How to Write Essays in Psych

Like it or loathe it, you will be writing lots of essays in your IB Psychology course, and developing good essay writing skills is essential to getting a top grade.  Although essay writing can seem very intimidating at first, writing an IB Psychology essay is actually quite straightforward, once you understand what the examiners are looking for.  
This page will introduce you the basics of essay writing, and the all-important mark scheme.  Additional pages will offer more specific guidance on writing a Knowledge paragraph, an Evaluation paragraph, the Introduction, and the Conclusion of your essay.

Essays: Key Facts

  • There are three essay questions on Paper 1, one question each from the Biological, Cognitive, and Sociocultural units.  You are only required to answer one of them.  

  • SL students study one Option, so will answer one essay question on their chosen option in Paper 2 from a choice of three questions

  • HL students study two Options, so will answer two essay questions (one on each of their chosen options) in Paper 2, from a choice of three questions per Option

  • The maximum score for an essay is 22 points

  • You will have approximately one hour to write each essay

  • Essays should be around 800-1000 words, or about the length of 3-4 handwritten pages

  • An essay should contain a detailed account of at least two research studies
Exam Tip

Here is a sample of what the essay questions will look like on Paper 1 (Core).  Note how each question comes from a different level of analysis (Biological, Cognitive, and Sociocultural).

Here is a sample of what the essay questions will look like on Paper 2 (Options) for the Abnormal Psychology option.  Each option will have a choice of three questions.  SL students write one essay from the Option they have studied, while HL students write two essays, one from each of their Options.

Assessment Criteria

The assessment criteria for an essay is quite lengthy, but mastering it is key - this is literally your recipe for success.  In brief, there are five criteria that are assessed:

  • Focus on the question (2 marks)

  • Knowledge and understanding (6 marks)

  • Use of research to support answer (6 marks)

  • Critical thinking (6 marks)

  • Clarity and organization (2 marks)

The full assessment criteria are shown below, followed by brief comments explaining how to fulfill each of the criterion.

This is the role of your introduction - to explain the topic of your essay, identifying what problems and issues are raised in the question.  If you simply re-state the essay question, you will get one mark, but to get the full two marks you need to go further, showing a deeper level of understanding.

This criterion is very broad, because different questions will require different types of knowledge and understanding.  However, here are some examples of the knowledge that would count towards Criterion B:

  • Knowledge of a research method (ex. lab experiment, twin studies)
  • Knowledge of a theory in Psychology
  • Knowledge of ethical issues / concerns
  • Knowledge of key concepts in Psychology (brain localization, abnormality, neuroplasticity, etc)
  • Knowledge of hormones, pheromones, neurotransmitters, and parts of the brain
  • Knowledge of brain imaging technologies
  • ​Knowledge of a treatment method in Abnormal Psychology
This criterion also concerns knowledge, but here it is specifically knowledge of research studies that is assessed.  Although there is no prescribed number of studies, the general consensus is that essays should have at least two research studies described in detail - including Aim, Procedure, Findings, and Conclusion.

Also note the importance of using research to support / develop your answer.  That implies using the results of your research to support your arguments, rather than just simply talking about research out of the blue.  Remember to link into each study (explain why you have chosen to discuss this study), and then link back to the question at the end (explain what the results of the study tell us that is significant to the question).
This is, perhaps, the most challenging Criterion to score top marks in.  To score well here, you need to go beyond description, and show evidence of critical thinking, reflection, and inquiry.  

There are five areas of critical thinking identified in the mark scheme, some of which are more suited to the body of your essay, while others can best be addressed in the conclusion.

  • Research design & methodologies - This involves discussing the strengths and limitations of each research study.  After describing each research study, you should identify and explain at least one strength, and at least one limitation, of the design and procedure.  To think of relevant strengths and limitations, remember GRAVE - Generalizability, Replicability / Reliability, Alternative Explanations, Validity, and Ethics.

  • Assumptions & biases - This area of critical thinking is best suited to evaluating psychological theories.  What assumptions does the theory make?  What biases may be presented in the theory?  For instance, an evolutionary theory may be based on the assumption that we inherit genes from our parents, that genes play a significant role in determining behavior, and that our genes have been selected by millions of years of evolution.  In contrast, a social learning theory is based on the assumption that behavior is highly dependent on the environment in which we are raised, and that we learn through observation of others.

  • Triangulation, contradictory evidence, alternative explanations - These areas of critical thinking involve a synthesis of all the available reseach on the topic.  This is best done in your conclusion.  Triangulation is when different studies, using different methodologies or samples, come to similar conclusions.  For instance, one study on testosterone could be a lab experiment carried out on rats, while a second study might be an observation of testosterone levels in prison inmates.  If both these studies suggest a link between testosterone and aggression, then the results triangulate.  On the other hand, different studies might point to opposite conclusions.  For example, some studies suggest that intelligence (IQ) is largely genetic, while others suggest that the social environment plays a significant role.  In that case, both explanations must be considered.

  • Areas of uncertainty - The scientific study of the human mind is still in its early stages - the field of scientific Psychology is only about 100 years old.  There are lots of unanswered questions and areas of uncertainty.  While most of your essay will focus on what we already know, its equally important to be aware of what we don't yet know, and the limitations of our current knowledge.  This is best discussed in your conclusion.  What are some (as yet) unanswered questions?  What do we not yet know for certain?  How could more research help as address these shortcomings in our present understanding?
If you gave your essay to a friend who never studied Psychology before, would they be able to read and understand your essay clearly?  The two points to consider here are clarity and organization.

  • Organization - Each paragraph of your essay has a clear topic.  You don't jump from one idea to the next.  Fully develop one idea, and then start a new paragraph before moving on to the next idea.

  • Clarity - Every theory and research study is clearly explained, so that a non-Psychology student would be able to understand what you are discussing.  All subject-specific terms (localization of brain function, neuroplasticity, heritability, etc.) are clearly explained.
Essay Command Terms

The command term is the first word that appears in the essay question.  In order to score highly on your essay, you must meet the requirements of the command term.  Here are all the possible command terms:
A few points to keep in mind:

  • Judgment based on evidence: In IB Psychology, every "claim" that you make has to be supported to by evidence, i.e. research studies.  For instance, if your essay claims that bullying leads to long-term emotional trauma, then you need to support that claim by with a study on the long-term effects of bullying.

  • Including a range of arguments: An effective way to demonstrate critical thinking is to consider different arguments, discussing the merits and limitations of each.  This is particularly important for the command terms Discuss and To what extent.  For instance, if your essay involves an account of biological factors that cause depression, also consider the alternative - that cognitive or social factors could also be important.  Remember to always consider oppossing points of view and alternate claims, weighing up the evidence for both sides of the debate.
Structuring your Essay

A typical essay will consist of about 6 well developed paragraphs - an introduction, 3-5 body paragraphs, and a conclusion.  As you plan your essay, always keep the criteria in mind - you need to demonstrate general knowledge and understanding (Criterion B), knowledge of research studies (Criterion C), and critical thinking (Criterion D) to score an excellent grade.

How you structure your essay will vary tremendously based on the question.  There is no "one size fits all" essay structure that will suit the requirements of every question.  The best way to plan an essay is to first consider what knowledge and research will be discussed, and then plan a structure accordingly.  However, the following essay structure may be helpful in giving a general idea of what an essay could look like:

Introduction (Focus on Criterion A)

  • Begin your essay with a "hook", a thought provoking question or statement
  • State the topic of the essay (this is just stating the essay question)
  • Define & explain key words and terms in the essay question. What problems / issues are raised here?
  • Explain the importance of the topic (perhaps by discussing a relevant real life example)
  • State and briefly summarize the knowledge, theories and studies that will be discussed in the rest of the essay

Body paragraph 1 - Theory / General Knowledge ​(Focus on Criteria B and D)

  • Describe a relevant theory (or area of general knowledge, for instance a research method or a treatment)
  • Evaluate the theory, identifying and explaining at least one strength and one limitation
  • Link the knowledge and evaluation back to the topic

Body paragraph 2 - Research evidence (Focus on Criteria C and D)

  • Link into a research study that supports the theory in Paragraph 1, or that provides an example of the general knowledge discussed in Paragraph 1
  • Detailed description of the research study: Aim, Procedure, Findings, Conclusion
  • Evaluate the study, identifying and explaining at least one strength and one limitation
  • Explain why the results of the study (and its evaluation) matter. What does this study tell us? (Link back).

Body paragraph 3 - Theory / General Knowledge 2 (Focus on Criteria B and D)

  • ​Similar to body paragraph 1, with a second relevant theory or area of general knowledge

Body paragraph 4 - Research evidence 2 (Focus on Criteria C and D)

  • Similar to body paragraph 2, with a reseach study supporting the theory / area of knowledge from paragraph 3

Conclusion (Focus on Criteria D)

  • Briefly re-state and summarize all of the knowledge, theories and research that have been discussed so far
  • To what extent do the various research studies support each other, coming to the same conclusion through different research methods? (triangulation)
  • Do any of the research studies contradict each other?  If so, what could explain the apparent contradictions?
  • Are there any other possible explanations that have yet to be considered?
  • What are some questions that are still let unanswered? How could future research help us to answer those questions?

Exam Tip

  • Although you only have around 60 minutes to write an essay, its absolutely essential to spend 5-10 minutes writing an outline of your essay.  Without an outline, it is normal for students to forget what they wanted to say next, leave out important details, or suddenly change topics midway through a paragraph when a new idea pops into their heads.  Your outline will help keep your essay organized, on track, and complete

  • Keep linking knowledge back to the question.  Whenever you introduce a new theory or research study, remember to explain why this theory or research study is important.  What does this theory tell us of importance?  How does this research study help us to answer the essay question?

  • Given the complexity of the essay, and how much you need to know, advance preparation is key. Write out an outline of every possible essay that you can think of.  Test your knowledge of research using flashcards.  Make mind maps of different topics.  The more you prepare, the more depth of knowledge will be demonstrated.
Quiz Yourself!

​1.  How many essays are HL students required to write?

(a) Two essays (one on the Core, one on the Options)

(b) Three essays (two on the Core, one on the Options)

(c) Three essays (one on the Core, two on the Options)

(d) Four essays (two on the Core, two on the Options)

2.  What is the recommended number of research studies to include on an essay?

(a) At least one research study

(b) At least two research studies

(c) At least three research studies

(d) At least four research studies

3.  Which is NOT one of the area of critical thinking identified in the mark scheme?

(a) Real life applicability

(b) Triangulation

(c) Alternative explanations

(d) Areas of uncertainty

4.  Which command term involves giving an account of differences?

(a) Contrast

(b) Discuss

(c) Evaluate

(d) To what extent

5.  Which command term involves considering the merits of an argument or concept?

(a) Contrast

(b) Discuss

(c) Evaluate

(d) To what extent

6.  The first thing you should do when writing an essay on an exam is...

(a) Start writing the conclusion, then work backwards

(b) Being writing the introduction

(c) Create a mind map linking different concepts

(d) Write an outline of your essay


1 - C, 2 - B, 3 - A, 4 - A, 5 - D, 6 - D