One of the more stressful aspects of university is essay writing. I remember being anxious about writing them, I remember my friends being anxious about them, and I still hear complaints about it occasionally from my extended family or friends.
In university, I studied humanities, and essay writing was very common in my classes. So it was eye-opening when I went to graduate school and became the person responsible for grading essays. I got to read the output of everyone in a class and grade each essay accordingly.
When you’re dealing with anything in large numbers, whether it’s customers, data, etc, you quickly notice patterns and common themes.
For essay grading, I quickly noticed that there were a select few things that really influenced how well that student wrote, and thus, how high of a grade they earned. Some of these things were obvious, while others were surprising to me. Not all were related to writing skills, and can easily be improved upon with a bit of work.
If you’re in university and you want to know what your professor or TA is looking for when grading an essay (especially one written for the humanities), read on. We're going to explore the topic of essay writing and how to write a good essay.
Decide on a Topic
This seems obvious, but you would be surprised at the amount of essays I received where the student had gone completely off topic. Usually this is because people investigate something tangential or barely related to the point they’re trying to make.
Make sure the things you discuss or include in your essay help your argument respond to the prompt. The most notable example of this I remember was an essay I read that did an excellent job of discussing the everyday lives of people in villages in Vietnam. However, the requirements were to write an investigation into the impact of the Vietnam war on Vietnamese citizens, which the essay didn’t do. I had to fail what was otherwise a great essay because it didn’t meet a basic requirement.
Related to that point, if you’re writing an essay where you have some degree of freedom in choosing the topic, the professor will expect you to choose something compelling that demonstrates you used some degree of thought.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t choose what appears to be a simple question to answer. For example, compare these two arguments based on the topic “Why did the Russian Revolution succeed?”:
- The Russian Revolution succeeded primarily because of the failure of the Royalist forces to organize together and offer a compelling alternative to the Communists.
- The Russian Revolution succeeded because the communists believed they were correct.
One of these arguments is better structured and more compelling than the other because it offers a specific, plausible explanation. The second one is vague and is making a fallacious argument: just because someone believes they are correct doesn’t mean they will win.
Both were based on a simple prompt. Only one, however, appears to have actual effort put into it: the first example.
Formulate a Thesis Statement
Yes, write the thesis statement before you outline. You can't outline if you don't have a clear argument that coincides with your essay topic.
In order to create a thesis statement, you need to pick a side, so to speak. The thesis is used to introduce your argument to your audience so they know what they'll find in the body of your essay; you'll need to mention the points you'll be running through throughout the paper.
For example, let's say your topic is "Dogs vs Cats."
Your thesis statement could be "Dogs are better than cats because they are playful, they like to go on walks, and they will show their owners affection."
It has a stance in the argument ("Dogs are better than cats") and runs through the points of why dogs are better than cats, which will be expanded on further down the essay ("they are playful," "they like to go on walks," "they will show their owners affection").
The thesis statement is one of the most important parts of any essay, so be sure to spend adequate time on this step in order for your paper to be as strong as it can be.
Draw a Diagram or Outline of Your Ideas
Without some semblance of an outline, your paper is going to be either too long or too short, rambling, and in-cohesive. Although it's not the most exciting part of the essay writing process, outlining is a very important step.
You have to know where you're going with an idea in order to properly explain it. And if you're not sure where you're going with an idea, outlining can help you figure it out.
Here's a really helpful outline format that I like to use when writing an essay:
If this is too much too quick, try just writing down a list of things you might like to discuss about your topic. Are there any similarities between them? Try to find a common thread between all of these things, and then take a look again at that outline format.
Using a Paraphraser can help. By changing the language you're using, new ways to think about your topic might come up. With these new angles, you'll be able to think about your topic more in-depth and in ways you never considered before.
Write the Body Paragraphs
Here's where you take everything you've written in the outline, and expand it all. If you've outlined well, all you should need to do is add some details and transitions to make each one of the body paragraphs full.
As you're writing each one of the body paragraphs, it's a good idea to run them through a Summarizer. If the summarization tool gives you a summary that reflects your topic sentence, you know you've done a good job writing the paragraph.
If you get a summary that is different than your topic sentence, you know that you didn't do a great job of detailing that point and need to put in some more work in that area.
Check out our Guide to Essay Writing if you're looking for help on how to write a body paragraph. It's pretty comprehensive and pretty great, if I do say so myself.
Write the Final Paragraph
The conclusion paragraph is so misunderstood.
The final paragraph in your essay should be recapping all you've talked about in the preceding parts of the essay. This is not the time to bring up new topics, mention another slant or way of looking at the argument, or to further argue your point.
This is the time to reiterate your points. Your second-to-last sentence should be your reworded thesis statement and your very last sentence should be a memorable line to cement your argument in your audience's heads.
So many people try to bring up new ideas in their final paragraph, but if you want to write a really strong college essay, don't. Stick to concluding and you'll be golden.
Apply the Final Touches
The last thing you want to be when writing an essay for university is sloppy. It's so easy to make sure that your essay is well formatted and easy to read, yet a lot of students skip the steps they need to take in order to get their writing into tip top shape.
You want your essay writing to be the best it can be? Then you need to cycle through the entire essay writing process, not just the actual drafting stage.
Step #1 would be to run your essay through a Grammar Checker. There is no quicker way to lose points on a paper than to have grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. Ensuring that all of that is correct will ensure you the baseline number of points at the very least.
Another important step is to make sure all of your sources are properly cited (and if you're missing a citation, pop on over to our Citation Generator to get that sorted out real quick). A Plagiarism Checker will be able to catch duplicate content, so you'll know when something hasn't been properly cited.
After all this, your final draft will be ready to go.
Final Thoughts on Writing in University
Essay writing is hard, and writing a good academic essay is even harder. However, there are a few tips and tricks you can use to boost your scores, as we've outlined above. If you’re able to keep those things in mind as you’re writing, then you’re putting yourself in a very good position to get a high mark.
Stay focused and happy essay writing!