Essay writing is more than just a way to get an A or get into a good college. It’s a life skill that will allow you to succeed as an adult, whether you’re writing a report, writing a PowerPoint slide, or just writing an email to your boss.
Unfortunately, many college students cannot write coherent prose—and it’s a direct result of poor essay writing skills acquired in high school. If you want to refine your writing skills for success, high school essay writing is the first skill to master.
Whether you’re preparing for the ACT essay or preparing for your first essay of freshman year, here’s a guide to help you master the art of essay writing, no matter the topic.
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Essay Guide Before You Get Started
The art of essay writing does not begin when you pick up your number 2 pencil or set your fingers on a keyboard. Like a successful chemistry experiment, a good essay is well-thought-out and planned in advance. Don’t believe it? Picture your favorite book. Think of how it crafts a story gradually as you turn each page. A good essay is exactly the same—it’s carefully constructed to guide the reader toward its chosen destination. The more you plan, the better you’ll be at guiding your reader.
Here are a few ways to plan before you start writing, whether you have five weeks, five days, or five minutes.
Read the Prompt Carefully
Your first step in essay planning is learning how to read the prompt. That way, you’ll understand what the essay must achieve and craft a roadmap to achieve it.
Every essay prompt comes with certain keywords. Each keyword has a certain goal. Once you learn to decode them, crafting your essay argument is a matter of fitting puzzle pieces together.
Here are some common keywords and their associated goals:
- Similarities/differences (goal: compare or contrast)
- Evaluate (goal: make a judgment)
- Summarize (goal: describe or explain)
- Discuss (goal: provide a description, explanation, or analysis)
- Interpret (goal: decode or convey the meaning of)
- Argue (goal: persuade or convince)
- Analyze (goal: think critically and examine)
- Reflect (goal: connect to personal experience)
For example, let’s say you get the following essay prompt, “Analyze the characters of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the context of modern feminism.” Analysis prompts ask you to critically examine the material, look at the elements of the text, provide a discussion, and make an implicit argument using your logic and critique skills.
To break down what a prompt wants, it’s helpful to rephrase an essay prompt into several questions. For example, we can break down the same Austen prompt into a series of questions like: How do the characters represent or relate to the different concepts of modern feminism? What evidence from the text leads you to these conclusions?
Keep in mind that the genre of the assignment (general, critical, argumentative, or expository) will also provide clues on the type of essay required.
Decide What Type of Essay You’ll Write
Once you know what the prompt is asking, you can decide what type of essay you’ll write. There are eight common types of essays:
- Critical analysis
The most basic is the expository essay, which is a definitions essay. You explain a single idea without making an argument and answer the question as directly as possible. An analytical essay, on the other hand, takes the topic one step further by presenting the advantages or disadvantages of the subject in order to provide the author’s analysis.
Choose Your Topic
If you’re provided a prompt, you can skip this step. However, if you’re not given a topic, you have some legwork to do.
If your instructor gave a general topic field, that will help get started. For example, if you’re reading The Great Gatsby for class, you can mine the book for various themes that could be used in your essay. Look for a topic that interests you and that you can relate to—it’s much easier to write if you have fun doing it!
However, you should also make sure to select a topic with enough material for your essay, whether that’s an AP Language and Composition novel or a research paper on an environmental issue.
Last but not least, you’re ready to outline your essay. Think of your outline as the skeleton of your essay—it’s a way to plan your essay structure before writing. That way, when the rubber hits the road (or the pen hits the paper) all you really need to do is fill in your argument.
To do this, break your essay into three sections: introduction, body, and conclusion. Your argument or thesis begins in the introduction, is fleshed out in the body, and is wrapped up in the conclusion.
From there, break your outline into segments, with a new paragraph for each major new idea. Each idea should build off the one that came before it. For example, if you’re writing about our relationship to death in Hamlet, you could have a paragraph for Hamlet’s father’s ghost, a paragraph on the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, and a paragraph on Yorick’s skull.
Essay Tips for Writing Essays
Once you have your topic and outline, you’re ready to start writing your essay. Here are a few essay writing tips to translate your outline’s big ideas into a cohesive, thoughtful essay.
Essay Writing Tips for Your Introduction
Your introduction is perhaps the hardest part of your essay. Unfortunately, it’s also the first part of your essay, which is what makes it so difficult.
The introduction sets the tone for the whole essay, briefly addressing what you’re going to say and cueing the reader to want more. The simplest approach is to break it into three parts:
The hook is the first sentence. It piques your reader’s curiosity and introduces the relevance of the topic, often with a bold statement, a memorable quote, or a surprising statistic. For example, in an essay about belief in Hamlet, your hook might be, “To belive or not to believe—that is the question of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.”
Next is the background, which provides both a structure for your essay and the context your reader needs to understand the argument. Don’t provide too much detail—that’s what the body is for. Instead, think of the introduction like the first paragraph of a newspaper article: it provides the essential and interesting points of your argument to draw the reader into the whole story. In a science essay, for example, you might briefly touch on major research in the subject to introduce your thesis.
Last but not least is your thesis statement, which tells the reader how to interpret your argument, directly addresses the question in the prompt, and tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper. For example, a thesis statement on Huckleberry Finn might read something like this, “Through its contrasting river and shore scenes, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find the true expression of American democratic ideals, one must leave “civilized” society and go back to nature.”
Essay Writing Tips for Your Body
The body of the essay is the meat of your argument. This is where you lay out your argument and present evidence to support it. It could be as short as three paragraphs or as long as eight pages.
If you did a good job of outlining your essay in advance, you should already know what your body will look like. You’ll know exactly how the argument progresses, beat by beat. That way, all you need to do is write. If you really did your future self a favor, you might even have your quotes and citations already written down exactly where they should appear in the body.
For essays that allow a lot of time to plan, you should get through the first draft without worrying about perfection. Just get it on paper. You can refine your arguments later. However, if you’re writing a timed essay (such as the ACT or SAT essays), you should write out an outline as a roadmap and watch your arguments as you write. Again, pre-planning will help you—if you try to think through your essay as you write, you’ll wind up with an unfocused argument.
Essay Writing Tips for Your Conclusion
At the conclusion, the end of the essay is in sight. A strong conclusion does three things:
- Returns to your thesis
- Brings your main points together
- Shows why your argument matters
This is not the time to introduce new evidence. Instead, use a simple formula. Return to your thesis at the start of the conclusion. Bring back evidence you introduced in the body to support it. Then, tie it all off with a punch—an impactful sentence or two that leaves a powerful last impression.
Never, ever rely on cheap filler phrases like “In conclusion…” or “To sum up…” These are hallmarks of weak writing—the reader knows that the whole point of the conclusion is to wrap up the essay. Relying on these phrases shows that you don’t have enough material to carry the conclusion without them, that you didn’t sufficiently plan the conclusion, or both.
Looking for More Essay Guides and Test Prep?
A lot of students worry about essay writing, especially those that don’t consider themselves writers. Here’s the thing: even a weak writer can write a decent essay as long as they craft a logical, well-considered argument. That comes down to planning, and now you have the roadmap you need to plan any essay you’ll encounter in high school.
High school tests work that way too—with a bit of careful planning and a lot of thorough prep work, you can achieve your best score. Our experienced tutors work with you to create a customized plan so that you can achieve your best results and set yourself up for success. Whether you need academic tutoring, standardized test prep, or a teammate to help you buckle down for AP, HSPT, ISSE, or SSAT exams, we’re here to help.
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