IB English Higher Level Essay (HLE) Explained

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In this guide, May 2022 IB grad Lareina Shen shares her wisdom to help you tackle the IB English Higher Level Essay (HLE). Lareina received a predicted 7 for her HLE, so take notes! 📝

Over to you, Lareina!

Congratulations on surviving IB English so far… 🥳 I’m sure there have been difficult times, so give yourself a pat on the back. If you’re feeling discouraged about the IB English Higher Level Essay (HLE), just remember that you are almost at the finish line.

Stay strong and keep working hard to ultimately write an essay that you are proud of!

Topics covered in this guide

  1. What is IB English HLE?
  2. How do I choose my text for HLE?
  3. How do I choose my line of inquiry for HLE?
  4. How do I ensure my HLE question has a good scope?
  5. The story of how I found my HLE question…
  6. The importance of analysis in getting a 7 in IB English HLE
  7. You need to understand the marking rubric!

What is IB English HLE?

The HL Essay (HLE) is a 1200-1500 word essay about a text studied in the IB English course. For Lang Lit, the work can be literary or non-literary, but for Lit the text must be literary.

The HLE will make up 25% of your final IB English HL grade, and is graded externally. You must choose your own line of inquiry (i.e. question) to answer in the HLE–a challenge in itself that will be discussed soon in this guide.

How do I choose my text for HLE? 📕

I only have one thing to say for this: do NOT choose the “easiest” text!

Instead, choose the literary / non-literary work that interests you the most, so that you can at least better enjoy the HLE writing process.

You could start by thinking of a theme that you find particularly interesting and determining which text studied in class demonstrates this theme well.

OR, if you have a favorite text, simply choose that! Personally, I enjoyed reading Frankenstein (I may or may not have shed some tears at the end), so I immediately decided to write my HLE on that novel.

How do I choose my line of inquiry for HLE? 💡

You must formulate your own line of inquiry that you will be answering in the HLE. This question must fall under one of the 7 main concepts of IB English, which are listed below.

If you’re having trouble picking your text and question, then use this simple 20-minute process to brainstorm potential questions for your HLE:

  1. For each text / non-literary work, go through each concept in the table below.
  2. Write down a question for each of the two prompts for each category.
  3. Repeat for all of your texts.
ConceptSuggestions for your line of inquiry
IdentityHow is the identity of a particular character or group of characters represented?
OR, how does the text relate to the identity of the writer?
CultureHow is the culture of a particular setting, institution, or community represented?
OR, how does the text relate to a particular culture/cultural perspective?
CreativityHow does the text represent a collective or individual creativity/lack of creativity?
OR, how does the text reflect the writer’s creativity?
CommunicationHow are acts of communication/failures in communication conveyed?
OR, how does the text represent an act of communication?
TransformationHow is transformation represented?
OR, how is the text transformative to other texts through reference to them, or to the reader in terms of transforming their beliefs and values?
PerspectiveHow is a certain perspective conveyed?
OR, how does the text represent the writer’s perspective?
RepresentationHow are different themes, attitudes, and concepts represented?
OR, in what way is reality/the world represented?

How do I ensure my HLE question has a good scope?

Choosing a question with good scope is extremely important, and it’s one of the biggest challenges in the HLE. Here’s why:

  • If your scope is too broad, you may have too much to write about in order to answer the question, and therefore you won’t be able to write deep analysis (which is super important–more on this later…)
  • If your scope is too narrow, you may not have enough to write about and end up overanalyzing unnecessary and obscure details. Also something to avoid!

So, to help you get the balance just right, here are three examples of HLE questions, specifically for the concept of Identity which we mentioned in the table above (btw, the example is a made-up novel for illustration purposes).

  • Too broad: “How does Irene Majov in her novel Deadly Men effectively make her narrator a powerful mouthpiece?”
  • Too narrow: “How does Irene Majov in her novel Deadly Men effectively make her narrator a powerful mouthpiece for the concerns of Asian-Americans toward discrimination in the workforce in the 21st century?”
  • Just right: “How does Irene Majov in her novel Deadly Men effectively make her narrator a powerful mouthpiece for the concerns of Asian-Americans in the 21st century?”

Perhaps it’d be useful if I shared my own journey of finding my HLE question. Story time!

How I found my IB English HLE question… 🧠

Like I said before, finding a question with the right scope is challenging. In fact, it was one of the biggest challenges for me when conquering the IB English HL Essay. Initially, I knew that I wanted to write on the theme of dangerous knowledge in the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

So I started off with a question like:

“how is dangerous knowledge presented?”

first version of HLE question

However, it felt too broad because it is such an obvious topic in the novel and is demonstrated through many characters and events.

Then I considered a second version of the question:

“how does [a certain character] demonstrate the theme of dangerous knowledge”

second version of HLE question

However, this question seemed too narrow in scope as it was restricted to just a single character in the novel. This began my period of constantly asking for help from my teacher – which I recommend you do too – and having lots of brainstorming sessions (even in my dreams…).

Eventually, I discovered a common thread that is shared by three characters in Frankenstein. This common thread is transformation. And so ultimately, the question I settled on for my HLE was something like:

How does the motif of transformation contribute to the theme of dangerous knowledge?

third version of HLE question

So the moral of my story is to give it time (and start earlier so you have this luxury of time!). A good idea won’t come instantly – it’s the product of a lot of brainstorming. Be patient, and you will have your eureka moment too! 💡

How to get a 7 on IB English HLE

Surprise, surprise. It always comes back to analysis!

Analysis is the key to a 7 in IB English, hands down. It doesn’t matter if it’s Paper 1, Paper 2, HLE, IO… Your grade is determined by how deeply you can analyze quotes, and how well you can structure this analysis.

Ideally, you’d like to write analysis that makes your teacher absolutely SHOOK… but in a good way.

The first step of writing 7-level analysis is to choose the right quotes. Use the following rules of thumb when selecting quotes for your IB English Higher Level Essay:

  • Quotes should contain strong literary or visual techniques.
  • Quotes should relate to the thesis and question of your HLE.
  • Quotes should be integrated smoothly into the paragraphs, and not be too long.

Some good sources where you can find relevant quotes include: Goodreads, SparkNotes, LitCharts, and Cliffnotes. Personally, I used a combination of Sparknotes, Goodreads, and skimming the whole text and then carefully re-reading the sections most relevant to my HLE question. 

Once you’ve got great quotes, you can then analyse it!

How do I write good analysis?

Explaining the ins-and-outs of writing amazing analysis is a bit too intense for this HLE guide. You can learn all of this in Analysis Simplified (get started for FREE!)–LitLearn’s flagship course that teaches you EXACTLY how to write 7-level analysis in IB English.

In fact, I joined Analysis Simplified in 2022 to sharpen my Paper 1 analysis… and this is the review I wrote on Trustpilot after my final May 2022 exam.

Lareina’s 5-star review of Analysis Simplified for IB English

Understanding the IB English HLE rubric

An essential step to getting a high mark on the HL Essay is understanding the rubric! It is SO important that you know what IB English examiners are looking for when grading your essay, as this helps you to shape the content of your essay to match (or even exceed) their expectations.

The IB English HL Essay is graded out of 20 marks. There are 4 criteria, each worth 5 marks.

Use the checklist below to make sure you’re not making simple mistakes! Note that this is not the official marking criteria, and I strongly recommend that you reading the official rubric provided by your teacher.

Criterion A: Knowledge, understanding, and interpretation

  • Accurate summary of text in introduction
  • Focused and informative thesis statement
  • Effective and relevant quotes
  • Relevant and effective summary and ending statement in conclusion

Criterion B: Analysis and evaluation

  • Relevant analysis of a variety of stylistic features 
  • Relevant analysis of tone and/or atmosphere
  • Relevant analysis of broader authorial choices i.e. characterization, point of view, syntax, irony, etc.

Criterion C: Focus, organization, and development

  • Introduction, body paragraphs, conclusion
  • Organized body paragraphs – topic sentence, evidence, concluding statement/link to question
  • Appropriate progression of ideas and arguments in which evidence (i.e. quotes) are effectively implemented

Criterion D: Language

  • Use expansions (e.g. “do not”) instead of contractions (e.g. “don’t”)
  • Use of a variety of connecting phrases e.g. “furthermore”, “nonetheless”, “however”, etc.
  • Complete sentence structures and subject-verb agreement
  • Correct usage of punctuation
  • Appropriate register – no slang
  • Historic present tense: the use of present tense when recounting past events. For example, we want to write “In The Hunger Games, Peeta and Katniss work together to win as a district” instead of using the word “worked”.
  • Avoid flowery/dictionary language just to sound smart; it is distracting and difficult to read. As long as you concisely communicate your message using appropriate language, you will score a high mark under this criterion.

Relevant meme:


Here’s everything we discussed:

  • IB English HLE tough work! Start early.
  • Brainstorm using the table of concepts to come up with a strong HLE question. Don’t give up on this!
  • Analysis is the key to a 7 in IB English HLE (and in fact ALL IB English assessment). Check out Analysis Simplified for immediate help on the exact steps to improve in IB English analysis.

I hope that you have found this guide to be helpful! If you’re feeling good about the HLE, great! If not, just keep in mind that you are not alone – every single IB student in HL English, including myself, is going/has gone through the same thing (just go on Reddit and you’ll see). If they can do it, you CAN, too! Believe in yourself and your ability!

Good luck, and may the odds be ever in your favor 💪 

INSIDE, you’ll get 

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📕 MUST Know Techniques List
🧠 How Jackson got IB45 + Harvard
📘 19/20 Paper 1 Exemplar
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