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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application
What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?
How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.
- Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
- Keep the focus narrow. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
- Be yourself. Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
- Be creative. “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
- Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.
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We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.
What exactly goes into writing a great college essay, and more importantly, what does it take to write one that stands out from thousands of others, landing itself in the “Accept” vs. “Reject” pile?
Breaking Down the College Essay
Let’s start by breaking it down into manageable parts and examining the required elements.
What’s the point of the college essay?
Almost every standard college application requires first-year applicants to submit a personal essay. If you are one of these applicants, you may be wondering, what’s the point?
With so many colleges deciding to go test-optional, (many do not require standardized tests and instead focus solely on your transcripts, essay, and recommendations), the essay is the one place in your application where you can illuminate your character in words and ideas, rather than in numbers and percentages. It is your chance to show schools who you are, what makes you tick, and why you stand out from the crowd.
Admissions counselors will read your essay and try to determine whether or not they want you at their school. While reading, they will be asking themselves, “What will this person bring to our community? Will they make our school a more valuable place?”
What are the prompts?
There are seven personal essay prompts in the Common Application. You may choose to write about obstacles you’ve encountered, your accomplishments and realizations, moments when you experienced extreme gratitude, or select your own topic.
No one prompt is considered “better” than another, but they can vary slightly from year to year, so be sure to read through all of them for your application cycle. At the end of the day, if there is something you feel really passionate about, you can likely adapt it to fit a prompt.
How long should your essay be?
The essay should be 650 words, which might sound like a lot at first, but you will be surprised by how quickly you reach that limit once you get going. Most of the students I work with end up making cuts to shorten their essays before submitting. The word limit is non-negotiable. You will not be able to submit an essay that’s even one word over the limit.
Writing the College Essay
Your parents, teachers, and guidance counselors know what they are talking about when they tell you to get started on the essay during the summer before your senior year. Don’t leave it until the last minute. Once senior year starts, life is a whirlwind. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay. Aim to start in July or August before senior year.
Starting can be as easy as creating a document where you generate an ongoing list of potential topics. You will want to draft your essay in a separate document anyway. You can copy and paste it over into the Common Application once you have a final, edited version.
Additionally, starting doesn’t always mean sitting down in front of a computer and typing. Talk about topic ideas out loud with anyone who will listen. Discuss ideas for topics with your family members over dinner or on car rides with friends. Think about ideas when you are out for a run or bike ride. Almost all colleges and universities have samples of “College Essays That Worked” in the admissions section of their websites. Reading through these may inspire you.
Keep the focus narrow.
Do not think too big. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
That leads to another suggestion: Don’t write about Covid-19. Your essay might touch on something that’s an offshoot of your time spent in quarantine or a loss connected to Covid, but it should not be about the pandemic specifically. There’s no question Covid-19 had, and still has, a major impact on all of us, but that topic has been written about by many students from every angle possible. Colleges want to read something different.
The Common Application has added an optional question that gives all applicants a place to address the impact that Covid has had on them personally and educationally. If you feel you have a story you must tell connected to the pandemic, this is the place to share it.
So, what should you write about?
When brainstorming topics, think about challenges you have faced and how you’ve handled them. You can also ask people who know you best how they would describe you in a few words and why. Their responses can be great jumping off points for writing your essay.
Some students choose to write about seemingly small, ordinary topics that illuminate their character beautifully, and are both poignant and thought-provoking. One student I worked with wrote about growing up hiking with her parents from the time when she was a baby in a backpack carrier, to a grumpy middle schooler, to an appreciative, nature-loving young adult who found outdoor experiences were an essential part of who she was at her core.
Other students choose to describe major life events, or especially challenging experiences that have impacted them deeply. An essay that comes to mind is one written by a student who battled loneliness and isolation due to anxiety and depression, and ultimately found invaluable reprieve in the arts, a passion that they hoped to continue to pursue at the college level.
Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, be sure the essay rises above a strict recounting of a story. Instead, use the narrative to reveal your true self. It’s okay to be vulnerable and honest; in fact, it’s critical you do so. Admissions counselors will not judge you negatively for depicting moments of weakness or fear, or for having different politics than they might. More likely, they will be impressed by your level of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and introspection.
Admissions counselors want value-adders. What adds value to a college campus? Students who display energy, resilience, leadership, passion, inclusivity, unique outlooks, and people who can inspire others. Your essay should tell a story that highlights traits like these. No one else has lived your life or experienced what you have in the way that you have; tell your unique story. Use a voice that’s real to you.
This is not the time to experiment with overly formal academic nor romantic, flowery language. Use words you would normally use and show the reader what makes you, you. There is no need to over-inflate things. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
The college essay is not like a typical English paper. It’s a true blend of the creative and the literary. In creative writing classes you often hear the advice, “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece. Describe sights, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and sounds as you write.
That said, just because you are being creative does not mean your essay should lack structure. This is not the time to experiment with a completely outlandish form. You don’t want to make your readers work to understand what you are trying to say. You want them to be entirely absorbed in the story you are telling. The easiest way to do this is by making your essay easy to read.
Think of the typical five paragraph structure for English papers. Your essay should have an introductory paragraph with a thesis/hook, supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion that ties everything together. Your story might lend itself to six or seven paragraphs instead of five, depending on where the natural narrative breaks lie, and that’s fine. Just make sure it has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Your essay should not have any spelling, formatting, or grammatical errors. Mistakes do not put your best foot forward to admissions counselors, and they are distracting.
Be sure to read, re-read, and share your submission with others to prevent the possibility of mistakes. Use tools like spell and grammar check, and ask at least two other people to read your essay and offer feedback. You can ask a trusted family member to take a look, or even reach out to a friend with exceptionally good writing skills. We often get so close to our own words that we miss obvious errors. Even the best writers in the world rely on editors to help catch mistakes.
Another option is to ask your English teacher or guidance counselor to review your essay. In some schools, students will work on the college essay in English class during the fall of their senior year. This gives them a chance to receive both teacher and peer feedback, which can be incredibly valuable.
Finally, read your essay aloud before hitting submit. It may feel silly, but you will be amazed at the errors you will catch this way.
Make a point.
By the time you reach your conclusion, be sure your essay makes some sort of point. This is what will separate it from the competition. Ask yourself what you want your reader to walk away thinking and knowing about you, and allude to that in your final sentences. A strong conclusion that helps tie the entire essay together, and also points to the bigger picture, is key.
To achieve this, as you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had. Above all, remember that the conclusion should not be an afterthought, nor should it simply summarize the previous few paragraphs.
In many ways, the conclusion is the most important part of your essay as it’s the last thing people will read. Be sure to give it the time, effort, and energy it deserves. You want your readers to pause and reflect at the end of your essay. You want them to feel something, versus just moving on to the next essay on their list.
While some students are able to afford pricey college counselors to help guide them through the application process, at the end of the day, there is no magic formula that someone can pay thousands of dollars for when it comes to writing the college essay. Everyone has a unique story to tell and that is priceless. As long as you give yourself the time to brainstorm, and write and then rewrite, as well as ask for feedback from others along the way, you can end up with a solid final product.
One lesson you will learn at college is that the world is full of a wide array of brilliant, interesting, diverse individuals who all have unique life experiences. You are one of those people. Enjoy the process of telling your story, and then relish the opportunity you will have to create more stories as you move onto the next chapter of your life.
- AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business, All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including Pine Row Press , Months to Years, and Atlanta Review .
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- Ending the Essay: Conclusions
So much is at stake in writing a conclusion. This is, after all, your last chance to persuade your readers to your point of view, to impress yourself upon them as a writer and thinker. And the impression you create in your conclusion will shape the impression that stays with your readers after they've finished the essay.
The end of an essay should therefore convey a sense of completeness and closure as well as a sense of the lingering possibilities of the topic, its larger meaning, its implications: the final paragraph should close the discussion without closing it off.
To establish a sense of closure, you might do one or more of the following:
- Conclude by linking the last paragraph to the first, perhaps by reiterating a word or phrase you used at the beginning.
- Conclude with a sentence composed mainly of one-syllable words. Simple language can help create an effect of understated drama.
- Conclude with a sentence that's compound or parallel in structure; such sentences can establish a sense of balance or order that may feel just right at the end of a complex discussion.
To close the discussion without closing it off, you might do one or more of the following:
- Conclude with a quotation from or reference to a primary or secondary source, one that amplifies your main point or puts it in a different perspective. A quotation from, say, the novel or poem you're writing about can add texture and specificity to your discussion; a critic or scholar can help confirm or complicate your final point. For example, you might conclude an essay on the idea of home in James Joyce's short story collection, Dubliners , with information about Joyce's own complex feelings towards Dublin, his home. Or you might end with a biographer's statement about Joyce's attitude toward Dublin, which could illuminate his characters' responses to the city. Just be cautious, especially about using secondary material: make sure that you get the last word.
- Conclude by setting your discussion into a different, perhaps larger, context. For example, you might end an essay on nineteenth-century muckraking journalism by linking it to a current news magazine program like 60 Minutes .
- Conclude by redefining one of the key terms of your argument. For example, an essay on Marx's treatment of the conflict between wage labor and capital might begin with Marx's claim that the "capitalist economy is . . . a gigantic enterprise of dehumanization "; the essay might end by suggesting that Marxist analysis is itself dehumanizing because it construes everything in economic -- rather than moral or ethical-- terms.
- Conclude by considering the implications of your argument (or analysis or discussion). What does your argument imply, or involve, or suggest? For example, an essay on the novel Ambiguous Adventure , by the Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane, might open with the idea that the protagonist's development suggests Kane's belief in the need to integrate Western materialism and Sufi spirituality in modern Senegal. The conclusion might make the new but related point that the novel on the whole suggests that such an integration is (or isn't) possible.
Finally, some advice on how not to end an essay:
- Don't simply summarize your essay. A brief summary of your argument may be useful, especially if your essay is long--more than ten pages or so. But shorter essays tend not to require a restatement of your main ideas.
- Avoid phrases like "in conclusion," "to conclude," "in summary," and "to sum up." These phrases can be useful--even welcome--in oral presentations. But readers can see, by the tell-tale compression of the pages, when an essay is about to end. You'll irritate your audience if you belabor the obvious.
- Resist the urge to apologize. If you've immersed yourself in your subject, you now know a good deal more about it than you can possibly include in a five- or ten- or 20-page essay. As a result, by the time you've finished writing, you may be having some doubts about what you've produced. (And if you haven't immersed yourself in your subject, you may be feeling even more doubtful about your essay as you approach the conclusion.) Repress those doubts. Don't undercut your authority by saying things like, "this is just one approach to the subject; there may be other, better approaches. . ."
Copyright 1998, Pat Bellanca, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
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- How to Write a College Essay
College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.
Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App, an application platform accepted by more than 900 schools. (Getty Images)
Not only is the college essay a place to showcase writing skills, it's one of the only parts of a college application where a student's voice can shine through.
Unlike test scores and transcripts, the college admissions essay offers students a chance to showcase their personality.
"The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office," says Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California.
Prospective college students want their essay, sometimes called a personal statement, to make a good impression and boost their chances of being accepted, but they have only several hundred words to make that happen.
This can feel like a lot of pressure.
"I think this is the part of the application process that students are sometimes most challenged by," says Niki Barron, associate dean of admission at Hamilton College in New York, "because they're looking at a blank piece of paper and they don't know where to get started."
That pressure may be amplified as many colleges have gone test-optional in the past year, meaning that ACT and SAT scores will be considered if submitted but are not required. Other schools have gone test-blind and don't consider such scores at all. In the absence of test scores, some admissions experts have suggested that more attention will be paid to other parts of an application, such as the essay.
But just as each applicant is unique, so are college admissions policies and priorities.
"Being test optional hasn't changed how we use essays in our selection process, and I wouldn't say that the essay serves as a substitute for standardized test scores," Barron wrote in an email. "A student's academic preparation for our classroom experience is always front and center in our application review process."
Essay writing tips offered by experts emphasize the importance of being concise, coherent, congenial, honest and accurate. An applicant should also flex some intellectual muscle and include vivid details or anecdotes.
From brainstorming essay topics to editing the final draft, here's what students need to know about crafting a strong college essay.
Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a College Application Essay
- 1. Explore essay prompts and select a topic.
- 2. Start your college essay outline before jumping in.
- 3. Write the essay and leave time for multiple drafts.
- 4. Edit and proofread your essay.
- 5. Submit your essay.
Getting Started on the College Essay
A good time for students to begin working on their essays is the summer before senior year, experts say, when homework and extracurricular activities aren't taking up time and mental energy.
Starting early will also give students plenty of time to work through multiple drafts of an essay before college application deadlines, which can be as early as November for students applying for early decision or early action .
Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App , an application platform accepted by more than 900 schools.
In addition to the main essay, some colleges ask applicants to submit one or more additional writing samples. Students are often asked to explain why they are interested in a particular school or academic field in these supplemental essays , which tend to be shorter than the main essay.
Students will want to budget more time for the writing process if the schools they're applying to ask for supplemental essays.
"Most selective colleges will ask for more than one piece of writing. Don't spend all your time working on one long essay and then forget to devote energy to other parts of the application," Sapp says, noting there may be additional questions on an application requiring thoughtfully written responses.
How Long Should a College Essay Be?
Though the Common App – which students can submit to multiple colleges – notes that "there are no strict word limits" for its main essay, it suggests a cap of about 650 words.
"While we won't as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you'd hoped it would," the Common App website states.
The word count is much shorter for institution-specific supplemental essays, which are typically around 250 words.
How to Pick a College Essay Topic
The first and sometimes most daunting step in the essay writing process is figuring out what to write about.
There are usually several essay prompts to choose from on a college application. They tend to be broad, open-ended questions, giving students the freedom to write about a wide array of topics, Barron says.
The essay isn't a complete autobiography, notes Mimi Doe, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, a Massachusetts-based advising company. "It's overwhelming to think of putting your whole life in one essay," she says.
Rather, experts say students should narrow their focus and write about a specific experience, hobby or quirk that reveals something personal, like how they think, what they value or what their strengths are. Students can also write about something that illustrates an aspect of their background. Even an essay on a common topic can be compelling if done right.
Students don't have to discuss a major achievement in their essay, a common misconception. Admissions officers who spoke with U.S. News cited memorable essays that focused on more ordinary topics, including fly-fishing, a student's commute to and from school and a family's dining room table.
What's most important, experts say, is that a college essay is thoughtful and tells a story that offers insight into who a student is as a person.
So, no matter what topic students choose, they'll ultimately be writing about themselves, says Ethan Sawyer, founder of the College Essay Guy website, which offers free and paid essay-writing resources. "What we think of as the topic is just the frame or the lens that we're using to get into other parts of you."
If students are having trouble brainstorming potential topics , they can ask friends or family members for help, says Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications and AdmissionsCheckup, Connecticut-based college admissions advising companies. Wassink says students can ask peers or family members questions such as, "What do you think differentiates me?" Or, "What are my quirks?"
The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, experts say. Students should ensure they're writing about something that isn't mentioned elsewhere in their application, perhaps in the activities section, or expand greatly on the topic if it is noted elsewhere.
Writing the College Essay
Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing.
But there isn't one correct way of doing things, says Sara Newhouse, senior consultant at Enrollment Research Associates and former vice president for admission and financial planning at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama.
"Your writing process is your own," she says. Newhouse encourages students to use whatever process worked for them in the past when they completed writing assignments for English and other high school classes.
The first draft of an essay doesn't need to be perfect. "Just do a brain dump," Doe says. "Don't edit yourself, just lay it all out on the page."
If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence, Doe suggests. She says an essay's opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader's attention.
Doe offered an example of a strong hook from the essay of a student she worked with:
"I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn."
"I want to know about this kid," she says. "I’m interested."
But Sawyer cautions that students shouldn't get so caught up in writing the perfect hook that they neglect the rest of their essay. He also says he's read some essays that were excellent overall, even though they had what he would consider mundane hooks.
Editing and Submitting the College Essay
While admissions officers try to learn about students via the essay, they are also gauging writing skills, so students want to make sure they submit top-notch work.
"The best writing is rewriting," Sapp says. "You should never be giving me your first draft."
When reviewing a first essay draft, students should make sure their writing is showing, not telling, Doe says. This means students should show their readers examples that prove they embody certain traits or beliefs, as opposed to just stating that they do.
After editing their essay, students should seek outside editing help, experts recommend. While there are individuals and companies that offer paid essay help – from editing services to essay-writing boot camps – students and families may not be able to afford the associated fees.
However, there may be options to defray the costs. Sawyer, for example, says he offers scholarships to students from low-income families that cover the cost of one-on-one essay consultations.
The availability of and level of feedback from free essay advising services vary. Some college prep companies offer brief consultations at no charge. Free essay workshops may also be available through local high schools, public libraries or community organizations. Khan Academy, a free online education platform, also offers a series of videos and other content to guide students through the essay writing process.
Colleges themselves may also have resources, Barron notes, pointing to pages on Hamilton's website that offer writing tips as well as examples of successful admissions essays. Likewise, Hamilton also holds virtual panel discussions on writing admissions essays.
Students have other options when it comes to essay help. They can ask peers, teachers, school counselors and family members for help polishing an essay.
Newhouse says it works well to have other people proofread an essay in two stages. The first stage focuses on content. Readers should look for information gaps in the essay – anything they are confused about. Once the content is nailed down, the second proofing stage focuses on style, including grammar, punctuation and spelling.
But proofreaders should not change the tone of the essay. "Don't let anyone edit out your voice," Doe cautions.
And while proofreading is fair game, having someone else rewrite your essay is not.
When an essay is ready to go, students will generally submit it online along with the rest of their application. On the Common App, for example, students copy and paste their essay into a text box.
Sapp says even though students often stress about the essay in particular, it's not the only thing college admissions officers look at. "The essay is the window, but the application is the house," he says. "So let's not forget that an application is built of many pieces."
Strong College Essay Examples
Below are two examples of strong essays written by students accepted into Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
"This is a personal statement, so what works in these essays works because of who the student is and how it fits into the rest of his or her application," notes Ellen Kim, dean of undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins.
Hover over the circles along the sides of the letters to read more about what worked.
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Six top tips for writing a great essay
An essay is used to assess the strength of your critical thinking and your ability to put that thinking into an academic written form. This resource covers some key considerations when writing an essay at university.
While reading a student’s essay, markers will ask themselves questions such as:
- Does this essay directly address the set task?
- Does it present a strong, supported position?
- Does it use relevant sources appropriately?
- Is the expression clear, and the style appropriate?
- Is the essay organised coherently? Is there a clear introduction, body and conclusion?
You can use these questions to reflect on your own writing. Here are six top tips to help you address these criteria.
1. Analyse the question
Student essays are responses to specific questions. As an essay must address the question directly, your first step should be to analyse the question. Make sure you know exactly what is being asked of you.
Generally, essay questions contain three component parts:
- Content terms: Key concepts that are specific to the task
- Limiting terms: The scope that the topic focuses on
- Directive terms: What you need to do in relation to the content, e.g. discuss, analyse, define, compare, evaluate.
Look at the following essay question:
Discuss the importance of light in Gothic architecture.
- Content terms: Gothic architecture
- Limiting terms: the importance of light. If you discussed some other feature of Gothic architecture, for example spires or arches, you would be deviating from what is required. This essay question is limited to a discussion of light. Likewise, it asks you to write about the importance of light – not, for example, to discuss how light enters Gothic churches.
- Directive term: discuss. This term asks you to take a broad approach to the variety of ways in which light may be important for Gothic architecture. You should introduce and consider different ideas and opinions that you have met in academic literature on this topic, citing them appropriately .
For a more complex question, you can highlight the key words and break it down into a series of sub-questions to make sure you answer all parts of the task. Consider the following question (from Arts):
To what extent can the American Revolution be understood as a revolution ‘from below’? Why did working people become involved and with what aims in mind?
The key words here are American Revolution and revolution ‘from below’. This is a view that you would need to respond to in this essay. This response must focus on the aims and motivations of working people in the revolution, as stated in the second question.
2. Define your argument
As you plan and prepare to write the essay, you must consider what your argument is going to be. This means taking an informed position or point of view on the topic presented in the question, then defining and presenting a specific argument.
Consider these two argument statements:
The architectural use of light in Gothic cathedrals physically embodied the significance of light in medieval theology.
In the Gothic cathedral of Cologne, light served to accentuate the authority and ritual centrality of the priest.
Statements like these define an essay’s argument. They give coherence by providing an overarching theme and position towards which the entire essay is directed.
3. Use evidence, reasoning and scholarship
To convince your audience of your argument, you must use evidence and reasoning, which involves referring to and evaluating relevant scholarship.
- Evidence provides concrete information to support your claim. It typically consists of specific examples, facts, quotations, statistics and illustrations.
- Reasoning connects the evidence to your argument. Rather than citing evidence like a shopping list, you need to evaluate the evidence and show how it supports your argument.
- Scholarship is used to show how your argument relates to what has been written on the topic (citing specific works). Scholarship can be used as part of your evidence and reasoning to support your argument.
4. Organise a coherent essay
An essay has three basic components - introduction, body and conclusion.
The purpose of an introduction is to introduce your essay. It typically presents information in the following order:
- A general statement about the topic that provides context for your argument
- A thesis statement showing your argument. You can use explicit lead-ins, such as ‘This essay argues that...’
- A ‘road map’ of the essay, telling the reader how it is going to present and develop your argument.
"To what extent can the American Revolution be understood as a revolution ‘from below’? Why did working people become involved and with what aims in mind?"
Historians generally concentrate on the twenty-year period between 1763 and 1783 as the period which constitutes the American Revolution [This sentence sets the general context of the period] . However, when considering the involvement of working people, or people from below, in the revolution it is important to make a distinction between the pre-revolutionary period 1763-1774 and the revolutionary period 1774-1788, marked by the establishment of the continental Congress(1) [This sentence defines the key term from below and gives more context to the argument that follows] . This paper will argue that the nature and aims of the actions of working people are difficult to assess as it changed according to each phase [This is the thesis statement] . The pre-revolutionary period was characterised by opposition to Britain’s authority. During this period the aims and actions of the working people were more conservative as they responded to grievances related to taxes and scarce land, issues which directly affected them. However, examination of activities such as the organisation of crowd action and town meetings, pamphlet writing, formal communications to Britain of American grievances and physical action in the streets, demonstrates that their aims and actions became more revolutionary after 1775 [These sentences give the ‘road map’ or overview of the content of the essay] .
The body of the essay develops and elaborates your argument. It does this by presenting a reasoned case supported by evidence from relevant scholarship. Its shape corresponds to the overview that you provided in your introduction.
The body of your essay should be written in paragraphs. Each body paragraph should develop one main idea that supports your argument. To learn how to structure a paragraph, look at the page developing clarity and focus in academic writing or do the Canvas module building good paragraphs .
Your conclusion should not offer any new material. Your evidence and argumentation should have been made clear to the reader in the body of the essay.
Use the conclusion to briefly restate the main argumentative position and provide a short summary of the themes discussed. In addition, also consider telling your reader:
- What the significance of your findings, or the implications of your conclusion, might be
- Whether there are other factors which need to be looked at, but which were outside the scope of the essay
- How your topic links to the wider context (‘bigger picture’) in your discipline.
Do not simply repeat yourself in this section. A conclusion which merely summarises is repetitive and reduces the impact of your paper.
Although, to a large extent, the working class were mainly those in the forefront of crowd action and they also led the revolts against wealthy plantation farmers, the American Revolution was not a class struggle [This is a statement of the concluding position of the essay]. Working people participated because the issues directly affected them – the threat posed by powerful landowners and the tyranny Britain represented. Whereas the aims and actions of the working classes were more concerned with resistance to British rule during the pre-revolutionary period, they became more revolutionary in nature after 1775 when the tension with Britain escalated [These sentences restate the key argument]. With this shift, a change in ideas occurred. In terms of considering the Revolution as a whole range of activities such as organising riots, communicating to Britain, attendance at town hall meetings and pamphlet writing, a difficulty emerges in that all classes were involved. Therefore, it is impossible to assess the extent to which a single group such as working people contributed to the American Revolution [These sentences give final thoughts on the topic].
5. Write clearly
An essay that makes good, evidence-supported points will only receive a high grade if it is written clearly. Clarity is produced through careful revision and editing, which can turn a good essay into an excellent one.
When you edit your essay, try to view it with fresh eyes – almost as if someone else had written it.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Have you clearly stated your argument in your introduction?
- Does the actual structure correspond to the ‘road map’ set out in your introduction?
- Have you clearly indicated how your main points support your argument?
- Have you clearly signposted the transitions between each of your main points for your reader?
- Does each paragraph introduce one main idea?
- Does every sentence in the paragraph support that main idea?
- Does each paragraph display relevant evidence and reasoning?
- Does each paragraph logically follow on from the one before it?
- Is each sentence grammatically complete?
- Is the spelling correct?
- Is the link between sentences clear to your readers?
- Have you avoided redundancy and repetition?
See more about editing on our editing your writing page.
6. Cite sources and evidence
Finally, check your citations to make sure that they are accurate and complete. Some faculties require you to use a specific citation style (e.g. APA) while others may allow you to choose a preferred one. Whatever style you use, you must follow its guidelines correctly and consistently. You can use Recite, the University of Melbourne style guide, to check your citations.
- Germov, J. (2011). Get great marks for your essays, reports and presentations (3rd ed.). NSW: Allen and Unwin.
- Using English for Academic Purposes: A guide for students in Higher Education [online]. Retrieved January 2020 from http://www.uefap.com
- Williams, J.M. & Colomb, G. G. (2010) Style: Lessons in clarity and grace. 10th ed. New York: Longman.
* Example introduction and conclusion adapted from a student paper.
Explore all resources
- Online learning module
Academic English is a distinct language, and one you’re expected to write in at university. Understand how to identify, create and improve your academic style.
Using sources in assessments: voice in academic writing
Effectively combine your ideas with those of other writers.
Developing clarity and focus in academic writing
Academic writing aims to be clear and precise, with a direct style that moves logically from one idea to the next. This page describes how you can structure sentences and paragraphs to achieve clarity and ‘flow’ in your writing.
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How to Write an Essay: 7 Steps for Clear, Effective Writing
by Yen Cabag | 11 comments
High school students are frequently tasked with writing essays, which also play a big role in the college admissions process. But they’re not alone: professionals taking exams like the IELTS or LSATs also need to know how to write clear, concise, and persuasive essays.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a wordsmith, you don’t have to be intimidated by essays and writing assignments. When you learn the basic steps and the most common structures, you will find that it becomes easier to write down your thoughts on any given subject.
What Are the Different Types of Essays?
Essays can come in many different forms. The most common types include the following:
- Narrative Essay: The narrative essay shares information in the form of a story and from a clearly defined point of view .
- Expository Essay: This type of essay explains, illustrates, or clarifies a topic. This also includes instructional pieces with step-by-step directions.
- Descriptive Essay: Descriptive essays do exactly what their name implies: they describe an event, phenomenon, or any other subject in detail.
- Persuasive Essay: This type of essay aims to convince the audience to adapt a certain perspective or idea.
- Compare and Contrast Essay: This type of writing pinpoints how similar or different two or more things are from one another.
- Problem-Solution Essay: This essay highlights an issue, influences the reader to care about it, suggests a solution, and tackles possible objections.
How Do You Begin an Essay?
Nothing is more daunting for a writer than staring at a blank page. This is why you need to have an action plan for starting your essay.
1. Decide on your essay type and topic.
Sometimes, you will already have an assigned essay type or topic, so that will save you one step. If these were not assigned to you, you have to think of possible topics that you can write on. This will also help determine the type of essay you will be writing.
Some questions you can ask yourself to find a good topic include:
- What is something I’m passionate about?
- What is one thought or idea I want to share?
- Is there any misconception I want to correct?
- What is the best way to present this topic of information (with regard to the types of essays)?
2. Brainstorm and research the topic you’ve chosen.
Once you’ve chosen your topic, brainstorm all the different supporting ideas that you can talk about for the topic. Start with the basic facts about your idea, asking questions such as what , where , who , when , why , and how .
You can use the Mind Map method to brainstorm connecting ideas, or you can also just jot down bullet points as you encounter them in your research.
If your topic calls for it and if time allows, you may want to consider conducting quick interviews with experts on the subject. These will serve as a primary source for your essay.
3. Develop your thesis statement.
After you have brainstormed and researched, write down your thesis statement . A thesis statement consists of one or two sentences that sum up the primary subject or argument of your essay.
Generally, the thesis statement will present your main topic while also expressing what position you hold regarding the subject.
4. Write your outline.
Once you have your thesis statement, you can start to prepare your outline . Many people skip the outline process, thinking it’s a waste of time.
But really, an outline can help you organize your thoughts before you start writing and actually save you time, since you’ll avoid beating around the bush or jumping from one idea to another without a clear direction.
One common structure for an essay is the Five-Paragraph Essay, with the following parts:
- Introduction with thesis statement
- Main Point #1
- Main Point #2
- Main Point #3
Although this structure is made up of five paragraphs, we can easily use the same model and make it into a Five-Part Essay Structure. This means that we will stay within the pattern, but each main point may have more than one paragraph.
When you write your outline, make sure that each paragraph has only one main point. Jumbling too many points in one paragraph tends to confuse your reader. Also, make sure that your main points are all relevant to your thesis statement.
5. Start writing.
Using your outline, you can now begin writing your essay. Some writers choose to write their paragraphs in order, beginning with the hook. The hook is the first few lines in your essay that will grab the readers’ attention.
If you can write the hook right away, well and good. If not, don’t worry, you can always come back to it after you write the body of your essay. Here are some more helpful tips for writing the body of your essay:
- Elaborate on each of your main ideas with at least one paragraph each. If your main ideas will require more than one paragraph each, feel free to write more.
- For anything point that takes up two paragraphs or more, it helps to have a brief introductory paragraph.
- Stay as concise as possible.
- Include anecdotal examples if it will help you make your point more clear.
- If you are writing a formal academic essay, avoid using first-person pronouns.
6. Pay attention to how you cite references.
In ancient Greece, using other people’s ideas was seen as the mark of a smart person. But in this day and age, plagiarism is a serious offense, so you need to be careful when citing other people’s work.
To avoid plagiarism , be sure to paraphrase any ideas you collect from your research instead of copying them word for word. If you do use them as is, put them in quotes.
Next, use the proper citations. Plagiarism does not only constitute copying the idea verbatim, but you also have to reference the source of the idea itself, if possible. Depending on your teacher’s preferences, you can use the APA in-text citation style or the MLA style .
7. Edit your work.
After you write your first draft, refine and proofread your work to make sure you fix all grammatical and spelling errors. You can use a tool like Grammarly when you do this to have fresh “eyes” looking at your work, but don’t rely solely on software—always review your work at least once yourself or have another (human) do it!
When editing, pay attention to the words you use: remove all unnecessary words and work on using strong verbs in place of weak ones.
Also, fact check all the information you have in your essay, especially when citing other sources.
Tips for Writing Essays
If you keep these tips in mind, writing an essay will soon become much easier for you and you’ll see your writing (of all kinds) start to improve.
Keep practicing and you will find that it’s much easier to get your thoughts on paper and present a coherent piece for your readers.
Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:
- How to Write a Thesis Statement
- How to Avoid Plagiarism: 6 Tips for Staying Out of Trouble
- How to Write a Research Paper: The Complete Guide for Students
- Grammarly Review: Is It Worth the Hype?
Yen Cabag is the Blog Writer of TCK Publishing. She is also a homeschooling mom, family coach, and speaker for the Charlotte Mason method, an educational philosophy that places great emphasis on classic literature and the masterpieces in art and music. She has also written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. Her passion is to see the next generation of children become lovers of reading and learning in the midst of short attention spans.
I have learnt a lot on things i never knew about it was so awesome.
this post s really helpful for my essays thanks so much
I found this post to be informative and very helpful
Thanks Clarise, we’re so glad you found the post helpful! :)
Thanks for the info
you’re very welcome, we hope you found it helpful! :)
It ws usefull information. Thanks a lot.
After you write your first draft, refine and proofread your work to make sure you fix all grammatical and spelling errors.
Hi Sara, yes, it’s very important to proofread and self-edit essays before submitting them :)
I really find this guidelines helpful and I appreciate it
We’re glad you found the post helpful, Fatima! :)
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How To Write The Perfect Essay
Jan 29, 2019 Blog Articles , English Language Articles , Humanities Articles , Law Articles , Politics Articles , Writing Articles
If you decide to study English or a subject within Arts and Humanities at university, it’s going to involve a lot of essay writing. It’s a challenging skill to master because it requires both creativity and logical planning, but if you ensure you do the following whenever you write an essay, you should be on the way to success:
T his may sound time-consuming, but if you make a really good plan you will actually save yourself time when it comes to writing the essay, as you’ll know where your answer is headed and won’t write yourself into a corner. Don’t worry if you’re stuck at first – jot down a few ideas anyway and chances are the rest will follow. I find it easiest to make a mind map, with each new ‘bubble’ representing one of my main paragraphs. I then write quotations which will be useful for my analysis around the bubble.
For example, if I was answering the question, ‘ To what extent is Curley’s wife portrayed as a victim in Of Mice and Men ? ’ I might begin a mind map which looks something like this:
Y ou can keep adding to this plan, crossing bits out and linking the different bubbles when you spot connections between them. Even though you won’t have time to make such a detailed plan under exam conditions, it can be helpful just to sketch a brief one, including a few key words, so that you don’t panic and go off topic when writing your essay. If you don’t like the mind map format, there are plenty of others to choose from: you could make a table, a flowchart, or simply a list of bullet points.
2. Have a clear structure
Think about this while you are planning. Your essay is like an argument or a speech – it needs to have a logical structure, with all your points coming together to answer the question. Start with the basics: it is best to choose a few major points which will become your main paragraphs. Three main paragraphs is a good number for an exam essay, since you will be under time pressure. Organise your points in a pattern of YES (agreement with the question) – AND (another ‘YES’ point) – BUT (disagreement or complication) if you agree with the question overall, or YES – BUT – AND if you disagree. This will ensure that you are always focused on your argument and don’t stray too far from the question.
For example, you could structure the Of Mice and Men sample question as follows:
‘To what extent is Curley’s wife portrayed as a victim in Of Mice and Men?’
- YES – descriptions of her appearance
- AND – other people’s attitudes towards her
- BUT – her position as the only woman on the ranch gives her power as she uses her femininity to advantage
If you wanted to write a longer essay, you could include additional paragraphs under the ‘YES/AND’ category, perhaps discussing the ways in which Curley’s wife reveals her vulnerability and insecurities and shares her dreams with the other characters; on the other hand, you could also lengthen your essay by including another ‘BUT’ paragraph about her cruel and manipulative streak.
Of course, this is not necessarily the only right way to answer this essay question: as long as you back up your points with evidence from the text, you can take any standpoint that makes sense.
3. Back up your points with well-analysed quotations
You wouldn’t write a scientific report without including evidence to support your findings, so why should it be any different with an essay even though you aren’t strictly required to substantiate every single point you make with a quotation, there’s no harm in trying. a close reading of your quotations can enrich your appreciation of the question and will be sure to impress examiners..
When selecting the best quotations to use in your essay, keep an eye out for specific literary techniques. For example, you could discuss Curley’s wife’s use of a rhetorical question when she says, ‘An’ what am I doin’? Standin’ here talking to a bunch of bindle stiffs’:
The rhetorical question “An’ what am I doin’?” signifies that Curley’s wife is very insecure; she seems to be questioning her own life choices. Moreover, the fact that she does not expect anyone to respond to her question highlights her loneliness.
Other literary techniques to look out for include:
- Tricolon – a group of three words or phrases placed close together for emphasis
- Tautology – using different words that mean the same thing, eg ‘frightening’ and ‘terrifying’
- Parallelism – ABAB structure; often signifies movement from one concept to another
- Chiasmus – ABBA structure; draws attention to that phrase
- Polysyndeton – many conjunctions in a sentence
- Asyndeton – lack of conjunctions; can speed up the pace of a sentence
- Polyptoton – using the same word in different forms for emphasis, eg ‘done’ and ‘doing’
- Alliteration – repetition of the same sound; different forms of alliteration include assonance (similar vowel sounds), plosive alliteration (‘b’, ‘d’ and ‘p’ sounds) and sibilance (‘s’ sounds)
- Anaphora – repetition of words; often used to emphasise a particular point
Don’t worry if you can’t locate all of these literary devices in the work you’re analysing – you can also discuss more obvious effects, like metaphor, simile and onomatopoeia. It’s not a problem if you can’t remember all the long names – it’s far more important to explain the effect of the literary techniques and their relevance to the question than to use the correct terminology.
4. Be creative and original right the way through
Anyone can write an essay using the tips above, but the thing that really makes it ‘perfect’ is your own unique take on the topic you’re discussing. If you’ve noticed something intriguing or unusual in your reading, point it out: if you find it interesting, chances are the examiner will too.
Creative writing and essay writing are more closely linked than you might imagine; keep the idea that you’re writing a speech or argument in mind, and you’re guaranteed to grab your reader’s attention.
It’s important to set out your line of argument in your introduction, introducing your main points and the general direction your essay will take, but don’t forget to keep something back for the conclusion, too. Yes, you need to summarise your main points, but if you’re just repeating the things you said in your introduction, the essay itself is rendered pointless.
Think of your conclusion as the climax of your speech, the bit everything else has been leading up to, rather than the boring plenary at the end of the interesting stuff.
To return to Of Mice and Men once more, here is an example of the ideal difference between an introduction and a conclusion:
In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men , Curley’s wife is portrayed as an ambiguous character. She could be viewed either as a cruel, seductive temptress or a lonely woman who is a victim of her society’s attitudes. Though she does seem to wield a form of sexual power, it is clear that Curley’s wife is largely a victim. This interpretation is supported by Steinbeck’s description of her appearance, other people’s attitudes, her dreams, and her evident loneliness and insecurity.
Overall, it is clear that Curley’s wife is a victim and is portrayed as such throughout the novel, in the descriptions of her appearance, her dreams, other people’s judgemental attitudes, and her loneliness and insecurities. However, a character who was a victim and nothing else would be one-dimensional and Curley’s wife is not. Although she suffers in many ways, she is shown to assert herself through the manipulation of her femininity – a small rebellion against the victimisation she experiences.
Both refer back consistently to the question and summarise the essay’s main points; however, the conclusion adds something new which has been established in the main body of the essay and yet complicates the simple summary which is found in the introduction.
- Start by writing a thorough plan
- Ensure your essay has a clear structure and overall argument
- Try to back up each point you make with a quotation
- Answer the question in your introduction and conclusion but remember to be creative too
Next Steps for Prospective English Students
- Explore the Guardian’s research into how to write better essays
- Want to write for a living? Read our blog post on How to Become a Writer
- See these top tips for English literature students
- Prepare for university and experience what it’s like studying on the Oxford University campus in our Oxford Summer School .
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Hannah is an undergraduate English student at Somerville College, Oxford, and has a particular interest in postcolonial literature and the Gothic. She thinks literature is a crucial way of developing empathy and learning about the wider world, and is excited to be Scholastica Inspires’ Literature Editor! When she isn’t writing essays about 17th-century court masques, she enjoys acting, travelling and creative writing.
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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay
College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.
When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.
Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.
So, what does this mean for you?
Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.
A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.
A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.
Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.
More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.
Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.
Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.
Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.
Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.
Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.
Grab the Reader From the Start
You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.
Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.
Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.
Focus on Deeper Themes
Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.
College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.
They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.
Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?
Show Don’t Tell
As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.
The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.
Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.
Try Doing Something Different
If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?
If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.
You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.
However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.
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Write With the Reader in Mind
Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.
Use transitions between paragraphs.
Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?
Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?
Write Several Drafts
Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.
Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.
Read It Aloud
Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.
If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.
Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.
Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.
Ask Others to Read Your Essay
Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.
Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.
Pay Attention to Form
Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.
“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.
In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.
End Your Essay With a “Kicker”
In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.
It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.
So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.
While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.
Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!
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About the Author
Pamela Reynolds is a Boston-area feature writer and editor whose work appears in numerous publications. She is the author of “Revamp: A Memoir of Travel and Obsessive Renovation.”
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- 13 Essential Editing Tips to Use in Your Essay Writing
The good student strives constantly to achieve a better essay each time they write one.
It can be a challenge to find ways to keep improving, but one way of making your essays instantly better is effective editing. Editing your essay before you submit it could mean the difference between a good grade and a brilliant one, so it’s worth taking fifteen minutes or so before you send it off just checking through it to make sure that the structure and wording is as good as it can be. In this article, we give you some tips to think about when you’re editing your own writing. Keep these tips alongside you to use as a checklist and you can’t go far wrong!
1. Start by getting the structure right
If you have time, try to leave a bit of time between finishing your essay and starting the editing process. This gives you time to approach it feeling reasonably fresh; if you edit immediately after spending a long time on something, you might find that you’re so close to it that you’re unable to spot errors. When you do sit down to look through it, start by looking at its structure. Think about the overarching shape of the argument you’re developing and check that the points you’ve made help build your essay towards a logical conclusion. You may have written an essay with the points in order of when they occurred to you, but is this really the most sensible order? Does one point follow logically on from the other? Would it make the essay more interesting to include a certain point near the beginning to tease the reader, or are you revealing too much in the opening, meaning it would be better to move some points nearer the end? These are just a few of the ways in which it might be possible to improve the structure, so it helps to keep in mind your overall argument and ensure your structure puts it across as effectively as possible. With word processors now the primary means of writing essays, it couldn’t be easier to rearrange paragraphs into a more logical structure by dragging and dropping or cutting and pasting paragraphs. If you do this, don’t forget to reread the essay to ensure that the wording works with this new order, otherwise you may end up with a sentence leading into the wrong paragraph.
2. Prune long sentences and paragraphs
Whether you’ve exceeded your word count or not, long sentences and paragraphs should be edited because they can be trickier to read, and risk being boring or hard to follow. Try, therefore, to keep sentences to a maximum of two or three clauses (or segments). Avoid long paragraphs by starting a new one if you find one getting longer than three or four sentences: a wall of text can be off-putting to the reader. Leave a space between paragraphs if you’re typing your essay, as we’re doing in this article. Another way of keeping sentences to a reasonable length is to go through what you’ve written and tighten up the wording. If you find yourself writing long sentences, try to look for ways in which you can reword them to express what you’re trying to say more concisely. You’ll probably find numerous instances of phrases that take many words to say what could be said in two or three.
3. Keep overly complicated language in check
It’s going to look obvious if you’ve had a thesaurus next to you while writing, just so that you can replace all the simple words with more complicated ones. The thing is, it doesn’t always make you look intelligent; you may, for instance, inadvertently choose the wrong synonym , not realising that even close synonyms can have subtly different meanings or connotations. Sometimes using big words where simple ones would suffice can seem contrived and pompous; aim for clear, concise language to avoid being verbose or pretentious. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use more complex words at all – just choose the situation carefully and don’t overdo it.
4. Watch for repetition of ideas and words
It’s easy to repeat yourself without realising it when you’re writing, but the editing process is there to enable you to spot this before your teacher or lecturer sees it. As you read through your essay, keep a look out for ideas you’ve repeated and delete whichever repetitions add nothing to your essay (don’t forget that the first instance of the idea may not be the most appropriate place for it, so consider which is the best moment to introduce it and delete the other mentions). On a related note, look out for instances in which you’ve laboured the point. Going on about a particular point for too long can actually undermine the strength of your argument, because it makes you look as though you’re desperately grappling to find supporting facts; sometimes a simple, clear statement with a brief piece of evidence to back it up is all that’s needed. You should be equally wary of repetition of words within the same sentence or paragraph. It’s fine to repeat common words such as “the”, obviously, but it’s best to avoid using the same connecting words, such as “also”, more than once in the same paragraph. Rephrase using alternative expressions, such as “what’s more”. More unusual words should be used just once per paragraph – words such as “unavoidable”, for example – unless it’s for emphasis.
5. Don’t rely on the spellcheck
It’s a tip we’ve told you before, but it’s worth repeating because it’s very important! The spellcheck will not pick up every single error in your essay. It may highlight some typos and misspellings, but it won’t tell you if you’ve inadvertently used the wrong word altogether. For example, you may have meant to write the word “from”, but accidentally mistyped it as “form” – which is still a word, so the spellchecker won’t register it. But it’s not the word you meant to write.
6. Spotting typos
It’s said that if you read through your work backwards, you’re more likely to spot typos. This is probably because it’s giving you a new perspective on what you’ve written, making it easier to spot glaring errors than if you read through it in the order in which you wrote it and in which you know what to expect. So, start with the last sentence and keep going in reverse order until you get to the beginning of your essay. Another tip is to print out your essay and take a red pen to it, circling or underlining all the errors and then correcting them on the computer later. It’s often easier to read a document from a printed version, and it also means that you can follow what you’re doing by touching each word with the end of your pencil to make sure you’re not skimming over any errors.
7. Omit unnecessary words and eradicate weasel words
Without even realising it, you’ve probably used plenty of unnecessary words in your writing – words that add to the word count without adding to the meaning – and you’ll find that your writing works just as well without them. An example is the word “very”, which almost always adds nothing to what you’re trying to say. As Mark Twain said , “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”. Weasel words are worse, as they are used to hide weak or objectionable arguments. A study of Wikipedia found that these tend to fall into three different categories: numerical vagueness (such as “many people say” without specifying who these people are), the use of the passive voice to distance the writer from what they’re saying (“it is often said”, for example, without saying by whom it is often said), and the use of adverbs designed to soften a point (such as “probably”). Look out for these in your own writing and rephrase to remove them; they are disingenuous and your essay will be stronger without them.
8. Remove tautologies
A tautology is a stylistic error involving redundant words, in this case the use of two consecutive words that mean the same thing, such as “the big giant” (referring simply to a “giant” would have been sufficient to convey the meaning). Students often use them when they’re trying to make their writing wordier, not realising that they simply make their writing worse.
9. Watch the commas
People tend either to put too many commas into a sentence, or too few. Too many, and the sentence sounds broken and odd; too few, and the reader has to read the sentence several times to figure out what you’re trying to say, because it comes out in a long, jumbled mess. The secret is to put commas in where you would naturally pause when speaking aloud. If it helps, try reading your writing aloud to see if it flows. Where you would pause for slightly longer, a semi-colon might be more appropriate than a comma. Use a semi-colon to connect two independent clauses that would work as two separate sentences.
10. Consistent spelling
Some words have more than one correct spelling, and the important thing is to be consistent with which one you use. You could, if you wanted to make your life a little easier, delve into the settings on your word processor and manipulate the spellcheck so that it highlights the version you decided against – or even autocorrects to the right version. If you’re writing in the UK, ensure that your word processor’s default language is set to UK English so that you don’t end up inadvertently correcting English spellings to US ones (“colour” to “color”, for example).
11. Get rid of exclamation marks and ellipses
In virtually every case, you don’t need to use an exclamation mark, and – at least in academic writing – your use of one may result in your writing not being taken quite so seriously. Only use them in exceptional circumstances when you really want to convey a feeling of surprise or outrage. Ellipses (“…”) should also be avoided except when you’re indicating the truncation of a quote from another writer (that is, where you left a bit out).
12. Attribute quotations
Quotations from authors or academic writers should be attributed to them. As you read through your essay, keep a look out for any quotations you’ve mentioned and make sure that you say where they’re from. If you’re writing an essay for university, a footnote would be an appropriate way of citing another writer. If you are using footnotes, this gives an extra area on which to focus your editing skills; ensure that all footnotes are consistently formatted, and don’t forget to put a bibliography containing all the books you’ve used at the end.
13. Consistent formatting
The appearance of your essay matters, too – and the formatting should not be neglected when you’re in editing mode. This means being consistent with your use of fonts, using italics or underline for emphasis rather than using them interchangeably, ensuring that the spacing between lines is consistent throughout, and other such minor aesthetic points. This may not sound very important, but consistent formatting helps your essay look professional; if you’ve used different fonts or line spacing or anything like that, your essay will look a mess even if what you’ve said in it is good. You could make use of the pre-populated formatting options in your word processor to ensure consistency throughout, with header 1 for the title, header 2 for subheadings and ‘normal text’ for the body of the document. If you find that there are too many things on this list to think about in one go when you’re reading through your essay, you could read through it several times looking out for different things each time. All this may seem a lot to think about when you’ve already put in so much effort to write the essay in the first place, but trust us: it will pay off with a sleek and polished piece.
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