While it’s not strictly true that I got an A on every paper in college, it’s safe to say that I would have graduated with a 4.0 if all my grades rested only on my ability to write an essay. So gather your college hopefuls and struggling students. I now share with you the secrets to my success and how to implement them for your own purposes. It’s important to note that these tips are specifically related to playing the academic game, and not all can or shouldbe used to generally apply to writing an essay for purely literary purposes.
#1 Know your audience.
This is essential for any graded assignment. In attending lectures you will become aware of certain peculiarities and opinions held dearly by your professor. They don’t mean to, they do try to be objective, but opinions or stances that mirror our own just sound better. I remember laughing out loud at a comment scribbled in the margin of one of my essays; “very well stated!” Turns out, it was nearly a direct quote from her own observations in class. Does that mean you should be a sycophant and suck up at every opportunity? Absolutely not. In fact, if you disagree with a professor, absolutely take it on; but be sure that every opinion you know they have is addressed in some way or your argument is flawed. In fact, I once took a Semantics class that had two different textbooks with two different theories of semantics to consider. Our final paper asked that we choose one or the other and defend it. I couldn’t in good conscience do either, so I showed why both were wrong and suggested my own theory with the research to prove it. A+.
#2 Know your assignment.
Read your assignment carefully. Usually the professor plants in there all the clues for your success. This isn’t like writing for a publishing house or magazine you hope will be a good fit. They are literally telling you exactly what they want. Be sure you give it to them. Thinking outside the box is great and showing your creativity is even better, but not if it’s at the expense of your grade because you failed to meet the minimum requirements. If they want you to demonstrate your understanding of a scientific principle using three examples, make sure you have all three! If they want 1500 words, keep fleshing that out until it’s at least 1500 words. And if it’s a page requirement, don’t mess with the margins to make it work. Professors aren’t stupid, and they look at this stuff every day of their lives. They know a two-inch margin when they see it, and they will flay you. You can’t afford to miss an expectation that easy to meet, especially if writing is a challenge for you.
#3 A good outline saves lives.
Okay, friends. Here is the meat of it: I will be forever grateful for my high school English and History teachers who taught me the value of a good outline and how to write it into the first paragraph as a stellar introduction. This tip is especially effective for essay responses required on a timed test but can be adapted for nearly any informative essay. Your format is as follows:
Sentence(s) 1: Attention grabber. Start with an inspiring quote, restating the prompt in a creative way, and make it personal; whatever you can grab that is relevant and interesting. For example: “‘When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization,’ said Daniel Webster.”
Sentence(s) 2: A sentence or two that lists out the points you intend to prove, and there should be at least three points of discussion. For example: “The American Civil War impacted the lives of farmers in multiple ways. Not only did the war itself disrupt production and destroy valuable farming land, but the shift from great plantations to smaller farms led to changes in economy and family structure.” Do you see that? I now have my entire essay set up. I have stated my thesis, and I know where I need to go. I need one paragraph about the war and its impact on the land itself, I need one about the transition from slave-owning plantations to smaller farms, which transitions nicely into how the subjects of those two preceding paragraphs changed the economy, then how things changed for farming families or civilization… which ties into my quote that started it all.
Sentence 3: A bridge or transition from this to the next paragraph. Example: “The war changed the landscape literally and figuratively.”
Rinse and repeat. This format enables writers to quickly outline their thoughts in a few sentences. All you have to do is come up with at least three things to talk about related to the subject at hand. That’s not so hard as coming up with an entire essay and complete thoughts all at once. After this initial paragraph is set up, the essay practically writes itself. You know what comes next, you just need to flesh it out with thoughtful examples from history, evidence from the literary text, proof from an experiment; whatever the subject, these same principles apply.
#4 Transition well.
The body of the essay will start and end each paragraph with these transition sentences, which are often the hardest part, so I will sometimes skip them to be added back in once I have the body completed. The format of the middle paragraphs will echo the format of your introduction, with each point of discussion substituting for the overall thesis statement in the introduction. The structure should be as follows:
Sentence 1: Transition into this point
Sentence 2: Point 1 stated
Sentence 3-5: Examples of point 1, at least 3 of them
Sentence 6: Transition into the next point
As you can see, the transitions are a big part of smoothly moving from one subject to the next. Try to see how each idea is connected to the next, and highlight that.
#5 Stay on Target.
The meat of what you’ve studied and are now expected to communicate is the important element to get right. Make sure each paragraph stays on topic, shows relevant evidence of your point, and has at least three such evidences. If it’s a literary critique, this can be proof from the author’s life, a quote from the text, or a note about the meaning of a word at that time … whatever is needed to prove your point. History, science, and (I imagine) law are actually very easy to write essays about because there are actual facts and quotes about that event, or scientific experiments to draw from, legal precedents to relate. Again, you just focus on the three things needed to prove your point here. You can do this!
#6 Draw your conclusions.
This last paragraph is going to be more similar to the introduction, but not a parrot of it. This is where you pull together all the things you’ve described and proved throughout the essay. You need to mention the points you’ve made throughout, but it doesn’t have to be as explicit at this point because it’s been well fleshed out. If there is a way to reference back to the quote or beginning concept, great, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. The thesis should really shine here and be illuminated as truth now that you’ve proved all your points.
For example: “The lives of farmers were forever changed by the civil war in so many ways. With the demands of war on limited resources, farming changed in scope and technique, which in turn affected prices and market value, which changed the opportunities available for families. One could even say the war changed the foundation of civilization, as it transformed the life of the farmer.”
See how each main idea is covered, but in a new way, reflective of the information that would have been shared in detail throughout? The tip of the hat to the beginning quote in that last sentence may be a bit over the top, but it depends on your audience. Is that a concept they’ve really highlighted or resonated with during lecture? Then it will only help.
So there you have it, friends; the secret to my college success. My niece has used this advice to good effect in her college essays, and I hope it will do you proud, too. I am happy to answer any questions in the comments.