Freshman college students often feel overwhelmed by the new set of expectations on their essay writing. What earned them praise in high school may no longer meet the criteria of their college professors. Though the learning curve may be steep, students often find that by their junior and senior years, their essay writing skills have become finely honed.
Here are some tips for college students on how to write excellent essays:
Organize your ideas
Some students need to write outlines in order to organize their thoughts. Outlines are kind of like training wheels that are the teacher’s way of helping you learn how to organize an argument. If you don’t need an outline anymore, you may want to just write down some key ideas and sentences to get you started.
Write your essay out of order
Many students find it difficult to write the introduction first. They know what their argument is going to be and how they’re going to defend it, but they don’t know how to introduce those ideas to the reader just yet. So, skip the introduction and get straight to the body paragraphs. You’ll find that after working through your arguments and supporting your thesis, you’ll have an easier time writing the introduction.
Okay, so now it’s time to actually write the introduction. Whether you’ve opted to write it first, second or last, there are good introductions and there are not so good introductions.
Some of them to avoid:
- General introductions. Introductions like “Human history shows that man has always been obsessed with technology.”
- Dictionary definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “law” as “the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and may enforce by the imposition of penalties.” This is not only boring, but it’s stating the obvious. Everyone knows what “law” means. What’s different about your take on the law that will show us something we didn’t know before? That’s an interesting introduction.
Some introductions to adopt:
- Ask a thought-provoking question. Something that will get your readers thinking about this subject and eager to read your arguments
- Provide an interesting anecdote. An anecdote can provide a great lead into your arguments by telling a compelling story.
- Open with a strong quotation. Sometimes a quotation says it like nothing else. If you have that perfect quotation that will nail the essence of your essay, use it.
Conclusions can be just as tricky as introductions. You’ve done your research, you’ve presented your arguments, and…now what?
A good conclusion should achieve the following:
- Leave your readers pondering the arguments you raised.
- Make them feel they learned something useful.
- Impress them with your knowledge of the topic.
One of the best ways to write a great conclusion is thinking about the next steps of the issue you’re arguing. If you’re arguing about legalizing gay marriage, for example, think about what are some of the next steps involved in this issue. What are the implications for the future?
How to research
Sometimes, a professor asks you to read a specific text and write a paper on it. In that case, you should read that text with the topic question in mind:
- Take notes on sections that reflect the topic.
- Use a highlighter to highlight sentences that will support your argument or serve as counterarguments.
- Write down questions that could provide topics for further research.
- Ask yourself what may be missing from the author’s argument? What other perspective might they have taken? Have you read other texts that provide complimentary arguments? What have other experts argued?
There are two kinds of plagiarism: blatant copying and simply rewording an argument. The first one is pretty straightforward and usually completely intentional: you’ve simply cut and pasted someone else’s text into your paper without giving credit. Depending on the frequency and degree to which it’s done, it can result in suspension, grade deflation or even expulsion.
The second type of plagiarism is trickier because sometimes students do this without even realizing it. You should do research and seek out the knowledge of experts in the subject. But you shouldn’t copy their argument and original ideas. The point of writing a paper is to practice coming up with your own argument based on the reading you’ve done.
Okay, so you’ll avoid plagiarism by quoting your sources and giving them credit for it. And the occasional quote from an expert that clearly supports and illustrates your point is fine. But sometimes students rely too much on quoting others that they forget to develop and write their own paper. A couple of well-chosen quotes will show the professor that you did a good job with your research. But littering your paper with quotes will rob you of the chance to develop your own writing style and make it impossible for the professor to evaluate your ability to argue a topic.
Don’t write last-minute papers
Editing and rewriting can do worlds of good for your paper. It will help you work out the kinks in your argument, correct grammar issues, and leave your paper so polished it practically sparkles. But, editing also requires time. Not just for the editing itself but for you to have time away from your paper to let your thoughts settle, so you can look at it again with fresh eyes. Don’t leave your writing assignments to the last minute. Start on them as soon as possible so that you can leave yourself the time it takes to do an A+ editing job.
How to edit a paper
Here are some quick tips for your editing process:
- Remove any sentences that use the passive voice.
- Make sure you used the correct version of commonly confused words such as their vs. they’re, your vs. you’re, its vs. it’s.
- Read each paragraph out loud and make corrections. You’ll be looking for grammar mistakes, awkward phrasing, holes in your argument, missing information to support your argument or miscellaneous information that could be left out.
A lot of students lose points because they haven’t learned how to format the Works Cited page. It’s best to learn it once and for all since you’ll be using it for every paper you write throughout college and beyond. Here’s a source that lays it out simply for you: http://writingcommons.org/process/format/formatting-styles/mla-formatting/608-formatting-the-works-cited-page-mla.