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Writing a College Essay

So you’ve picked a topic, you’ve done your research, and now you’re staring at a blank page that you have to turn into a college essay. Even professional writers can freeze up at this task and get frustrated when the words just will not come.

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Getting Started

As you’re sitting down to write, hopefully you’ve already chosen an essay topic and done a substantial amount of research and brainstorming. You probably have an idea of what you want to cover in your paper. The temptation for most writers is to launch right in with an introduction and plow through the paper haphazardly, turning thoughts into words until you run out of steam and (hopefully) hit the minimum page requirement. However, laying a bit of groundwork to get started can get your college essay off on the right foot.

In the early stages of writing your paper, you’ll want to figure out where your paper is going and how you plan to get it there. Establish your central argument, or thesis. Hopefully, you’ve done this already, but after thinking and research, it may have changed, or you may have decided to word it differently. If you’ve still got a research question and no central argument, think about what you’ve learned from your research and what conclusions you want your reader to reach. This is your thesis. Make sure it makes it into your paper’s introduction, despite whatever urges you may have to save it for a surprise ending. At this stage, if you don’t already have an outline, you may want to create one. This will help you get your thoughts in one place, and you can begin to see what’s important. Take a look back through your sources at this point, too, and remind yourself of just what you’re working with. Bonus points if you’ve taken the time to summarize each source and highlighted potential quotes for quick reference.

Organization

I’m a messy person. For most of college, the closest thing to a clear, level surface in my bedroom was the part of the laundry pile that the cat had flattened out to sleep on. So when I start preaching organization, you know it’s important. A clearly organized essay is something to strive towards, not only to get a better grade on the assignment, but to make writing easier for you. When you have a sense of what points you want to cover and how you want to move from point to point within the essay, you’re less likely to lose track of your argument, forget to include important information, or find yourself out of ideas well short of the page minimum.

So don’t look at your essay as one giant, jumbled whole. Take your idea and break it down into manageable segments, then work on transitioning between these points. You may want to refer frequently to your outline to keep it straight. I also like to add in topic headings to keep myself on track, even if the format of the essay requires me to take them out later. If I forget what I’m writing about or begin to wander away from my point, I have big, bold letters to remind me to return to what I want to say.

A solid organization scheme will lead to a more coherent essay, since you’re covering each main idea in a separate place. It can also help you overcome the panic involved in realizing you have a huge expanse of paper to fill with words. By breaking your essay down into points, ideas, or segments, the task switches from writing one eight-page paper to four two-page papers, and after a few weeks of college, most students feel like they can knock out a two-page paper like it’s nothing.

Supporting Your Thesis

So you have a central argument, an organization scheme, and a set of clear main points. You’re ready to develop your essay with arguments and source support. Since you know what your ideas are and what other sources say about them, this should be fairly easy, but for many people, especially those new to college writing, it’s not. It may take a conscious effort to “unpack” each idea, breaking it down into component parts necessary for understanding.

Just like your main ideas support your thesis and lead your reader towards your conclusion, the body of each section of your paper should do the same. Ask if there are any assumptions you or your reader have about your topic, or any points of clarification that may be required. Just like writing a proof in your high school geometry class, take your main point and break down how you reached it—what sources, thoughts, or arguments were involved?

Likewise, sources can be challenging to use correctly. Despite what you may believe, your college professor is primarily interested in what you have to say, not what previous research says. So don’t let your sources lead your essay. Use them to back up the points you want to make, rather than using your arguments to support your sources’ conclusions. Be sure to cite something when it’s something new that the author contributes, or something that the reader may not already know. Your professor may not be as familiar with the nuances of your topic as you are, so they may need some outside help to understand the landscape of your topic. Also, make sure to tie your sources into your argument—avoid what composition instructors call “crouton quotes,” statements that are plunked down in the middle of a paragraph without proper context or connection to the words around them.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

You may have noticed at this point that I’ve said nothing about spelling and grammar. While these are important components of a college essay, they’re also the easiest concerns to address, and for most students, they should take up a relatively small portion of the time you’re devoting to your essay. Make sure you have the essay written before you begin agonizing over relatively small, detail-oriented parts.

However, you will want to check through your essay for spelling and grammar, and also make sure you’re properly following the conventions of the style in which you’re writing. Citation styles all have their individual nuances, and academic writing usually requires you to follow a specific one. Your professor may also have specific requirements you need to be sure to fulfill. Nothing’s more painful than losing points for something small like forgetting to put your name at the top of the page. So take some time to address these points, but don’t rely solely on presentation to earn you an A on your college essay.

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