Cracking the Code: Achieving a Perfect IB English Score

IB English language and literature paper break down. Want to know how to achieve a 7 in IB English? Read along to discover expert tips and techniques as we break down the English language and literature exams.

3 months ago   •   7 min read

By KIS Academics
Photo by Museums Victoria / Unsplash

If you are struggling to increase your grade in IB English then you are in the right place! English is often very frustrating in that it is difficult to see where you have to improve. We’ve all been through it, submitting an essay with confidence before getting it back with a bunch of question marks and being very confused about how to fix things.

Lucky for you, we are going to be breaking down a recent IB English Exam from May 2023, going through all the secret tricks to ensure that 7!

Exam Structure

The IB English Language & Literature final exam is broken down into two parts but is slightly different depending on if you are in the higher level (HL) or standard level (SL) course.

For Language and Literature students, it comprises of two parts:

  • Paper 1: A textual analysis of an unseen non-literary text
  • Paper 2: Comparative essay on two literary texts read in class

The table below breaks down the differences




Percent of final grade

Differences between levels

Paper 1

Guided analysis

SL: 1 hour 15 min

HL: 2 hour 15 min

SL: 35%

HL: 35%

SL only needs to analyse one text. HL has to analyse both separately

Paper 2

Comparative essay

SL and HL: 1 hour 45 min

SL: 35%

HL: 25%

No differences between exams

The rest of your final grade for English comes from the Individual Oral (30% Sl, 20% HL), and if you are in HL, the Higher Level essay as well(20%).

Come your final exams in either May or November, you’ll only have two things to worry about, Paper 1 and Paper 2 so we will be focusing on that. Let’s look at an example of a past IB paper and how to go about it.

Paper 1

Step #1 Choosing your text

Choosing your text should ideally take a few minutes. Look through and see which one you have more ideas for and can offer insightful analysis. Both are designed to be answerable so you cannot go wrong. Play to your writing strengths rather than choosing the more challenging option.

Luckily (or unluckily)for HL Students, there is no choice. You HAVE to write separate analyses for both.

Step 2: Utilising the 5-minute reading time

Ideally, you should take a few minutes or so to lock in a choice on a text, the quicker you do this, the more time you have to start coming up with a plan. Now comes the part of creating a mental plan for the essay.

As you can see, each text has a “guiding question” which gives you a way to respond to it.

For the infographic, they give the question
“Explore how the text and images interplay to appeal to a wide range of audiences”.

Break down the question to see what they want you to focus on. Here clearly they are asking about text and images within the infographic and how the combination of them appeals to a wide range of audiences.

But remember you do not have to follow this question at all, as long as you present a clear and coherent response to the text (your thesis). In Paper 1, you are allowed to alter the question to your liking but this is very risky as you have to talk about specific things such as visual features in an infographic.

Step #3: Writing a plan

Of your 75 minutes, you should spend about 5-8 minutes making this, any more and you’ll be sweating for time. For HL students, around 11-13 minutes combined for both plans is recommended.

A good tip is to organise the paragraphs into main ideas and then find examples of them within the text. A paragraph title could be looking at the role of colour and associated text with it in the infographic, or how ethos is used in the podcast.


  • Intro paragraph introducing author, text type and general information about your essay.
  • The thesis statement is evident and clear for the reader.
  • 3-5 body paragraphs with clear ideas and specific evidence from the text
  • Insightful analysis of evidence and implicit details
  • The conclusion outlines the intro and body paragraph ideas and leaves the reader with something

Step #4: Writing the paper:

Here are a few key things to keep in mind when writing the paper:

Timing: It is better to go in with a clear mind as to what structure you will go with as it will help with timing. Set aside an amount of time per paragraph such as 15 minutes per body paragraph and 7 minutes for intro. These rigid times will help you to finish ideas quickly and equally give time to all aspects.

Analysis: If you can nail analysis well, it’ll be a big step towards that 7 in English. The biggest mistake during analysis is being descriptive rather than analytical.

What does that mean? Well, descriptive writing is not saying anything novel, it simply regurgitates previous information in the evidence. To be more analytical remember a few key questions:

  • What does this evidence suggest?
  • What does this evidence imply?
  • How does it relate back to my main thesis?

Or simply remember the acronym S.I.T- Suggest, Imply, Thesis

Reread your sentences: Handwriting is challenging in that you are not able to properly read or see everything. Every 2-3 sentences make sure to reread what you wrote, you’ll be surprised to see how many errors you find. Remember, at the end, it is very difficult to change sentences.

Be open to change: Your plan will not always go how you think. While writing a paragraph you may reinterpret the point and see it does not make sense. Make sure to identify this earlier rather than later by rechecking your work every few sentences. Reading out loud (quietly) also helps with this

Paper 2

Paper 2 is a different beast compared to Paper 1 in that you will be bringing prior knowledge of your texts in order to answer one of four questions.

Here’s an example of the types of questions you will get.

The way you prepare for paper 2 differs heavily from paper 1. The comparative essay requires you to have extensive knowledge of your chosen texts which cannot be the ones you chose for your IO or HL essay.

Choosing a question:

In regards to breaking down and choosing the question, it is slightly different from Paper 1. It is completely possible to choose the wrong question here so be careful. These questions are designed so that at least one will apply to the hundreds of different texts read by IB students.

You should have prepared two texts prior to paper 2 and if you have prepared well, you should be able to identify good questions by looking at the main points. Sometimes, none of the questions will automatically fit your book. This is where reading the book in detail helps to come up with innovative and creative answers to the question. You cannot change the question and have to follow it word by word, unlike paper 1.

Once you have your question in mind, answer it directly with a clear and concise thesis in your plan.

For example: How do two of the works you have studied portray the struggle to be understood?

Sample thesis: The struggle to be understood is portrayed distinctly in The Great Gatsby as compared to Romeo and Juliet as the former uses ____ and the latter ____.

Having the thesis present when you make your plan will make your plan much more coherent

Let’s go through some key things to keep in mind while preparing for this paper:

Read your texts: Yes shocker, you will have to read your texts in order to do well in paper 2. While you can read summaries and get a good picture, sometimes questions will ask you to be creative and that is when reading the texts thoroughly comes in handy

Prepare quotes thematically: You will need to memorise quotes (not perfectly) in order to do really well in this paper. A good way to go about this is to think about specific themes such as love, family, loyalty, etc and find 1-2 prominent quotes for each. Also, consider important features such as motifs or symbols and get the quote stuck in your head

Structure: You’ll have to give equal time to both texts as an unbalanced argument will bring your grade down. It is very strongly recommended to have integrated paragraphs rather than segregated. What this means is organising your body paragraphs thematically rather than separating paragraphs for each of your texts. Remember you have to both compare and contrast your texts.

The writing process is similar to paper 1 so refer to Steps 1-4 above to get a good idea about how you should start to write on the day of your exam. Keep in mind the different timings and the fact that it is a comparative essay.

Final picture

The IB English exam will leave both your head and hand sore but it will be a big relief. Both paper 1 and paper 2 require expert planning and execution, like any other subject, in order to get a 7 overall. So treat it like that, make an effort to read the texts, and practice analyses and intros as on the day those skills will come in handy. Keep in mind some of the tips discussed above and you should be well on your way to acing your exam!

Want more personalized study guidance to help drastically improve your marks? A private tutor can make the biggest difference!

Written by KIS Academics Tutor for IB English, Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology, Muhammad Ammar. Muhammad will be pursuing a degree in medicine and has received stellar reviews from his past KIS academic students. You can view Muhammad’s profile here and request him as a tutor.

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