Example Provided by the College Board
(modified question from 2010)
The time allotted for this essay is 40 minutes, 5 minutes of which should be spent planning and/or outlining the answer.
Directions: You are to answer the following question. You should spend 5 minutes organizing or outlining your essay. Write an essay that:
• Has a relevant thesis and supports that thesis with appropriate historical evidence.
• Addresses all parts of the question.
• Makes direct, relevant comparisons.
• Analyzes relevant reasons for similarities and differences.
Analyze similarities and differences in techniques of imperial administration in TWO of the following empires.
• Han China (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.)
• Mauryan/Gupta India (320 B.C.E.–550 C.E.)
• Imperial Rome (31 B.C.E.–476 C.E.)
What should a good response to this question have?
A good response provides valid similarities and differences, substantiated by specific pieces of evidence from within the time period. Important similarities include centralized governments, elaborate legal systems,administrative bureaucracies, the promotion of trade and food production, road-building, larger armies, and expanded systems of taxation. Important distinctions include: For Han China: a bureaucracy selected through a civil service examination; Confucian ideology about hierarchies; the idea of the Mandate of Heaven; regular diplomacy with peoples beyond their borders. For Rome: a uniform legal code; the promotion of a ruler cult, and later of Christianity; great concern with control of ocean-borne
trade that brought in food. For India: the Mauryan emperor Ashoka’s acceptance of Buddhism, which enhanced his position; public welfare projects paid for by the emperor; the more decentralized government of the Guptas.
Good essays do not include evidence that is outside the time period or any of the stipulated empires, for example, discussion of the Roman Republic, Qin dynasty, Genghis Khan, Mansa Musa, or Akbar. A good response could include information on technology, military history, religion, gender, disease, or other topics, but then needs to tie these to techniques of imperial administration, not simply discuss everything the student knows about the empires. For example, a good essay
would say, “Both the Maurya/Gupta and the Romans used their armies to maintain control within their borders and to attack neighboring states.” The statement “Both the Maurya/Gupta and the Romans had large armies and expanded their borders,” while true, does not relate these developments to the topic of the question, techniques of imperial administration. Students
should be told to make their connections clear, because readers will not infer that a particular essay demonstrates content knowledge that is not present in the plain language of the student response.
Students should be discouraged from constructing comparison questions by discussing one region as a block and then the other region as a block, loosely linked by a transitional sentence. That sentence might be the only comparison in the student’s response, and if it is incorrect, the student is unable to earn any points for comparison, analysis, or addressing the question. Students should be discouraged from writing to a pre-existing format such as political, economic, social/cultural or PERSIA
(Political, Economic, Religious, Social, Intellectual, Artistic). Students need to respond to the question asked —which, in this case, is political. A good response provides analysis and uses this analysis as an explanation of a reason for a similarity or difference between techniques of imperial administration for the two empires. It thus links the historical thinking skills of comparison and causation, and does not simply provide a discussion of causation that involves only one of the empires.
For example, a discussion of why the Roman Empire fell that does not link or compare this to why the other chosen empire fell is not appropriate analysis for this question.
A strong essay would go beyond the minimum on any of the core points. It could relate the techniques of imperial administration to larger global processes or apply relevant knowledge of other world regions, such as noting the ways in which invasions by pastoral nomads from central Asia put pressure on the administration of each of the three
empires. It could consistently analyze cause and effect for the noted similarities and differences, such as pointing out that the religious toleration of both the Gupta emperors and (most of) the Roman emperors promoted loyalty to the empire and with it more regular payment of taxes. It could recognize nuance within empires, for example by pointing out that the
techniques of Roman imperial administration were different in the city of Rome from those in the outlying provinces. It could discuss change over time, for example by discussing changing methods of imperial administration as the empires began to decline because of epidemic diseases, environmental damage, and external problems.
After the Venn
From here it is time to flesh out some form of outline, what are the major points that will make up the body paragraphs and what supporting facts are going to be there. The comparison should indicate some conclusion based on the evidence.
Analysis and deduction are important in the outlining process because this is essential to the formation of a quality thesis. The thesis of any essay should clearly indicate the position of the essay and provide an overview of the supporting arguements. A comparison essay needs to make a determination from the similarities and differences. Lets look at the following example which relates to our previous Venn diagram:
Compare the process of state-building in TWO of the following in the period 600 C.E. to 1450 C.E.
• Islamic states
• Mongol khanates
What is a comparative essay?
A comparative essay asks that you compare at least two (possibly more) items. These items will differ depending on the assignment. You might be asked to compare
- positions on an issue (e.g., responses to midwifery in Canada and the United States)
- theories (e.g., capitalism and communism)
- figures (e.g., GDP in the United States and Britain)
- texts (e.g., Shakespeare’s Hamletand Macbeth)
- events (e.g., the Great Depression and the global financial crisis of 2008–9)
Although the assignment may say “compare,” the assumption is that you will consider both the similarities and differences; in other words, you will compare and contrast.
Make sure you know the basis for comparison
The assignment sheet may say exactly what you need to compare, or it may ask you to come up with a basis for comparison yourself.
- Provided by the essay question: The essay question may ask that you consider the figure of the gentleman in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The basis for comparison will be the figure of the gentleman.
- Developed by you: The question may simply ask that you compare the two novels. If so, you will need to develop a basis for comparison, that is, a theme, concern, or device common to both works from which you can draw similarities and differences.
Develop a list of similarities and differences
Once you know your basis for comparison, think critically about the similarities and differences between the items you are comparing, and compile a list of them.
For example, you might decide that in Great Expectations, being a true gentleman is not a matter of manners or position but morality, whereas in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, being a true gentleman is not about luxury and self-indulgence but hard work and productivity.
The list you have generated is not yet your outline for the essay, but it should provide you with enough similarities and differences to construct an initial plan.
Develop a thesis based on the relative weight of similarities and differences
Once you have listed similarities and differences, decide whether the similarities on the whole outweigh the differences or vice versa. Create a thesis statement that reflects their relative weights. A more complex thesis will usually include both similarities and differences. Here are examples of the two main cases:
- Differences outweigh similarities:
While Callaghan’s “All the Years of Her Life” and Mistry’s “Of White Hairs and Cricket” both follow the conventions of the coming-of-age narrative, Callaghan’s story adheres more closely to these conventions by allowing its central protagonist to mature. In Mistry’s story, by contrast, no real growth occurs.
- Similarities outweigh differences:
Although Darwin and Lamarck came to different conclusions about whether acquired traits can be inherited, they shared the key distinction of recognizing that species evolve over time.
Come up with a structure for your essay
- Alternating method: Point-by-point patternIn the alternating method, you find related points common to your central subjects A and B, and alternate between A and B on the basis of these points (ABABAB …). For instance, a comparative essay on the French and Russian revolutions might examine how both revolutions either encouraged or thwarted innovation in terms of new technology, military strategy, and the administrative system.
A Paragraph 1 in body new technology and the French Revolution B Paragraph 2 in body new technology and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 3 in body military strategy and the French Revolution B Paragraph 4 in body military strategy and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 5 in body administrative system and the French Revolution B Paragraph 6 in body administrative system and the Russian Revolution
Note that the French and Russian revolutions (A and B) may be dissimilar rather than similar in the way they affected innovation in any of the three areas of technology, military strategy, and administration. To use the alternating method, you just need to have something noteworthy to say about both A and B in each area. Finally, you may certainly include more than three pairs of alternating points: allow the subject matter to determine the number of points you choose to develop in the body of your essay.
When do I use the alternating method? Professors often like the alternating system because it generally does a better job of highlighting similarities and differences by juxtaposing your points about A and B. It also tends to produce a more tightly integrated and analytical paper. Consider the alternating method if you are able to identify clearly related points between A and B. Otherwise, if you attempt to impose the alternating method, you will probably find it counterproductive.
- Block method: Subject-by-subject patternIn the block method (AB), you discuss all of A, then all of B. For example, a comparative essay using the block method on the French and Russian revolutions would address the French Revolution in the first half of the essay and the Russian Revolution in the second half. If you choose the block method, however, do not simply append two disconnected essays to an introductory thesis. The B block, or second half of your essay, should refer to the A block, or first half, and make clear points of comparison whenever comparisons are relevant. (“Unlike A, B . . .” or “Like A, B . . .”) This technique will allow for a higher level of critical engagement, continuity, and cohesion.
A Paragraphs 1–3 in body How the French Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation B Paragraphs 4–6 in body How the Russian Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation
When do I use the block method? The block method is particularly useful in the following cases:
- You are unable to find points about A and B that are closely related to each other.
- Your ideas about B build upon or extend your ideas about A.
- You are comparing three or more subjects as opposed to the traditional two.