You have been assigned a compare and contrast essay but what is it and where do you even begin?
The purpose of this type of essay is to focus on two or more topics examining them for subtle differences and unexpected similarities. These topics can be closely related, say a zebra and a horse, or they can be vastly different, like a pizza and salad. The focus of a compare and contrast essay is to bring to light something unknown, show whether one is superior to another, argue a point with supported facts, or clear up a misunderstanding. Using similarities and differences a meaningful argument can be made about the subjects.
What is a compare and contrast essay?
A compare and contrast essay is exactly what the name implies. Taking two, or more, topics analyze them critically to bring out similarities and dissimilarities. Your topic could be about characters in a book, places to visit, a concept, idea, or anything that holds some amount of similarity. The similarities and dissimilarities can be simple to spot or they can be difficult. The essay will bring them to light.
Preparing to write
To begin you will need to decide what two (or more) topics to compare and contrast. These topics need to be different enough to allow comparison. You have to be able to answer the question of why it is useful or interesting to compare and contrast these two subjects.
Begin by brainstorming the similarities and differences of your subjects. Write lists of traits that each subject possesses and take note of where the differences are. Brainstorming will bring to light the major points. This will help you determine what you will want to focus on.
Once you have your main topics, a list of similarities and differences, and an idea of the major points you can begin outlining the skeleton of your essay. (See How to Write an Essay Outline)
Begin your outline by deciding whether you will be structuring your essay subject by subject, point by point, or compare then contrast. Let’s use Zebras and Horses as an example.
Let’s compare and contrast these three structures.
A subject by subject essay outline of horses and zebras
- Body Paragraphs
- Physical traits
- Physical traits
A point by point essay outline of horses and zebras
- Body Paragraphs
- Physical Traits
A compare then contrast essay outline of horses and zebras
- Comparisons of horses and zebras
- Contrasts of horses and zebras
Let’s compare and contrast these outlines.
A subject by subject outline gives you the advantage of discussing one topic at a time. The difficulty of this structure is that the comparisons and contrast do not become evident till the end of the essay.
A point by point structure is very clear what you are comparing and contrasting, however you must be careful in clearly identifying which subject you are referring to as it can become easy to confuse them.
A compare then contrast outline emphasizes contrast. However, since it begins with the comparisons it is difficult to maintain your readers interest in seeing the purpose of the essay.
Once you have chosen your structure it is time to write your essay.
Writing your compare and contrast essay
Begin your comparative essay with an introduction and thesis statement. In one or two sentences present the topic of your paper and the position you will be defending. Your thesis statement will help you in the writing of your paper to stay focused and clear. It should be specific and cover only what you will be supporting in your paper.
Compare and contrast essay thesis example: “While horses and zebras have many things in common it is their differences that led to the domestication of horses. These difference help explain why we domesticate some animals and leave others in the wild.”
Your body paragraphs will need to provide concrete evidence to support your thesis. This is where you will organize and share research. Begin by writing down a main idea. This will be a paragraph’s topic sentence. Next write supporting points for the main idea and fill it in with the research collected. The paragraph will end with a conclusion sentence supporting the main idea. The number of body paragraphs you write will depend on the structure of your compare and contrast essay as well as the number of similarities and contrasts you choose to highlight.
Here is a sample paragraph for a body paragraph using a point-by-point comparison.
“While there are many similarities in the appearance of a horse and a zebra there are also strong differences in their physical makeup. A horse’s hooves tend to be larger in size and softer than a zebra. The main of a horse is long and lays over the neck while a zebra’s is stiff, short, and stands upright. The tails are also different. A horse has a full haired tail while a zebra’s tail only has hair at the end.”
Finish the essay with a conclusion. The conclusion is where you summarize everything you have already written. This is where you restate the main idea and summarize the main points of your essay. Here is where you leave your reader with any final impressions.
The paragraph below is an example conclusion.
“The differences between horses and zebras help explain why some animals are domesticated and some are left in the wild. While there are many similarities in the physical makeup of these animals it is the differences in aggression and physique that led to the domestication of the horse. When looking at wild animals to domesticate it is important to weigh carefully the benefits to both human and animal before doing so.”
Compare and Contrast Essay Writing Tips from Our Team
- Brainstorm similarities and differences. Write all similarities on one side of a piece of paper and differences on another.
- Figure out your why early on. What value does comparing and contrasting these two subjects bring your reader?
- Take detailed notes while researching your subjects.
- Edit. Edit.
Compare and contrast is a common form of academic writing, either as an essay type on its own, or as part of a larger essay which includes one or more paragraphs which compare or contrast. This page gives information on what a compare and contrast essay is, how to structure this type of essay, how to use compare and contrast structure words, and how to make sure you use appropriate criteria for comparison/contrast. There is also an example compare and contrast essay on the topic of communication technology, as well as some exercises to help you practice this area.
What are compare & contrast essays?
To compare is to examine how things are similar, while to contrast is to see how they differ. A compare and contrast essay therefore looks at the similarities of two or more objects, and the differences. This essay type is common at university, where lecturers frequently test your understanding by asking you to compare and contrast two theories, two methods, two historical periods, two characters in a novel, etc. Sometimes the whole essay will compare and contrast, though sometimes the comparison or contrast may be only part of the essay. It is also possible, especially for short exam essays, that only the similarities or the differences, not both, will be discussed. See the examples below.
There are two main ways to structure a compare and contrast essay, namely using a block or a point-by-point structure. For the block structure, all of the information about one of the objects being compared/contrasted is given first, and all of the information about the other object is listed afterwards. This type of structure is similar to the block structure used for cause and effect and problem-solution essays. For the point-by-point structure, each similarity (or difference) for one object is followed immediately by the similarity (or difference) for the other. Both types of structure have their merits. The former is easier to write, while the latter is generally clearer as it ensures that the similarities/differences are more explicit.
The two types of structure, block and point-by-point, are shown in the diagram below.
Object 1 - Point 1
Object 1 - Point 2
Object 1 - Point 3
Object 2 - Point 1
Object 2 - Point 2
Object 2 - Point 3
Compare and Contrast Structure Words
Compare and contrast structure words are transition signals which show the similarities or differences. Below are some common examples.
Criteria for comparison/contrast
When making comparisons or contrasts, it is important to be clear what criteria you are using. Study the following example, which contrasts two people. Here the criteria are unclear.
Although this sentence has a contrast transition, the criteria for contrasting are not the same. The criteria used for Aaron are height (tall) and strength (strong). We would expect similar criteria to be used for Bruce (maybe he is short and weak), but instead we have new criteria, namely appearance (handsome) and intelligence (intelligent). This is a common mistake for students when writing this type of paragraph or essay. Compare the following, which has much clearer criteria (contrast structure words shown in bold).
Below is a compare and contrast essay. This essay uses the point-by-point structure. Click on the different areas (in the shaded boxes to the right) to highlight the different structural aspects in this essay, i.e. similarities, differences, and structure words. This will highlight not simply the paragraphs, but also the thesis statement and summary, as these repeat the comparisons and contrasts contained in the main body.
Title: There have been many advances in technology over the past fifty years. These have revolutionised the way we communicate with people who are far away. Compare and contrast methods of communication used today with those which were used in the past.
Before the advent of computers and modern technology, people communicating over long distances used traditional means such as letters and the telephone. Nowadays we have a vast array of communication tools which can complete this task, ranging from email to instant messaging and video calls. While the present and previous means of communication are similar in their general form, they differ in regard to their speed and the range of tools available.
One similarity between current and previous methods of communication relates to the form of communication. In the past, both written forms such as letters were frequently used, in addition to oral forms such as telephone calls. Similarly, people nowadays use both of these forms. Just as in the past, written forms of communication are prevalent, for example via email and text messaging. In addition, oral forms are still used, including the telephone, mobile phone, and voice messages via instant messaging services.
However, there are clearly many differences in the way we communicate over long distances, the most notable of which is speed. This is most evident in relation to written forms of communication. In the past, letters would take days to arrive at their destination. In contrast, an email arrives almost instantaneously and can be read seconds after it was sent. In the past, if it was necessary to send a short message, for example at work, a memo could be passed around the office, which would take some time to circulate. This is different from the current situation, in which a text message can be sent immediately.
Another significant difference is the range of communication methods. Fifty years ago, the tools available for communicating over long distances were primarily the telephone and the letter. By comparison, there are a vast array of communication methods available today. These include not only the telephone, letter, email and text messages already mentioned, but also video conferences via software such as Skype or mobile phone apps such as Wechat, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
In conclusion, methods of communication have greatly advanced over the past fifty years. While there are some similarities, such as the forms of communication, there are significant differences, chiefly in relation to the speed of communication and the range of communication tools available. There is no doubt that technology will continue to progress in future, and the advanced tools which we use today may one day also become outdated.
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Below is a checklist for compare and contrast essays. Use it to check your own writing, or get a peer (another student) to help you.
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