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RMIT University Library - Learning Lab

Reports vs essays


Students are sometimes unclear about different genres of assessment tasks.

Students often ask the question "What is the difference between a report and an essay?" This short video explains what a report is in academic writing, how it is used in different situations, and the structure of a report including executive summary, introduction, findings and conclusion.

What is a report?

A report is a piece of writing that tells you about some experience, event, or situation. This could include just doing research on some topic, a practical experiment, some issue that has arisen in a company/organisation, or a system, or even a piece of equipment, maybe.

Reports are often problem-based, but not always. It describes what you have found out, and it goes deeper - it explains and analyses what you have found out. Reports are very structured and there is an expected format. They always have sections and headings.

Have a look at this report outline:

“The aim of this report was to investigate Unilab staff attitudes to the use of mobile phones in staff and team meetings. A staff survey and policies on mobile phone use from a number of similar companies were analysed. There was significant support for a clear company policy on mobile phone use, including their banning in certain situations. The results of this research reflected the findings from similar studies. The report concluded that personal mobile phones should not be turned on during all staff meeting times.”

Most reports have executive summaries. In some disciplines, we call it an “abstract”. They are not the same as the introduction. An executive summary summarises the whole report. That means that there will be a sentence or two representing each section of the report. You always write it after you have completed the full report. Have a look at how the writer summarises each main section in one sentence (refer to executive summary above). As you can see, it’s got a very definite structure drawn from the larger report. It is very different to the introduction which just talks about the broad context, the purpose of the report, and what is going to be covered in the following sections. It gives the reader an idea of what is ahead – it does not give the overview like the executive summary.

The other important sections are the Findings and Discussion. This is where you would describe and then analyse your findings. Your findings will be reporting what you have discovered during your research, or your experiment, or an observation you have made. In the discussion section, you must delve deeper: you have to analyse and make sense of these findings and not just state what they are.

Finally, in the conclusion, you summarise your findings or use your findings or to come out with a more unified understanding or outcome. In some disciplines like business, you might be asked to give solutions or recommendations to overcome a problem that you have noticed. Recommendations might have their own section or be included in the conclusion, too.

For more information about reports, try the tutorials. Thanks for watching!

The table below shows the main differences between reports and essays.


  • Provides objective information: Can be constructed collaboratively.
  • Highly structured into sections identified using headings.
  • Sections can be read in isolation of the most of the text: the reader can dip in and out.
  • Objective report and analysis of facts.
  • Grounded in practice but often links to theory.
  • For a specific audience.
  • Includes tables, graphs and diagrams.
  • Dot points used for conciseness.


  • Presents a particular writer's claim or argument.
  • Structured by paragraphing with key points identified in topic sentences.
  • Paragraphs are read in the context of the whole: the reader starts at the beginning and reads the entire text.
  • Subjective argument or interpretation.
  • Grounded in theory but sometimes linked to practice.
  • For a generalised audience.
  • Meaning is conveyed through text.
  • Meaning constructed through sentences.