College essays are probably the most common and demanding assignments you’ll receive in higher education. Instructors use them as daily tasks, final projects, and a chance to hone valuable written skills. Some essays are simple, others are complex and nightmarish. Whatever the case, when you know what to do, the concept of the essay is a lot harder than writing the essay itself.

But if essays could become a part of your daily routine, you should know what your professors are looking for. You might have written essays in high school, but with higher education, comes higher standards. So, how do you write a college essay? Read on for some tips and tricks on the expectations of writing essays that can help you ace your assignment!

Essay Structure

While the criteria each instructor has in mind is different, the structure of the essays are the same. You might recognize these elements from high school essay writing, and that’s because things don’t change much. For the most part, what you learned in high school still holds true in college. The key components of an essay we were taught in middle and high school – the introduction, the body, and the conclusion – are still major parts of the essay structure. There are, however, a few additions made in higher learning. 

The Introduction: Prompt and Personal Statement

The introduction paragraph consists of two parts: the topic sentence and the thesis statement.

Your topic sentence is what your essay is about.

Topic sentences tend to be attention grabbing to spur the reader to continue reading, using wit, humor, and other appeals to engage the reader. The goal is to catch your reader’s attention and inform them of your topic.

Your thesis statement is what you’re arguing.

Your thesis should show a clear bias to let your readers know where you stand on the subject and must be something you can argue. The thesis statement is the most important part of your essay. This will be what you’re trying to prove – the very reason you’re writing the essay. The thesis statement can be followed by your main points (the topics of your body paragraphs) but this is not required. They are usually listed within or after the thesis statement, often presented as “this is my thesis and here’s what I’m going to talk about to prove it.”

The Body

Your body paragraphs lay out your argument.

Your points and supporting evidence will make up these paragraphs, backing your argument in a coherent way. You should have three or more body paragraphs, each covering a different point you identified in your introduction statement.

Each body paragraph should start with a topic sentence.

You want to introduce the reader to your topic before diving into an explanation, and you want a smooth transition between paragraphs. Topic sentences in body paragraphs should prepare the reader for the explanation.

Each body paragraph should have an explanation.

You must tell the reader why this topic supports your argument by providing supporting details and evidence.

Each body paragraph only needs 1-2 well developed pieces of evidence.

This evidence will be the “how” to your “why.” In your explanation, you describe how your argument is valid, so your evidence is there to provide an example. You can have more than two pieces of evidence, but too many makes it more about the evidence than your opinion. You should be supported by your evidence, not supporting your evidence.

Each paragraph should be at least 4 sentences long.

Any less than four sentences leaves no room to prove your point, and can lack depth to support your argument. However, too many sentences can be long-winded and hard to read. You don’t want to bore your reader or leave them lost in the endless sentences. Try to be aware of your paragraph length and don’t ramble.

The Counter Argument

The counter argument acknowledges the other side of the argument. Here, you acknowledge who you are arguing against and why they might have the opposing opinion. The rebuttal is the part of the counter argument in which you explain why the opposition is wrong and you are, in fact, right.

The Conclusion

The conclusion should restate your thesis and summarize your argument. Use the conclusion as an opportunity to complete your thoughts, restate any supporting evidence you feel is worthy of review, and offer a strong final statement.

The Annotated Bibliography

In just about all of your college essays you’ll have to cite your sources. However, some essays require an annotated bibliography. The annotated bibliography is a bibliography that requires a summary of each source. This gives your reader a better understanding of your supporting evidence by giving them an idea of what the source is about. It also works as a deterrent to using sources you don’t quite understand, or those that have little to do with the subject.

You might find useful sources and already written annotated bibliographies on your school’s library database. This can make supporting your argument and writing your bibliography much easier. For sources that don’t have annotated bibs, you’ll probably have to write your own. Some professors require you to write your annotated bibs in your own words, in which case, a how-to could be helpful. 

Annotated bibliographies are usually used for research essays. While you might be required to produce an annotated bib for a research paper, if you’re writing an argumentative essay or another essay that doesn’t rely too heavily on support, using an annotated bib isn’t necessary unless it is explicitly stated that it.

Planning

Set aside time.

Do not try to write your essay the night it’s due. Professors usually set essays to be turned in by 11:59pm on whatever day they’ve chosen. You don’t want to be scrambling at 11pm because you haven’t started yet. Procrastination is a bad habit that you’ll want to break for the sake of your grade.

Carefully read your assignment.

Before you begin planning you must know what your assignment is so that you can make choices and set goals. You don’t want to misunderstand the instructions, so carefully reading the assignment will ensure you start on the right track. Within the instructions you can find the word count, the prompt and options, and the due date.

Read the rubric.

If your instructor provides you with a rubric, become familiar with it. Rubrics are like cheat sheets on how to ace an assignment, telling you what your instructor is looking for and how to achieve it, so you only stand to gain by reading it.

Choose your prompt, topic, and/or position.

Your prompt, topic, and position you will make or break your essay. You want to write about something you know, or something you can confidently argue and support.

Start with an outline.

Outlining your essay before writing your first draft can provide much needed structure, organizing thoughts and ideas. Outlining makes it easier to know what you want to say and where you want to go, rather than trying to go on as you write. In your outline, you can address requirements like your thesis, paragraph topics, and evidence to be incorporated in your essay. Skip this step and you could find your sentences incoherent and unorderly. 

Find sources, or use the resources provided to you.

Finding sources to support your argument coincides with outlining. When you’ve decided what your main points will be, collecting sources, quotes, and data you intend to use basically eliminates half of your work. This will allow you to keep your supporting evidence on hand rather than searching for something that works in the middle of a draft. You’ll also have an idea of what arguments will and will not work, so you can change your points early on rather than when you’re halfway done with the assignment.

Writing

Follow the essay structure.

Use the tools given to you and ensure that if a particular structure has been requested, you follow the guidelines. 

Be clear and concise.

Do not write vague and unfinished thoughts, and do not ramble, leaving a run-on sentence in your wake. You want to elaborate on what you are saying, but it doesn’t have to come at the cost of the reader’s attention.

Do not turn in your first draft.

While you might think your first draft is a winner, you shouldn’t use it as your final draft. You’ll want to give yourself time to review and potentially rewrite parts of your essay to maximize the efficiency and clarity of your argument. Not only that, but some professors require both a first and final draft to be turned in. They expect to see the development of an argument and changes made in peer review or in the wake of new information.

Final Steps

Proofread.

Look over your essay once more to make sure it’s clear, informative, and persuasive. Proof reading is like a wall. Paint a wall and you’ll notice all of the scrapes and cracks. Change your font and you’ll see mistakes you didn’t before, if there are any to be revealed. Double-check your formatting. 

MLA Format.

Professors tend to take formatting seriously, and one’s ability to follow such simple guidelines is important. In many instances, points will be deducted for incorrect formatting. This also carries over to citing sources, as your bibliography is expected to abide by MLA citation rules.

Basic MLA formatting follows these rules:

  • 12 pt. Font
  • Times New Roman
  • Double Spaced (The one good thing to come out of a page count
  • 1-Inch Margins

TIP: Want to know more about MLA formatting? Check out Purdue University’s guide, “MLA General Format.”

Submit your final draft.

Once you have finished writing and reviewing your final draft, submit it to your instructor.

College essays get easier with time and experience. Building up your skills and following this guide will make you a pro in no time! 

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