How to Write a College Essay

Essay writing made easy!

It is time to write your college essay. Great! If you are wondering what to do first, let me help! College essays can cause much anxiety among students, but it does not have to be this way. In this article on college essay writing, I will walk you, step by step, through the writing process. To begin with, ascertain the college essay writing resources available to you. Check your library. Often, the librarian can point you to many college essay writing resources. Your library is certain to have how-to guides and even templates to assist you with your college essay writing.

Before you begin to write, however, it is a good idea to make sure you are familiar with and utilizing an appropriate citation software: EndNote, Zotero and Mendeley are popular. Now that you have your resources identified and your citation software ready, you are able to begin composition. Don’t worry—I’ll be here with you every step of the way, as you write your college essay. Let’s start!

Section 1: The Basics This initial section is a detailed, step-by-step explanation about college essay writing, including creating a thesis, introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusions, and editing and proofreading.  

Section 2: Beyond the Basics Offering a more detailed analysis of what constitutes an excellent college essay and how to accomplish it.   

Section 1: The Basics

College Essay Writing: The Process Approach

This section will walk you through each stage of the writing process for your college essay.

Brainstorming

To start writing your college essay, begin with brainstorming on your topic. Try and keep your essay topic fairly narrow. Why brainstorm? Well, as E.M. Forrester once said, “How do I know what I think, until I see what I say?” Brainstorming prior to writing is critical, as you need to be able to get out on paper (or screen) what you already have in your brain about the topic. You want to understand what you already know, and as anyone who has tried brainstorming can attest, it is surprising what you already know, and what you didn’t know you meant to say! Perhaps the most important aspect of all this is that when writing your college essay, you ‘know what you know.’ If you begin to do research for your college essay prior to brainstorming, you will be in serious danger of filling your head with other people’s ideas and thoughts, which will make your ability to produce original content much more difficult. So, brainstorm what you know, allow your pen to reveal ideas you didn’t know you had, and get that awesome material of yours down before you hit the library. Remember: a good college essay is about your thoughts, primarily, so that is where you should begin.

The key to good brainstorming is to relax. During the college essay writing process, this is the point where you are allowed to be completely free and creative. I personally favour the timed free write method. Begin by writing fast as you can, without stopping, on your college essay subject for 7 minutes. Do not look at your paper, or turn your monitor off and type. Now read what you have written. Much of it will be gibberish, but from within the material, you will find ideas you never thought of, or directions to take your essay’s argument—try it. You will be pleasantly surprised, and it will heavily affect the quality of your college essay. 

Thesis Statement

A college essay thesis statement establishes the parameters of your work, and should be one or two sentences at the most. Think of encapsulating your main argument and your supporting evidence and analysis into one, short blurb at the start of the essay. It tells the reader where the essay is going, and keeps you on the path, too! It is perfectly acceptable (contrary to what you may have learned in high school) to use the first person when stating your thesis. One technique is to complete this sentence: “In this essay, I will…” Now, you have a draft. At this point, please review your brainstorming. What lends itself to your essay, what is unnecessary, what is still needed? How can your brainstorming ideas work together—what connections can be made? Brainstorming is crucial to creating quality college essay writing.

Structure

Among the great thoughts of the orator and philosopher Aristotle is “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” College essay writers: take note! There is great wisdom here. In the introduction, you ‘tell them what you are going to tell them.’ In your body paragraphs, you ‘tell them’; in your conclusion, you ‘tell them what you told them.’ If you can keep this picture in mind, the point of the organizational structure of a well written college essay becomes clear. 

Writing paragraphs

Critical to communicating your ideas, writing paragraphs can often be very intimidating to many college students. My goal is to walk you through writing college-level paragraphs to support your overall thesis. Just to review: the point of your college essay is to 1) demonstrate critical thinking 2) persuade your reader through the use of scholarly research to support your ideas. To demonstrate critical thinking in a college essay, you will need to reveal your critical thinking on the subject and plan how to most effectively persuade the reader of your ideas. It is in your body paragraphs that all this comes out; therefore, knowing how to create strong paragraphs is a critical skill for the student writer of college essays.   

College essay paragraphs are groups of sentences that are all connected and related to a main point that is articulated in the topic sentence. Think of the topic sentence of your paragraph as a ‘mini-thesis’ for your paragraph. All material that follows your topic sentence must relate to this point, and none others—that’s what your other paragraphs are for. Having only one topic per paragraph is crucial to writing a good college essay. Remember the Aristotelian quote earlier? “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. “I gave this tip as a way to look at the structure of an essay; now, I’d like you to use it to think about structuring your paragraph. In a way, the paragraph of a college essay is a kind of microcosm of the essay itself. The topic sentence is where you will ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them’; the ‘body’ of your paragraph is where you ‘tell them,’ and finally, the conclusion is where you ‘tell them what you told them.’ Does this sound like overkill? Believe me, it is not. The reader of your college essay seeks this amount of clarity and direction. If you want to clearly communicate your ideas in your writing, by structuring your paragraphs much like you structure your overall essay, you are going to have a strongly organized, clear, readable, and professional work of college writing. Put another way: your college essay paragraphs focus on one topic only; the topic is introduced in the topic (first) sentence, followed by your evidence and analysis of that evidence as it pertains to your overall thesis.

Helpful hint: college essay paragraphs are approximately half to a maximum of a double-spaced page long. If you have a page-length paragraph or over in your essay, please ensure that other topics haven’t ‘snuck in’ to your paragraph. Conversely, a college essay paragraph can also be too short—if you have only a couple of sentences, that is not enough, and you must think of where the material would be better placed, if used at all.

Topic Sentences

The topic sentence of a college essay serves to focus the discussion of the paragraph only. If you are still new to the college writing process, it is often easiest to simply place it as your first sentence. Next, you present the evidence to support your thesis’ claim. However, your scholarly research does not ‘argue’ your essay for you—your analysis of the relationship between this evidence and your claim does. Please remember that the research evidence doesn’t make the claim; rather, it supports the claim. How exactly it supports your claim depends on the final element of a college essay paragraph: your analysis.   

Analysis

Your goal as the writer of college essays is to support the claim you make in your topic sentence. However, the evidence that supports this claim is incomplete until you explain—clearly—to your reader exactly how the evidence supports the topic sentence. Remember, your reader is a different person than yourself; he or she may not ‘see’ the connections between the material as easily as you do. This is the “So What?” part of your college essay: the analysis. When you show your reader how the evidence connects to your claim, you are also showing your professor evidence of your critical thinking skills—exactly what he or she is looking for in your college essay writing. Please note that what you do not want in a quality college essay is a jumble of quotes and paraphrases that are ‘filler’ and do not obviously connect to the topic sentence.

College essay writing is about demonstrating how and why your argument is valid, and this is done through analysis of your supporting research. To ease this task, ask yourself the following questions: Why did I choose to use this evidence? Does it really support my claim? How does it do so? And finally: why is it important? Why should the reader care? After careful consideration, please use the latter half of your college essay paragraphs to explain why the evidence you’ve chosen is relevant to your argument.

 Transitions

Every student has struggled with using the appropriate transitions between paragraphs, and even sentences within paragraphs. Remember, the ‘job’ of your college essay is to make your communication clear to your reader—therefore, transitions are key. Think of transitions as directions for your reader. Transitions in college essays exist to ease the focus of one topic to another. Simply jumping into a new topic is not enough for a quality college essay. When a college essay is being read, there should be no jarring contrasts that break the reader’s focus, or make it an uncomfortable read, and it is transitions that assist your essay’s movement from one idea to another. Read through your work with an eye to these smooth transitions—even better, have a friend read through your paragraphs to tell you where they have to search for connections, find it awkward to read, or are just confused.

When you break down the reading process, you are signalling or directing your reader, much like a police officer directs traffic. This metaphor of ‘signalling’ to the reader of your academic essay the direction the ‘conversation’ is now taking. Again, keeping the reader in mind is paramount when writing your college essay—you want to ensure that your reader is smoothly guided from one idea to the next.  If you have ever had to read through a college essay that uses transitions poorly, you can appreciate the trouble it will cause your reader.

Editing and Revisions

It is hard to overstate the importance of editing and revisions for a quality college essay. Many students are unaware of this critical aspect of the writing process. Often, students assume that a writer is ‘born with a gift’ or some similar idea. The truth is, no writer—no matter how great, no matter how famous—dashes off material in one go. Get down your major ideas for your college essay in a first draft. Do not worry about mistakes—that’s what the proofreading (final) stage is for (see below). Believe me, your anxiety level will go way, way down when you have a plump first draft of your own writing ready to go. If you have started your project as early as I recommend (see below), you can take your time, fix it up, polish it up, add new material, tweak awkward sentences—perfecting your college essay, while taking your time to do it.

Proofreading  

Make sure you finish your final draft at least a day prior to proofreading. Give yourself 24hrs away from the essay so you can approach it with fresh eyes.  Keep a log of feedback from your college professors. Use this list to check off each item as you proofread your essay. I would highly recommend that you also print out your college essay when proofreading: if you take away only one piece of proofreading advice from this section on college essay writing: this is it. It is truly amazing what pops out at you when you review your work off screen. Try it. You’ll see. Read your essay aloud—better, have a friend read it aloud to you. Finally, ensure that you’ve followed the style guide your professor requires to the letter.

Overall, paragraphs are the ‘main course’ of your essay feast; taking the time to ensure that you have a clear topic sentence that relates to your overall thesis, a set of scholarly research that supports your topic, a clear analysis of exactly how your evidence supports your argument, and careful use of transitions, will all help you write a quality college essay. Please see the end of this document for further resources.

Section 2: Beyond the Basics

Writing College Essays II

Further explorations of how to write an excellent college essay.

Anxiety is the number one issue students have regarding their college essay writing—it’s okay: it happens to everyone. However, college essay writing, with appropriate preparation and organization, can be much easier than you think! Often, these anxieties are coupled with the fact that the student may be new to college; they may feel pressure to perform; or just simply intimidated by the kind of writing expected in college essays. Oftentimes, the college essay assignment requires you to write in a manner you are unfamiliar with, or requires you to read essays that you find challenging to read. Again, these are common concerns for a college essay writer. Let’s get started with college essay writing by taking a look at instructor expectations.

Instructor Expectations for College Essay Writing

Typically, a college essay writing assignment requires you to identify an issue and propose a solution using an evidence-based method, explaining why you think that your solution is valid.  Stylistically, college essay writing is clear and easy to understand. Avoid using discipline-specific jargon in college essay writing. If your writing is unclear or too complex, your essay will be less successful. Remember: your audience is ‘generalist,’ meaning that your college essay should be written as though you were presenting it to a college audience made up of students across the disciplines. Good college essays should be clear and direct.

The next expectation most instructors have for their students who are writing college essays is conciseness. You may have heard your instructor speak about ‘wordiness’—this is the same thing. If your college essay is filled with unnecessary words or ‘filler,’ your essay’s intent may be missed. In short college essays, you need to make the most out of every word. In longer college essays, it is also crucial that your text is clear and concise for readability and to avoid distracting your reader from your message. Remember, you goal for your college essay is to communicate your message as effectively as you can using the fewest words possible. College essays can be complicated: by using clear, concise language, you will keep your reader interested and engaged with your writing. 

Following instructions

Most professors take a great deal of time and effort into creating assignments for college essays. Writing without checking into the specific requirements set by your instructor can create unnecessary problems—review your college essay writing assignment until you fully understand it. Read through it several times, and should you still have questions, speak to your instructor. Once you have a good understanding of the assignment, prior to writing, please note specifications for word count, formatting, and citation style; these are not general guides, but specific instructions your professor will certainly notice should you miss them. Your college essays should demonstrate a strong comprehension of the assignment with writing that is clear, concise, and communicable. 

College Essay Organizational Plan (Outline)

This is probably the most important aspect of writing a college essay (besides editing). There are many ways to create a college essay organizational plan. It does not matter which kind you use, so long as it works for you. Knowing how you learn best is going to help you choose how to plan your college essay. Are you a visual learner? Perhaps a concept map is best for organizing your college essay. Are you a tactile/kinesthetic style learner? Perhaps post-it-notes on the wall is your style! Or maybe you are most comfortable with the old linear outline usually taught in high school. Remember, whichever college essay plan you choose—do, do use one! This cannot be emphasized enough. As a former university English instructor, I can tell you firsthand that the difference between two finished essays—one made with, and one without, an outline—is enormous. Huge. Those who structure their college essays with an outline prior to writing produce vastly superior college essays than their peers who neglect to do so. So please: have a plan for your essay. If you are unfamiliar with the various kinds of planning methods available, please look to the resources listed at the end of this article. 

Why is having an organizational plan crucial for writing my college essay?

Having an outline will help you stay on track. Remember, a college essay is a complicated work—it is easy for your reader to get lost. Your outline will ensure that your reader will be able to clearly follow the trajectory of your argument. Again, if the purpose of a college essay is to demonstrate your ideas clearly, then without thinking very, very carefully about how to structure your argument so your reader will understand it—well, they likely won’t. Remember, you have been working on your college essay a long time, and you are very familiar with your resources, and what you want to argue. However, if your reader cannot follow your argument, your essay has not done its job. Knowing how to structure your college essay so your readers can follow and understand it does not happen spontaneously, nor by some hidden talent; it comes from using a n outline to structure your essay that has been carefully followed, written out, and revised repeatedly. If your reader is trying to understand how A relates to B and their relation to C, the reader will try to make those connections herself; when an essay requires so much of the reader, it will likely engender confusion, misinterpretations—the very opposite of the goal of your college essay.

An essay plan will enable you to ensure that you have all the research you need for your college essay. When you are planning your college essay in great detail, you will easily see where you might have knowledge deficits, or spurious arguments and be able to address them before creating the full essay, saving you time and energy. 

Paragraphing

College essay writing must be organized, check. Now, you have the necessary materials. How do you go about writing your college essay—from the document plan to creating paragraphs? Here, we will go into some detail about how to structure the sections of your college essay. Your college essay will be comprised of your claims, your evidence, and your analysis: subjects touched upon earlier in this document.  Setting these out in a tangible, written form allows you to play with the order of your arguments, your evidence, and the analysis, helping you determine how to best arrange your arguments to communicate your ideas to your reader. Remember, always think of your audience—and remember that their way of processing information might be different than yours; therefore, your job is to make sure that your college essay can be read and understood by others as well as you understand it yourself.

Having a plan for your college essay prior to writing it is the best way to alleviate writer’s anxiety, as mentioned earlier. When you have a plan for your college essay, much of the work has already been done for you. You will know which argument goes where; areas needing more evidence, or areas needing more robust analysis. Additionally, having a plan for your college essay will ease your anxiety because, since it is already organized, you can attack whichever sections you feel like working on that day—and of course, allows you the certainty and peace of mind that you will indeed finish your college essay on time.

Types of College Essays

Above, I highlighted attributes your college instructor looks for in academic essay assignments. This section will provide an overview of the most common kinds of essays you will face at college. 

Narrative college essays (personal, reflective)

The goal of a narrative essay is to communicate a personal statement to your audience. In these essays, given the task is to provide your personal ideas on a subject, you are expected to write your essay in the first person, meaning that yes, you absolutely may use (and will be expected to use) “I”, “me” and “my,” etc. Generally, narrative essays require you to make a personal connection to course materials—again, knowing the assignment backwards and forwards will help you narrow the focus of your narrative college essay. Also, the writing style may be less formal than for other essays. Narrative essays are often the kind of college essays students have the fewest problems with.

Expository Essays

Expository essays are primarily informative, meaning you are not making an argument and defending it (like an argumentative essay); rather, your goal is to clearly communicate information to your reader. Essentially, your expository college essay seeks to transmit knowledge from writer to audience.

Argumentative college essays

The goal of the argumentative college essay is to take a position on a topic in your subject area that is ‘debatable,’ that is, taking advantage of a ‘knowledge gap’ in the literature, and to defend it. What this means is that you will take a position on a subject that is currently up for debate in   academic literature, for at the college level, your essay is likely to require additional research. Here’s where it can get tricky, and if you were to take away one lesson from this section, I would have you understand one thing: writing an argument essay in college does not mean that YOU have, (or have to pretend to have) all the answers, or the final word on a subject (really, no one does!). If you have chosen correctly, you will take a position—meaning, form an opinion—knowing full well that yours is not the ‘final word’ on the subject! It is okay—preferred, even—that you use language that reflects this.

Here is a simple example. Suppose your college history teacher asks you to write an argumentative essay on lowering the minimum age to vote. You would of course do your due diligence research, identifying the major positions by both sides on the subject, situating your argument within this framework. The important thing is the tone of your argumentative essay. Given the fact that you’re presenting an opinion on a subject that is debatable—one that no one is likely to, if ever, provide a definitive solution for—this means the tone of your work should reflect this ‘academic uncertainty.’ Often, students are erroneously instructed in high school to ‘argue a point’ as if your life depended on persuading your reader, which usually leads down a rabbit hole of overgeneralizing, stereotyping, or a stark refusal to entertain and validate the opinions of your adversaries. College essays must be written in a manner and with a tone appropriate for upper-level discussion and debate. If you find your college essays are filled with superlatives “the best”; “the only,” “it is” (as opposed to it is not), “this proves,” you are in dangerous territory.  

The good news? Modifiers. Modify every determinate statement you make. Remember, nothing in this world is certain except death and taxes, as they say; this includes high-level college discourse. I would encourage you to examine every statement you make to ensure that you do not have ‘absolutist’ language. It is very easy: instead of “Eighteen years old is definitely  too young to vote,” try “many people consider eighteen years to be too young to vote”; or even “In my opinion, eighteen is too young to vote”: both are preferable, as they do not purport to have “all the answers”; rather, you are using calm and modified language to express your position (opinion) on the subject: nothing more. Evenness of tone and modified language in an argumentative essay is a sign of an excellent college essay. 

Critique or Analysis Essays

A critique or analytical college essay requires the writer to write about an issue or problem and provide an objective review. Often, the compare-contrast method is used here, as you are critiquing both sides of a debate. For example, if your assignment is to analyse two contrasting positions (perhaps, two essays selected from your course materials), your will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of both sides and then present the similarities and differences between the two positions. The difference between analysis or critique and argumentative papers is that the critique explains the similarities and differences between the subjects, but without taking a position. The argumentative essay, on the other hand, positions itself within the debate, takes a stand, and defends it (again, be mindful of maintaining academic tone!) 

Critical Thinking

What is critical thinking anyway? At the college level, you will be expected to demonstrate critical thinking in your essay writing. To put it simply, critical thinking involves looking at all aspects of an issue or problem before committing to a position upon it, as one cannot truly make a critical decision based on half of the facts. One helpful method to pursue a document critically is the “why, why, why” strategy. To use our earlier example: why is eighteen the legal voting age? The government decided it was. “Why?” The government determined that the level of maturity required to vote doesn’t happen before eighteen. “Why?” Research by government developmental psychologists determined it to be so. “Why?” and so on, ad infinitum. Tease out all the information you can on both sides; then, you are in a position, with enough material, to begin writing your college essay.

Why critical thinking?

College essays require that you demonstrate your critical thinking ability—something your instructor is sure to be looking for. The purpose of your essay is to clearly communicate your ideas; your ideas are formed by the critical approach you take to the subject in your writing. How, then, to best demonstrate critical thinking in your college essay writing? To begin, think about the typical essay structure: introduction and thesis, body, and conclusion. Begin your introductory paragraph with your argument—this is the simplest way to inform your reader (and professor) of the issue and your critical take on it. College essays that begin with a clear statement of purpose (your critical take, your position, your THESIS) are off to a fine start. Remember, the point of college writing is to clearly communicate your ideas—having your point clear at the very start of your college essay keeps your reader oriented and expectant of what is to follow. 

Presenting your research and evidence     

So! You have read through the literature, taken a position, and have clearly articulated your thesis. What comes next?  The research you present in your college essay will support your argument. The tricky part? Not relying on the ‘evidence’ to make your argument for you. Have you ever written a college essay, only to have your instructor ask for the relevance of your cited material? This is a very common issue with undergraduate college essay writing. What is the solution? Explain to your audience why the quoted material is there, why it is relevant, and how it supports (or does not support) your argument. To ensure you have done this effectively, review your essay, looking for areas where you have quoted material needing further explanation, such as quotations that are not introduced or concluded properly, but rather, left ‘dangling.’ For paraphrased material, check that you have made explicit your reasons for including it (i.e., how does this paraphrase support my argument?) Explain the material’s relationship to your thesis each and every time you include it. Please do not assume that your reader will just ‘get it’; remember, they did not go though the critical analysis of the evidence as you did, and will need clear and obvious demonstrations of how the research connects to your thesis: this is how you will ‘demonstrate’ your critical thinking in your college essay writing.

Overall, college essay writing does not have to be an arduous task—truly, it can be enjoyable! By understanding the common mistakes made by students writing academic essays, and using the measures outlined here to proactively address them, you will become less anxious about the process of writing a college essay. 

To conclude this section of this guide to college essay writing, please remember that the point of your college essay is to clearly and succinctly communicate your ideas to an audience, and your goal is to provide evidence and analysis to support your ideas. The key to writing a good college essay, in a nutshell, comes down to your pre-writing strategies—the most crucial, of course, being your document outline.     

References: Writing Resource Collections

The websites listed below include general advice, specific instructions, writing prompts, style guides, process templates, grammar help, and more.   

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) is my personal go-to for all college essay writing questions. There are excellent step-by-step guides to outlining your college essay—including the most accessible resources for style guides such as APA, MLA, Harvard, etc.; It is also quite ESL-friendly. This is a wonderful site for all college essay related queries, including detailed and easy-to-follow style guides, templates, and writing tips.

Dartmouth University’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric’s “What is an Academic Paper?” exposes students new to the college essay writing process.

Harvard College Writing Center’s “Strategies for Essay Writing” guides the reader through the process of writing college essays.  

Bibliography & Citation Generators

There are many bibliography and citation generators online to assist the student writer of college essays. Remember, however, that technology does not replace the human eye; it is crucial that you review the material generated for any potential errors.  

Let the experts at Edit My Paper help you with your citation needs. We’ll find, fix and edit your citations to ensure they adhere to whatever style you’re using. Initiate a live chat to inquire about our citation service.


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This article was authored by Katie S, an expert editor. If you’d like to request Katie’s editing or consultancy services, please contact us via live chat.


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