How to Write College Essays

So. Maybe this is your first semester, maybe you’re a struggling junior, or maybe you’ve gone back to school after a lengthy hiatus. Whatever the case, maybe you want pointers for how to write an essay. I am here to serve.IMG_9858[1]

My credentials: I’m a geek, type A-leaning personality, holder of a BA in English Literature (BA stands for badass, right?). I passed every class in college—all A’s, in fact. (I honestly don’t mean to brag; I want you to know these tips can and have worked.)

How to make writing an essay manageable…

What I did for most, if not all, my essays: I started 10–14 days ahead of the due date.

Crazy, right? Even I hated this method sometimes. I got to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to read another word without feeling frustrated, exhausted, and like I had nothing intelligent to say. But when you’re facing something like an 8–10 page paper with three sources minimum, it’s better to pace yourself.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • ~14 days before due date: Pick a topic. If you need professor approval, you have time to get it or change topics if needed.
  • ~14–12 days before: Search for sources on databases or in the library. Skim abstracts and backs of books, and make note of likely-looking sources.
  • ~10–12 days before: Skim possible sources entirely. If none work for your topic, repeat the previous step. (If you can’t find any sources, approach your professor. They can give pointers for where to look, and might even have an article to lend.)
  • ~10 days before: Read sources thoroughly, making notes of key arguments, lines you could quote, etc. Make notes on a separate paper, or print/photocopy/use a PDF viewer to mark up the articles. Just don’t write in library books.
  • ~8–10 days before: Make an essay outline (mine were just bulleted lists). Scrawl ideas for main arguments, introductory tidbits, a thesis, and mic-dropping concluding statements.
  • ~5–7 days before: Start writing. If you burn out easily, or have lots of other obligations, set aside time for a certain number of paragraphs or a certain amount of time per day. With your outline, you’re going to forget where you’re generally going with your argument. Plus, if you develop writer’s block, you have enough time to spare a mental health day (or two).
  • ~3–4 days before: Finish the draft. Read it, looking for flaws in logic or repetitive arguments. If you haven’t incorporated citations, do so now.
  • ~2–3 days before: Proofread. Make sure you’ve covered everything you want to, have followed the assignment guidelines, have addressed your thesis, and haven’t make grammatical errors. Take a break, then proofread again. You’ll hate the essay by this point, but you’re in better shape than if you were just starting.
  • ~12 days before: Make final adjustments, make sure all sources are cited in the body/footnotes, as well as in the bibliography. Make sure your name and title are on the first page, too (Side note: the title was always the last thing I wrote; I had “TITLE HERE” or “SUPER AWESOME BILLY SHAKES ESSAY” until I made a boring academic title).
  • Due date: Print the essay (if your prof is old-fashioned/tech-illiterate) or submit it to wherever specified. (My alma mater has essays go through the dreaded
  • Celebrate! You’re done!

This schedule isn’t meant to be absolute law. Every class, professor, and essay will be different. You might have more or less time to work, depending on the class, your schedule, or other circumstances. This is meant to be—to paraphrase Barbossaa guideline, not a rule. You might find shifting the order of these steps helpful, or you might skip or add a step, like taking a draft to your professor to look over (this can be super helpful). Do whatever works best for you.

How to reach the required length…

That can be tricky. A 34 page essay doesn’t require as many paragraphs as an 810 page essay. Think of it this way, especially when making your initial outline:

  • A paragraph should be about 6–8 sentences, though I often had 10-sentence paragraphs.
  • Sentences should average 1020 words.
  • A page on word processors, using 12-point Times New Roman font and 1-inch margins, contains about 300 words.

This means a 68 page paper needs to be around 2,000 words. That’s approximately 133 sentences (15-word sentences). At about 9 sentences per paragraph, that’s about 15 paragraphs.

Don’t panic! This is approximate. Sentences and paragraphs vary in length. Also, some of the essay will be introduction, conclusion, and sources. And if you are using a parenthetical citation style (like MLA), citations will take up more space. You can even have multiple paragraphs addressing one aspect of your argument, if needed.

Also, you can use block quotations, but be wary. Professors are all too aware this is an easy way to lengthen a paper, and they often won’t grade as well if you use block quotations excessively or not well. If you do use block quotations, have at least 3 sentences or more in your own words to accompany them. For example, if you’re analyzing a novel, you can quote a large section, say a full paragraph. But you then must thoroughly dissect it and tell why it is important/indicative of a certain theme/what-have-you. Overall, use block quotations with caution: they do not exist to save you from struggling for page requirements.

When in doubt…

If you’re struggling to find sources or form a strong/long enough argument, ask for help! Friends might be willing to read your essay, your university might have a writing lab, or there are the professors (cue dramatic music).

Professors, even intimidating ones, look more kindly on students they can see are genuinely making an effort. Email your prof and ask if it’s okay to bring your draft/get advice during office hours. (If you can’t make it to office hours because of other responsibilities, ask if there’s another time you can chat.) Most times, they’ll be accommodating.

And that’s all I’ve got! I hope this was helpful!

Do you have any essay-writing tips I didn’t mention? Let me know!

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