How to Write an Essay

Writing Essays – High School vs. College

Many years ago, freshman English comp was the “flunk-out” course. Students who could not pass the course were put on academic probation and had to re-take the class. If they again failed, they were terminated. Pretty cold.

High schools then got “with it,” and decided to prepare kids better by launching rigorous essay writing pieces into their English curricula.

How many essays did you write in high school? Too many to count? Well you can probably triple that as a minimum in college. The worst will come in the required English comp course that everyone takes in their first year. The rest will come from other courses.

The Difference Between the High School and the College Essay

High school students can often get away with some essay writing behaviors that will not work in college. The stakes and the expectations are much higher. Here are some major differences:

  • High school essays, particularly in English classes, are written with lots of intervention from the instructor. Students complete a rough draft, submit it, and get feedback and editing from their instructors, before writing the final draft. These are meant to be learning experiences, so students can see how to get better at writing essays. At the college level, they are assigned, usually through a syllabus, and nothing more will be said. On the due date, it must be turned in. End of story.
  • In high school, students make points in their essays that are not necessarily backed by research. And if research is used, it may be as elementary as Wikipedia or other less scholastically rigorous sources. In college, research must back up every point that is made, and the resources must be high quality and primary whenever possible.
  • Students may find that they can be more casual in their essay compositions in high school. By the time college rolls around, language must be formal and vocabulary more sophisticated.

If you don’t know how to write an essay that will merit a good grade in college, this guide may help.

Types of Essays

The one thing that has not changed from high school is that essay types and purposes are the same. There are five basic types.

  1. The Persuasive Essay

You know the drill. You will need to take a stand on a controversial issue and defend your position. You will also have to address the other side’s argument as well.

The most important thing to remember is that research will be involved, as you will have to support your opinion with factual information and data. And if you can find facts and data that diminishes the opposing viewpoint, all the better.

Your thesis statement should be in the introductory paragraph and should state your position on the issue.

  1. The Compare-Contrast Essay

You have certainly had experience with this type of essay for many years. In English courses, the choice of topics may be up to you. In other courses, not so much. In a political science course, for example, you may be asked to craft a comparison and contrast essay on Obamacare and Trumpcare. The topics at the college level will almost always require research. And, remember, if a comparison essay is assigned, you only address similarities; if a contrast essay, only differences.

  1. The Expository Essay

The word “expository” means to explain. Any time you are writing an essay that explains something, it is expository. There are some sub-categories of exposition, as follows:

  • Descriptive: This is typically an essay assignment that you would find in an English comp course; however, you might be asked to describe an art or music period in a fine arts class. The key here is to identify the key characteristics of the subject of the essay and craft paragraphs with good topic sentences that address each of those characteristics.
  • Process: The process essay does just that. It describes a process. When you are assigned this essay type, you will be explaining how something is accomplished or how to do something. An essay describing how a U.S. President is elected would be a process essay.

Planning the process analysis essay is the key to a successful one. Like every other essay, there must be a thesis statement. Usually, this includes the process to be explained and, as well, the significance and/or importance of learning it.

The other key to a good process essay is to consider what your audience may or may not already know. Do not assume that your reader has the background information to understand what you are talking about; on the other hand, do not “talk down” to an audience that you know has basic information that you do not have to explain.

  • Definition: The definition essay can be a bit tricky, because the topics are most often abstract terms or complex concepts that have a number of elements. Typical topics for definition essays include such concepts as justice, truth, or equality; other less abstract topics might be related to philosophy, political science, sociology, or economics. So, you might be asked to define capitalism or hedonism as a philosophy.
  1. The Narrative Essay

Most students think this is the easiest essay type, because it is often more casual in language and they have the freedom to be creative, humorous, even poignant or inspirational. A narrative is, in essence a story – real or imagined. It may have dialogue or not. Usually, the narrative essay topic is personal – you are asked to re-tell a personal event or experience or to create a short piece of fiction. For those who enjoy telling stories and putting them into writing, this is a fun task. For those who do not, it can be drudgery.

The key to the good narrative essay is to develop a chronological timeline of events and map them out. When that timeline is developed, the narrative will flow logically.

While you may not have a thesis statement per se, you will have some point to be made. This may have been a story of the most embarrassing moment in your life, your happiest, your strangest, etc. You will want to come up with a “zinger” of an opening – one that introduces the point that is to be made through the story.

If you are not the creative type, but you want your narrative to “pop,” get some help from a friend who has a more creative bent.

  1. The Classification/Division Essay

When you were in very early elementary school, you learned the concepts of classification and division. You may have divided buttons up according to color, shape, size, or number of thread holes. As you got into life sciences, you learned that all living things are classified into kingdom, phyla, class, etc., according to specific characteristics. All academic content fields have classification. In music, there are periods and types; in art, the same. In the social sciences, people, philosophies, periods of history, etc., are all classified.

If you want to understand how to write a good essay of this type, then you have to spend some time thinking about the criteria you will use to classify and divide the members of a large group. For example, you might be asked to classify types of students. What categories will you create? What are the characteristics of students in each category? Perhaps, you will divide by major fields? How are fine arts students different from techies? Or engineers different from social science majors? Or you might categorize according to jocks, partiers, nerds, preps, etc.

The classification essay can be serious or humorous, depending on the topic.

Do and Don’t
  • Make sure you understand the assignment. If you don’t, then ask. Read all of the instructions carefully.
  • Be certain you research every point you are making. A point without backup is just an opinion.
  • Always create some kind of organizer – it doesn’t have to be a formal outline – just so you keep yourself on track and the flow logical
  • Write your introduction last and make it “pop.”
  • Don’t ever turn in an essay that you have not completely edited or had edited by someone qualified to do it.
  • Don’t move from one point to the next without some kind of transition. Your reader needs to know where you are going.
  • Unless you are writing a narrative, keep your language formal and avoid slang and trite sayings.
  •  Don’t put off an essay until the night before. Start early enough that you have time to think about it, maybe change up the point you are making, etc.
How to Start an Essay

Sometimes, the biggest hurdle to writing an essay is simply getting started. Students may sit for a long time struggling with an introduction. The introduction is the key to the rest of your essay, and it must be “killer.” You want to engage the reader immediately so they want to read on. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Begin with a shocking statement or statistic that relates to your topic. If you were writing an essay on poverty in America, for example, you might want to begin with the statement that almost 14 million children go to bed hungry every night.
  • Give a short anecdote – people love stories
  • Begin with a famous quote that supports your thesis statement

It’s also a good idea to write your introduction lat. After you have taken the time to do your research, made an outline or some organizer, and composed your rough draft – that is the time to write the introduction. Your thoughts are much clearer by then.

Essay writing does not have to be torturous. Give yourself enough time, get the information to back up your points, if necessary, and get some help if you are struggling.

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