One of the most intimidating things about taking college classes can be writing essays. If writing isn’t your strong suit, or if you haven’t done any formal writing in a long time, you may be feeling nervous about writing an essay that demonstrates your understanding of the topic and earns you the grade you’re hoping for. In this post, we’ll walk through some tips to help you ensure that your college essays meet your professors’ expectations and allow you to stand out as a strong student.
What is a college essay?
You’ll likely encounter many different writing assignments in college, but most college essays will require you to make an argument. In college writing, though, making an argument doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re taking an emotional stance in a heated debate--you’re simply making an assertion and backing it up with evidence.
You might be asked to do some of the following types of writing in college, which would all require you to make a claim about something and support it with data (e.g., experiment results, primary research materials, peer-reviewed sources, etc.). Here are some common argument-based writing skills college essay prompts may ask you to demonstrate:
If you’re unsure about what your college essay is asking you to do, always reach out to your professor for clarification. Be sure to consult the writing prompt carefully first, though--that way you’ll be able to ask targeted questions about things that may be confusing to you.
Your college essay format
If you’ve been assigned a college essay, it can help to make an outline. (Hear me out, if you’re not an outline person.) There are a couple of ways to do this. If you do find it productive to begin with an outline, then keep that approach. If you don’t usually find making an outline helpful, or if you tend to deviate a lot from your initial outline once you begin outlining, give reverse outlining a try. Reverse outlining allows you to draft first so that you’ve figured out what you’re going to say. Then, you can create a reverse outline to organize it better.
Though the format of papers usually differs by discipline, in most cases you’ll want to have an introduction that clearly states your argument (sometimes called a thesis) and explains briefly how you’ll support that point. Think of your opening as a roadmap for your reader: after reading your introduction, your reader should have a good understanding of where you’re planning to go and how you’ll get there. Here are some common elements you might be asked to include in a college paper:
- Abstract: A high-level summary of the entire paper. Usually only about 150 words.
- Introduction: Introduces the paper’s main argument and outlines the evidence that will be used to support the thesis.
- Methods: In some disciplines, you may need to write a methods section that explains how you collected your data. This is most common in the social sciences and sciences.
- Body/Results/Discussion: The body of your paper is where you will use evidence to support your thesis. This section can range vastly in length and scope depending on the assignment.
- Conclusion: This is where you’ll wrap up your argument. Lots of new college writers struggle with conclusions, because in high school, students are generally told to restate their thesis. In college, it’s better to think of your conclusion as a chance to broaden the implications of your thesis or offer a new area for potential research.
Good college essay examples
If you’re struggling to get started on a college essay, it can help to look at similar sample essays:
- If you’re writing an argumentative essay, the Modern Language Association offers a number of strong examples.
- If you’re writing a lab report, Monash College’s step-by-step guide will walk you through the process.
- If you’re writing a critique, Ashford University’s Writing Center highlights important components with annotations on a sample paper.
Though college writing may be challenging, developing essays helps you hone transferable, in-demand critical thinking and communication skills that will help you in your career, no matter your field. To succeed as a college writer, be sure to read your assignment carefully, ask your professor for any clarification you need, and consider working with a writing tutor. Finally, remember that good writing takes time and practice, just like any other skill.
Anissa Sorokin, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing Program Administrator at Stevenson University near Baltimore, Maryland. Anissa’s interdisciplinary background and extensive experience teaching research, writing, and study skills help her demystify college expectations for students online and in her classroom.
Looking for more ways to improve your writing for college? Check out this helpful article on Writing Assignments: Tips for Success.