OSC’s resident IB expert Keith Allen imparts his wisdom on writing a successful Extended Essay. As an experienced IB Biology teacher, Keith knows what it takes to succeed in the IB Diploma Programme.

The IB has – very proudly – reported on three research projects on the benefits of the Extended Essay for university study. Those of us who have been involved with the IBDP for decades are not surprised – but we are reassured – to receive confirmation that the EE helps students to be more successful at university.

The most recent report – from Canada – indicates that the Extended Essay helps students to:

  • Gain familiarity with writing a lengthy essay
  • Become more confident in doing research essays
  • Gather and evaluate sources
  • Prepare for college level writing
  • Improve time-management
  • Understand formal academic styles
  • But, there are also a few lessons to be learned from the studies. This article looks at some of these.

The research

Three projects were carried out on the relationship between the EE and university study – one at the University of Virginia(USA), a second at the University of Warwick (UK), the third at McGill University (Canada).

Positive results of the study are summarised in an IB Community Blog. IBDP graduates reported that the EE helped them to prepare for university study – especially in relation to research projects within their undergraduate courses. Moreover, the results showed that students’ performance in their Extended Essays can correlate with their grades during undergraduate studies – students getting A or B on their EEs achieved higher GPAs (Grade Point Averages) at university.

Looking at the full reports suggests there are a few other lessons to learn from the research.

Correlations and causes

Firstly, the University of Virginia research showed a positive correlation between EE grades and GPAs achieved in their first and final semesters of their undergraduate courses. This draws our attention to the important lesson of distinguishing between correlations and causal links. Does it follow that achieving a good EE grade causes students to get better grades in their university courses? It might, but it is also likely that some other underlying factors lead to both good EE and university grades. I’m sure that readers of this article can think what they might be.

But, even though a causative link can’t be assumed, it is a reasonable hypothesis that a student who develops good research and writing skills for their Extended Essay can then replicate those skills at university and that university grading favours students who are capable of effective research and academic writing.


The UVA research included a survey of 953 students – approximately 50% of whom had been through the IBDP. The survey revealed interesting differences between IB students and those that had taken AP courses – not least that that former IB students felt better prepared for college-level coursework involving research than former AP students.

As IBDP students will appreciate from their ToK course, one of the challenges of research within Human Sciences is that of getting appropriately matched samples. The UVA report points out that there were differences between the two cohorts (IB and AP). The IB group had a higher proportion of women and of white/Caucasian students. The AP group had statistically superior SAT scores. [Why might that be?] Could any of these differences have explained why former IB students felt more comfortable with university courses involving research? I doubt it.

All three research projects also interviewed, or arranged focus groups of, students. The sample sizes of these were relatively small – 21, 43 and 15. The results were very interesting (and very positively favoured the IB … especially students’ experience of the EE), but how much can be deduced from sample sizes like these? Moreover, the students involved in these three research projects were all attending prestigious universities. Do the benefits that they show apply for students at lower-ranking institutions?

Choose a topic that you find interesting… and challenging

Not surprisingly, the reports don’t show 100% support (amongst former DP students) for the Extended Essay. Some students did not enjoy it … and tended to get a C. Other reports were of students choosing a topic because they thought it would be easy. These students received fewer of the benefits from writing the EE.

When the IB was being developed in the 1960s, the EE was introduced as an opportunity for students to follow their “passion”. It is worth students spending time understanding their interests and the opportunities afforded by them. In my experience, the best starting place is to think of the subject(s) you want to study at university. If you are interested in studying Mathematics at university, write an essay in Maths. It might be easier to choose a different topic (I remember a number of Chinese students who, although they were applying for undergraduate courses in mathematics, opted for essays in Chinese Literature because they thought it would be easier), but universities love it when students have already embarked on research in the discipline.

It is important that students get appropriate guidance – and time – for topic selection.

The role of the supervisor

The biggest complaint from former IB students was in relation to support from their supervisors. The UK-based research points out that carrying out research is not easy (p36). The report from Canada suggests that students were most disappointed about lack of supervisor support (p49).

Lessons from this are already underway. A recent update from the IB (available from the OCC) reports that the revised EE Guide (for assessment from 2018) will introduce new procedures to try to ensure better support for DP students. But, what can be done for current DP students?

In most DP schools, students are expected to make significant progress in their Extended Essays during the long vacation. This makes a lot of sense in many cases … although it can create significant difficulties for experimental EEs in Group 4. But, before a student is set loose to conduct their research or to collate their findings into a coherent academic essay, they need appropriate “tools”. Research and Study Skills need to be taught … along with Time Management and Writing Skills.

It is not a coincidence that courses on these skills feature in OSC Mid-IBDP Summer Courses in the UK and USA. Nor is it surprising that large numbers of students attending those courses seek – and are given – support in their Extended Essays from OSC’s highly experienced DP teachers.

In giving support, OSC is very careful to make sure that it does not breach IB guidelines. The EE is a piece of work that must be the student’s own. As indicated above, successfully completing an EE gives that student an advantage when it comes to university. But, even the most talented student can “get stuck”. OSC helps them to move forward … and, to ensure that we are not undermining the school’s expectations, a copy of the advice given is sent to the student’s school.


The three research reports together support the argument that the Extended Essay is superb in preparing students for further study at university. They suggest that this is especially true for students who choose a topic that interests them and for those who have received guidance/training in doing research, managing their time and writing an academic report. DP schools are encouraged to continue to refine the ways in which they do this. But, well-established organisations such as OSC can also help … through the expertise of their experienced DP teachers on our Summer Courses.