College freshman may get a rude awakening when they hand in their first college paper. What would have earned them high marks in high school is simply not acceptable anymore. High school papers, namely the five-paragraph essay, were your training wheels for more in-depth writing. Instead of looking at facts and pointing out general themes and concepts, college writing asks you to take a deeper look into logic, reasoning, context and analysis and structure your college essay well.
Ok, fine. But how do you accomplish that exactly? What does it look like? Here are some basic guidelines for how to organize your college essays:
Your introduction should accomplish several things:
- Introduce the topic you will be writing about.
- Make the reader care about the topic.
- Give them important information about the topic.
- Convey your position on the topic in your thesis statement.
You can accomplish these with a few different introduction styles:
- Offer a compelling example.
- Quote statistics.
- Use a knock-out quotation.
- Tell a relevant anecdote.
- Pose an intriguing question.
Tips on getting your introduction right:
- Try writing it last. Sometimes, the introduction is the hardest part to write. After you’ve written your supporting paragraphs, you may have an easier time finding the right way to introduce them
- Don’t be too broad. The “Since the dawn of time humanity has…” introduction should be eliminated. Give some of the above examples a try. Overly broad introductions are a waste of words. Get to the point.
Your thesis statement defines your take on the subject you’re writing about. It guides the rest of the paper’s arguments. Ask yourself the following questions about your thesis statement:
- Is it polemical? Can someone argue for or against this statement? If not, it’s weak and needs to be reworked.
- Does it answer the question or prompt proposed by the professor?
- Is it contained in a sentence or does it sprawl? A thesis statement is one sentence long and usually comes at the end of the introduction paragraph. Don’t use the introduction paragraph to write a long sprawling thesis statement. Instead, make it concise, specific and packs a punch.
This is where your essay will differ from high school writing the most. Body paragraphs will be developed in order to support your thesis statement, just like in a five-paragraph essay. However, the type of research and analysis you will use will be different. In the five paragraph essay, it was okay to write a paper on MacBeth by providing plot point summaries. But in a college paper, you can skip the summary.
You’re not proving to the professor that you read MacBeth. You’re proving that you did research and have developed an interesting and original analysis of it. Same goes with high school history papers where you basically listed events in your supporting paragraphs to prove your thesis statement. That’s no longer acceptable. Instead, you’ll be analyzing why and how certain events occurred, not affirming that they occurred.
Good body paragraphs should contain the following:
- Well-researched evidence. Use credible sources from experts in the subject. Don’t quote dubious sources or statistics. Forget Wikipedia or someone’s personal blog (unless it’s a professor’s blog). Look for academic publications from known authorities on the subject.
- In-depth analysis. This is where you start to develop critical thinking skills. Go beyond “who,what,where,when” and start to answer “why and how.” Consider historical context. If you’re writing about an artist, what was the political era in which his work was produced? What were his influences? How did he come to develop his particular style? Why was it important then and why should we care about it now?
- Contain counter-arguments. It’s not enough to support your thesis statement. That alone doesn’t make for a strong essay. If you wrote a great thesis statement, that means there should be a strong counter-argument to be considered. Your research should reflect not only why you chose the side you chose, but the scope of your choices. What does the opposition think? Why do they feel that way? What is the basis of their argument? Your essay will be all the more convincing if you show the reader that you’ve considered all sides of the subject, and chose the position presented in your thesis statement.
In high school, your conclusions were a summary of the main points in your essay. College essays require a more elaborate conclusion that goes beyond summary and shows reflection, analysis and synthesis of the ideas presented. Here are some ideas for how to conclude a college paper:
- If you introduced your essay with an anecdote or example, revisit it at the end to close the circle. How have your arguments shed new light on this story?
- If you didn’t use a quote in your introduction, consider using one at the end. Especially if it seems to capture the essence of your arguments.
- Suggest ideas for next steps in this area or further research needed in order to make advances and solve problems.
- Indicate why this issue is relevant and why people today should care about it.
After you’ve written your first draft using the guidelines from above, it’s a great practice to do a reverse outline. A reverse outline provides a thorough review of your essay draft by checking for flow and helping you spot gaps in your logic as well as spelling and grammar mistakes.
After you’ve written your draft:
- Read and take notes on your draft. Does it make sense? Is there a better example you could have used? Have you stayed close to your thesis statement or did you start to stray?
- Number your paragraphs. Sometimes you may find that reordering your paragraphs will help the essay flow better. Numbering them will make it easier for you to reorganize it later.
- Make your outline. Dissect your draft by using it to make a basic outline. What are the main points of each section? Then take a look at your outline and analyze which areas need to be reworked for coherence and flow.