Essay writing is what many students view as the hardest part of college.
Once you’re at the college level, expectations can become quite high, deadlines tight, and your margin for error somewhat small.
For the uninitiated, it’s a challenge.
The good news is that today we’ve collected some college essay writing tips to help make the writing process less intimidating.
With some effort and practice, these essay tips should help you produce consistently solid essays, regardless of current skill level.
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Tip #1: Break Down Your Tasks
Psychologically, essays are tricky. Most students do not want to do them and thus have a hard time getting started. One of the biggest reasons for this is simply the scale of the task.
Essays can take a significant amount of one’s time. This only becomes more true the longer the essay has to be or the more research it’s going to require. Taken all together, it becomes so intimidating that some procrastination is almost inevitable.
The trick, then, is not to look at an essay as one titanic task. Instead, break it down into pieces. There are plenty of ways to do this; it largely depends on how much motivation you have.
If you only need a small push, try breaking it down into a couple of sessions. For your first session, try only doing your research and citing those sources. Then, in your next writing session, tackle only a page or two at a time. This is a handy tip for when writing essays, emails, or creative writing, sure to help you become a better writer.
If you’re finding it almost impossible to get motivated, go further. Instead of thinking in terms of pages, think in terms of paragraphs. Every writing session, don’t stop until you have at least one good paragraph.
How far out your sessions need to be depends on your deadline. We recommend at least one a day the moment the essay is assigned but it’s perfectly reasonable to do two, three, or more in one day.
Tip #2: Procrastinating is Bad, Breaks are Good
Closely linked to the above should be the idea that you deserve breaks. They can be a great way to refresh the mind and destress a little. However, these breaks need to be logical.
Let’s assume you have a five page essay due in three days. For most students, that is a stressful proposition if they haven’t begun it yet. To avoid being overwhelmed, it is sensible to take breaks as they do their work.
However, those breaks need to be scheduled. With such a tight deadline, a good rule might be taking thirty minutes or so between writing sessions and then jumping back into your work.
How strict you need to be with yourself depends on your personal nature. Some people have a natural sense for when it’s time for a break to end and some don’t. If you’re not sure, set timers for yourself that alert you when it’s time to get started again.
Moreover, don’t take breaks at random. You should have done a sensible amount of work before taking a break. That’s why this tip bears well with the one above; combined with this tip, it ensures you get your work done without pushing yourself to a breaking point.
Tip #3: Get Clarification Early
This next tip is going to be key for making sure you do your essay right. Many students put far too much work into an essay that’s going in the wrong direction, sometimes receiving a failing grade for their misplaced efforts.
The specific requirements of an essay are going to vary a lot by professor and class. One of the most important yet simple college essay tips we’ll give is to figure out what those requirements are.
Simply put, get clarification early. Too many students will sit on their confusion for days or even weeks, only to ask their professor at the eleventh hour or even guess what they’re supposed to do.
If you instead email your professor with your questions, they can help point you in the right direction. Doing this early gives them time to respond or gives you time to realize they’re not good at responding to emails.
Contacting professors early also helps you seem more professional, rather than a student who is rushing to finish an essay they should already have started.
If email isn’t working, try to schedule an in-person meeting with your professor. Calmly explain what you’re unsure about regarding the essay, without (fair or not) blaming the professor for any miscommunication.
The vast majority of professors, if contacted during work hours in a professional way, will do their best to clarify an essay’s requirements for you. After all, it’s in their best interest for you to learn their lessons and succeed in their class.
Tip #4: Research Wisely
Our next tip covers an area some professors will be much more strict about than others: research. This is an area some students spend hours more than is necessary and where others don’t spend enough time. Both these groups need to adjust their habits.
First, as a rule, don’t use sources that aren’t from scholarly-reviewed. While it isn’t a perfect solution, focusing on books and sources from the databases most colleges give their students access to is a good starting point.
You’ll also want to learn how to navigate a database to find relevant results quickly. Every database is different but most have vaguely similar search functions and the ability to filter out old sources and those that aren’t peer-reviewed.
As for once you find a source that seems like it may work, you usually don’t actually have to read the entire source. For most essays, skimming it to see if it has the information you can use and focusing on what you find tends to work fine enough.
The caveat to this is that you want to make sure the source doesn’t contradict or disprove the passage you’re going to cite. Remember, context is key; you want anything you quote or paraphrase to be representative of what the source actually is saying.
Additionally, watch out for sources that make wild or controversial claims. These claims are not inherently wrong but even peer-reviewed work can sometimes be faulty. You want to pay extra attention to claims that seem strange or contradictory compared to other modern sources.
As a final note on this topic, always cite your sources. At the college level, plagiarism can and has gotten students in serious trouble. A professor could fail you not only for the paper but even the entire class.
Tip #5: Tend Your Garden
Of our tips for writing college essays, this one may at first seem disconnected from the subject at hand. However, tending one’s mental garden is an important task in any academic pursuit.
Most people have a strong dislike for college-level work, at least outside of class. It can be boring, difficult, or both. You don’t have to pretend that isn’t true but you still need to find a path to doing the work.
We’ve already covered time management in some of our other tips but stress management is also going to be key. A student who is less stressed is going to produce better work; it makes it easier to think in a clear, concise manner.
We’ve talked before about how to calm one’s anxiety, with those tips working as a great starting point for trying to clear one’s head. The trick is finding positive ways to take breaks (like through exercise or music) while avoiding negative ones (such as drugs or alcohol).
Tip #6: Precision not Wordiness
The final of our tips for college essays is regarding a mistake many students make: Wordiness is not inherently better than more concise writing.
Many students think that long sentences with complex words are “smarter” than shorter sentences with simpler language. The issue is that this isn’t always true. In fact, wordy sentences are often harder to read and understand.
This isn’t to say one should never use long sentences. Meanwhile, longer words have a place in writing too. However, the goal of both is to convey meaning; there is not much point to complex language if it obfuscates rather than clarifies.
It’s also worth noting that even college professors are not masters in all fields. A scientific paper submitted to a biology professor can afford to be more complex in its scientific language than an essay on the same subject submitted to an English professor.
We are not saying your essay should be simple. What a college-level essay should be is precise. Use the language and length you need to use in order to convey a given idea, whether that’s ten pages or a paragraph.
If you don’t think your essay is long enough, that’s a sign you need to expand your idea or otherwise alter your thesis. It isn’t a sign you should flounder on a topic you’ve already explained.
Practice Our Essay Writing Tips and Reach Your Potential
Whether you’re new to college or simply find essay writing a challenge, these essay writing tips we’ve provided should be a great starting point. Even better, these tips become easier and easier with practice.
If you’d like more college advice, check out our other articles on the university experience!