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How to nail the extended essay

By: Rebecca Simpson

Is your household ready to tackle the extended essay? It’s an enormous element of the IB Diploma programme and, let’s face it, the source of some apprehension for many students (and parents). We sat down with educator and IB specialist ALETHEA BLEYBERG from The Learning Curve. Alethea has been an extended essay coordinator and an IB Diploma coordinator. With her help, we have stepped out six essential elements to extended essay success:

#1 Choose a topic relevant to university applications

The extended essay is a student’s chance to kill two birds with one stone. Alethea says it’s common for students to struggle with subject choice or show a lack of strategy in their choosing. She encourages students to, “think about how this extended essay contributes to your university application profile.” If a student is thinking of studying economics at university, and has chosen economics as a subject, then it makes sense to have an essay rooted in this topic.  This choice would demonstrate an interest and skill level in this subject.

“Generally speaking, students need to think about creating an application profile for universities that makes sense and shows a sustained interest in the one goal they are aiming at,” says Alethea. “If you’re applying to university, in your personal statement or essay, you need to write about what interests you have, how you’ve explored those interests and how you’ve developed the skills that are necessary to be successful in the subject that you’re apply for. Well, what better way to do that, than to have written a 4,000-word research essay on that subject?”

Listen to Alethea discuss her tips in detail on this episode of our Schools in Hong Kong podcast:

#2 Read the guidance (yes, it’s boring but do it!)

“Students often don’t read the guidance and know the rules,” warns Alethea. While she sympathise with students about this, because the guidance is well over 300 pages long, it’s still very important that they read the document.

“Unfortunately, some students come up with ideas that simply aren’t suitable. If they’d read the guidance properly, they would know these ideas aren’t suitable for basic reasons.” She shares one concrete example: “In economics, for instance, your topic can’t be older than five years old. These are easy rules to follow once you know them.”

The guidance also provides some options for essays that aren’t taught as subjects. These are very interesting options. Alethea encourages students to look at the World Studies Extended Essay, for example, which allows them to explore a contemporary global issue in a local iteration. It provides them with the chance to study issues like economic inequality or political challenges within a Hong Kong context.

#3 Start early and lean in to the first task

Don’t procrastinate! “Students underestimate how long the process is going to take, especially the initial stages.” Alethea warns that choosing a subject and narrowing down a research topic sounds easy; in fact, but this task takes the longest. “It can not be done the night before!” she says.

Exploring different texts and pathways, and evaluating different elements for research all takes time. This is where the meat of the extended essay is. “You need to have a very good idea in your mind of where you’re going to get the information from to answer that research question, so you already have a good understanding of what your investigation will look like.”

Understand the power of this first phase preparation. If you rush this phase, you might be setting yourself up for a failure. You may be searching for information that isn’t available or not in the public domain – even behind a paywall. Don’t set yourself up to answer a question that isn’t viable.

Extended Essay
Alethea Bleyberg from The Learning Curve is an expert in the extended essay

#4 View the extended essay as a subject, not a task

“The essay is an opportunity to develop those key academic skills – communication, research, academic honesty, and more,” explains Alethea. When it’s viewed as a subject and not as a task, that learning process becomes more prevalent. She says, “It’s not an assignment you should rush through in the last week of summer break.”

The extended essay is a lengthy process that has been created as a vehicle to impart important academic skills. If it’s rushed, those skills don’t have a chance to solidify.

#5 Be open to evolving your extended essay

“Be prepared to rewrite, edit and proof read. Students don’t ever leave enough time for this.”  Remember, once the essay has been written, then it’s time edit the document – there’s still work to be done labelling graphs, checking every citation, creating cover pages and an appendix at the end. “The IB is very stringent in terms of formatting. It requires a certain font size and font; 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 also takes time. Sharing this important writing with peers and teachers is a valuable experience that can help evolve an extended essay from good to great. It’s hard to be open to feedback and changes when a piece of writing has been such an enormous effort. But every edit makes an extended essay even stronger, and even more evolved!

#6 Pay attention to the reflection

Student are supposed to reflect on the process and how they’ve overcome challenges. In fact, 18% of the grade for the extended essay is based on reflection. Students complete the essay but they also complete three reflection sessions with their supervisors.” Students need to write up each of those sessions, in three separate entries. This form will be submitted and assessed by the examiner.

Don’t let the reflection become an afterthought. Give it the attention it’s worth!

If you would like to learn more about the extended essay or need support with other IB Diploma elements, you can reach out to Alethea at or

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