A Compare And Contrast Essay Is One That:

Types of Papers: Compare/Contrast

To write a compare/contrast essay, you’ll need to make NEW connections and/or express NEW differences between two things.  The key word here…is NEW!

  1. Choose 2 things that could go in the same category, but are also quite different. Good choices might be:
    • Basketball & Football (both sports)
    • Horses & Cats (both animals, but different in many ways)
    • Writing & Singing (both art forms, but different in many ways)
  2. Gather your ideas by writing down characteristics of each thing.  Note the differences and similarities between them.
  3. Ask yourself these important questions before you begin writing your draft:

Does my instructor want me to compare AND contrast, or am I only being asked to do one of those things?

Some instructors prefer that you only write about the differences between two things, while others want you to focus on explaining the similarities as well.  Either way, you'll need to make sure that your thesis statement reflects your instructor's expectations. For example, if I wanted to write about Social Networking sites, I'd need to write different thesis statements depending on my compare/contrast assignment.  

Sample thesis statement for contrast paper:  In terms of social networking sites, Facebook focuses on presenting your daily life to others, whereas MySpace allows you to focus more on demonstrating your personal style.

Sample thesis statement for compare/contrast paper:  While both Facebook and MySpace allow you to meet other users who have similar interests, only MySpace allows you to demonstrate your personal style.       

Are these 2 things similar and/or different, in at least one meaningful way?

If you want to write a successful compare/contrast essay, you'll need to avoid writing about really obvious differences and similarities.  For example:

  • We all know that horses are larger than cats.
  • We also know that basketball teams contain less players than football teams.

Tell us something we don't know (or might not notice)!

It would be better to write about how sensitive both horses and cats are to human needs and emotions.  You could also suggest that though both basketball and football require a lot of teamwork, basketball players are expected to be a lot more versatile than football players.

You don't have to be a genius to write an interesting compare/contrast essay--you just have to look at ordinary things in a new way!

Do I know enough about my topic to write an effective compare/contrast essay?

Unless you're being asked to do some research as part of your compare/contrast project, make sure that you choose 2 things that you feel comfortable discussing, at length.

Your instructor may ask for multiple similarities and differences--make sure you're prepared to write a well-developed, meaningful essay on a topic that you know well before you get started!   

Organizing Your Compare and Contrast Paper

There are two primary ways to organize your compare and contrast paper.

Chunking: placing all of the information for each individual subject in one place (chunk), and then using similarities as transitions.

Here’s a sample outline:

  1. Jane is distinct because…
  2. Jane is similar to Alice in these ways
  3. Alice is distinct because…

Piecing: giving pieces of the information for each individual subject in each paragraph—arranging the information by topic rather than by subject.

Here’s a sample outline:   

  1. Differences and Similarities in Jane and Alice’s appearances
  2. Differences and Similarities in Jane and Alice’s backgrounds
  3. Differences and Similarities in Jane and Alice’s interests

Sample Papers

TIP Sheet

A compare and contrast essay examines two or more topics (objects, people, or ideas, for example), comparing their similarities and contrasting their differences. You may choose to focus exclusively on comparing, exclusively on contrasting, or on both-or your instructor may direct you to do one or both.

First, pick useable subjects and list their characteristics. In fact, their individual characteristics determine whether the subjects are useable. After that, choose a parallel pattern of organization and effective transitions to set your paper above the merely average.

1. Picking a subject
Focus on things that can obviously be compared or contrasted. For instance, if you are examining an idea (political or philosophical) examine the opposite of that idea. Or, if you are examining a person, like a president, pick another president for comparison or contrast. Don't try to compare a president and a cab driver, or existentialism and a legislative bill on car tax refunds.

2. Listing characteristics
Divide a piece of paper into two sides. One side is for the first subject, the other for the second subject. Then, begin to list the similarities and differences that immediately come to mind. Concentrate on characteristics that either are shared or are opposing between the two subjects. Alternately, you may construct a Venn diagram of intersecting circles, listing the subjects' differences to either side and their similarities where the circles intersect. Keep in mind that for a balanced paper, you want to make point-by-point, parallel comparisons (or contrasts).

Similarities between my math and English instructors:
Both are welcoming and available to students.
Both are organized and keep a neat office.
Both are knowledgeable and professional.


Differences between my math and English instructors
Math teacher listens to classic rock.         English teacher listens to jazz.
Math teacher drinks Earl Grey tea.           English teacher drinks strong black coffee.
Math teacher likes to chat about movies.  English teacher sticks to business.

As you create your list, is it clear why you are comparing and contrasting these two subjects? Do you have a preference for one or the other? If so, make sure you are evaluating each side fairly. A point-by-point list helps you maintain balance.

Once you have a list, decide whether there are more similarities or differences between the topics. If there are more similarities, concentrate your paper on comparing. If there are more differences (or if, as in the example above, the differences are simply more interesting), concentrate on contrasting. If there is a balance of similarities and differences, you might concentrate on discussing this balance.

3. Organizing
There are at least two ways to organize a compare/contrast essay. Imagine you are examining Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, both Civil War generals. In your list you have uncovered important points of dissimilarity between them. Those points are their background, personalities, and underlying aspirations. (Call these three points A, B, and C.) You have decided to contrast the two subjects.

Here is one way to organize the body of this paper, addressing points A, B, and C for each subject. This paper will follow parallel order–A, B, and then C–for each subject:

A. Lee's background
B. Lee's personality
C. Lee's underlying aspirations

A. Grant's background
B. Grant's personality
C. Grant's underlying aspirations

However, here is another way to organize the same paper:

A. Lee's background
A. Grant's background

B. Lee's personality
B. Grant's personality

C. Lee's underlying aspiration
C. Grant's underlying aspiration

For a shorter paper, the above might represent three paragraphs; if you are writing a long paper and have a great deal of information, you may choose to write about each point, A, B, and C, in separate paragraphs for a total of six. However you decide to organize, make sure it is clear why you are examining this subject. You might be able to compare apples and oranges, for example, but why would you? Include any insights or opinions you have gathered. And yes, in general, three is the magic number. While there is no hard-and-fast rule that precludes creating a paper based on two points, or four, or five, a three-point discussion is manageable, especially for complex or abstract subjects. At the same time, a three-point structure helps you avoid oversimplifying, especially when addressing controversial topics in which discussions tend to become polarized–right or wrong, black or white, for or against. Three-point treatments encourage discussion of the middle ground.

4. Signaling transitions
Learn to use expressions that precisely convey contrast or comparison. These expressions, or transitions, signal contrast:

  • on the contrary
  • on the other hand
  • however
  • otherwise
  • whereas
  • still
  • yet

These expressions signal comparison:

  • as well as
  • both
  • like
  • in common with
  • likewise
  • also

Signal words such as these help the reader understand the relationships between your sentences, paragraphs, and ideas. In particular, if you are both comparing and contrasting, signal words help sort out what's what. Second only to effective organization, effective use of these expressions will go a long way toward helping produce a good compare/contrast paper.

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