Basic Definition

Compare: to show the similarities between elements
Contrast: to show the differences between elements

Why Do We Use Compare and Contrast?

• To reveal surprising or overlooked differences/similarities between two ideas, things, people, etc.
• To demonstrate the superiority or inferiority of something.
• To evaluate the efficacy of two unfamiliar programs.
• To explain something unfamiliar by comparing it to something familiar.
• To advance a thesis.
• To demonstrate how an idea/place/person/etc. have changed over time.

Key Words

Compare: Similarly, like, the same as, compared to, in the same way, likewise
Contrast: but, yet, on the other hand, however, instead, nevertheless, on the contrary

General Tips

• Identify the most important points of comparison/contrast, not the most obvious or ones that are irrelevant to your thesis.
• Examples of things to consider: parts and processes, benefits, harms, problems, costs, uses.
• The most important thing is to make sure your insights are fresh and interesting, not pedestrian.
• Look for similarities and differences that differ from the audience’s expectations
• Narrowly drawn theses will lead to more interesting essays.

Methods of Organization


Subject by Subject Pattern

Best when there are few points to compare or individual points matter less than the big picture.
When dealing with philosophical differences, use this structure.
Examples: comparison of two different types of health care, two philosophical outlooks on life.

• Introduction--best with a neutral thesis and an introduction that identifies the two issues/items being compared/contrasted.
• Subject 1
• Subject 2
• Conclusion--containing the thesis and summary of the argument you have developed.


Point by Point Pattern

Best to use when the subpoints of analysis in the essay are parallel or clearly defined subsets of broader topics.
Examples: comparison of two films on the same subject, two basketball teams, two colleges.

• Introduction: introduce the two subjects and establish a thesis articulating the superiority of one.
• Subject 1
Subtopic A
Subtopic B
Subtopic C

• Subject 2
Subtopic A
Subtopic B
Subtopic C
• Conclusion: review the thesis and your central argument

Similarity/Difference Pattern

Best when the similarity or difference that you wish to highlight runs contrary to the audience's expectations.
Examples: Compare Presidents Clinton and Bush, concluding that they are quite similar, contrast the United States and Europe's position on human rights, concluding that they are different.

• Introduction--best with a neutral thesis and an introduction that identifies the two issues/items being compared/contrasted.
• Similarities --OR-- Differences
• Differences --OR-- Similarities
• The best essay in this format will end with the point you wish to prove.
• Conclusion--containing the thesis and summary of the argument you have developed.

Point by Point Comparison Pattern

Best when you are dealing with a very specific breakdown of two similar items: technical, mechanical, specific areas of study.
Examples: oil and gas engines, two basketball teams, two university programs.

• Introduction: unlikely to have a specific, argumentative thesis, but it should appear here if the piece does.
• Specific Point of Comparison 1
• Specific Point of Comparison 2
• Specific Point of Comparison 3
• Specific Point of Comparison 4
• Specific Point of Comparison 5
• Conclusion: summary of the core differences, applications, quality of the ideas compared.

Railroad Tracks

  • Subject 1
    • Idea A
    • Idea B
    • Idea C
  • Subject 2
    • Idea A
    • Idea B
    • Idea C

Sorting Socks

  • Similarities between Subjects 1 and 2
    • Idea A
    • Idea B
    • Idea C
  • Differences between Subjects 1 and 2
    • Idea A
    • Idea B
    • Idea C

Tennis Court

  • Idea A
    • Subject 1
    • Subject 2
  • Idea B
    • Subject 1
    • Subject 2
  • Idea C
    • Subject 1
    • Subject 2