How to Write Your College Essay the ‘Write’ Way
Ah, the college essay. When all you want is a simple multiple-choice test, here your professor comes with this open-ended assignment that leaves you wondering where to even begin. But, like it or not, the essay has an invaluable place in academia.
Whereas exams test your knowledge about a topic, essays evaluate your ability to craft an argument — to take facts and present them in a coherent, logical, and compelling manner. To use an analogy, an exam determines whether you know what ingredients go into a cake; an essay tests whether you can actually bake one.
While you may be daunted by the comparatively unguided nature of essay writing, never fear. With these four tips, you will find yourself gliding through the writing process and acing every essay you assay (see what I did there?).
Stay on message
The key when writing an essay is that you are making one solid point. Every single sentence in that essay should go into reinforcing that central premise. Most essays will have some sort of prompt that establishes the thesis for you. This can be anything, from “Explore how the industrial revolution impacted American literature” to “Compare and contrast the feudal periods of Europe and East Asia.”
Whatever the case, your prompt provides your thesis for you. You may make any number of subpoints providing supporting arguments for your thesis, but each one should be in service to that core message.
Work with your writing style instead of against it
Everyone has their own way of approaching writing. Some people do better with a very structured approach, starting with an outline, establishing their thesis statement, and supporting arguments, and then fleshing out the paragraphs from there. Some (like yours truly) are more the “write by the seat of their pants” types.
We just start typing and let the ideas come out, and then trim and shape as necessary. Some write better with music, whereas others need complete silence. Some write better in long, dedicated blocks, whereas some do better in short bursts. Whatever your approach, lean into it and use it to your full advantage.
Learn how to research and cite effectively
When crafting your arguments, it’s important to support them not just with sound logic but also, y’know, facts. “But how and where can I find those facts?” you may be asking. Well, as I’m sure virtually every professor that’s ever assigned you an essay has said, Wikipedia, while not a source in itself, is actually a decent place to find some.
Just look for those bracketed, blue, superscript numbers behind every few sentences; those can provide you with reputable sources. Smart Google searching can also take you far. Google Scholar is your friend here. As for which sources are trustworthy, generally, information coming from a .gov or .edu website is reliable, especially if you find the same information in two independent sources. Likewise, for established, reputable journals (think Science, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, etc.)
Once you have your sources, it’s important to cite them properly. Fortunately, there is software that takes all the guesswork out of this and makes the process a breeze. These allow you to add a website or journal article to your personal online master library, then effortlessly insert the citation into your essay wherever you want it. These programs also automatically format each citation, so you can automatically standardize all your citations to whatever your particular assignment requires.
Finally, at the end of your essay, citation managers compile a tidy bibliography for you, again, in whatever format you’ve chosen. There are several different citation managers from which to choose. In my experience, any one of these will get the job done.
Be sure to proof-read your work
After you’ve hammered out your initial draft, it’s crucial to give the finished product a read-through — maybe even two. Although spellcheck and automatic grammar suggestions correct a lot of the most egregious mistakes as they’re made, inevitably, a few slips do occur. The wrong use of there/their/they’re, “you” when you meant “your,” just straight up forgetting to write a word and your brain not even noticing, etc.
These are just some of the more common offenders. It’s not just outright mistakes, either. You may have crafted what seemed like a great sentence at one point, but, on review, it really doesn’t fit with the rest of the paragraph. Or, perhaps, on the second read-through, you think of another phrase that really ties it all together and helps the paragraph flow just so much better.
All these reasons and more are why it’s so important not to simply email off your assignment as soon as you hit the required word limit. By extension, it’s also important to leave yourself enough time to review your work.
Ideally, once you complete the essay, you can step away for a while, relax, and allow your brain to refresh itself before starting the review process. A tired mind is an error-prone one, and trying to proofread after just having finished is likely to have you reading right over the very mistakes and omissions you’re looking for as you impatiently rush to just get this over with already! So take a break & miss mistakes.
Well, there you have it — four solid pieces of advice that, if followed, will serve you well in crafting your next essay. And you can take them on good authority. After all, I write essays for a living. Best of luck, and remember, when writing your essay, don’t write yourself off.