How to write better college essays

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By Robert Cutrera

Campus News

Whether you are beginning your first semester of college or are returning to school after summer break, you are going to have to acclimate yourself once again to the demands of college writing. For many reasons, this can be a daunting task. The college standard for writing is much higher than the typical compare and contrast assignments you found littered throughout your high school career. Your voice matters much more in your collegiate papers, and in order to develop that voice, much practice and preparation needs to be given.

The process of writing an analytical essay, generally the most common type of essay assigned in first year writing courses, is a slow and thoughtful task, but there are a few things you can be aware of to make this transition easier for yourself.

The Introduction
Probably the biggest difference between high school and college essay writing is the format and structure of introductions. High school teachers often prescribe a method that clearly outlines your topic and concisely communicates to your audience a general meaning; don’t forget the importance of this suggestion, as it is true for college as well. But college introductions need to have more of your personality. This requires thorough attention to detail and deep thinking. It is essential for you to understand that your opening paragraph, even your first line, sets the stage for the rest of your essay, and also decides for your audience whether or not they want to continue reading your work. Of course, your professor will always read your essay, no matter the quality of your introduction, but if you are looking for an A or A- you’ll have to make sure your introduction is attention grabbing and sharp.

Thesis Statement
Technically, this is part of the introduction, but it deserves its own space and mention. Your thesis statement is basically what your essay is about. High school began teaching you the importance of a clear and concise thesis statement, but in college thesis statements should not be contained to a single line. Your introduction needs to build up to your thesis, making sure that the final sentence of the first paragraph rings loudly in the minds of your audience. Ask yourself, “What claim am I making for this paper? And is that claim completely obvious to someone who doesn’t know anything about my topic?” While the answers to these questions may seem obvious to you, you need to consider them from different perspectives.

The Body Paragraphs
The paragraphs between the introduction and conclusion are often referred to as the body paragraphs, what constitutes the details and descriptions of your paper. You should always make sure that each paragraph begins with a topic sentence, clearly outlining the point of the particular paragraph. There really isn’t a “right” way to go about this, though. You can keep the common point-counterpoint-solution template, and you will find that it is often successful; but in order to attain consistently high marks, you will need to add your own unique touch to how you present these points. Does your essay call for outside research? If not, consider bringing in a relevant source to solidify your own views. Also, you will want to avoid using cliche remarks or popularly held points of view without giving time to deconstruct their meaning. The last thing you want is for your professor to read your paper and feel that you have contributed nothing new to the dialogue surrounding the topic you wrote about.

The Conclusion
High school may have taught you to approach the conclusion as a review of what you have already covered in the rest of your paper. In some ways, this is right. Your conclusion does need to connect to what you have already written in your essay, but, by no means, are you required to review all the material over again. What sense is there in ending your paper by restating, in other words, what you just had your audience read? The conclusion is the point in your paper where you can make connections to your topic that did not necessarily fit into your essay or to give a completely new perspective that you did not have a chance to write about. Make sure not to limit yourself here either just because you want to end the paper. Your conclusion is, most likely, the last thing your professor will read before giving you a grade, so the impression you make here is very important.

Another big mistake is to rearrange the sentences and ideas already stated in your introduction; this is obvious and a waste of space that could have been dedicated to a new point or perspective.

Proofreading
While this is not technically part of the essay, it is necessary for the overall quality of your essay. By going back and rereading over your work, you are allowing yourself the chance to catch small grammatical mistakes — never trust the auto-correct function on word processors, as they often guess the wrong word — and to change a sentence or two in order to better accommodate the ideas you are trying to express. It is so easy to make small mistakes that you do not catch in the process of writing.

If possible, upon completion of your essay, put a day in between proofreading. This will allow you to approach your writing with fresh eyes. Also, if you have someone who is willing to read over your essay and provide constructive feedback, you should look to get their opinion. Some professors will offer peer review/editing days in class to allow for this, but, if not, ask a friend or family member.

Also, as a side note, make sure to always meet the minimum page requirement. If your assignment calls for four pages, that means a full four pages, not three full pages and a paragraph on the fourth page. This is a place where many students will lose points unnecessarily.

These are just a few tips to help you begin your writing assignments for the upcoming Fall semester. Writing is a very personal process that you should take very seriously. By practicing and paying detailed attention to how you write and the multifarious ways you can improve your writing skills, you will not only succeed in many aspects of college, but you will set yourself up for many successes in life after college.

Robert Cutrera has an M.A. in English from SUNY New Paltz and has taught Composition courses at numerous colleges over the past three years.

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