How To Write A College/University Essay

Originally published on December 9th, 2009, this article is directed to college and university students about how to write an essay. It is based on Chapter six of a book I wrote (see my About header page), but also includes up-to-date technical resources for keeping track of references and/or inserting them directly into their text. See, for example, this google page.

(1) Preliminary Research: Be Prepared

  • Collect sources.
  • Write notes.
  • Keep track of ideas and quotes.
  • Keep source information, like book or journal titles, authors, publisher, location, page numbers.
  • Decide on what method or software you will use for footnotes and/or in-text references (e.g., Microsoft Word).

This is the time you take down preliminary notes and quotes. You are at the university library or your computer and are ready to get down to business. Just relax and don’t make the mistake of writing too much. Just keep short notes on some key phrases and main points. When recording quotes or someone else’s ideas, make sure to record all the source information — such as the title of the book or journal article, author, publisher and date and page numbers. Otherwise, it takes much more time later trying to re-locate the same sources. Moreover, you must have those recorded to avoid any accusations of plagiarism.

The issue of references and bibliography will come up again, in components #5 & 9 but at this point, just make sure all the research sources are listed on a steno pad or post-it notes for inclusion as you write, as well as at the end of the writing process when you are editing the reference and/or bibliography pages.

Do not feel guilty if you cannot read everything. In fact, it is next to impossible to do so. So, read the table of contents and the index for key words and phrases. If a journal article, read the abstract and first paragraph and concluding statements — and recommendations if there are any.

(2) Get organized — Develop System to Compile

  • Use post-it notes on blank paper, possibly colour coding key points.
  • Use a point-form list or index cards.
  • Use the Inspiration, Zotero or similar software.
  • Prioritize and sequence your main ideas.

Now that the preliminary research is done and you have your sources, you will need a format or strategy for keeping track of what you will need in order to write your essay. Put everything out in front of you on your desk or study carrel and then start a flowchart, a simple point-form list, or simply use a blank sheet of paper and a package of the small post-it notes.  

Or, use software. As mentioned under “Background” above, there are excellent management software programs — such as  “Inspiration” or Zotero, that will allow you to make lists, mind maps or flowcharts — and then automatically sequences your ideas for you. As well, here is an Internet site with every imaginable type of organizer.

Once the organizer is finished, to this point at least, sequence your ideas or points of argument. In other words, what point do you want to make first, second, third and so on.

(3) Determine the “So What” of Your Research

  • Use the W5/H strategy to define the issue or problem.
  • Why is the theory, issue, theme important or relevant?
  • Where can the information be used or useful?
  • What is the data suggesting?
  • When is it important?
  • Who will it affect?
  • How can we gain in knowledge?

You have organized your data, but you have not yet figured out your focus or slant. This is the time many university students get off the track and this is what is different from a high school level essay. Specifically, the point of any academic paper is to analyze something or come to some kind of conclusion — not simply to parrot what others have written or what the professor has said in class. It’s the process where you define the problem, the point of the essay.

For example, lets say it’s a psychology course and the topic chosen is  Piaget’s theory of child development.” You can do all your preliminary research on the features of that theory, such as adaptation, assimilation and accommodation, as well as the stages/transitions of cognitive development. But, none of that data is about the problem or the so-what.

The “so-what” is why you are writing about Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory — such as saying that without a firm understanding, an ECE or primary teacher would not be able to develop his or her curriculum effectively. In other words, their understanding of  Piagetian theory would guide their practice. And, therein lies the key focus.

(4) Translate/Rehearse What You Want To Write

  • Explain your ideas to a study partner.
  • Tape-record what you want to say.
  • Listen to the tape. Re-record if necessary.
  • If no tape-recorder, somehow translate your notes into spoken sentences.
  • This is about rehearsing what it is you want to write about.

This is what is different about my model for writing an essay. Before you ever start to write, you need to somehow verbally rehearse and repeat out loud what it is you want to write about and why.

Now, the reason for this step is to get your own voice — literally and figuratively — into your material. There are a couple of ways you can do this. Work with a study partner somewhere private. Talk  into a tape-recorder so you can listen back to what you wrote and then be able to record again and again, as needed. Or call someone you know on the telephone or via the Internet and run your ideas by them. Ask them to remain silent until you are finished and then ask them if they have any questions. If they do, you will know you need to rethink your focus.

(5) Review Material Following Rehearsal 

  • Review your notes and sequence.
  • Make any changes that are necessary.

Once this rehearsal is done, go back to your organizer and notes and revise what needs to be changed or updated. Then, put your organizer, list or sequence of post-it notes in front of you, even all across the top of the computer monitor if that works.

(6) Start Writing: The Introduction

  • Simply start writing.
  • Just get words down on the page.
  • Explain what you are going to do in the paper.
  • Review that you have covered all your points.

Using your sequence of ideas or points, write a complete and thorough introduction. Remember to include what the purpose of the paper is — again based on the format of your academic discipline (e.g., the social sciences have a different focus than the humanities or engineering).

Then, just start writing. Don’t try to make it perfect. Just get ideas down. You can always go back later and rewrite and revise. In fact, that is how writing works. Writing is a draft, editing and then more writing. In other words, writing is a process.

(7) Write the Body of the Essay

  • Use the points in the introduction and start writing.
  • Remember to use quotes just as defence, not as the main voice in the paper.
  • Use examples to prove your points.
  • Write freely, not worrying about number of paragraphs.
  • Depending on the length expected, expand or reduce information as necessary.
  • Do not simply pad. Make the information count.
  • Make note of references and/or footnotes as you write and keep track of the bibliography as you go.

Now, ignore formulas here. I am not going to tell you to write one or two paragraphs about each point. Professors will find that sort of technique disjointed. Moreover, don’t simply put in unrelated information simply to pad the word count.

Remember too that an essay is not a series of quotes put together with a few words. An essay is about your ideas and your interpretation of what other people have quoted. The quotes are simply to back up and defend what you have already said in your own words. Give examples of your ideas if that is appropriate. Do that for all your points.

How much you write and how many examples you provide will depend on the length of the essay expected. If the essay is 1000 words, two points will likely be enough. Whereas, 2500 words would require five or six points in depth.

Also remember, as listed in the bulleted points, make sure to add references and foot notes as you write using the correct format for your discipline. For example, the social sciences use APA, while the humanities use the MLA Style Sheet (e.g., this online version) or Turabian. (See this source for most styles).

(8) Write the Summary & Conclusion

  • Restate the introduction, but not word for word.
  • Make sure you actually did what you said you were going to do.
  • Finish with a concluding statement.

A summary is not a conclusion. A summary is a restatement of your introduction said in such a way that is confirms you have done what you said you would do. For example, “as stated at the start of this paper….”

The conclusion is a statement or two that says what you learned from this analysis or presentation. And, usually begins with: “Therefore…..” Which brings us back to the “so-what” question again. Every aspect of scholarship, no matter what the discipline, is done for a reason. Just remember, you are writing about some small part of some topic within that bank of knowledge. 

(9) Verify References & Prepare Bibliography

  • Have the format for your academic discipline handy.
  • Make sure you know what to include.
  • Edit for everything from capitals to correct punctuation.
  • Review and verify references, footnotes and prepare bibliography.

It is assumed that you have been keeping track of your reference materials all along per point # 1 (Preliminary Research — Be Prepared), as well as when you were writing the body of the essay.  Because if you haven’t, the entire writing project will come to an abrupt halt.

Rather, at this stage, it should just be a question of you making sure all the references are in the essay are accurate and in their proper location. Then, you will have to prepare the reference and/or bibliography page, either using a management system like Zotero, or the old fashioned way, by simply typing it out or cutting and pasting using your discipline’s format.

No matter which method you use, my point here is that there should be no short cuts to this final process of preparing your list of sources and/or citations. Yet, all to often marks are lost in this final area of a paper. So, just remember that it is as important as the rest of the paper.

(10) Revise & Edit

  • Re-read the entire paper.
  • Revise where necessary.
  • Do a final spell & grammar check.

Now, it is time to go back and reread and rewrite. By the time you finish, you will know what you have forgotten. Add that information by all means, but make sure you also modify the introduction, body and summary, and, possibly, the conclusion. Don’t forget to do a final spell and grammar check, as well as re-check of your references and bibliography details.

In fact, if there is time, leave the paper for 24 hours and then go back and reread it. Chances are you’ll make further changes even at that point.

9 thoughts on “How To Write A College/University Essay

  1. This is great advice for those in the arts and social sciences and for those writing an opinion paper.
    For those conducting experimentation or trying to arrive at causation conclusions then things become even more complex. After reviewing the literature they need to formulate an hypothesis, as this needs to be supported by prior argumentation and then the process can begin. I have seen quite a few folk use their results to formulate their hypothesis because they collected data first. This is a massive mistake and can lead to serious problems involving correlation and causation.
    Another issue is being afraid to say that your hypothesis was not supported by experimental conclusions. This can also lead to problems in the area of research ethics.


  2. Harebell — My model works for the writing of an “essay” in all disciplines. A research report or thesis is something else again. However, my basic approach still works even in complex examples like that — within each chapter, for instance.

    The crux of the matter is that paper format depends on the research method, the research design and the research questions asked — quasi-experimental, experimental, qualitative or case study. You have discussed only one such quantitative experimental approach. Moreover, even with qualitative methods, the research design can vary considerably.

    Quantitative studies answer the “what” questions, whereas qualitative answer “why” and “how.” Big difference in the way the work is conducted and the report written. I would write a “how to” for those but I would need to do a dozen formats, if not more. This one will do just fine for an essay.


  3. Harebell — But I don’t mean to minimize what you said. You are right. Some researchers work on the horses before the cart because they don’t want to find, as you suggest, that their hypothesis is not supported. However, in the grounded theory model, it is just the reverse. You have to find your conclusions and then work backwards. But, one hopes all that is described under the research design section.

    But, let’s say a grad student finishes their thesis and then wants to write a scholarly paper about some aspect of it, the essay writing format would work for them. Mind you, if they have gotten that far, they won’t need my model at all. 😉


  4. No offence was taken.
    As for GTM, it seems more like a more relaxed type of case study.
    You could use it to test an hypothesis initially to see if there is any point in moving forward with a more extensive experimentation.
    In fact I’m beginning the process to start some case studies as I type, and hope to use their results to make such a decision. But even with my proposed work I still have to make a statement based on existing evidence.
    So GTM still seems a bit relativist to me.


  5. Harebell, interesting re GTM being a bit relativist. Not really. You just reverse yourself. My brother is just finishing his Ph.D in geo/biology. I was surprised he was using that method but he is linking his science work with his MBA, so I guess that explains it. 😉


  6. I would suggest a minor change to number (9) Prepare the References &/or Bibliography to 9) Note references for material as you research.

    In the vast majority of cases, waiting until the end to prepare references is a major error. It’s more difficult, more time consuming and typically less accurate to wait until the end of the writing process to prepare footnotes or end notes.

    Proper referencing begins when research begins – you cannot take notes without knowing the relevant information for attribution, which will vary depending on the type of source (primary, secondary, newspaper, journal, website ect). I would strongly encourage students – especially undergraduates – to note the reference in the same format that will be used in the essay or thesis.

    All modern word processing software include robust referencing options. MS Word, for example allows users to insert, edit, copy and paste references at any point. Best practice is to input reference as it’s used rather than wait. If a section is cut out or deleted, the software will automatically re-number the subsequent references. When writing, I always cut and paste to another Word document, and save that document, so that if I need the quote or referenced information, I can simply cut and paste it back to the main document. The software will automatically include the footnote or end note and re-order the references as required.

    As a general rule of thumb, undergraduates know nothing and therefore must reference everything. :-D. 1

    1. AntiSpin, “Reference Rules for Everyone”, Online Comment, “How To Write A College/University Essay,” March 5, 2010.


  7. Anti-spin — points well taken. I agree. If you read the entire piece, you would see that I asked students to keep track of all their sources as they went along. In fact, I give some preliminary instructions under planning about keeping track of references because if students wait they have to go back and find their sources long after they have returned the book to the library.

    However, I will revise that section to link back to where I give those instructions. Thanks for the input.


  8. Anti-spin — I have a feeling you deal with this every day, as did I. Did you smile, for example, when I wrote something to the effect that: “An essay should not be a series of quotes with a few words or sentences in between?” 😉

    Anyway, again, my thanks for taking the time to provide me with feedback. I have now made adjustments to both points # 1 and 9. One of my colleagues in the U.S. plans to use this in his undergraduate “writing” class so your suggestions are timely.

    It’s amazing how we can look at something someone else has written and pick up immediately what is missing. That what we get with experience!


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