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What is the difference between a report and an essay?

Updated on January 21, 2013

If you are writing an academic essay. Looking for an essay on essays perhaps. Or if you are just writing a report and looking for tips. This will help you.

To my surprise many first year students don’t know the difference between writing a report and an academic essay. It is important for all students to know the difference as not doing so will ultimately cost marks which could then affect grades. As well as discuss the difference I will provide some handy tips which should help any struggling students collect some additional marks for structure and presentation.


An essay is an argumentative piece of writing which is ideal for comparing and contrasting. An essay allows the author the luxury of calling upon ones own experiences and knowledge. This particuar type of writing is less formal than a report and consequently less factual. If you were tasked with writing about the future of the European Union it would be reasonable to expect your tutor to request that in essay format. The rational for that is because it will require a degree of opinion, although the opinion should be built on a foundation of knowledge and fact. An essay can be a clever tool for informing your tutor that you have not only researched the subject, but also understood it to a degree whereby one can offer creditable opinion. An easy mistake to make with an essay is to present a series of facts and other people’s statements only turning that into sentences. It is fine to employ the words of others as long as they are accredited and used to provide evidence of your own analytical thinking. To return to the hypothetical topic of the European Union, it would be ideal to exhibit your knowledge of past and current policy but also stress what you think about the nature of future policy. You are using knowledge and facts to form an educated opinion of your own. What do the facts suggest to you?

One thing to note though is that, although there is a certain amount of fluency expected that’s not to say one can abandon the structure completely. Further than the obvious; Introduction, Main Body and Conclusion. The main body should be sub categorised by topic. For instance each point should have its own paragraph. A handy tool for this is to draft it, and then colour code each point. Drag each colour to its own colour coded paragraph. You’ll perhaps notice that there is a certain level of repetition with in the paragraphs. This allows you to avoid repetition in the from of rewording the same points. This is particularly important if you are restricted by a word allowance and this technique will allow you to grade better. You will be able to cover more ground as the previous technique will remove repetition (see what I done there?).

Therefore your revised structure might look something similar to this:

  • Introduction inclusive of "purpose of the essay"
  • Brief history of the European Union (EU)
  • Contrasting visions for the direction of the EU
  • Limitations, constraints and "teething problems"
  • Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
  • Positive and negative impact the policy has had on Europeans and the broader world
  • What the future holds
  • Conclusions


Reports are distinctive from essays as it is a formal piece of written communication. A report tends to have a very strict structure were by the input has rigid limitations. For example, Executive Summary, Purpose/Introduction, Literature Review, Findings, Conclusions and Recommendations; a report will also expect a title page, a contents page and a page on references/sources. Having said that a student should be fully aware of the tutor's/lecturer's expectation as the aforementioned structure is more suitable for a more investigative piece or dissertation. In an essay one can blend the points or paragraphs however in a report the sub findings should be sub numbered. For example, a students might have 10 findings to report so "Findings" will be number 3 and each subsequent Finding will be numbered 3.1, 3.2, 3.3 etc.


  • Executive summary (to be written at the end and is a 250/300 word outline of the report in its entirety)
  • Introduction and Purpose (for example, the purpose of this report is to investigate the problems of past European Union policy, how it was implemented and make recommendation as to how it preforms in the future)
  • Literature Review (an outline of what has been written about the subject to date along with your scrutiny of that literature)
  • Findings: 1) Fairness issues with the Common Agricultural Policy 2) Federal aspirations for some European Union members 3) Accountability in the Council and Commission
  • Recommendations (The issues raised in Finding 3.3 serves as evidence that elected officials should have a greater say as opposed to unelected ones)
  • Conclusion

Business degree's are very popular in modern universities and, particularly in 1'st and 2'nd year, a student maybe tasked with producing a strategic marketing plan. An example of the structure of such a report might be as follows:

  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
  • Contextual analysis
  • Goals and objectives
  • Strategy
  • Coordinated communication mix
  • Implementation 1) Promotional 2) Communications 3) Other
  • Control and evaluation
  • Constraints
  • Conclusion

A point worthy of note is making sure that one uses formal language. Also make sure you stick to the structure. Avoid imputing any opinions under the Findings heading. This section is exclusively for stating fact. Also I recommend taking note of your sources on an on going basis. You cannot use a quote or a fact which you have not attributed to a source.

When I did my undergraduate I created a specific file for each source. I sub sectioned all relevant findings so as a good source was not lost which would impact on my report. For example your conclusion might be influenced on your investigation but worthless and unquotable as a result of poor referencing. I also implore you to use the colour system for specific paragraphs as the report is more likely to lose you marks for poor structure and presentation. It may only be 5% or 10% but that could make the difference as to what grade you make. It would be remiss of you to lose out on these marks as a result of a lack of thoroughness. Do not forget:

  • Title page
  • Contents
  • Sources
  • Sources page
  • Index

This is obviously a curtailed guide (not really and essay on essays). The one thing you should take from this is that you can collect easy marks by having solid structure and a well presented project. The first bite is with the eye.


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