Complete Guide to IB English Paper 2 exams

This guide will explain IB English Paper 2 and what you need to ace the exam come May or November, when the IB Gods throw you this (seemingly) insurmountable task.

If you don’t know all about Paper 1 already, do check out LitLearn’s amazing guide for IB English Paper 1. Paper 1 is all about on-the-spot thinking and adrenaline-pumping analysis. What about Paper 2?

Well, IB English Paper 2 is all of those things, plus extensive preparation. But don’t fret! I survived Paper 2, and so have many others before you. All you need is a couple sprinkles of guidance from a seasoned Paper 2 veteran (ahem).

This guide covers all the essential topics for acing IB English Paper 2.

Topics included in this guide

  1. What is Paper 2?
  2. How to answer a Paper 2 prompt
  3. Understanding the “key” of a prompt
  4. Morphing: the most important skill in IB English Paper 2
  5. How many texts to use in a Paper 2 comparative essay?
  6. How to choose the best points across your texts
  7. The brainstorm process for Paper 2
  8. Essential steps to prepare for IB English Paper 2

Let’s get started!


What is IB English Paper 2?

Imagine.

You’re in the exam room. With a silent but solemn hand gesture, the chief exam invigilator signals your cohort to open the test paper. A flurry of pages turning and sliding. You stare at the page. What do you see? You see several prompts… one, two, three, maybe four. You wipe the sweat from your forehead and try to focus on the words on the page:

“We are all prisoners of ourselves.” Discuss how the sense of imprisonment shapes the meaning and the effect on the audience of at least two texts you have studied.

Okay, let’s drop the dramatic tone.

A Paper 2 exam consists of three or four of these prompts. From these options, you choose one prompt and write a 1000 to 1500-word essay on it.

How long do you get? 1.5 hours for Standard Level (SL) students, and 2 hours for Higher Level (HL) students.

In these 1000 to 1500 words, your task is to write a comparative essay, which — you guessed it — means comparing similarities and contrasting differences between the texts you’ve studied in class for Paper 2 (i.e., poems, novels, plays or short stories) .

Now that you understand what a Paper 2 essay involves, let’s jump into how to properly answer one of these IB English Paper 2 prompts.


How to answer a Paper 2 Question

Let’s stick with the above example about the theme of “imprisonment”.

First, see that philosophical quote at the start of the prompt? It’s there to spark ideas, to get the juices flowing in your brain. You don’t have to refer to it directly unless the questions explicitly asks you to do so. So the take-away message here is to not be ‘imprisoned’ by the philosophical quotes at the start of the prompts.

Second, notice the command term “discuss”. This is usually replaced by words like “evaluate”, “analyse”, “examine”. Don’t worry about it too much: it doesn’t mean anything too important, because at the end of the day you still have to analyse, you still have to compare, and you still have to contrast.

The key of the prompt

The part after the command term is the most important part of the prompt:

“[…] how the sense of imprisonment shapes the meaning and the effect on the audience […]”

Here the “sense of imprisonment” — the key of the prompt — tells us exactly what we need to write about in the essay.

Can you find the key in this next prompt?

Compare and contrast the effectiveness of the use of irony in two or more texts you have studied.

Notice the command term “compare and contrast” and the important part after it. The key of this prompt is “the use of irony“.


Get comfy with morphing stuff

More often than not, our texts do not contain anything explicitly related to the prompt’s key, say, the theme of “imprisonment”.

Pay attention to this next paragraph…

The secret to scoring a 7 in Paper 2 is to get very comfortable with bending, morphing and twisting your texts and/or the prompt so that they are as compatible with each other as possible. There are two ways that this can be achieved:

  1. Morphing existing ideas in your own texts to fit the prompt. While Jane Sherwood’s (some random character) nostalgia in your Incredible Text 1 may not directly relate to “imprisonment”, you could twist the character’s nostalgia into the idea that emotions can trap or “imprison” an individual in a treasured memory or a past experience. Nostalgia and imprisonment seem like unlikely brothers at first, but with a bit of justification they look almost like identical twins.
  2. Redefining the prompt (reasonably). The key of the prompt can often be vague. For example, there was a real IB exam prompt that asked whether “male characters were more interesting than female characters.” What does “interesting” even mean? The IB Gods are inviting you to constrain the topic in a way that works for your texts specifically. You could write in the first sentence of your introduction: “Interest, an important part of dramatic works, is often generated by emotional conflict and the subsequent creation of tension.” Here I have restricted the broad topic of “interesting” to the more clearly-defined topic of “emotional conflict” because this redefinition works well for the texts I’ve studied for IB English Paper 2. You should do the same.

In reality, you have to morph both your texts and the prompt in order to reach a snug fit between the two. Getting to this point, which all happens during the planning stage, is the most difficult part of the Paper 2 process because it requires you to know your texts so well that you can apply the ideas in your texts to different situations.


How many texts to compare and contrast?

Before we continue with this guide, we need to address the age-old question of how many texts should we compare and contrast in an IB English Paper 2 comparative essay?

I strongly recommend that you use only two texts for your Paper 2 exam because it is extremely difficult to deal with three texts at the same time.

Now that we agree on how many texts to compare and contrast, let’s see how we can make the texts work together.


Choosing the best points across your two texts

There’s an easy way, and there’s a hard way.

If you want a score of 5 or below, you can simply think of two points to answer the prompt for Text 1 and two other points to answer the prompt for Text 2. Then, slap them together into different paragraphs, regurgitate some shallow comparison and contrast, and call it a comparative essay. That doesn’t sound very sophisticated, does it?

On the other hand, if you want a score of 6 or 7, you’ll need to use a lot more brainpower and insight. The points that you choose for your two texts are very important, in terms of how the points relate to each other and to the prompt. The points need to have enough overlaps that similarities can be analysed, but not too much similarity because you also want to contrast differences.

A graphical illustration of how IB English Paper 2 texts should relate to each other.

A graphical illustration of how IB English Paper 2 texts should relate to each other.

What ends up happening is you enter an algorithm — a set of steps, sort of like a recipe — where you repeatedly attempt to find good points for the prompt, gradually morphing them while re-defining the prompt itself, until you reach a good plan for your Paper 2 essay.

What does a good plan generally look like?

  1. Your re-defined prompt has not strayed far, or at all, from the original prompt
  2. The points for Text 1 fits well with the prompt
  3. The points for Text 2 fits well with the prompt as well as the points your chose for Text 1

The million dollar question is: How do we get to this optimum stage where the prompts and the texts and married so harmoniously? The answer is brainstorming.


Brainstorming for IB English Paper 2

Brainstorming is how we get from a blank page to a strong set of points that answer a Paper 2 prompt.

The questions IB English students need to ask themselves to brainstorm good prompt re-definitions and points.

The brainstorming framework for IB English Paper 2.

Brainstorming for IB English Paper 2 is unique because it’s difficult. There are so many variables to consider, and things get complicated very quickly. This is the part where most IB English students stumble.

So let’s fix that.

Below, I’ve listed four simple questions to provide order to the chaos. Think of it as an algorithm, a set of steps that you repeat. Ask yourself these questions again and again until you reach a strong set of points for your Paper 2 response.

The Paper 2 Brainstorming Framework

  1. Can I redefine the prompt to better suit my texts?
  2. Can I morph Text 1 so that it better fits with with the prompt?
  3. Does the prompt and Text 1 overlap enough with Text 2?
  4. Can I morph Text 2 so that it better fits with the prompt and Text 1?

Before we transition our focus to what you can do pre-exam, let’s have a quick recap of what we’ve learned so far in the guide already!

  • IB English Paper 2 is a comparative essay
  • The key of a Paper prompt is the most important part–the bit that you’ll be answering
  • Success in Paper 2 is all about being adaptable: morphing prompts and ideas until they are compatible with each other
  • Finding a set of points that fit well with a specific prompt is a challenging task
  • However, we can use the four-question brainstorming framework to achieve a strong set of points that match the prompt

How to best prepare for Paper 2

We’ve talked a lot about the skills and questions necessary to tackle an IB English Paper 2 prompt, but all of that happens during the exam itself. What can we do before Paper 2 to put ourselves in the best position?

  1. (Really) understanding your text
  2. Choosing great quotes for your Paper 2
  3. Learning these quotes off-by-heart
  4. Practise past Paper 2s

Let’s go through these steps in order.


Understanding your text

IB English Paper 2 tests skills that require a deep understanding. First, to compare and contrast effectively, you need to know your texts well enough that you can find similarities and differences in the micro-details and in the macro themes, in the characters and in the techniques. Second, in order to adapt the ideas in your text to the prompt, you need to know how far you can stretch those ideas while maintaining their validity.

Without a deep understanding, you’re dead in the water.

Here is a checklist to gauge whether you know your text well enough. The end goal is to be able to tick off at least half of this list:

  • I know the names of the main and minor characters
  • I know how the main characters evolve over time (character arc) and can easily provide quotes for these characters
  • I can easily recount the sequence of events, or the main ideas, of each text
  • I can easily list 5 themes from each text and provide 3 quotes for each
  • I can easily list 3 core techniques used in each text
  • I can easily list 3 pairs of characters, themes and techniques that I can compare and contrast across my texts, as well as the quotes required to support these points
  • I know how which main characters and core techniques contribute to the 5 main themes

What can you do to improve your understanding? First, work through each of the above points in the checklist. Next, go through the following steps:

  1. Re-read each text, and continuously compare / contrast the characters, themes and techniques you encounter. Note them down for use in later analysis.
  2. Read analysis from credible sources, i.e. SparkNotes, CliffNotes, LitCharts.
  3. Create notes for all main characters, core techniques and core themes, and collect quotes for each of these categories.
  4. Create notes that compare / contrast the main characters, core techniques and core themes in each of your texts.

Every part of the above four steps is important, but step 4 is the important (and difficult). This is because there aren’t usually any existing online resources that help you compare and contrast your specific selection of texts. You have to do this part on your own, and it requires thinking for yourself.


Choosing great quotes for Paper 2

As you probably know, IB English Paper 2 does not allow you to bring the texts into the exam. You have to learn all the quotes beforehand. This makes it very important to choose and learn the best quotes. Good quotes should be versatile. If you want to learn more about choosing great quotes, go over to our quick guide on how to choose quotes for Paper 2.

How to learn your quotes

If you followed the guide on how to choose quotes for Paper 2, then you know the first step is to maximise the quality of your quotes and minimise the quantity. Decrease the number of quotes to need to learn by making sure each of your quotes are versatile and cover multiple bases.

“Gurus” suggest using flashcards to memorise things, like quotes, but I’ve never been organised enough to make them and then use them consistently. So I don’t expect you to do so, either. (phew)

Instead, I memorised my quotes through repeated usage, i.e. through practice essays. Whenever I practised Paper 2 analysis, I used the quotes and either typed or wrote them down by hand in my essay.

Learning quotes through application beats flashcard wizardry any day of the week:

  1. You’re practising analysis of the quotes while learning the quotes themselves. Your time is being spent well.
  2. The quotes are easier to remember because they have a context. You’ve thought about them in-depth instead of just looking at them for 2 seconds before switching to the next flashcard in the pile.

Practising Past Paper 2s

The most challenging part of Paper 2 is bringing together three aspects:

  1. The quotes you’ve memorised
  2. Your analysis skills
  3. Your ability to adapt the quotes and ideas to a new prompt that you’ve never, ever encountered before

Grabbing that 7 in IB English Paper 2 requires that you are solid on all three fronts. You cannot just practice each of these aspects individually. Practising to plan and write Paper 2 responses ensures that you practise this core trifecta of skills together, all at once.

Practising past Paper 2s was the core of my IB English Paper 2 preparation schedule. It helped me to memorise quotes, learn which quotes are better than others, and learn certain pairs of themes, characters and techniques that work well in my texts for comparison and contrast.

By practising Paper 2s extensively, you increase your awareness of what works (and what doesn’t) for your texts. Hence, the main thing you have to worry about on the day of your exam is the prompt itself–the only variable that you cannot control.


Conclusion

I hope this IB English Paper 2 guide has been useful for your study and preparation. Good luck! Please leave a comment with questions and suggestions on what topics you’d like more guidance on for IB English Paper 2.

Courses and free resources

If you are interested in even more helpful advice for IB English success, check out the following links.


Jackson Huang

Jackson is an IB 45 graduate and English tutor. He is studying at the University of Melbourne and teaches an online IB English analysis course.

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