Tips and Hacks for Writing a Solid College Essay

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It’s a writing shock! That’s how most students describe their first semester in college. While everyone writes some essays and research papers in high school, no one is really prepared for the amount of writing that is assigned in every single syllabus they get. The other major shock is the expectation for writing skills. In high school, teachers accept essays and papers that are not really well-written, and, in English class, they may return them for revision, so the student ends up with a better grade. Not so in college. There usually aren’t second chances. Here, then are some tips for writing a decent essay that will earn a decent grade.

Picking a Topic

If you have some latitude here, for God’s sake, pick a topic in which you have some interest. There is absolutely nothing worse than a topic you dislike. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, and you will just have to “dig in your heels” and make the best of it. There is nothing worse for a biology major than to have to write an essay on the themes in Beowulf! The other important consideration in topic selection is the purpose of the essay – they are intimately connected (sort of like newlyweds).


In most cases, you will not have the luxury of choosing the purpose for you essay, but you had better have a solid understanding of what each type of essay requires. For example, an expository essay on immigration will require an objective treatment; a persuasive essay on the same topic will require that you take a stand on some part of this huge issue and pose arguments in favor of your position. A comparison/contrast essay, on the other hand, might require you to present similarities and differences among the various current immigrant sub-populations. The idea is this: your topic is immigration; your purpose relates to the treatment of that topic. And it also relates to the thesis, which comes next.


This wasn’t always a big deal in high school, but it certainly is now. You never write an essay without a thesis, and you always present that thesis to your reader in your introductory paragraph. Coming up with the thesis is not too difficult, if you ask yourself the right questions and you relate that thesis to the essay purpose.

Let’s re-visit the topic of immigration. If your essay is expository, you are going to present factual information about current immigration. What are the numbers? From where are they coming? What are their general economic conditions once they are here? Obviously, this will require some research, and our thesis may not be formulated until that research is complete. So, after the research, ask yourself why this topic is important; ask yourself what you learned that you think is important for others to know. Answer to these questions will give you your thesis. Writing a persuasive essay on immigration will also require some research, because you have to have the facts to back you up. After the research, you need to ask yourself what big point you want to make with all of this data. That big point will be your thesis.

The Organization Phase

We were all taught in high school to make an outline before we began to write any essay or paper. An outline is certainly a good method for figuring out what you will put in each paragraph, but there are other “organizers” that may be better options. If, for example, you are writing a narrative essay, you might prefer something like boxes into which your place each part of the story in chronological order. This graphic allows you to “see” the plot and ensure that you haven’t left anything out. A Venn diagram is the perfect organizer for a comparison/contrast essay; and lists of the points you want to make, from most important to least important, may be the best way to organize a persuasive essay. Use an organizer that works for you, not one that you have been “forced” to use before.

The Writing Phase

Body Paragraphs First

Always write the body of your essay first. This is the “meat” of the piece, and you want to be certain that it is well organized and that there are logical separations and good transitions between paragraphs. The other reason for doing this is that, once you actually get it written, you may be have gained more insight that will influence your introduction.

Introduction Next

You need a “stunner” for the beginning of your introduction. Either use some amazing fact that you discovered in your research or begin with a short anecdote. The goal is to “capture” the reader immediately. If, for example, you were writing an essay on the topic of childhood poverty, you might open with the statement that 14 million children in America face food insecurity every day. If you were writing an essay on ocean pollution, you might want to begin with a prediction of some scientists that within 100 years, the only life in our oceans will be jellyfish. These are pretty stunning statements! If you are writing an essay about student loan debt, you could begin with an anecdote. Recently, a middle-aged woman posted the details of her debt, and they were just crazy! A $33,000 loan will end up costing her almost $200,000 because she can only make minimum payments.

Conclusion Last

So, what did you learn from writing your essay? Are you smarter, wiser, or has your opinion changed? Do you want your reader to take some action? While you never put new information in your conclusion, you should always refer back to your thesis. It doesn’t have to be lengthy and it should “wrap things up” for your reader.

The Review and Edit

Yes, you do have to do this! And you may want to get someone else to do it for you. Why? Because you are too “close” to it and you won’t find issues and errors that someone else will. If you do it yourself, read the thing aloud so both eyes and ears are involved – you’ll catch much more, I promise! Hopefully, you have used spell and grammar checkers, but they are not foolproof.

The Final Draft

This should be the easy part – type up your final copy. Make sure it is formatted as required, and you are good to go!

The process of writing a decent essay can be cumbersome, of course. But, it does get easier with practice - that is a college writing axiom. Dig in, force yourself to go through the process, and never be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. That’s what college writing labs are for!

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