Compare & Contrast Essay: Definition, Topics & Examples

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  • 0:03 Why Compare and Contrast?
  • 0:57 Definition
  • 2:37 How to Get Started
  • 5:58 Writing on an Unknown Topic
  • 6:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Alicia Taylor

Alicia has taught students of all ages and has a master's degree in Education

Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

This lesson explains what it is to write a compare and contrast essay. For the student who needs to describe two subjects, a compare and contrast essay offers the opportunity to explore the similarities and differences of a topic.

Why Compare and Contrast?

When studying a particular subject, students are often asked to write essays that compare and contrast various aspects of that area of study. It is common to be assigned to write essays in all areas of study, not just when taking a composition course.

For example, in a social studies course, a class is working on a unit about the places where people live: rural, urban, and suburban. The instructor assigns everyone a compare and contrast essay on life in a city compared to life on a farm. The instructions are such that the essay must both compare, provide similarities, and contrast, provide differences, for living in both types of areas. How would a student get started? How would this essay be structured? A strong, well-written, and organized compare and contrast essay will show the instructor that the writer understands the differences between life in the city and life on the farm.


Compare and contrast essays are multi-paragraph compositions that explain ways in which two (or occasionally more) subjects are similar and different. In these essays, compare means describing similarities between the subjects. The essay on farmlife versus city would provide at least one paragraph on how people's lives in the city are like the lives of the people that live on a farm. Basically, the comparison tells what they have in common.

When a writer contrasts two things, he or she explains ways in which they are different. After completing a unit of study on where people live, students should be able to provide several details about how life on a farm can be vastly different from life in a city.

Again, compare and contrast essays can cover almost any topic and may pop up in a variety of subject areas. In order to make decisions about what to include, writers need to keep one thing in mind: relevance. Relevance helps determine which characteristics are worth comparing and contrasting. Your thesis will help you determine the relevance, or irrelevance, of facts. That means writers need a strong thesis statement.

This is a sentence that lets the reader know the topic and the argument the writer is making. Something like: While city life and farm life have few similarities, city life provides the hustle and bustle of many people, distinct noises, and social opportunities that are different from that of farm life. If this is the writer's thesis statement, then the essay should focus on details that are relevant to the hustle and bustle of city life, noises, and social activities available in the city versus on a farm. The thesis statement will help keep the writing focused on just a few ideas that are based on the overall topic.

How to Get Started

The topic for a compare and contrast essay will likely be determined by the subject or course that a student is enrolled. Topic choices for a compare and contrast essay are vast. In a literature course, topic ideas may include writing about two novels, comparing a novel to the movie version of that same novel, or comparing and contrasting characters, settings, or themes within a novel or from two different novels. In a science course, topics could be based on comparing and contrasting two species of plants or animals, or comparing one theory in a given subject area to another theory. Within a history course, an instructor could assign an essay that compares two historical figures, two time periods, two wars, or even two types of government. The choices for writing or assigning a compare and contrast essay are almost endless.

Once the topic or the essay is assigned or chosen, brainstorm the qualities of each subject, then move on to some prewriting. Prewriting allows the writer to get ideas and details down on paper before writing paragraphs. A Venn diagram can be used to sort the information. A Venn diagram is an organizational tool formed by two overlapping circles that compare two subjects. Each circle represents one subject. Characteristics unique to each subject are written in the non-overlapping parts of the circle, while any similar characteristics are listed in the overlapping part.

For the social studies essay, start filling the Venn diagram in with what was learned about farm life and city life. What is true about just farm life? Maybe that list includes items like working with farm animals, working with farm machinery, being outdoors, self-sufficiency, fewer neighbors, etc. Then, a list would be made of what is true about just city life. The third list and overlapping part of the diagram would be what is true of both ways of living: noisy at times, many different odors, many physical activities, etc.

Once your Venn diagram is full, you can start to decide on your thesis statement. Examine your Venn diagram and ask, ''What does this information tell me?'' Develop a statement that tells the readers what this essay is going to focus on. What is the main point about similarities and differences between city life and farm life that the writer is trying to make?

The next step is to start writing. Introduce the thesis and main points in the first paragraph, then use the body of the essay to go into detail about each point. It can be effective to use very specific examples, questions, and citations to make a point.

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Additional Activities

Compare and Contrast Essay

Pre-writing Activities

  1. Choose two characters from the same novel, film, or television series. Create two Venn Diagrams that would help you to write a compare/contrast essay. The most important part of this activity is to focus one diagram on comparing the two characters and one on contrasting. Think about how you might organize your thoughts and ideas before writing such an essay and make your two diagrams reflect this difference in focus.
  2. Imagine that you have been assigned an essay that contrasts two ways of pursuing career goals. Make a pro and con list for each path to career success. Decide which path your essay will promote as the preferred path. For example, after making a list for both a four-year college degree and a technical school program, decide which one your essay will present as the best idea. Make an outline of the paragraphs in your essay showing how you will compare and contrast to make the reader agree with your preference.

Essay Practice

  1. Plan and write a five-paragraph essay comparing two events in your life that made an impression on you, or somehow changed your views about life. Focus on the similarities between the two events while also acknowledging how they are different. Perhaps the two events occurred in vastly different settings, or perhaps one involved only involved yourself and one other person while the other event occurred in a crowd. Remember to make some notes first and to create a thesis statement before you begin writing.
  2. Write a compare and contrast essay designed to help someone make an important decision. Examples might include choosing between two schools, choosing a vacation destination, or choosing between two health insurance plans. Do your best to keep the essay unbiased and focused only on the facts involved in making this decision. Your job is to help the person choose by informing them thoroughly.

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