The Extended Essay: Basic Information and Creating a Focused Topic

Drew Sparkman
Aug 17, 2018 · 8 min read

Every year, I hear the same questions: “Mr. Drew, does everyone need to do the extended essay?” “What’s it about?” “How long is it?” “When is it due?” “How many points is it worth?” “Do you grade it, Mr. Drew?” “Why do we need to do the extended essay?” Each school has its own method of managing the extended essay, so if you are uncertain about the extended essay procedures in your school, the best bet is to speak with the IB coordinator or the extended essay coordinator if your school has one. Some schools have dedicated programs that standardize the process in the school and other schools take a more laissez-faire approach. I’ve worked in schools on both ends of the spectrum, but one thing has remained constant: many students are at a loss when it comes to getting started on the extended essay. In this article, I would like to address the common issues and offer some of my own thoughts and experiences on managing this component of the IB Diploma Programme.

The Basic Information

For simplicity, I’ve paraphrased the following information, which comes directly from the IB’s extended essay website:

  • The extended essay is necessary for all students in the Diploma Programme.
  • If you fail your extended essay, you cannot receive your diploma.
  • The extended essay is externally assessed by an examiner.
  • The points for the extended essay are combined with the points from Theory of Knowledge, which together are worth three points towards the student’s overall score in the Diploma Programme.
  • The extended essay prepares students for university-level work.
  • Students can choose to perform the extended essay in any Diploma Programme subject offered by the school.
  • The student chooses a topic for the extended essay while consulting with an extended essay supervisor in the school.
  • The extended essay is a formal academic essay with a maximum length of 4,000 words, and students must also submit the reflection form, which is a maximum of 500 words.
  • The IB estimates that the extended essay is around 40 hours of work.
  • The student must have three meetings (reflection sessions), which the IB approximates as 3–5 total contact hours with the supervisor.
  • The last mandatory meeting between the student and supervisor is an interview about the extended essay experience. It is called the viva voce.

If you’re curious about the assessment criteria, there are five different criteria: Criterion A: Focus and method, Criterion B: Knowledge and understanding, Criterion C: Critical thinking, Criterion D: Presentation, and Criterion E: Engagement.

The IBO states that the extended essay is “an independent, self-directed piece of research, finishing with a 4,000 word paper.” I like this description because it emphasizes the importance of the research. Most students fret about the essay. Indeed, the written essay is important, but for the IBO and the extended essay grading rubric, the research and the essay are very much intertwined. Why the complications? Why not just grade the written product? It’s easy — the IBO wants to produce students who know how to choose an interesting and relevant research topic, to perform effective research and how to overcome problems in the research process, how to analyze the quality and relevance of research, how to synthesize research, and how to communicate the findings. This, in a nutshell, is the extended essay. If this process sounds familiar, that’s because I’ve already talked about in Is the IB DP Hard? and Success in the IB Diploma Programme. Before worrying about research, though, you must decide on a subject and a topic.

Where to Start?

If you are a student in the Diploma Programme, then you can choose to perform the extended essay in any one of your classes. Keep in mind, though, that you will have a supervisor for your extended essay and the supervisor should be a teacher in the school who is knowledgable about the subject, knowledgable about research techniques, and knowledgable about writing. So, if you really like English A: Language and Literature, yes, you can do your extended essay in Lang & Lit. If you really like Spanish B, yes, you can do it in Spanish B, too. Maybe you’re more interested in Economics, Mathematics, or Art? They are all valid subjects for the extended essay. Any course offered by your school in the IB DP is a possible subject for the extended essay. But what if you’re the type of student who likes the complicated interconnections between world events. Well, there is great news for you! There’s an option for that, as well. It’s called the interdisciplinary essay.

In an ideal setting, students are very passionate about at least one of the classes, be it anything from History to Biology. When it comes time to choose the subject for the extended essay, then that should be easy. Follow the passion. I have known students who have demonstrated this passion and their choice usually worked out well for them. If you are lucky enough to have such interest and curiosity about one of your classes, then you need to decide on a supervisor if there are more than one in your school. My recommendation is to choose the one with the most experience in managing extended essays.

In reality, though, it’s not always that easy. For starters, my experience has revealed that many students struggle to find an academic passion, so undertaking a lengthy research process like the extended essay becomes very intimidating. Almost as a defensive mechanism, students turn to the option which they consider the easiest. Other students play the points game, which is also often considered the easiest option. Students want the best chance at achieving the most possible points, which is understandable. Other students choose their extended essay in a subject which is a potential field of study in university. For example, a student is fairly certain that he or she would like to student economics in university, so that student decides to perform the extended essay in economics.

As an outsider, it’s hard to say that there is an absolutely right decision about your choice of subject. But I would argue that there are definitely risky options when choosing the subject. If there is a subject which fails to spark your interest and curiosity, then that is a big red flag. If you are bored out of your mind with Mathematics, then I do not recommend putting yourself through the torture of an extended essay in Mathematics. Another possible red flag is the supervisor. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not here to criticize fellow teachers. I’m writing this for students, though, so I’ll be clear in my advice.

Firstly, certain teachers may not have any experience supervising an extended essay. That’s not necessarily bad, but neither is it good. It’s hard to know what you would get yourself into. In these cases, if you decide on the subject, but the teacher has no experience with the extended essay, then base your decision on your working relationship with the teacher. Does the teacher give timely and helpful feedback? Is the teacher generous with his or her time? Is the teacher knowledgable about the subject, and more specifically the research topic of the subject? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then it may be worth it to give the teacher a shot at supervising the essay. If you not, then try for a more experienced teacher.

Another scenario is a teacher who supervises a lot of extended essays. This teacher will probably have limited time, but if you are certain about working with this teacher, then you should be very prepared for your reflection sessions with very concrete questions.

Of course, all my advice here assumes that you will have some liberty in the choice. Perhaps your school has set supervisors for each subject. In that case, there’s one less decision you need to make. While I’m talking about decisions, let’s look at the next step.

The Topic

Once you’ve selected a suitable subject, then it’s time to narrow your focus a bit. It’s time to select a topic within that subject. If you have selected English literature, for example, then possible topics could be anything from the broad themes of love or war or good vs. evil or family to period-specific literature like 18th-, 19th-, or 20th-century novels.

Let’s say that I want to do my extended essay in English literature. I know that stories about good vs. evil, adventure, and friendship are my favorites. And although I can appreciate 18th- and 19th- century literature, I’m more interested in 20th-century works. Just by following my own self interest, I already have a good starting point for the extended essay. Actually, by combining these into one topic, I might have better working material: The themes of good vs. evil and friendship in 20th-century novels. Not bad, but I still have some more work because the topic is still too broad. There are many novels that fall into this topic — a search on goodreads.com for books about good vs. evil reveals more than 1,000. So how can I limit the possible material?

That’s simple — I only need to continue focusing on my interests. For example, “Which 20th-century authors who incorporate good vs. evil do I most enjoy?” Now, let’s say that my answer is J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. This is even better because my topic is following my interests and narrowing its focus, but unfortunately it’s still too broad. There are seven books in the series, and the last few were quite thick! Although 4,000 words may sound like a lot, it’s really not too much space for a well-researched and well-written analytical essay. So, I need to limit my scope some more.

I know that I want to stick with the themes of good vs evil and friendship, and I also know because I paid very close attention in English literature class that a reader can often deduce the writer’s attitude toward ideas or topics through analysis of the characters, and that as a writer ages, often an author’s writing evolves. There’s an idea! What if Rowling’s attitude towards good vs. evil and friendship evolved from the first book to the last book? Could that be a specific topic? Yes, yes, it could.

A simple diagram outlining the thought process

I just walked you through a process which begins with the subject and ends with a suitable topic. There are a few more things to keep in mind, though, because this is not the finished product. Firstly, before deciding on the narrowed topic, make sure that it is something worthy of investigation. In other words, the topic must be something debatable. Secondly, make sure that there are available secondary resources about the topic. Research is a vital element of the extended essay — both primary and secondary resources are necessary in order to produce a well-researched and well-written extended essay. You are responsible for producing the primary resources, but you are also responsible for finding relevant secondary resources about the topic. If you are uncertain about the difference between a primary and secondary resource, I will be covering that in a future article. For the time being, consult your supervisor. Finally, you will need to develop your narrowed topic into a research question, which will serve as the compass of your research. Going from a narrow topic to a workable research question will be the topic of my next article.

If you have any questions about the information I’ve explained, don’t hesitate to comment!

Drew Sparkman

Written by

IB DP coordinator and teacher, tutor and blogger at IBCoach

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