The Method in Contemporary Issues

Since the beginning of the month, we have been offering you the opportunity to practice on mock exam questions for the contemporary issues test that awaits you tomorrow. For more information on the test, the convocations, and more generally on the upcoming announcements, please consult our article Concours common des IEP2021.

These exchanges have been extremely enriching and we thank you for your ideas, your outlines and your work. Facing the contemporary questions test, which is completely new to your career, is the best way to progress quickly!

→ Mock exam on the Secret

→ Mock exam on the theme of Revolutions

Here is a compilation of our tips for this very special Contemporary Issues test. We have indeed observed that some mistakes come up often, although quite avoidable. With the competition just around the corner, we hope that these final recommendations will help you give it your best shot.

Designing Your Essay in Draft Form

The contemporary issues test takes the form of an essay. You will have two exam questions to choose from, on the two themes of the program. Since the creation of the competition until today, the history that we recommend you study carefully to grasp the spirit of the exam questions show that the rule is rather that of one subject on one theme, the other subject on the other theme (and not mixed subjects, and never two exam questions on the same theme).

Once you have understood the spirit of the exercise, and have studied your themes, i.e. in 2021 the secret and the revolutions, you still have to understand the method of this essay, and that is obviously the objective of this article.

Analysis of the question

Let us proceed as you will do on the day of the exam, ideally. First, you will be confronted with the topic. You will need to determine fairly quickly which of the two questions speaks to you the most. To do this, let your instincts speak for themselves: which question do you have more to say about? Take the easy way out. Don’t say to yourself “I will take the one that looks more complex to me because it will make me stand out from the other candidates”, this is a miscalculation because this impression is very subjective, and it is certain that the question that you find easier will seem very complex to many others, and vice versa. At this stage, it is therefore a matter of quickly identifying the question you are going to deal with, a choice that you will never change! You will never change it again because your time is limited, and every minute is precious, so this phase is by definition decisive.

Next, we strongly advise you to rewrite all the words of the topic, one by one, in the center of a draft sheet. You may not see the need for this, but experience has shown that not focusing enough on just one seemingly unimportant word in the question can lead to terrible off-topic material. For each word in the question (including articles and small connecting words), you can draw arrows, and write down anything that comes to mind. This brainstorming will allow you to be as complete as possible. Do not hesitate to write down for example the reverse of the words of the question, it is a very efficient technique to gather more ideas, authors, references, etc.

Finally, after this careful work, don’t lose the general meaning of the topic. What is being asked of you, what is the question? Sometimes candidates rush through the concepts and the detail, and forget the most obvious meaning of the question, which is the question you are asked.

→ To practice analyzing the question: Compilation du Concours commun des IEP

The plan

Once this work is done, it will be much easier to establish a plan.

First, a little point on the form. One could describe the essay on contemporary issues as a mix between the philosophical essay and the law essay. This explains the multitude of possible outlines: 2 main parts as in law, or 3 main parts as in philosophy. In general, the outline is apparent in law, and in any case never appears in philosophy. So here again, each one has his own school, but let us say that if you make an outline in three parts, it is better not to show the plan, whereas for an outline in two parts, it could be allowed. If in doubt, again take the easy way out. If you have never done a two-part plan, then keep your three-part habit, it is very appropriate for the contemporary issues test.

The three-part outline is well constructed with two or three subparts each time, which gives the formulas 3 × 2 or 3 × 3 parts. The two-part outline is best constructed with only two subparts each time, in order to preserve the binary balance, but beware: you will surely have to expand, in order to exploit all the time at your disposal. This is why ideally each subpart will include two ideas, which in the end gives 2x2x2 parts.

Now for the substance. The outline must respond to the question that pinpoints the problem – we will look at the method right after. It is up to you to decide when you want to materialize the plan, before or after the question that pinpoints the problem, but it must in any case answer the question that pinpoints the problem. There are also several types of outlines. In contemporary questions, we recommend the dialectical outline or the jurist’s plan, which we refer to as outlines type 3 and 4 in our dedicated article (Old philosopher and Flemmard in his hammock):

→ Finding an outline for your essay

You will manage to find balanced and strong parts thanks to the draft work you just did. The exercise is simple. Thanks to the brainstorming work done on the topic, you will find yourself with many ideas scattered in many directions. You will have to group these ideas into two or three main groups, which will constitute your main parts. You will identify these two or three groups in order to advance your thinking (this is your plan). Remember, each part must contribute to answering the question that pinpoints the problem.

The Problematic

After having corrected many of your proposals, we note that this is surely the most delicate exercise for the candidates. Many students do not understand what the question that pinpoints the problem is either, and simply repeat the question but with different words. Let us therefore insist on this point: the question that pinpoints the problem is not the question, nor is it a rephrasing of it; it is not a question of using more learned synonyms to give the impression of complexity.

Having said what it is not, let us try to define positively what the question that pinpoints the problem is. The question that pinpoints the problem is the problem behind the question, to say it more precisely, it is the deepest tension which poses a problem, and makes arrive at the question. That is why we also speak of a paradox to designate the question that pinpoints the problem. The paradox, let us give another definition to be sure to understand it well, is two assertions that seem contradictory, two assertions that put together shock the common sense, they are apparently difficult to reconcile. And you have guessed it: your job will be to reconcile them, which will be possible thanks to a clarification of the terms of the question, thanks to the logic of your reflection and thus of your plan, and thanks to the nuances that you will bring.

Once you have understood what a question that pinpoints the problem is, there is still the practical side: how do you actually find a good question that pinpoints the problem? Since the question that pinpoints the problem is born of a paradox, you must first find the two statements that seem contradictory. Let us take for example the question we proposed to you: Are revolutions the condition of progress?

This moment is undoubtedly the most difficult, because it requires taking into account both the general meaning of the question and the meaning of each word of the question in detail, in order to determine which two assertions can be made on the question, but which clash, which explains why we have arrived at the question you have before you.

You will find the general meaning by rephrasing the question: are revolutions necessary to achieve progress? But you also have to pay attention to the details: words as innocent as “of” can lead to several leads, in this case “progress” can be understood as a philosophical concept, while “progress” loses this connotation. One will thus say “the Progress of History” (we capitalize on it to emphasize the abstraction of the concepts), but not really “the progress of history”, rather “the school progress”. This is why your draft work, the brainstorming on the topic, is very important. For it is this work that will allow you to bring out all the dimensions of the question, all that can be said about it, in its finest nuances.

A tip that will help you build your question that pinpoints the problem is to impose the following model on yourself:

“It is possible to assert that[…] . However, in the opposite direction, it is also true that[…] . Considering this paradox, it remains to understand the following problem: how[…]?”

We have forced the style and made it heavier in order to clearly marks the two assertions that confront each other and from which the question that pinpoints the problem arise. On the day of the test, you will, of course, formulate it in your own words and style.

A good problem cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”, so it will almost always begin with “how” or “to what extent”. Read the problem you have identified in the draft, and if you can answer it with a yes or no, then it is probably best to look further. An exception can be made if you choose multiple questioning to form an issue, as the diversity of directions allows for nuance.

Here is a proposal for a question that pinpoints the problem on the question we have chosen as an example: “Revolutions are fed by discontent, and discontent is rooted in the idea that some progress is possible .However, although revolutions have allowed for brilliant advances, progress seems to be attainable through other vectors than the popular discontent inherent in revolutions, and could even be held back by revolutions with destructive rather than beneficial consequences. So how did revolutions become so crucial to the idea of progress? To what extent are they essential for the advancement of society? And to what extent can these revolutions be seen as an opportunity for progress as a process of moving towards an ideal, without annihilating previous progress?

Write Your Contemporary Issues Essays

Since the contemporary issues test is an essay, the method of writing is not unlike anything you have done before in your school career. However, there are a few ways to beef up your paper to reach the Sciences Po level.

The introduction in 6 steps

The introduction is built in 6 steps:

  1. Hook: it is about catching the attention of the examiner, so the more original and relevant it is, the more successful it is. It will therefore often Be
    • a more literary reference, such as a work of classical literature in which the heroes are faced with the same dilemma posed by the question
    • of historical event, for which we have sufficient hindsight, which presents the same difficulty as the question (so not current events, avoid anything less than 20 years old)
    • a quotation, preferably not very well known to remain original, as a witticism that brilliantly summarizes the dilemma posed by the question.
  2. Counterpoint: this is to set the stage for the paradox to emerge. We will therefore take an example that seems to be opposed. Thus, the counter-hook can either:
    • rely on the same reference as your hook (this is often the best, because it will always be coherent), in which case you make it appear that in the same work the opposite position is presented, that the historical event also shows the opposite position, or that the quotation can be interpreted in the opposite way. Example: the French Revolution was an uprising of the people, so it affected everyone. But it did not happen all at once and affected everyone differently and in a delayed way, so it did not affect everyone the same way.
    • To rely on another reference. For example: Grotius, who theorized natural law, considered that “the law obliges us to do what is said and not what is right”. [This vision was opposed to that, much later, of an author like Proudhon for whom “Justice is human, all human, nothing but human. It is wrong to relate it, directly or indirectly, to a principle superior or prior to humanity
  3. To bring out the paradox: it is already at this point that you can bring out the dilemma posed by the question, take shape the two paradoxical statements that will form the question that pinpoints the problem. It is therefore simply a matter of highlighting how your hook and your counter-hook go in the opposite direction.
  4. Define the terms of the question: this can be done before, during or after the phase where you bring out the paradox. During your introduction, you should have defined all the words of the question, recalling their etymology if that helps explain the concepts.
  5. Problematic: you have prepared the ground well. This is the moment to give your question that pinpoints the problem, the one you worked so hard on in the draft!
  6. Announce the plan: the corrector must be able to easily grasp the stages of the argument you are going to conduct, i.e. your main parts. The smoother the logic and evolution, the better. Thus, you should avoid a too brutal outline announcement (“we will see that revolutions are useful, then that they are not useful“), and therefore insist on nuances and progression. For each of your parts is valid and must bring real and good information. So it will always be a matter of showing that you are progressing, reconciling and overcoming differences (rather than showing why your part was wrong, then the second part was wrong too, and that the third part should be retained).

The development must be solid

Finally, you can proceed with the development, i.e. the writing of your two or three parts.

This development will be all the more solid if it is based on knowledge, on references, that is to say concretely a legislative text, a sociological study, a philosophical author, economic data, verified and sourced statistics, historical examples, historiography, etc.

Thus, it is recommended to have at least one reference to support your reflection per sub-section. Of course, there is no absolute rule, it remains an order of ideas: you just have to understand that your argument must be based on solid elements, which have a well established authority. It is therefore important not to fall into a pitfall we call the “catalog”, i.e. to list these references without logic, without coherence, and worse, without relevance.

As for whether you can use the same reference during several sub-sections, it depends on the weight of the resource you are exploring. If your reference has full authority on the question and any relevance to your problem, and by a stroke of luck you have mastered it perfectly, then yes, it is definitely worth digging deeper, for one, two, or even three sub-parts. Conversely, if it’s an anecdotal quote, or a statistic that doesn’t mean much, you can only mention it very briefly, and in addition to a more solid resource.

Transitions, or the coherence of your essay

We could have made this point without devoting an entire title to it, but we hope that this will help to highlight the importance of transitions, which are the hallmark of the evolution of your reasoning and therefore of your essay.

As you can see, our point is: don’t forget to polish your transitions between your major parts, that’s where you’ll show the coherence of your ideas!

Extending a metaphor according to which oil (transitions) facilitates the movement of the cogs (titles of the parts), make sure that these cogs allow the general functioning of the machine (answer the question that pinpoints the problem and the question).

In this sense, it is a good idea to check as you write that all your parts and sub-parts actually include all the words of the topic. This tip is a guarantee that you stay focused on the topic.

The conclusion, how to close the discussion… by opening it?

It is too obvious to remember that the paper ends with a conclusion. To make sure you don’t forget anything, you can proceed in three steps:

  1. The assessment of your demonstration, i.e. summarize the achievements of your copy, how you contributed to the debate.
  2. A clear and nuanced answer to the question that pinpoints the problem. Clear, because it is straightforward, it responds directly in simple terms to the question that pinpoints the problem you have identified – and therefore to the question. Nuanced, because normally your reflection will have allowed you to find a balance between very different positions; this makes it possible to get out of the black and white vision, and thus, to use the metaphor, to reveal the intermediate colors – the nuances.
  3. Eventually, an opening. It is not obligatory because it is dangerous: it is indeed a question of proposing to continue the reflection towards a related interest, but it should not show a lack of your dissertation. It would be a shame to remind the corrector of an area that you did not cover and that should have been covered.

By nature, the conclusion cannot present new information, let alone new references. You can therefore remain sober, consider this last step as a way to show the corrector that you have done the work that was asked of you.

List of quick improvements

On the design of the draft essay

  • Take the time to understand the general meaning of the question as well, and accept its scope. The pitfall would be to draw too much on what you may know better, but which will then be quite different and off-topic. You must therefore accept the area delimited by the question, and answer the question that is imposed on you.
  • The question that pinpoints the problem should not rephrase the question, it should reach a deeper problem. Compare the question with your question that pinpoints the problem, if you realize that you are just using synonyms and asking the same question as the question, then you should take more time to beef up your question that pinpoints the problem.
  • Play with the words in the topic. For example, if the question contains the verb “may” in its title, try replacing it with: “must”, “be able to”, “be allowed to”, “want to”…
  • The thoughts you have in your draft are potentially interesting to feed into your introduction. Thus, the process you go through to identify a question that pinpoints the problem can be very appropriate to bring your question that pinpoints the problem in smoothly.
  • More to come

On writing the essay

  • Keep your style simple and fresh. If you exaggerate, if you force a sustained style, you will leave an unpleasant impression of pedantry. In fact, the opposite is often even more effective: if you can clarify very abstract concepts in simple terms, you will impress the examiner, who will only appreciate it.
  • You probably want to talk about current events and show that you read the press. Nevertheless, this exercise is perilous, and most often does not serve you well, because there is a good chance that you will seem to be repeating an AFP dispatch rather than providing a real in-depth reflection on a theme that must be worked on throughout the year. Moreover, the world still has only a partial perspective on what is happening to it, just like your personal experience, it often takes time to understand what is happening to us. Therefore, always prefer events that have already been thoroughly thought through. If you are analyzing a news item on which no book has ever been published, which is the job of many professionals, it is surely because you will not be able to do it in two lines in your paper either.
  • You have to find the right balance between personal reflection and references. Since we advise you to use a reference in each of your sub-sections, this means that in each of these sub-sections you must analyze the facts you invoke, and develop the thoughts of the authors you use, in particular by showing how this is relevant to your subject, your problem. Thus, it will not be enough to give a quotation, but you will have to explain it: why did the author say that? Is it a biased or impartial opinion? Why is his argument valid? What nuances need to be added? How does it contribute to the topic?
  • The formulas “this famous author”, “this event whose importance is known to everyone”, “this great and marvellous author who is…” are not necessary, and often suspect (why specify it?). It is therefore better to remain sober.
  • More to come

→ 31 tips for your essays


→ The method for the Sciences Po exams

8 thoughts on “The Method in Contemporary Issues

  1. Hello, do you have to name your part 1 and 2 on the copy? As well as the subparts?

  2. How many are we to pass the science po competition this year? You mentioned the number of 14000 but that seems a bit much to me, personally I thought that the number of candidates was around 9000 or 10000. Otherwise really thank you for all your valuable advice a few hours before the competition.

    1. Hello, The Sciences Po network announces 14,000 candidates. The Parcoursup platform, which simplifies the procedure, no doubt explains this growing success. However, be reassured, you will have less than 14,000 competitors in the end, because a significant proportion never complete the process and therefore give up. The important thing at this stage is to do your best, without looking around: just the essay and you! Good luck,

  3. Hello, A few hours before the competition, I am very grateful to you for this very good article full of information and advice! The part on the problem was a great help. Thank you so much

    1. Thank you very much, your comment makes us very happy and motivates us. We wish you the best for this afternoon!

  4. Thank you very much for this article which I will try to use for June 5 Good luck to all and in particular those who come tomorrow

    1. Thank you so much for this encouraging comment! This is indeed valid of course for the Second year exam competition in June. And good job to you from there!

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