficult national competition rounds. The contacts to all National Biology Olympiads can be found here.

If you are from a country which is not yet amongst the shown IBO members, you may be interested in this section here.

What happens in an IBO?

During IBO, students have to participate in Theoretical and Practical Exams. The Theoretical Exams encompass ca. 100 tasks in largely closed-ended format (e.g., multiple true-false). These tasks cover all domains of biology and require students to apply their science knowledge in analyzing advanced biological phenomena. The Practicals typically fall into 3-4 laboratories. The content domains for each Practical are announced ca. 6-12 months before an IBO. In the lab, students showcase biological skills by conducting investigations and analyzing data.

All IBO years change slightly with the foci set by each host country. A typical IBO week is structured like this:

Activities for the students

Activities for the international Jury

Day 1

During the day: Arrivals

Evening: welcome ceremony

Day 2

Social program, excursions, laboratory safety instructions

Translation & discussion of practical exams
Day 3

Practical exams (typically 4x1.5 hours)

Translation & discussion of theoretical exams
Day 4 Social program, excursions

Translation & discussion of theoretical exams

Day 5

Theoretical exams (typically 2x3 hours)

Evening: Cultural night, together with jury members

Excursion day

Evening: Cultural night, together with students

Day 6

Social program, excursions

Morning: Annual General Meeting of IBO members

Afternoon: Discussion and approval of results

Day 7

Morning: Social program, excursions

Afternoon: Awards ceremony, gala dinner, closing party

Morning: IBO Educational Session

Afternoon: Awards ceremony, gala dinner, closing party

Day 8


How do students prepare for an IBO?

Unlike what many people would think, there is currently no syllabus or curriculum for IBO. This means: There is no list of pre-defined topics that students can simply learn by heart and then score highly on IBO exams. However, some binding regulations on what IBO exams have to cover in terms of contents and practical skills are documented in IBO's Operational Guidelines.

These guidelines make sure that there is a decent level of similarity between the IBOs of different years, while still allowing individual host countries room for innovations and developments in IBO's exam culture.

In the early days of IBO, exam questions were largely concerned with knowledge reproduction (i.e., students exhibited what they had learnt by heart). With the much expanded body of knowledge in biology, the much easier access to content information via digital media, and the changed focus of international science curricula, the focus of IBO exams has also developed substantially: Today, the vast majority of IBO exam questions concern the application of biological knowledge in contexts that have been taken from recent biological research. In many of these tasks, students analyse - for example - data from biological experiments and then have to think about what conclusions can be drawn from these data.

Of course, the exam questions in IBO require a deep conceptual understanding of biology, typically much beyond what regular biology school books cover at upper secondary level. Therefore, IBO contestants usually prepare their background knowledge using general biology textbooks such as Campbell Biology (Urry et al.). However - it is very important to understand that learning this or similar text books by heart will not at all guarantee a high score in IBO exams! For example, students in IBO also require a robust experience with biological (and general science) practices, methods and laboratory skills. Depending on the students' educational background in their country / region, the best way to prepare is - despite all studying - a close collaboration with the coordinators of National Biology Competitions (NBOs). With their detailed experience with IBO exams, the NBO coordinators provide specific recommendations for studying and preparations to their students as they progress through national competition rounds.