What is a compare-contrast essay?
Many essay prompts require a comparison or contrast between two elements (e.g., two characters in a story, two different political theories, two different religious doctrines or scientific explanations, two different historical events, and so forth).
Comparison essays tend to focus on similarities, while contrast essays focus on differences. Realistically, either type of essay will usually address both similarities and differences.
The key principles to remember in a comparative essay are that you must:
- Explain precisely what you are comparing
- Narrow your focus and define what you are looking at and what you are not looking at
- Keep the comparison alive throughout the essay
Example of a compare-contrast essay question
Here is a compare/contrast essay question from Excellence in Literature’s English 3, American Literature, Module 2, considering The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Miles Standish.
Essay prompt: Write a 750-word essay comparing and contrasting the courtship strategies of Irving’s characters, Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones, with Longfellow’s characters, Miles Standish and John Alden. Be sure to address the following issues:
- What was each man’s strategy and how well did it work?
- In what ways, if any, could the losing candidates have improved their chances for success?
- How did the young ladies who were being courted communicate their preferences to the young man of their choice?
- How did each courtship compare with an ideal courtship?
- Optional: How did the courtships reflect the ideas and concerns of the Romantic era?
- Be sure to use quotations from each work to support your viewpoint.
One way to approach the essay question
You could approach the multi-part question above with a graphic organizer or by charting the answers as in the table below. Just use a notebook, draw a line down the middle of a page and write in the answers to the questions below. The resulting outline can be used as a basis for the essay.
|Ichabod and Brom||Miles and John|
|Courtship strategy: how did Ichabod try to show Katrina that he liked her? Give examples from the text.||Courtship strategy: how did John try to show Priscilla that he liked her? Give examples from the text.|
|Did it work? How do you know? Who actually won?||Did it work? How do you know? Who actually won?|
|What made the winning man’s courtship successful? What could the losing suitor have done differently?||What made the winning man’s courtship successful? What could the losing suitor have done differently?|
|How did Katrina show who she preferred? Were her suitors surprised?||How did Priscilla show who she preferred? Were her suitors surprised?|
|What is an ideal courtship like? How was Ichabod’s or Brom’s courtship different from or similar to an ideal courtship (would you have wanted to be Ichabod or Brom or be courted by either of them)?||What is an ideal courtship like? How was Miles or John’s courtship different from or similar to an ideal courtship (would you have wanted to be John or Miles or be courted by them)?|
Establish a foundation with a thesis
A thesis statement takes a position on a debateable point. It can be a response to an essay prompt or simply a statement of a paper’s argument. In a compare-contrast essay, the thesis can either state a preference for one of the two things being compared or make an interpretative assertion about the differences or similarities between the two.
Example for the essay prompt above: Of the four courtship strategies employed in these two stories, the most effective ones seemed to focus on the young lady in question, and the least successful focused on the suitor himself.
Once the comparison and the basis of the argument have been defined, then you need to organize the sequence of paragraphs in the main body of the argument. In setting up the sequence of the paragraphs, you have some options, as follows:
- Keep the comparison alive in every paragraph, so that the argument discusses each half of the comparison in each paragraph.
- Alternate between the two subjects, point by point.
- State your entire argument for one side first, then consider the other side of the comparison.
Here is another sample outline of a compare contrast essay.
This article was adapted from the Excellence in Literature Handbook for Writers, which is available from Everyday Education, LLC (Janice Campbell’s site).