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How to Write Common Types of College Essays


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The types of essays you’re likely to encounter in college are a little more advanced than what you may be used to writing. In general, international students might have a harder time than domestic students with writing essays as English might not be your first language. But when it comes to writing, practice makes perfect and our tips can help you get on the right track!

Common Types of Essays

There are many types of essays but these will be the ones you’ll likely see the most:

Of course, the essay prompts you are assigned will also depend on your major. Different majors will likely have different writing styles and essay topics.

Definition Essays

Definition essay prompts will ask you to define and explain a concept, term or a set of terms. Definition essay topics can be about anything general or specific. No matter what your major is, chances are you will end up writing one of these during your time in college.

For example, your instructor may prompt you to define climate change based on an assigned reading. For this kind of prompt, you would need to refer to the reading in question in order to come up with a response. Once you can define the term, you can start the essay process.

Like any essay, you’ll need to follow the Introduction, Thesis Statement, Body, Conclusion structure. You won’t need much for your introduction; 2-3 sentences will be just fine. The last sentence of your introduction should be your strongly written thesis statement stating the definition in question. The body paragraph(s) will be the supporting details for your thesis and here you’ll want to state facts that back up your claim. Finally, the conclusion should tie all of these parts together by repeating your thesis statement and wrapping up in a few sentences.

Persuasive/Argumentative Essays

Persuasive essay prompts will ask you to respond with your point of view on a topic and convince the reader that your point of view is legitimate. Sometimes persuasive essays are called argumentative essays but for the purposes of this how-to page, we’ll refer to them as persuasive. Topics for persuasive essays are often polarizing issues that force you to choose a side to argue. For example, your instructor could prompt you to answer a question about the death penalty, gender equality, etc.

First, you’ll want to choose what position you would like to take on the topic in question. If you don’t want to pick a side, you can choose to take a neutral position. However, this route is far more difficult to argue, and it is best to choose one side or the other even if you don’t necessarily agree with either side. This way, your argument will be as strong as it can possibly be. After you’ve taken a position, come up with at least three claims that support your main argument. These claims will be presented in the thesis and supported by specific details in the body paragraphs. It might be tempting to write “I think” or “In my opinion” since this kind of essay is largely opinion-based. Avoid these, however, because they will weaken your argument. It’s best to make your opinion seem like fact to make your argument strong. You should also make sure to be as specific as possible and provide sufficient evidence to back up your claims. In the conclusion, you should repeat your thesis and tie all of the claims you’ve made together.

Analytical Essays

For analytical essay prompts, you will be asked to respond to a piece of writing through a critical lens. This means that you will need to offer your thoughts and opinions about the piece in question. You could be asked to respond to a book, essay, article, etc. This essay is most commonly assigned to English or History-related majors but it could be assigned to any major.

Before you even begin an analytical essay, you need to be sure to fully understand what you’ve read. It’s a great idea to take notes, underline or highlight key words and phrases, write in the margins, and reread the text. Organization is key in writing an excellent analytical essay. Once you’ve made sure to fully understand the text and all of its elements, you should form your opinion. Determine if you agree or disagree with what’s been written and how it’s been written. Then write your response. Like a persuasive essay, you should back up your claims with specific details and avoid “I think” and “In my opinion”.

Your thesis should express your viewpoint of the piece in a clear and concise way. Use the text in the body of your essay by quoting and paraphrasing and then respond directly to it. The conclusion should repeat your thesis and tie together all of your thoughts and opinions.

Personal Essay

College professors and instructors have a lot of students, making it very difficult to remember every one of them by name and face. As a result, they may ask you to write a personal essay describing you and your experiences in the narrative style. Usually, prompts for this kind of essay will come at the beginning of each semester. You could be asked to talk about your summer or talk about something that makes you interesting. Regardless, the point is to stand out to your professor or instructor so they will have a name to put with your face.

Sometimes it can be difficult to determine just how personal this essay should be. It is really up to you and what you are comfortable with sharing. It’s important to note that you might be required to share your personal essay with your class as a “get to know each other” activity, so don’t write about anything that’s top secret to you. The best advice we can give you is to just be yourself and have fun with this kind of essay. They should be taken seriously, but the rules aren’t as strict here as in an academic essay. Don’t be afraid to use personal pronouns like “I” and “my” here.

Research Paper

Finally, the most dreaded but possibly the most common kind of essay you’ll have to write in college is the research paper. A research paper is a kind of academic writing which requires you to do thorough research on a specific topic and present your research findings. Most of the time, these essays will be worked on throughout the course of an entire semester because they have many stages and require a lot of effort and time. These stages are:

  1. Choosing a topic
  2. Doing research and creating a bibliography
  3. Creating a thesis
  4. Writing a rough draft
  5. Writing a final draft

For a research paper, your professor or instructor may assign a topic to research or give you the opportunity to choose a topic related to the course. If you are given the opportunity to choose your own topic, choose wisely. Challenge yourself, but don’t reach beyond your means. Generally, it’s great to choose a topic about something you’re interested in learning about that relates back to the course you are taking.

Once you have your topic, you can start researching. There is a wide variety of academic sources that you can utilize from your school’s library database which are perfect for research papers. You’ll want to make sure to get with a librarian to learn about how to properly use the database to its full potential. Common sources you’ll find within the library database are academic journals, newspaper articles, books, Ebooks, etc. As you find sources, you should make citations for the bibliography. A bibliography is a list of all the sources you have referred to in your research. Check the essay prompt to make sure you are citing in the required format. The most common citation formats you’ll use in college are MLA and APA, but it varies by major and instructor. Web tools such as EasyBib will even complete citations and organize them for you.

Now that you’ve completed your research and bibliography, you should craft your thesis. Make it a strong argument for the information that you are conveying. Then, you should complete a rough draft. Give the draft to your professor or instructor for feedback and make changes based on what feedback they give you. Finally, when writing the final research paper you should take the time to reshape the thesis based on feedback and provide ample evidence to back that thesis up in the body paragraphs. Use quotes and paraphrases from your sources and cite them properly. Then, repeat the thesis tie together all of your claims in the conclusion.

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