How did this happen? As you stare at a paper laden with red and you wonder what could have gone better. What could have you done differently? You’ve always done well on essays. This makes no sense! After the shock wears off, the panic begins to set in. This paper was worth 40% of your grade!
It’s OK. We’ve all been there at some point, especially as brand new collegiates. And it’s because we understand the struggles of writing a killer college essay that this article exists. Finally, a guide for essay-writing– from drafting, peer reviewing, reverse outlining and even some insights from college professors themselves. So it’s alright. We got your back.
So, you were assigned an essay, and now you’re left staring at an empty page. What do you do? First, breathe. Then start dissecting the prompt. That’s essential.
Know the big question, inside and out.
You have to know your parameters first, like length, genre and what you have to answer. If you don’t meet the basic requirements, your essay won’t reach its fullest potential.
Next, start out with a few of your first thoughts on the prompt. It can be as simple as starting with three main points that you’d like to explore through body paragraphs and your introduction. In the three points that you want to discuss, figure out what you want to prove or discuss and frame your thesis around that. Your thesis is a statement of what you believe and what you intend to prove throughout your essay. Keep that in mind.
Now, start making a short outline. Put your introduction first and then your points. Beneath each point, bullet-point what you want to discuss about it. Begin injecting your insights and rhetoric. This is crucial. Read through this pseudo-outline and see if your points make sense, especially considering your thesis. If they don’t, explain them better and find your evidence. Or maybe even change your thesis to better fit. Finally, flesh everything out so that each body paragraph fully explores, proves and elucidates on its main point. Once that’s done, you have your draft and that means its time for self-editing and polishing.
Fortunately, your page isn’t empty anymore, and well, if push comes to shove, you will have something to turn in. But, we both know that it won’t be enough to get that ‘A’. So now, push up your sleeves because it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of the writing process.
First, check your content. Check the quality of your insights. Grammar and sentence structure matter, but that is not what you need to care about right now. This is the moment when you care about the value of your insights.
The quality of your insights is what matters.
“Depending on the course the essay is being written for, a "great" college essay is often distinguished by the unique and compelling insight presented in them. As a professor, I am always more excited to read an essay that pushes boundaries and presents interesting, thought-provoking ideas versus an essay that is grammatically correct, but merely skims the surface of an idea.”
Assistant Professor of English, Riverside Community College
If your content passes the test, go on reading. If it hasn’t…go back to drafting. Remember, content is key.
Once you have killer content, start the next step of the self-editing process: fluidity. What do I mean by fluidity? I mean a few things. First, do the main points within a paragraph flow? You should organize each paragraph like a mini-essay with an introduction, conclusion and body. The ideas should be presented in a logical order that’s easy to understand. Secondly, do your ideas from each paragraph make sense together? They shouldn’t contradict each other or contradict your thesis. Lastly, do your paragraphs flow grammatically? Have you added transitions throughout, even within all your paragraphs?
Now, it’s time to go over more stylistic choices. I'll be brief. Vary your diction, vary your sentence structure, show, do not tell and most importantly, be concise. Also, just in case you forgot, make sure you're grammatically correct and use spell-check.
I know, more editing. Yes, you already edited your essay, and as great as you are as an editor, there are still some things that you won't catch, like awkward phrasing or a better word, etc. Besides, another set of eyes means a whole other perspective. Just make sure to ask them to pay attention to all the things I mentioned in the self-editing, from quality content to conciseness. Make sure you ask a couple of people; someone you trust, a friend or family member and then a classmate or mentor. You don't have to get two editors, but it's an effective way to make sure your essay is as revised as possible.
Get as many perspectives as possible on your essay
How to find these editors? Well, that depends, I'm sure you all have a friend from high school, a friend at your college, a mentor and if you instead want to find a person in class, well, why not ask someone? Introduce yourself and offer to exchange editing services and meet up to discuss the pitfalls of your essays.
But you already have an outline, you bemoan! Yes you do, but this is a technique to assure fluidity and continuity of your essay. What you do is write a summary sentence for each paragraph with bullet points to outline any main points and write your thesis. Then, you simply analyze to see that every paragraph makes sense with the thesis and each other. Check that the paragraphs flow and check for any areas where the reader may get lost.
Remember: If your reader can't understand what you're saying, it doesn't matter if you wrote Pulitzer-prize worthy material.
Additionally, make sure your paragraph isn't exploring more than one main idea. If it is, that might mean you're handling two paragraphs in one. Split it. If it's too long, shorten it. Being concise is imperative. If you repeat something you've said before in a previous paragraph, get rid of it. Yes, the business of writing is hard. It includes striking away the fluff without discrimination, but if you see that your paragraph is thin, make sure to add more quality content.
Sources and Citing
Finally, we've come to this, the all-important sources. Where do you look to find material to cite and help you dissect and evidence your claims? Like I've said before, that depends. It depends if it's a literary essay or a scientific essay. If you're trying to figure out a short story in your Chinese Lit class, or any literature class for that matter, start with a Google search for articles and scholars on the subjects. Next, ask your teacher. They'll point you to the right books in the library. For science, look through academic and scientific journals. Then, ask your teacher. In either case, if you're trying to verify how reliable a source is, check the author, the publisher, etc. Also, check the date of publication and the text you're citing itself. If it isn't high quality, it probably isn't something you want to cite. I also recommend putting your sources through Easy Bib, which will usually flag any unreliable sources.
For citing, use the format that your professor asks you to use. For clarification on how, I recommend Purdue Owl.
...[Often a] "great" college essay is ...distinguished by ...unique, compelling insight... As a professor, I am always more excited to read an essay that pushes boundaries and presents interesting, though-provoking ideas versus an essay that is grammatically correct, but merely skims the surface of an idea. Don't be afraid to take chances with your arguments; as long as they can be supported by evidence, it's ok to go "out on a limb" sometimes and challenge the status quo.
Assistant Professor in English, Riverside Community College
...[A]n “okay” essay addresses the prompt successfully and consisely, using examples from class. A “great” essay takes risks—it uses the prompt as a jumping off point and surprises me or makes me think about or connect with the topic in a different way.
Lecturer, Dept. of English, Howard University
...[U]nderstand that [you are] the authorities on [your] topics. ...[Although you use] evidence from other sources, ...[you] are responsible for ...[your] own arguments. Do not try to "sound" ...like anyone else but your ...professional, academic self. With constant practice, through freewriting, drafting and constant revision, ...[you'll] develop [your] own ...writing voice and this confidence will be apparent when the teacher reads the essay.
Assistant Professor in English, Riverside Community College
Put yourself in the position of your reader. Assume your reader is intelligent but knows nothing about your topic. Then unfold your points in a logical order so that such a reader will easily be able to follow. Use as few words as you can, and don't use a difficult word if a simpler one will do.
Chancellorial Chair for Innovation in Teaching Across Disciplines, UC Riverside
So there you have it. How to write a killer essay. Hopefully you write it and it does amazing. Hopefully, you never see a paper drowned in red, but if you do, always remember to take a deep breath. You will be OK. Now, check to see if you can still get a decent score in your class. Go to office hours, email your teacher and figure out a way to get it right next time. I believe in you, especially since you already have an article full of my stupendous advice and some great professor pro-tips. You can't go wrong with me by your side.
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