Extended Essay Guide Chemistry

Extended essay in chemistry

The following is an overview of the extended essay guidelines for chemistry (IBO documents)

An extended essay in chemistry provides students with an opportunity to investigate a particular aspect of the materials of our environment. Such extended essays must be characterized by a particular chemical emphasis within a more general set of research criteria.

The outcome of the research should be a coherent and structured piece of writing that effectively addresses a particular issue or research question and arrives at a particular, and preferably personal, conclusion.

Choice of topic

It is important that the extended essay has a clear chemical emphasis and is not more closely related to another subject. Chemistry is the science that deals with the composition, characterization and transformation of substances. A chemistry extended essay should, therefore, incorporate chemical principles and theory, and emphasize the essential nature of chemistry, relating to the study of matter and of the changes it undergoes.

Although the same assessment criteria apply to all extended essays, for an extended essay submitted in chemistry the topic chosen must allow an approach that distinctly involves chemistry. Where a topic might be approached from different viewpoints, the treatment of the material must be approached from a chemistry perspective. For example, an extended essay in an interdisciplinary area such as biochemistry will, if registered as a chemistry extended essay, be judged on its chemical content, not its biological content.

The scope of the topic and the research associated with it should enable all the criteria to be addressed. A good topic is one where the single research question is sharply focused and can be treated effectively within the word limit. Perhaps the most important factor is the depth of treatment that can be given to the topic by the student. Broad or complex survey topics (for example, investigations into health problems caused by water pollution, chemotherapy for cancer treatment or the use of spectroscopy in chemical analysis) will not permit the student to discuss conflicting ideas and theories, nor to produce an in-depth personal analysis within the word limit.

Some topics may be unsuitable for investigation because of safety issues. For example, experiments involving toxic or dangerous chemicals, carcinogenic substances or radioactive materials should be avoided unless adequate safety apparatus and qualified supervision are available.

Other topics may be unsuitable because the outcome is already well known and documented in standard textbooks, and the student may not be able to show any personal input. An example might be a study of the reactions of the alkali metals with water as this is already covered by the syllabus. However, some care does need to be exercised in deciding whether a topic is suitable or not; for example, previously, the study of the allotropes of carbon might have been thought to be trivial but this would not be the case today.

Example essay titles

The following examples of titles for chemistry extended essays are intended as guidance only. The pairings illustrate that focused topics (indicated by the first title) should be encouraged rather than broad topics (indicated by the second title).

“The ratio of the gases evolved at the positive electrode during the electrolysis of common salt solution” is better than “Electrolysis of solutions”.

“Spectrophotometric determination of trace amounts of lead in drinking water” is better than “Water analysis”.

“The effects of sugar-free chewing gum on the pH of saliva in the mouth after a meal” is better than “Acid–base chemistry”.

“How can the natural oxidant rutin be extracted and purified from the seed of the Chinese Scholartree?” is better than “Extraction of natural products from plants”.

Moreover, it may help if the student further defines and refines the topic chosen for study in the form of a research question or statement.


The ratio of the gases evolved at the positive electrode during the electrolysis of common salt solution

Research question

Is there a relationship between the concentration of aqueous sodium chloride solution and the ratio of the amounts of oxygen and chlorine gas that are evolved at the positive electrode during electrolysis.


The caffeine content of a cup of tea

Research question

Does the time it takes to brew a cup of tea using a specific commercial brand of tea leaves significantly alter the amount of caffeine that is dissolved in the drink?


Analysis of strawberry jellies by paper chromatography

Research question

The use of paper chromatography to determine whether strawberry jellies obtained from 24 different countries in 5 different continents all contain the same red dyes.

Treatment of the topic

An extended essay in chemistry may be based on literature, theoretical models or experimental data. Whichever category or combination of categories is chosen, the student should ensure that sufficient data is available for evaluation and that the topic can be researched accurately using locally available resources.

Students who choose to write an extended essay based on literature and/or surveys should ensure that their extended essay clearly shows its chemical basis. Essays written at the level of a newspaper or news magazine article are unlikely to achieve a high mark.

Since chemistry is an experimental science, students are strongly encouraged to undertake experimental work as part of their research, although this is not compulsory. In order to place their research into the appropriate context, students should research the area of the investigation before commencing any experimental work. Where possible, they should consult original research using scientific journals, personal communications and the internet. Textbooks should never be the only source of information.

All essays involving experimental work undertaken by the student should include a clear and concise description of the experimental work. Students should indicate clearly whether they have personally designed the experiment, or give the source of an existing experiment method that they have used and state how they have adapted and improved upon it. All essays must be supervised by a school supervisor.

Many of the best essays are written by students investigating relatively simple phenomena using apparatus and materials that can be found in most school laboratories, and this approach is to be encouraged. If the practical work is carried out in an industrial or university laboratory, the essay should be accompanied by a letter from the external supervisor outlining the nature of the supervision and the level of guidance provided. The school supervisor must be satisfied that the work described in the essay is genuine and essentially that of the student.

Data collected from an experiment designed by the student is of little value unless it is analysed using appropriate scientific techniques, evaluated and perhaps compared with appropriate models.

It is possible to produce an extended essay in chemistry in which the student has used data collected elsewhere as the primary source. In such cases, the element of personal analysis and evaluation is extremely important.

In any chemistry extended essay, students should be able to demonstrate that they understand the theory underlying any experimental work and state any assumptions made. They should show an understanding of the results obtained and be able to interpret them with reference to the research question posed. They should be critical of inadequate experimental design, the limitations of the experimental method and any systematic errors.

Students should be encouraged to consider unresolved questions in their research, and to suggest new questions and areas for further investigation in their conclusion. Throughout the whole of the essay, students should emphasize clearly their own personal contribution.

Interpreting the assessment criteria

Criterion A: research question

Many research questions can be formulated as an actual question or questions. A typical example is: “What gas is evolved when zinc is added to copper (II) sulfate solution and what factors affect its formation?”. However, in chemistry extended essays it is perfectly reasonable to formulate the research question as a statement or as a hypothesis rather than an actual question. “An analysis of the amount of aluminium in three different brands of underarm deodorant by visible spectroscopy” and “The kinetics of oxidation of iodide ions with hydrogen peroxide in acidic solutions” are two such examples where a statement rather than a question is appropriate. Whichever way it is formulated, it should be identified clearly as the research question and set out prominently in the introduction.

Criterion B: introduction

The purpose of the introduction is to set the research question into context, that is, to relate the research question to existing knowledge in chemistry. It is usually appropriate to include also the underlying chemical theory required to understand how the research question has arisen. Some research questions require some background knowledge that is not related to chemistry—for example, “Do the fossils found in different strata of rocks at a particular location contain different amounts of sulfur?” . For the essay to make sense, it would be important to state the ages of the rocks and give some geological background. In such cases, only the essential non-chemistry information should be provided in the introduction, as the essay will be marked on its chemical content. If it is necessary to include more non-chemistry (for example, geological) information, then the appropriate place for it is the appendix.

Criterion C: investigation

The way in which the investigation is undertaken will depend very much on whether or not the essay contains experimental work performed by the student. For non-experimental essays, students should endeavour to show clearly how the data has been selected. They should distinguish between primary sources (original scientific publications, personal communications, interviews) and secondary sources (textbooks, newspaper articles, reviews), and show awareness of how reliable these sources are. For experimental work, sufficient information should be provided so that the work could be repeated if necessary by an independent worker. Students should make it clear which experiments they have designed themselves and which they have altered, adapted or improved from existing methods.

Criterion D: knowledge and understanding of the topic studied

Students should show that they understand fully the underlying chemistry behind the context of their research question and their subsequent investigation. They are not expected to explain basic chemistry forming part of the Diploma Programme chemistry course, but they are expected to show that they fully understand the relevant principles and ideas and can apply them correctly. They should also demonstrate that they understand the theory behind any techniques or apparatus used.

Criterion E: reasoned argument

Students should be aware of the need to give their essays the backbone of a developing argument. A good argument in chemistry will almost certainly include consideration and comparison of different approaches and methods directly relevant to the research question. Straightforward descriptive or narrative accounts that lack analysis do not usually advance an argument and should be avoided.

Criterion F: application of analytical and evaluative skills appropriate to the subject

A thorough understanding of the reliability of all data used to support the argument should be shown. Inadequate experimental design or any systematic errors should be exposed. The magnitude of uncertainties in physical data should be evaluated and discussed. Approximations in models should be accounted for and all assumptions examined thoroughly. Where possible, the quality of sources accessed or data generated should be verified by secondary sources or by direct calculations.

Criterion G: use of language appropriate to the subject

Correct chemical terminology and nomenclature should be used consistently and effectively throughout the extended essay. Relevant chemical formulas (including structural formulas), balanced equations (including state symbols) and mechanisms should be included. The correct units for physical quantities must always be given and the proper use of significant figures is expected.

Criterion H: conclusion

The conclusion must be consistent with the argument presented and should not merely repeat material in the introduction or introduce new or extraneous points to the argument. In chemistry, it is almost always pertinent to consider unresolved questions and to suggest areas for further investigation.

Criterion I: formal presentation

This criterion relates to the extent to which the essay conforms to academic standards about the way in which research papers should be presented. The presentation of essays that omit a bibliography or that do not give references is deemed unacceptable (level 0). Essays that omit one of the required elements—title page, table of contents, page numbers—are deemed no better than satisfactory (maximum level 2), while essays that omit two of them are deemed poor at best (maximum level 1).

The essay must not exceed 4,000 words of narrative. Graphs, figures, calculations, diagrams, formulas and equations are not included in the word count. For experiments where numerical results are calculated from data obtained by changing one of the variables, it is generally good practice to show one example of the calculation. The remainder can be displayed in tabular or graphical form.

Criterion J: abstract

The abstract is judged on the clarity with which it presents an overview of the research and the essay, not on the quality of the research question itself, nor on the quality of the argument or the conclusions.

Criterion K: holistic judgment

Qualities that are rewarded under this criterion include the following.

Intellectual initiative: Ways of demonstrating this in chemistry essays include the choice of topic and research question, and the use of novel or innovative approaches to address the research question.

Insight and depth of understanding: These are most likely to be demonstrated as a consequence of detailed research and thorough reflection, and by a well-informed and reasoned argument that consistently and effectively addresses the research question.

Originality and creativity: These will be apparent by clear evidence of a personal approach backed up by solid research and reasoning.


The assessment criteria

Past essay titles

Example extended essay 2013

Example extended essay 2013

Example extended essay 2013

Example extended essay 2012

Example extended essay 2012

Extended essay examiners report 2012

With summer either already here or very near, it’s time for our next step in the Extended Essay Step-by-Step Guide. This one will help give you that push to put all of that essay preparation to use. Yes, it’s time to bite the bullet and write the thing.

To recap, this is the stage that comes after:

Topic Choice
Topic Research
Finalising a Question

If you don’t feel you’ve quite nailed something in that list above, have a read of our previous blogs in the series for a comprehensive breakdown of what you can do to get there. If on the other hand you do feel you’ve done all of this, you should know WHAT you’re going to say. The real question is HOW. This isn’t a post about how to write. I know you’ve written things before. This blog is about how to make yourself get that writing for this Extended Essay on the page in front of you.

1. Know When You’ll Write Your Essay

It should be obvious that the key to making sure you write your extended essay is to find the time to write it. But you’d be surprised how easily the time can slip away without a single word getting typed or written. Especially in summer, that pesky thing called procrastination can disguise itself as everything from the new season of Orange is the New Black to a trip to a lake to swim with pelicans.

To make sure you get the writing done when you want it done, take half an hour to get organised. Work out when, objectively, you will have the time to devote some love and care and sweat and blood to this essay. And do it in chunks. Half a day at a time is ideal. Start by scheduling a few at a time near the start of your holiday so that you can see how much time this will actually take you and adjust your schedule accordingly.

To be extra efficient, don’t just decide when you will work on your essay, but decide what you will work on. Set deadlines for finishing different stages of the essay throughout the summer. For a Language, Literature, or Group 3 essay you might set deadlines for completing the introduction, body, conclusion, and proofreading. For a Group 4 Science essay your deadlines could be more detailed, separated for completing sections on background information, methods and materials, and data analysis, for example.

Exercise 1: Take out your calendar, work out what plans you already have for the summer which you’ll need to work around, and mark out your devoted Extended Essay time. Don’t have a calendar? No problem! Download our own printable Extended Essay time planner by clicking here!

2. Getting the Words on the Page

Now you’ve organised yourself and found time to do the writing, it’s time to sit down and put the words on the page. The biggest tip I can possibly give you is to remind that getting any words on the page at all is more important, at this stage, than getting ‘the right words’. This is only a first draft, and at this point it’s only a draft of a first draft. So do whatever you can to help yourself put pen to paper/hands to keyboard.

If you feel like you can launch straight into writing that essay, great! Sit down and do that. On the other hand if you’re still unsure where you start there are a bunch of techniques you can try to help get you started.

  1. There’s nothing to say you have to write the essay in chronological order! Instead you could take each paragraph of your essay one at a time, and start with the section you feel most confident, or excited about.
  2. A lot of people find it easier to write things by hand before typing it. If you’re experiencing what I like to call ‘keyboard fear’, ditch the laptop, take a pen and a piece of paper, and write your essay as if you are answering the question in an exam.
  3. If you’re struggling to turn your outline into full sentences, forget about eloquence for a while and just write it in whatever way you like. No need for good words. Just write. No one will see it but you.

Exercise 2: Pick one of the three options above and try it: write your favourite ‘piece’ of the essay first, write as much as you can by hand in one writing sprint, or lose the grammar and just get the ideas down in the right order.

3. Perfect Your Extended Essay Language

Perfect language doesn’t matter at the beginning of your writing process. But making sure that your writing is clear, well-paced and polished is essential for the final product. You’ll get a chance to fix up the writing later in the process, but paying attention to your language, tone and style as you go along will save you a lot of time in the long-run. More importantly, it will help you to see what is and isn’t making sense now.

A great way to get into the right frame of mind for writing a formal essay is to read other examples. Have a look at our free resources page to see how other successful IB students have written their essays in the past. Alternatively you could remind yourself of general guidelines to academic writing like this guide here.

In general it’s better to be simple. Avoid the temptation to write as many long, complicated words as you possibly can so that you reach the 4000 word limit faster! I promise you that the most common Extended Essay problem of all IB students is fitting their words into the word limit at the end. So take some time to relax, breathe, and only write what you need to write.

Case in point: Which sentence makes more sense to you?

  1. It is arguable that during the nineteenth century, and in the latter half of the century in particular, many people perceived a growth in what can be termed the mass market for novels and literature.
  2. The later nineteenth century saw an increase in the literary mass market.

Exercise 3: Paste one of your completed paragraphs onto a new document and cut out the unnecessary words and phrases. Aim to cut words down by 10%. Do this for each one of your paragraphs either as you go along or at the end.

The only thing left to say now is to just do it. It will be tough, but you won’t have a better time to work on it than this summer*. If you’d like more help from us have a look at our assignments package for online private tuition, or our Mid-IB Extended Essay workshop.

(*And if you hate the idea of doing it now, think about doing it next term when you have 10 other deadlines to meet as well!)

Happy writing!

Read Part 6: Motivation

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