How to get a top score in your IB TOK Essay

Updated: November 3rd, 2022 – New TOK course 2022

How to get a top score in your IB TOK Essay

Does your Theory of Knowledge essay feel like an impossible mountain to climb?

Many IB students feel like this, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Here, we have all the practical tips and TOK advice from our team of IB Theory of Knowledge teachers and examiners, to help you get the best marks you can in your TOK essay.

If you need it, you can get in touch with them here to help you directly.

It doesn’t have to feel so tough

We have put together advice from our team of IB experts so you can:

– Make the TOK feel doable no matter how you are feeling about it right now!
– Get the best possible score
– Quickly find more help if you need it

What is the Theory Of Knowledge?

The TOK course is assessed through a 1,600 word essay and the TOK exhibition, and students often say it is one of the hardest parts of the IB Diploma course. It is marked by external examiners and worth 2/3 of the total marks.

The exhibition is usually completed in the first year while the essay is finalised during the second IB year. In the exhibition, the student selects three objects with commentaries that explore the way TOK manifests in the world we live in.

It is marked internally by your school but moderated by external examiners at the IB. This part is worth 1/3 of the final grade.

TOK is a mandatory part of the IB for all Diploma students, and it is part of the “IB core.”  It is an inquiry into “different ways of knowing,” says the IBO.

The essay focuses on a conceptual question, and it is often this that scares students. However, once you look closely at what the question really means, and break it down, every student is able to tackle it. So, no need to worry. Let’s get started.

Break the essay down into chunks

This will be the secret to your success. You can break the essay into chunks of work that are manageable in size.

Give each one a deadline and stay on track.

1) Choose the question and run it by your teacher (they will help you decide if you have chosen the best question for you)
2) Create an essay plan
3) Write your first draft (intro, body of essay, conclusion)
4) Check your draft against the marking criteria
5) Edit, edit, edit, then write your second draft
6) Strengthen & improve your examples
7) Show the draft to your teacher for feedback
8) Review and complete your final edit
9) Check your English with a native speaker, academic writer or a TutorsPlus tutor

If that still feels tough, think of the essay as only x8 200 words and challenge yourself to write 200 every day. That is manageable for all students, and 200 words is also fewer than you have read in this article so far!

1,600 words sound a lot, but it is actually quite a short essay to cover the breadth of these complicated Theory of Knowledge topics. The final essay should be pithy and concise, and the word count should hit 1,600 after a lot of editing and drafting.

Choosing the title

Each year’s titles are released by the IB 6 months before the final deadline. But don’t dive in too soon to finalise the title choice from the IB’s selection.

Break down each title on offer and see if you feel you have enough interest to be able to approach the question with the detail required. Decide which two areas of knowledge you would focus on.

Look at it and ask yourself “is it too broad?” and “will I be able to answer it?”

When you have made your initial selection, make sure that you check the title with your teacher before you invest too much time working on it.

Check that they think it is a good choice for you. They may see pitfalls in it that you do not.

Here are some examples of sample titles provided by the IB:

  • Is the division of the natural sciences and mathematics into separate areas of knowledge artificial?
  • When historians and natural scientists say that they have explained something, are they using the word “explain” in the same way?
  • How important are the opinions of experts in the search for knowledge? Answer with reference to the arts and one other area of knowledge.
  • Are there fewer ethical constraints on the pursuit of knowledge in the arts than in the human sciences?
  • How do our expectations impact our interpretations? Discuss with reference to history and one other area of knowledge.
  • To what extent do you agree with the claim that “knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice” (Anton Chekhov)? Answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.
Don’t change any aspect of the question.

It is essential you answer the question without any adaptions or amendments. You will be assessed on answering the exact title you have chosen from the precise list.

As the central assessment criterion is “does the student provide a clear, coherent, and critical exploration of the essay title?” Any divergence from the published title will mean your essay doesn’t answer the question and you will lose a lot of marks.

Make sure you address the question directly in your answer and as you move through the different sections keep linking back to the title. In this way, you make sure the essay explicitly answers the given question.

If the question asks you to address two areas of knowledge address them both. Do not introduce new areas of knowledge or substitute them, or you will drop valuable marks.

You can look at different perspectives within one area of Knowledge. You should explore different perspectives and show that you are aware of them. As it is important that your essay is not a one-sided debate.

Start early and get organised

It goes without saying that you don’t want to leave it to the last minute, but each year we get calls from desperate students who have done just that.

Be smart, get going early, and if you are finding it hard don’t put your head in the sand. Please reach out for help it is only a click away.

A strong TOK essay can help you get ahead, building your confidence and giving you marks in the bag ahead of the final exams. So we hope that this convinces you to get started on it in good time.

It also won’t get any easier the longer you put it off, so jump in and get it done!

Our specialist IB teachers are here to help if you need us.

Write a strong introduction

This is the first piece of writing the examiner will read, so it needs to be powerful. A good way to start can be to explore the complexities within your chosen title. As it is often a difficult or debatable concept this is especially important.

This is also a good place to discuss how you will answer the question itself.  Remember, the style of your TOK essay is very different from your EE. Rather, it is an analytical and reflective essay about how we know things, not what we know.

The introduction is also a good idea to clarify which Areas of Knowledge you will cover and why you have chosen them.

A good way to start thinking about your introduction is to ask yourself: why has this question been asked? Why is it important to answer?

This is where you can “unpack the question,” showing you understand it and demonstrating the ways you will go about answering it. Try to write an introduction that goes straight to the point.

How to write the main body of the essay

Use examples, and make them good. While there is a lot of analysis in the TOK essay, it needs to be backed up with concrete examples. But beware of using tropes, examiners get sick of reading the same ones again, and again.

Try to think of a niche example that is rare and won’t be used by anyone else.  This will capture the interest of the examiner. Plus, ensure that your examples are never general or vague in nature.

They need to be clear and overtly linked to the point you are making. Remember, it is not the reader’s job to figure out how the example relates to your analysis!

In addition, you need to think about how you link your examples to the points you are making. So that it is clear to the reader why a particular example is important to your argument.

At the same time, you need to consider the counter-arguments and ensure your analysis is coming from different perspectives. Above all, your essay should not be a one-sided debate.

Instead, it needs to be balanced, and show you are aware of all the arguments and their limitations.

As you write your essay you must ensure that every part relates directly to the question.

Make sure you answer the question, with a clear and coherent answer. While reading through your draft double check every sentence helps answer your question and construct a cohesive argument.

A conclusion that draws the arguments to a close 

Avoid cliched general statements. Your conclusion should not be more than a few pithy sentences and should not begin with cliched, general statements such as “Since the beginning of time…”

In fact, it is often a good idea to re-read the marking criteria just before you write your conclusion so that it is fresh in your mind.

To state the obvious, this is where you draw together your analysis. So, you do need to come to a conclusion, and perhaps also offer some final thoughts.

You can draw conclusions on the implications of your arguments, or point to areas of future exploration.

Of course, you must link directly back to the essay question itself.

Write clearly

So, this sounds obvious but bear with me here.  While you are discussing complex questions in your essay, it doesn’t mean the language should be complicated. In fact, you will lose marks if it is not clear and easy to understand.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to “sound clever.” Some use overly-long sentence structure, complex phrasing, and verbose language as they think it is what is required.

Actually, it is the opposite. Complex ideas need to be clear so that the examiner can understand them and give you the marks you are due.

Use the marking criteria to your advantage

Address each criterion directly. If your teacher hasn’t given it to you ask for it.

Also, ask your teacher for a model answer and apply the criteria. By doing this you will see what makes for a good answer and why it has achieved a high mark.

Then apply this to your own essay. You can even work with a friend and critique each other’s essays based on the marking criteria.  In this way, you will find more areas that you can strengthen to gain more marks, and improve your final score.

Below you can see the IBO has provided the marking scheme.

Picture

Draft, edit, and re-draft

If you find you have quickly hammered out 1,600 words and feel that you are done, that is a sign you need to improve your essay. The essay should be carefully edited and re-drafted.

Check each paragraph flows from the one before to help build a clear argument.

Choose the right time to show the draft to your teacher.

Good referencing is important

Even though it is not the Extended Essay and not your own research, the essay should be well-referenced.

Is English your second language?
Often students, for whom English is a second or third language, find the written essay format challenging.

If this applies to you, ask for help, as you may need to allow more time for editing.  One of our TOK tutors or a learning support teacher at school may be able to help you with your English written expression.

It is certainly worth asking for help from a native speaker to check the register of language is suitable for a piece of academic writing.

We suggest you get a native speaker you trust, who has some experience in academic writing to read your final draft.

Most schools have EAL teachers or learning support staff who can help you.  We also have specialist IB teachers who help students with the English language aspect of their TOK essays.

New TOK specification for 2022

The new programme for the TOK was examed in 2022 (first taught in 2020). So, it is important to make sure that all resources that you use relate to the new specification. This is especially important when using info from the web.

It’s important to note that the current areas of knowledge are: The arts, History, The Natural Sciences, Mathematics, and The Human Sciences.

Do not use the areas of knowledge from the previous subject guide.

General information about the TOK

Here is the most up-to-date information from the IBO on the TOK.

Here are some IBO examples of TOK essay titles.

Finally, here is the TOK subject brief. This provides students with a detailed breakdown of the requirements.

TutorsPlus offers TOK support (alongside IB subject support) to help international students prepare for this demanding programme. View our tutors HERE.

Our tutors know the IB inside-out and truly work magic to draw out each student’s ability to self-direct their learning. You can reach TutorsPlus at 022 731 8148 or info@tutorsplus.com

By Sara Lloyd
Sara has been an education consultant for TutorsPlus for 15 years and is an expert on international IB education. She is also a parent of two lively children.

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