AQA Paper 3 Extended Essay: Tips, Mark-schemes and Past Essay Titles

I have been working with some tutees to improve their approach to the AQA Paper 3 Extended Essay - so here are a few tips, and all of the essay titles (and markschemes) since 2007.

A Few Points Raised By The Exam Boards Feedback

The essay is designed to assess whether you can bring together material from a range of topics to illustrate and explain an important concept or idea.

The essay is not just a memory test of what a student knows – it is also a test of whether they have some understanding of what they have learnt and can apply what they know.


The essay is marked using a levels of response system. The demands for scientific content, breadth, relevance and scientific terminology are now found within each level.

It is a synoptic exercise – you are required to recall appropriate factual material from different parts of the specification (AO1), you should  identify an underlying theme or idea in an essay title – it will be a ‘big idea’, not a minor topic.

You need to select five or six different examples that you can use to illustrate the theme or idea.

Selecting the topic areas is a challenge to many students.

I suggest that they think about an example that illustrates the theme from topic in each of five kingdoms (OK - protists do supply a challenge).

And then to go up in complexity from a molecule - macromolecule - organelle - cells - tissue - organ - organ system - individual - populations - community - ecosystem. 

So this technique should give you breadth and depth

Write a reasonable paragraph about each example (using appropriate A-level terminology) pointing out how it illustrates the theme or idea. And use it to illustrate/explain a biological concept/idea – the ‘theme’ of an essay title (AO2)  - often the ‘importance of’.


‘Think of every possible thing that relates to the title and write as much as you can about it, with no thought of the main theme/idea’. This would make it just a memory test (AO1).


‘Write at a very high level (above A-level) about one or two topics’. This is not a synoptic approach. We do not wish to encourage learning of rote answers involving one or two important topics which might apply across many titles – eg respiration.


Extension material has to be at least of A-level standard and accurately described using appropriate scientific terminology.

Appropriate terminology was often poorly used or absent. For example, many students wrote about ‘signals’ and ‘messages’ rather than impulses/action potentials. The use of ‘levels’ and ‘amounts’ for concentration was also very common.

The essay is supposed to be written using appropriate terminology, at a level to be expected after two years of A-level study.

Content has to be of A-level standard to score highly – this includes terminology and the explanation of ‘importance’

Any plan is purely for the student’s use, The essay is a prose exercise – unless a plan is written as a series of sentences (i.e. as an essay), it won’t add to the mark for the essay. The same applies to diagrams/drawings – they would have to be very heavily annotated to count

No introduction or conclusion required - they waste time that could be used for more content

Content from ‘several’ topic areas required – AQA have defined 4 as the minimum for ‘several’ – 5 or 6 might be safer, since best content affects level

A topic area is a topic area in the specification – a numbered sub-section

A-level detail required – though not necessarily all the detail of a topic

A-level terminology required and more important than grammar – this is an exercise concerned with Biology, not English

GCSE-level material only makes possible between 1 and 5 marks

If asked about the importance of something, factual detail and explanation of importance have to be at A-level standard to score above 15 marks

An example not in the specification (for the highest band) has to be at (or above) A-level standard – not GCSE, or what anyone who hasn’t studied A-level Biology would know.  Example – quite a few students made reference to cystic fibrosis– relatively few made accurate links to this condition and chloride ion channel protein, diffusion and/or water potentials and osmosis.

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