A sample essay demonstrating the elements of strong academic writing:
How to Write an Academic Essay
You’ve made it. You’ve finished high school, and you’re finally a college student. You are finally out on your own, independent, free to experience adult life, to learn new things, and to meet new people. You’re free to chill out and do your own thing and live your own kind of life. At first college life seems great; you set your own schedule, you manage your own time. But then it hits you – you’re assigned your first college essay. This will be easy; just like high school, right? Wrong. College writing is has a whole new set of expectations which your high school writing instructors may or may not have prepared you for. College essays are “academic writing,” and with that genre comes a demand for a certain style which many students may be very uncomfortable with. However, the key to writing successfully in the college setting is simple: understand the expectations. After all, it’s difficult to produce to a particular standard if you aren’t sure how that standard is defined or measured. The main concerns for any college essay are a strong introduction with a clear and focused thesis (like this one!), organization, development of ideas through supporting evidence, and a conclusion which synthesizes the main points and makes an application.
The introduction is the first contact the writer makes with the reader, and therefore must make a good first impression. A good introduction will include three major elements: a hook, a lead-in, and a thesis. Take a look at the introduction above. It begins with a hook – something to capture the reader’s attention. In this case, the hook is a hypothetical situation presented to the reader. Notice also that this hypothetical situation assumes a particular audience; this hook would appeal only to an audience of incoming college students, as it would be irrelevant to any other audience. Audience is always an important consideration when choosing how to begin an essay. After the hook, the introduction employs a lead-in. This is found in the series of sentences which transition from the hypothetical situation into a discussion of college essays in particular; since college writing will be the topic of the essay, it is important to segue smoothly from the hook into the discussion of that topic so that the reader can begin to prepare his or her mind for the rest of the essay. At this point in the introduction, the reader’s attention has been captured (by the hook), and the reader already has a general idea of how that hook relates to what the essay is actually about. Finally, the introduction presents the thesis, a clear and direct statement of the purpose for the essay. Note that the thesis also implies a particular organization. From the arrangement of the thesis, the reader can assume that the writer will begin by discussing introductions, then organization, then development of ideas, and then the conclusion. The organization of the essay should echo that of the thesis; this makes it easy for the reader to follow the writer’s argument, and gives the essay a clear focus.
The second major requirement of an academic essay is that it be well-organized. This is greatly influenced by the structure of the thesis, as mentioned above. If the thesis is presented directly and orderly, then the paper should flow naturally out of the set-up of the thesis. Also important to organization is the use of paragraph structure. Each main point from the thesis should be given its own paragraph, so that the reader can easily pinpoint when the discussion shifts from one topic to the next. The transitions between paragraphs are important as well, because these indicate how each new topic is related to the previous and how it relates back to the essay as a whole. For example, this paragraph begins by stating its topic (organization) and relating that topic back to the main thesis (requirements of an academic essay). It also transitions from the previous topic by reminding the reader that this is the second major requirement, thus setting this paragraph firmly within a structured order in the context of the essay.
The next important element for a college essay is the use of supporting evidence to develop the argument. In academic writing, it is not enough for the writer to state his or her own thoughts and opinions; the writer must support those opinions with both logic and evidence. First and foremost, the argument presented in the essay must make sense; it must be coherent and logically sound. Once a logical argument is established, then it becomes the writer’s job to convince the reader that the argument is valid. The writer cannot expect the reader to take the argument at face value, or to believe the argument on good faith; as with a lawyer presenting a case before a jury, the writer must convince the reader through the use of supporting evidence. This can be done in several ways; the writer can use citations from experts on the topic, interviews or quotations from relevant sources, examples from everyday life which illustrate the argument’s validity, or personal anecdotes which provide a sense of credibility and emotional weight to the argument. Often, the most effective approach is to combine two or more of these evidence types, weaving in outside sources along with hypothetical or real-life examples. As the Dartmouth Writing Program’s website states, if you “find yourself relying on your rhetoric alone to make a point,” then most likely you do not have enough supporting evidence.
The final element of an effective academic essay is a strong conclusion. Ideally, the conclusion will do more than just summarize the essay’s main points; it will also synthesize those points into one focused idea. Furthermore, a powerful conclusion leaves the reader with a “so what” statement – a statement which applies the essay’s argument to real life and shows how it is relevant to the reader. This “so what” statement can come in the form of a call to action, a question for the reader to consider, or just a poignant statement which emphasizes the importance of the essay’s message. The conclusion, in short, should encapsulate all the main points of the essay – it will echo the thesis and introduction, shadow the essay’s organization, and show the culmination of all the essay’s previous arguments. It will not introduce new evidence; rather, it will focus on bringing the argument to an end, providing finality for the reader. With all these expectations, writing the conclusion can seem a daunting task. However, the conclusion is the final impression your reader will have of your paper. You’re in college now, the world of the academic essay, and a strong finish is vital to the essay’s overall impact. When concluding your essay, ask yourself: Do I want my reader to be impressed with what my essay had to say, or do I want them to finish and think, “Okay, I read this…so what?”