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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A view of earth below Saturn's rings, earth is the tiny white speck on the right.
. . .every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. –Carl Sagan
Why a compare/contrast essay?
In college, 90% of the papers students write will be in third person. This can be a struggle for some. I have students write the compare/contrast essay next because it is an easy genre for them to develop topics and ideas while they master writing in third person. Students will also need to develop clear and concise thesis statements that identify the point and purpose of their essays while breaking their subjects down into logically developed paragraphs and essays. Since we compare and/or contrast things all of the time, students will spend less time struggling to find a topic and more time working on the necessary skills to conquer this kind of paper. Here are a couple of examples. If a photographer wants a new camera, that person may contrast Canon and Nikon. If another person wants a new cell phone, that shopper may contrast Samsung and Apple. In these two examples, the writers would develop criteria for contrasting the two companies' and their products, and then based upon their criteria, they would identify which item they would purchase. This is one of the basic examples of how we use compare/contrast every day. Another way we use comparison contrast is through juxtaposition. Juxtaposition places two items close together to create a specific effect, or so readers or viewers can draw conclusions by comparing their similarities or contrasting their differences.
Understanding the basics of compare/contrast. . .
First, what is the difference between comparing two items and contrasting two items? If we want to examine the similarities between two items, we compare them. If we want to look at their differences, then we contrast them. However, there must be some basis for comparison in order to write a comparison/contrast essay. For example, I would not compare/contrast an apple with a flight attendant. I would not contrast a dog and a peanut. There must be some basis for comparing the two items. For example, the photographer who is contrasting Nikon and Canon is contrasting cameras. But, even that is vague. I would want to make sure that I am contrasting the same type of camera: two DSLRs with similar qualities: cost, number of pixels, lenses, other miscellaneous items that may be included with the purchase. If I contrast a regular Nikon 35mm film camera with a Canon Rebel DSLR, I am not going to be able to draw clear conclusions if I am thinking about buying one of them. They are completely different kinds of cameras.
The Thesis Statement
The thesis statement is the hardest and most important sentence in a paper. It identifies the topic and purpose of the paper. Thesis statements should always be written in third person. There are two kinds of thesis statements: a basic thesis statement and a listing thesis statement.
Basic Thesis Statement
Despite a slightly higher price, the Nikon D7000 is a better value than the Canon 60D.
Listing Thesis Statement
By contrasting price, image quality, shutter speed and the auto-focus system, it is clear that the Nikon D7000 provides more camera for a slightly higher price than the Canon 60D.
The listing thesis statement acts like a check list. The information should be covered in the order listed in the thesis statement. Thus, the first body paragraph would be on price, the second body paragraph on image quality, the third on shutter speed, and the fourth on the auto-focus system. You should have at least three criterion that you use to compare or contrast.
There are two basic formats for the compare/contrast essay: block and point and point. Block divides the essay in half with one body paragraph covering one side the other body paragraph covering the other side. So, if I was contrasting a Nikon DSLR with a similar priced Canon DSLR, one body paragraph would cover Nikon and one would cover Canon.
II. Nikon DSLR
B. Image Quality
C. Shutter Speed
D. The Auto-focus System
III. Canon 60D
B. Image Quality
C. Shutter Speed
D. The Auto-focus System
A. Nikon D7000
B. Canon 60D
III. Image Quality
A. Nikon D7000
B. Canon 60D
IV. Shutter Speed
A. Nikon D7000
B. Canon 60D
V. The Auto-focus System
A. Nikon D7000
B. Canon 60D
The introduction is the hook. It is said that first impressions are the most important. This is especially true for essays. You only have one opportunity to hook your readers and get them involved, so you need to look at imaginative ways to begin your papers. Some ways to introduce the topic and get the reader involved include telling a story that is related to the topic, ask a question and the thesis answers it, ask a rhetorical question that has no answer but introduces the reader to the subject matter. The final sentence of the introduction is the thesis statement.
Begin with Narrative - contrasting bike frames and componentry
I used to bike race both mountain and road bikes. If I was writing a contrast essay describing the differences between mountain and road bikes, I could describe what it is like to race down a hill doing 50 mph.
Begin with a question - topic - choosing the best smartphone
So, which is better, the Galaxy S5 or the iPhone 5s?
Begin with rhetorical question - contrasting two Vegas resorts
Does what happen in Vegas really stay in Vegas?
Conclusions utilize short sentences that address key points in the essay. Tie the introduction to the conclusion. If you began with a quote, refer to that quote again and draw more conclusions from the information. If you began with the story, go back to the story to draw final conclusions from it. If you began with a question that can be answered. then return to that question and answer it.
Online Textbook and Readings
Power Point Lectures
The thesis statement is the sentence or sentences that identify the topic and purpose of the essay. See the presentation below or download it.
Thesis-Statements-mb-ppFormatting the Compare/Contrast Essay
- Be sure and utilize MLA formatting for the paper:
- 1" margins all around the paper.
- Double spaced
- A header on the top right hand corner 1/2" from the top of the paper should include:
- Last name and then leave a space and the page number
- On the first page on the left hand side include:
- Your full name
- My Name
- Course Title
- Be sure and type both the rough draft and final essay.
- Click on the image below to see the full-scale version of the first page of an MLA formatted paper.
Wolff, Tobias. "On Being a Real Westerner." Radford Universeity. Web, 8 July 2013.
Writing the Comparison/Contrast
- Write a 2-3 page comparison/contrast essay
- Choose a topic suitable for college;
- Avoid contrasting motorcycles and cars, cats and dogs, Pepsei and Coke;
- Choose a topic that you already know a lot about;
- This essay must be in third person;
- It should be about 2 pages long;
- Once you have written your rough draft, upload here.
- Then click on the 'Next' button.
- Use the "Editing Sheet" on the next page to edit your paper. The questions on the edit sheet are designed to help edit your paper and catch common mistakes that students make.
- Students will learn to read critically and evaluate professional compare/contrast models.
- Students will improve writing skills through a step-by-step process.
- Students will use a third person point of view.
- Students will present a thesis statement at the end of the introductory paragraphs.
- Students will present the information in a well-organized and logical structure.
- Students will support the thesis statement by utilizing vivid details and examples for each side.
- Students will word process their papers using programs such as Microsoft Word.
- Students will format their papers according to MLA Guidelines. See Purdue OWL example.
- Click the "Submit" button and follow the directions for submitting your work.
Why a compare/contrast essay? Students learn to differentiate between two or more objects seeing how they are similar or how they are different. Writers must choose item that have a "basis" of comparison (something that they both share in common) before they can see the differences between them. For example, I could contrast apples and oranges because they are both fruit, or I could contrast Dell computers with Apples because they both are brands of computers. "Fruit" or "computer" would be the basis in comparison for each of these topics.
Comparison/contrast is important because it is a useful tool for critical decision-making. Whether you are buying a new car or choosing a university, it is important to master the art of this critical writing and thinking skill.
Note: you do not have to write on time and money management skills. I am using this topic as an example.
Assignment in 4 or 5 paragraph format
For example, I could compare time and money management skills. I would show how these two skills are very similar. Then I would state in my conclusion why these skills are important.
Begin by creating a list of the similarities and differences between the two skills. I could create a table to show this.
Under each item, I would list the steps and skills I have learned for budgeting time and money.
Write specific details, definitions, observations, examples for each item.
Examine both sides and see how they are similar and how they are different.
Free write on this topic.
Transform the topic into a guiding question?
How do time and money management skills impact student success?
Next compare your guiding question with your free write.
Write a thesis statement that answers your guiding question.
Using this as an example, pick a topic and use the above steps to create a rough draft.
Either edit the paper yourself or have someone else peer edit it using the peer edit sheet in assignment 5.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License by Lynn McClelland.