It’s no secret that high school students usually are not well-equipped to write college-level essays. Indeed, there are many differences between what passed for an essay even in your most demanding high school class and what is expected from you in college. The length, the arguments and presentation are much different, and if you’re looking for a basic guide, you’ve found it. Here’s how you write a college essay:
Let’s start with the topic. The perfect topic is specific, but not to the point of being restrictive. If you’re assigned a topic that’s too broad to be covered in an essay, you can focus it. So, say, a topic like “The Greek Economic Crisis” is much too vague and broad. You can either write your professor with a request for a different one or propose your own. If the topic is too general, you’ll no doubt end up omitting something important, and that will cost you grade points.
If you’re creating your own topic, try not to get overwhelmed by the freedom, you won’t get to do this often under normal circumstances. Choose a topic that fits the following criteria:
- It’s something that you’re knowledgeable about.
- It’s something that you can provide expertise on.
- It’s a topic that you have something to say on.
The last one is crucial. Essays provide an opportunity for you to speak your mind on a topic and you’d be wasting it by choosing something you don’t care about. Besides, choosing a topic that you have a personal stake in will make for better writing. The best essays are written by opinionated people who have strong feelings on a subject and express them readily.
Unless you’re writing a personal essay, you’ll need sources. Expressing your point of view is encouraged, but you are just a student, and no matter how right you are, there are more qualified people out there who hold the same viewpoints, so why not use them? Back up your own thoughts with with data from reputable studies and experts’ opinions to make your college essay more credible.
You’ll do well by also looking up people who disagree with your thesis, and feel free to disagree right back, but be sure you’re right. Nothing looks as bad as not knowing what you’re talking about, and when you’re taking a shot at an expert, be objective.
The best sources come from books. If you’re using someone’s conclusions on something, it’s best that they come from a book that that person has written on the subject. If you’re writing on something topical, you can use articles as well. But be careful not to use some random click-bait hot take, your professor will surely hate that.
By now, you have your topic and your sources. It’s time to outline! Structure your essay around the arguments you want to present. Some of the materials you’ve gathered probably say more or less the same thing, so group them (if you haven’t already) by the points they make. You won’t be citing all of the materials you’ve found, but what they say should naturally guide your writing in the right direction. Keep in mind that you’re writing this essay for someone to read, so work hard on making it easy to follow. The outline is where you lay the foundation for that.
Writing and editing
The tone of voice you should use in a college essay is somewhat authoritative. You can use jokes or humor to make the essay a more interesting read, but only once you’ve become a more confident writer. Until your voice develops, stick to being serious.
It’s been said that 90% of writing is rewriting, so don’t be precious with what you wrote. Odds are, what you wrote could use another pass. When you’ve finished writing, leave it for some time before you start editing. Don’t look at your essay or even think about it for as long as you can afford. Since you’re a beginner, the essay will probably be riddled with sentences that are in need of rewriting or deletion. The more time you spend away from the keyboard before sitting down to rewrite, the more obvious it will be what needs changing.
Now, the first thing you should look for is sentences that don’t say anything. It seems like an oxymoron, but this is a common sin committed by beginner writers. Look for sentences that use different words to essentially repeat what the sentence before it says. It also might be a good idea for someone else to read your essay. So go make friends with the English major, they’ll critique your work to high heavens. Besides, they know all the grammatical errors your spell checker can’t detect.
That’s it for the basic guide to writing a college essay! Don’t worry if your first essay isn’t as great as you want it to be, this happens to everyone who just started writing. In fact, it’s much more rare to see something good come out from a first-timer. Keep developing your voice and keep writing, you’ll only get better as time passes.