Alethea Bleyberg from The Learning Curve shares 6 Extended Essay tips that everyone taking the IB Diploma Programme should get clued up on
I’ve already covered off a number of topics for students here, including tips for writing the UCAS personal statement, how to apply for university in the UK, and how to choose the right IB Diploma subjects. One assignment that IB Diploma students will need to spend time working on is their Extended Essay (EE). A mandatory component of the Diploma Programme, which also needs to score at least a D in order for the student to be awarded their IB Diploma as a whole, this 4,000-word independent research essay is the behemoth that makes many an IB student quake in their boots and lie awake at night. But fear not! The EE can be broken down into a manageable, stepped process and – with the right guidance – can be turned into not just a doable task but one of the most rewarding learning opportunities that IB students are given. Here are my expert Extended Essay tips for success.
1. Be strategic by choosing a topic relevant to university applications
The EE is a student’s chance to kill two birds with one stone, but many students struggle with subject choice and end up choosing a subject without a strategy in mind. For most country destinations students need to apply for specific subjects in their university applications, but even where this is not a requirement such as liberal arts colleges in the US, application essay prompts often ask students to draw on formative academic experiences.
I encourage students to think about how the Extended Essay contributes to their university application profile. If a student is thinking of studying Economics at university, and takes Economics as one of their six subjects, then it makes sense to do an EE in this subject. This choice would demonstrate both an interest and skill level in this subject that are necessary to be successful in the subject that they’re applying for. What better way to do that than to have written a 4,000-word research essay in that subject? This is honestly one of the most important Extended Essay tips I can share.
2. Learn the rules!
Students often don’t read the guidance which is absolutely crucial to understanding how to successfully meet the assessment criteria. The guidance, which is referred to as ‘The Extended Essay Guide’ and is accessible to students on its own website, is over 300 pages long so I understand that it’s easy for students to want to give it a miss.
Unfortunately, though, many students come up with ideas that simply aren’t suitable. If they’d read the guidance properly, they would know these ideas aren’t going to work for basic reasons. In Economics, for instance, the topic is not allowed to be older than five years old. These are easy rules to follow once students are aware. The guidance also provides some options for essays that aren’t taught as subjects. The World Studies Extended Essay, for example, allows students to explore a contemporary global issue through a local case study. This allows students the opportunity to study issues like economic inequality or political challenges within the Hong Kong context, which many students are interested in exploring at this time.
3. Start early and invest time in the first part of the process
Students underestimate how long the process is going to take, especially the initial stages. Choosing a subject, topic and narrowing down a research topic sounds like the easy bit but, in fact, these tasks take the longest. It can not be done the night before a deadline; this is exactly how bad decisions are made! Exploring different ideas, or texts or case studies to evaluate their viability as topics for extended research all takes time. This is where the ‘meat’ of the EE is.
Students need to have a very good idea in their mind of where they’re going to get the information from to answer their research question, so they will need to have a good understanding of what the investigation will look like before finalising the topic and research question with their supervisor.
Understand the power of this first phase preparation. If this phase is rushed students might be setting themselves up for failure. The initial idea might be brilliant but if, in order to answer a research question access is needed to information that isn’t in the public domain, is behind a paywall, or isn’t available at all then it just isn’t going to work in practice. Students often run aground when they take on a research question that isn’t viable for those reasons.
4. View the Extended Essay as a learning experience, not a task
The EE is an opportunity to develop those key academic skills that students will need at university and beyond–research, written communication, academic honesty, and that’s just for starters. When the EE is viewed as having the same importance as a subject rather than just a task to be completed, the learning process is foregrounded. The EE is a lengthy process that has been created as a vehicle to embed important academic skills. If it’s rushed, those skills don’t have a chance to solidify.
5. Be open to evolving your Extended Essay
Students are in a supportive relationship with their supervisor for the duration of the EE process. This involves receiving both formal and informal feedback, including extensive feedback on the first draft. Students should be prepared to rewrite, edit and proofread but in my experience students don’t ever leave enough time for this.
Remember, once the essay has been written, then it’s time to edit the document – there’s still work to be done labelling graphs, checking every citation, creating cover pages and possibly appendices at the end. The IB is very stringent in terms of formatting. It requires a certain font size and style; these are all details that students often forget about because they get into a time crunch. But this can be the difference between an A and a B.
The editing process takes time but learning to be reflective and critical of one’s own work is such an important skill to develop. Sharing this important piece of writing with peers, parents and teachers for feedback is a valuable experience that can help evolve an EE from good to great. Students find it hard to be open to feedback and changes when a piece of writing has been such an enormous effort already. But every edit makes an EE stronger, and more evolved! And don’t you want it to represent your absolute best effort after all the work that’s gone into it?
6. Pay attention to the reflection
Students are supposed to reflect on the process and how they’ve overcome challenges. In fact, 18% of the grade for the EE is based on reflection. It’s so important that it has its own assessment criterion and even EEs that aren’t strong for technical reasons can score well here if the student shows true engagement in the process and the product.
Students complete the essay but they also have three reflection sessions with their supervisors. Students need to write up each of those sessions, in three separate entries. This form is submitted and assessed by the examiner. Don’t let the reflection become an afterthought; give it the attention it’s worth! After all, IB students know that reflection is a key skill that IB students develop continuously and throughout all their subjects. It’s equally as important in the EE as it is everywhere else in your learning experiences.
With some planning, preparation, time management and organisation, the EE can be one of the most rewarding and gainful experiences IB students will have. But if your son or daughter [Ed- or you!) is falling behind on deadlines and is struggling to see the forest for the trees, seek help now to get back on track.