The Extended Essay Step-by-Step Guide 2: Your Topic

Extended Essay Topic

There is a secret that could help all you first year IB students out there. It is the key to making next year a whole lot easier. It will reduce stress, make the workload easier to handle, and give you time. What is the secret? It’s that you’re better off starting the Extended Essay as soon as possible.

I know, it’s not what you wanted to hear. But I promise you that putting time and effort into your Extended Essay now will save you about five times that effort later. Because balancing the Extended Essay alongside Internal Assessments, Theory of Knowledge and IB revision is not fun.

In this blog series we’re going to take you step-by-step through the Extended Essay process. We started with the first step, what is it? Now it’s time to find a topic. If you are sitting there thinking you have no idea how you will ever find something to write about, you aren’t alone. That’s why we’ve chosen our four favourite tricks to help you identify what it is you will spend those 40 hours working on. Yes, 40 hours. That’s how long the IB recommends you spend. So you see why it’s better to start now?

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1. Plan Your ‘Topic Choosing Time’

Your perfect topic is not going to arrive knocking at your bedroom door one day delivered by the inspiration bunny*. With all that other homework, CAS and whatever else you have going on, you are not going to find your topic until you commit quality time to thinking about it. And that means scheduling sessions for yourself which are exclusively devoted to this.

Three hour-long sessions over the course of three weeks might not sound like a lot, but might be all you need to identify what you want to write about. And it may well be three hours more than you would have spent if you hadn’t planned them ahead of time. Note that you should give yourself time between the sessions, because this gives your subconscious the chance to work on it on the side (time and sleep are both great for this sort of problem solving!).

During these sessions, do expect some amount of banging your head against the wall (not physically) before you find the right topic. If you sit there feeling like it’s impossible, keep going. It’s part of the process. However, if you’re at a loss for what exactly to do, we have some exercises you can try that just might do the trick.

Exercise 1: Brainstorm your interests. If you know what subject you want to write about then take a piece of paper and give yourself 5 minutes to write down all the things, topics and lessons you enjoyed in the past year. Then take another 5 minutes to write down all the things you haven’t covered but which you wish you had. This might mean writing down books you wish you could study in English, or parts of History you are interested in but haven’t learned about.

Tip: If you’re not sure what subject to write your essay in, start with your interests outside the classroom instead. Still write these down, but don’t worry too much about what subject they fit into. Afterwards, see if any of them could fit. Baking is related to Chemistry, for example, while time travel (hello sci fi) has been explored in Philosophy. It’s okay to think outside the box!

*Not that we don’t love the inspiration bunny

Extended Essay Inspiration

2. Work out what you’re interested in writing about

Once you’ve started to work out what kinds of things you like more than others, it’s time to narrow them down to discover what you really love. As a general rule, if you get bored thinking about it, other people will get bored reading it. For your Extended Essay you should find something you can’t stop thinking about.

If you have your piece of paper with all the things you’re interested in written down, start sifting through them. Cross off the things you don’t actually want to write about, and circle the things that could have potential. Feel free to go outside the things you would typically learn about in class.

Tip: A great way to do this is to combine two things you like but which don’t seem like they’d go together. Interested in theatre but want to write a History essay? What about looking into the numerous theatre companies that entertained troops during World War II?

The astute among you might notice I just linked to a Wikipedia article. Not a good source, I know! But actually it’s not a bad place to start if all you’re looking for is an idea of what’s out there. The real in-depth research comes later.

Exercise 2: Do a freestyle research binge on Google. Set a timer for an hour. Start reading about whatever catches your interest, and when something within it catches your attention, follow the link or Google it to take you wherever you want to go. There is no agenda and no rules, except to stay in your Extended Essay zone (i.e. the link can’t be to Buzzfeed or about where celebrity x went with celebrity y!). Make rough notes of the things that really hold your attention as you go along. Then, wait a week and don’t think about it. When the week is up, take a piece of paper and write down what you remember from that earlier research. Whatever stuck in your head is probably what you found interesting. Use that as a starting point.

Some tools, apps and websites that might be useful for your research:

TedTalks – plenty of great insights on all sorts of topics you might not have thought about.

Diigo – let’s you highlight, annotate and bookmark webpages.

Pocket – let’s you save articles and webpages to read or go back to later (very phone-friendly).

Extended Essay Research tools

3. Have something original to say

If you already know exactly what you are going to say about the topic you’ve chosen, something isn’t right. There needs to be room to explore your topic and discover things you haven’t thought about. Otherwise the essay is going to be too obvious and predictable. Ultimately, you need to show that you are having your own thoughts and ideas about the topic. This means questioning your topic as much as possible, and working out the unknown elements that you will need to discover during your research.

Tip: This does not mean you should feel pressure to think of something no one has thought of before. The Extended Essay is not a groundbreaking piece of research that will alter the path of the human race. It is a way for you to explore something you are passionate about, and to express that passion in writing. The key is to feel confident that you will be able to offer your own perspective. In other words, have faith in your brain.

Exercise 3: Write down at least three questions that dig deeper into your chosen topic. These might question the effect of a variable in an experiment, or highlight a biographical detail of an author that could have affected their novel. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the answers yet. The important thing at this point is to be asking the questions.

4. Can you picture it as an Extended Essay?

This seems like common sense, but it’s actually important to remember before you get too carried away. As you go long along keep referring back to the Extended Essay Guide to make sure your topic will fit into the guidelines. Unless it is a World Studies essay, make sure it still fits within a recognised IB subject. Check that you know the requirements for each subject, whether that is what language you need to write the essay in, or whether you need to undertake independent research.

Finally, make sure it is realistic. Some of you might want to alter the path of the human race, but the Extended Essay has to be done using the resources available to you and alongside the rest of your IB (remember my original point?). Hopefully you now know that this is perfectly doable, but there is no need to make it harder than it needs to be!

Exercise 4: Read the IBO’s Extended Essay Guide! Your school will have it to hand, so ask your IB coordinator or librarian. You don’t need to read all of it (it is loooong!), but do skim the general guidelines and read through the information for your chosen subject.

And there you have it!

If you want Lanterna’s own in-depth guide to the whole process of the Extended Essay, take a look at our Extended Essay Guide, available from our free resources page.

Good luck!

Read Part 3: The Research

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