How To Write Your First College Essay

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For many students, writing their first college essay can seem a daunting task. Often simply reading the title can make you feel like the Leaving Cert was a doddle! You’re not in Kansas anymore. But don’t worry – it’s not as difficult as you might first imagine. This is your first year in college and you are not expected to deliver essays that will shake up the academic world! (That’s for the PhD students). You are expected, however, to be able to structure a good essay. Your first year in college is the time when you are opening your mind to the world of academic research and critical thinking that exists that will teach you yourself to engage critically with the material at hand. The essay is a tried and trusted technique to develop research, analytical and communication skills and also teaches students how to filter learning into formulating specific arguments. And like so much in life there are basic rules you need to follow if you want to do it the right way. Here we take a look at some of those rules and address the topic, How To Write Your First College Essay.

Before you begin writing any essay, it’s essential that you do the groundwork and prepare the materials you’ll need to assemble your essay. Fail to prepare; prepare to fail.

If you are answering a question or proving a thesis, your essay needs to have the evidence to back up your argument. This comes from the research you do prior to writing your essay. Your first port of call should be the course reading list recommended to you for your course by your college. Here is where you will find the ideas and arguments that will help you to develop your essay, shape your views and argue your point. 

From here the bibliographies contained within are a great springboard to guide you to finding additional relevant sources that you can use.

Not only will you be able to find sources to help you demonstrate a point or argue a thesis, you’ll also be demonstrating to your lecturer that you are working through the course reading list. Remember, this list has been put together specifically for the course you are taking in order to shape specific learning outcomes. Let your lecturer know you are doing the required work.

With these materials now in place, you should be better equipped to fully understand the nature of the question and the major arguments that should be included in your answer.

Now you need to hone in on the necessary detail you need to write your essay. You need to identify where in your reading materials the ideas you require are being addressed. Take notes. Compare and contrast different sources. Highlight what you feel are the strongest points that will help you tackle your essay. Take on board contrary opinions and don’t be afraid to argue against them if it strengthens your point.

Start to rewrite your notes into your own words and remember any ideas you are using here you’ll need to take note of the source and refer to it in your essay. So be sure to be familiar with referencing – which we’ll come to later. Again don’t feel you are using someone’s else’s idea – you are demonstrating that you are working through the recommended reading list and using it in the appropriate way to formulate a point.

Now you can start to brainstorm – you have done your preparation and you should have amassed lots of ideas, quotes, keywords, thoughts, etc. Get them all down on paper and see which link, which overlap, which connect, etc.

It’s a good idea at this stage to think how you would answer the question or summarize your essay in one sentence. Doing this you get a feel for the specifics of what you are aiming to achieve. Remember all the preparatory reading and notetaking and brainstorming exist to get you from the essay question to this one sentence answer.

Now we’re ready to begin writing the essay. First things first – structure! Before you can decorate a room you need to put up walls… The basic form every essay consists of  introduction, body, conclusion. Simple as that.

Your introduction needs to focus on the subject at hand, in particular your introduction needs to establish the importance of the topic. You need to address the essay question, outline what your argument is and how you intend to get to your answer, argument or thesis. Don’t engage in faff in your introduction. Don’t babble on or get complicated. It should be clear to the reader what your essay is when they have read the introduction.

From here we’re into the body of the essay – the analysis. Remember to answer the question! Too many students lose focus of the task at hand and drift away from the question. Avoid this. You need to be sure that all your viewpoints and arguments drive to answer the question or to address the topic.

Present one idea at a time in a structured and coherent manner. The golden rule is 1 idea, 1 paragraph. Show that you have done your research and refer to your source reading, again making sure that your analysis is always referring to the question. Introduce each idea and state how it relates to the task at hand. Elaborate and demonstrate how this point answers the question.

Your paragraphs should flow and follow on from each other and it’s always a good idea to tackle opposing thoughts or ideas you may have come across in your earlier reading. These are often great ways to get  some of your own points across and demonstrate that you are critically engaging with the topic and have read a wide range of material around it.

Remember to make it clear why you think a piece of evidence supports your argument, again it’s all about the question – everything must relate back to the question. Never let it out of your sight!

Now we come to the conclusion. The final paragraph gathers together your points and hammers home your argument. Link back to your introduction. You want to make it clear to the reader that your analysis has all been serving your main argument. Restate it and show how your essay has developed its course to arrive at it. Gather together the paragraph arguments from the body of your essay into that one single unifying theme that is your argument. Well done, you’ve proved your point!

You now need to put together your references and bibliography. You need to be familiar with your college’s referencing style and adhere to it. Reference all the quotes you use and paraphrased ideas, etc and reference them accordingly.

List the books, articles and all other material that you have used to enable you to write the essay. This will be the bibliography at the end of your essay in alphabetical order.

Finally… read, re-read & rewrite. Always, always read and re-read your essay. This will allow you to correct basic mistakes like grammar and spelling and also give you the opportunity to rewrite certain parts which could do with improving or tightening up. Rewrite long unnecessary sentences and clarify points that come across unclear. And of course ask yourself that question again – Did I answer the question!!! 





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