How to Write a Good Essay in College

Three Methods:Planning and ResearchWriting Your EssayRevising the Essay

As a college student, essays will be relatively commonplace. You may be able to be selective about professors for a while, but at some point you will have to face a professor who requires students to write essays. Being adept at putting a well-written essay together might be the difference between a D and an A.

Method 1
Planning and Research

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    Lay out a basic outline of what the essay is supposed to do. Ask questions during class to find out if there are any off limits sources. Write down any outlines you were given by the professor, as well as recommendations about what sources are acceptable by that professor.
    • Know that the sources allowed by one professor may not be allowed by another, so be careful. Treat every class as a unique course with unique demands.
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    Research the topic, and try to get material that is from established sources. Established sources include university publications, research journals, etc. Try not to get too lost in off-topic research. When researching for an essay, you do not need to get drawn well off topic into material that you can't use. Be aware of where the material you are reading is from, as it may be material that sounds perfectly valid, but has no basis in provable fact, or could be from a source that isn't considered valid by the professor.
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    Once you have the research done and you think you have enough to complete the essay, find five more articles that can back up your point. This gives you a good amount of material to pull snippets of fact from to better defend your point.

Method 2
Writing Your Essay

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    Begin your first draft. Get a pen, some paper, and paper printouts of your sources. The reason to write it in paper form with paper sources is that you can spread the material out on a table, and will allow you to see if one source conflicts with another, or if one article states a fact better than another.
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    Draw a simple map that allows you structure the essay. Your map should let you, at a glance, see the flow from idea to idea, placing the first idea you want presented in the beginning, and the following ideas placed in the order you'd like them to appear in the essay. This will allow you to see what the progression of the essay will be as you write it. Make it pretty neat because you'll use it throughout the rest of the essay process.
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    As you compile the first draft of the essay, focus mainly on ideas. Do not put a lot of emphasis on the spelling of complicated words, or picky punctuation. Just get the basic ideas stated in a manner that you can both understand later and expand on. The first draft is the place to get a very general layout going that will allow you to see what the final product will look like.
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    Take a break. Once you have a first draft that puts all the ideas you wish to incorporate into the essay on paper, and feel that you are prepared to make a second draft, take a 15 minute break away from the work. Try not to think about the essay during the break. If you want to have a snack, go for it.
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    Come back and refer to the essay map first. Use it to acclimate yourself with what you are going to write, and in what order you intend to write it.
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    Get out the pen and start putting the assorted pieces in place just like a puzzle. Try to form sentences that, while they may not be correct from a grammatical standpoint, they allow you to get the ideas on paper in more detail than those in the first draft. Keep the first draft close at hand and refer to it often. At the end of this writing session you should have an essay that clearly states at the top what the essay is about, and elaborates from there. Include source references when they are relevant, and that back up the text you put it with.

Method 3
Revising the Essay

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    Take a ten minute break, clear your mind and try not to think about the essay. You want to go back to the table with the mindset that the next draft needs to be a more polished form of the previous one, not an extension of it, not a 'fine tuning' of the previous one.
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    Start to clean up the draft. The next draft should be written to clean up poor sentence structure, get the punctuation worked out, and try to make some of the vague ideas more concrete. If there are any elements that you have neglected to include, now is the time to work them in. Try to make it look like they belong where they end up, not like they were crammed in because they were forgotten until the third draft. Try to make the piece flow from idea to idea smoothly and cleanly.
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    Finally, write a third draft. The third and final draft should directly follow the previous one, and should fix all the problems with the previous drafts. Get the sentence structure nailed down, and make sure that all the ideas are well stated and well placed within the piece. If anything feels like it needs 'tuning' this is the last opportunity. Get a clearly written and well stated essay on paper that, if handed to someone with only a little knowledge of the subject, could be understood without too many questions. Take care to use easy-to-read penmanship that you won't have to study to determine what you meant. Also, this is the time to adjust awkwardly worded phrasing.
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    Look for typos, oversights, problems in logic, and clarity problems. Read the piece, and look specifically for sentences that don't seem to work well as they are written, for statements that may be more suitable elsewhere within the piece. Using a red ink pen, jot down notes within the margin, clarify statements, correct order-of-words, and try to polish the essay to perfection.
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    Go to the computer, and type it up. This is the first typed draft. Try to make it sound thoughtful, have it flow well, and clearly state whatever you have to state.
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    Print the essay, and read it, trying to be as picky as you can. Go over it with a fine-toothed comb, and locate any and every weakness. Correct any problems and type up the final copy, which will be handed in.


  • Insert a header and footer with your name and class, this always helps to identify you.
  • Try to include the references to your sources throughout the order, not just all at the first, or all at the end. Try to sprinkle them from start to finish so that the piece seems polished and well completed.
  • Avoid run on sentences.
  • Communicate With Your Professor and try to eliminate confusion. Some professors prefer to be rather ambiguous about the specifics but you need to know what is expected. "A Short Essay" to Professor Marks may be 3 pages, to Professor Henry 3 pages may be almost enough for the introductions. Every educator has a specific set of expectations, and you need to know them to meet and exceed them.
  • Keep it simple, avoid wordiness.
  • Analyze your references. If the source was found online, does the site look like it was created by a professional, or a fan-boy? Professors have been known to check your sources, especially if the class had a high dropout rate which has allowed for more free time. It's a death sentence to the student who submits a reference link that looks not unlike Spongebob in color and maturity!
  • Professors love page numbers, especially if the document is lengthy. The best places are dead center at the bottom, and right hand side at the bottom.
  • Don't overdo it with the flowery words. The term 'light' means the same as 'luminosity', but the latter may leave you sounding like someone trying to hide poor research behind a good thesaurus.
  • Don't worry too much in the early stages about sentence structure or grammar. Just get the main ideas on paper and in some resemblance of order. Often, the finished product doesn't resemble the first draft, other times, the first draft and final product differ only in minor ways. It is a decision to be made by the writer. Use the first draft as just a way to get all your ideas and points in one format, then work on organizing and cleaning in your revision process (drafts 2, 3).


  • Don't wait until the night before the deadline to start working on it. To produce a clear, concise, and effective essay, you could easily spend 6 hours or more. For every corner you cut, you may very well be lowering your grade by a half letter!
  • Plagiarism is a suspension offense in most colleges/universities. You find a paper online that says precisely what you want to say, you can take those ideas, put them into your own words, and recycle them. You cannot copy-paste word for word. Ideally, it's best to develop your material from sources instead of pre-written documents. No two professors hold the same precise standards of what is and is not plagiarism, so when it doubt, cut that section out and redo it from scratch using your own sources!

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Categories: College and University Study Techniques | Essays