Essays, essays, essays.

If there is a component the third subject group of the IB Diploma curriculum: Individuals and Society do not lack, it is essays. In the IB exams, they are a fixed component.

For many IB students, essay writing is the bane of their student years. Not only are they tough to write but they are also tough to score.

This do not have to be the case. Here are 3 actionable tips you can implement today to significantly improve your essay grades.

Identify the hidden secondary questions

When we think about questions, we often think about what is written. But do you know that what is written is only half the question? The other half is in what is not written. We call it the secondary questions.

Secondary questions highlight related concepts and ideas students will need to address in their essays. These questions are implicit. They aren’t obvious which causes students to constantly debate if they need to be addressed. Often, these hidden questions are left unanswered and the marks unclaimed.

The answering of these questions distinguish the cream from the milk, the best from the good.

Here are some examples of questions with hidden questions.

  • How significant was WWII in women’s involvement in the United States’ labor force?
  • Evaluate the view that fiscal policy is the most effective way of achieving long-term economic growth.
  • To what extent does emotion affect cognition?

Were you able to identify the hidden questions? Give yourself a pat if you were able to- that’s half the battle won.

The other half of the battle is to address them appropriately when writing the essay. Though the secondary question needs to be addressed, the points raised should still link back and answer the main question.

CHECK-POINT: Questions and Secondary Questions

Main Question Secondary Question
How significant was WWII in women’s involvement in the United States’ labour force? What other factors affected women’s involvement in the United States’ labour force?
Evaluate the view that fiscal policy is the most effective way of achieving long-term economic growth. What other methods result in long-term economic growth?
To what extent does emotion affect cognition? What other factors affect cognition?

Plan before starting on the essay

For many students, planning an essay seems to be a waste of precious exam time.

‘With the time spent on essay planning, I can be essay writing’.

There is certainly some truth in the sentiment.

However, writing without a plan is a gamble. Without a plan, it is just as likely for students to come out with ideas as it is for them to run out of ideas.

With a plan, the odds of the latter scenario happening is significantly reduced.

An essay plan functions as an outline. It provides students with an overview of their argument, the points they will make, and how these points will be ordered and organised into paragraphs.

Here is also when students should map out what percentage of the essay will be spent on each respective point.

The structure the essay plan provides allows students to write efficiently. With all the points already stated, students don’t have to worry about what they write. They only need to focus on how they write.

QE TIP: Ready-to-use Essay Plans

Students can greatly speed up the creation of essay plans during exams with this pro tip.

When revising for the exams, students should anticipate what questions are likely to appear. Students may refer to questions from past year papers to see if there is a trend. Alternatively, students can check the subject syllabus and identify possible questions from the learning objectives.

After shortlisting a few questions for each topic, practice making essay plans for them. When outlining the essay, students don’t have to write it fully. They only need to jot down their main arguments, supporting points, and linkages in point form.

If a question the student has planned for comes out during the exams, students can save time on the essay plan and start on the essay swiftly. However, if an unplanned question appears, students will be able to create one on the spot as they have practiced and become familiar with the mechanics of making an essay plan.

Write concisely

Writing concisely is a skill that most exam-goers struggle with. Often, they feel compelled to pad their essays to make it hit an ‘ideal length’.

This essay writing behaviour is driven by the misconception that the longer the essay, the better it is. This would be true if essays and IB exams were marked based on the word count.

However, that isn’t the case. When IB examiners grade answers, it is based on the points raised and not the length.

A needlessly lengthened essay can endanger the clarity and conciseness of the essay, making it difficult to follow and mark.

Instead, aim for focus, simplicity, and clarity. Write an essay that directly answers the question. Points that are irrelevant and do not enhance the discussion should also be excluded.


QE is one of the best IB tuition centres in Singapore. With a professional team of IB trained tutors and examiners, we have helped over 3,500 students attain 6’s and 7’s in the IB exams since our inception.

Boasting a sterling track record and highly-praised pedagogy, we have grown into one of Singapore’s most trusted IB supplementary education centres for local and international students alike.

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