Last Updated: July 22, 2013
Over the weekend I began going through the ever-growing tower of past schoolwork I’ve kept from high school and college. I read through probably a hundred different papers I’ve written over the years. With each one, a little flood of pride swept over me–Wow, I knew what ‘Defenestration‘ meant?–and, ultimately decided to keep a bunch of them (and by ‘a bunch of them’ I really mean every single one).
You’re probably reading this post as a cry for help from my secret hoarder life, but it’s not (it is), it’s really not (I had to tunnel through my hallways filled with every newspaper since 1987 just to get to my room filled with 48 cats).
No, we’re talking about great college papers. With hindsight being 20/20, I was able to see what made some of my college papers works of, dare I say, genius, and others just kinda lumps of complicated words that didn’t really add up to much in the end.
Here’s my words of wisdom, which include the comments scribbled in the margins from professors who’ve read my papers:
1. You need to stop procrastinating now!
This one’s a bit obvious. But hey, here’s the simple fact: If you start your paper 5 hours before it’s due, chances are it will not be thoroughly researched, thought through, or finely edited. I’ve had my share of “let’s watch this marathon Law & Order all day and start writing at midnight” experiences. It shows in the work. If you start your paper when it’s assigned, you’ll have a chance to write an outline, fine-tune your thesis, and even sleep on your ideas. Letting your ideas marinate a bit will help them grow stronger, or will help you realize what works and what doesn’t. Give yourself the gift of time!
2. I’m confused, what’s your thesis?
Sometimes the things our teachers told us in high school don’t quite sink in. If that’s the case with what they taught you about a thesis, it’s definitely time to learn what a thesis is. The thesis in your paper is the argument you’re making. It can be as simple as “Juliette was stupid” or “Hamlet was a nutjob.” You can argue whatever you want, but it has to be a strong and interesting enough argument to carry through your entire paper.
3. Do you even know what this word means?
Avoid trying to sound smarter than you are. You are probably a very smart person. Using words because they sound esoteric will turn your paper into something pedantic and alien. Your teachers don’t care how much you can impersonate an academic voice as much as hearing YOU argue your thesis smartly and thoughtfully.
4. Did you read the book? I’m seriously concerned you didn’t read the book.
Read the book. They always know when you don’t read the book.
4.5 Please never write an essay in 15 pt Comic Sans Again. Please, I beg you.
5. Where’s the proof?
Once you have your thesis, go back carefully through the text to come up with evidence. Think of yourself as a little Sherlock Holmes and gather all the evidence you can for your argument. The proof is in the pudding. And in this case, the pudding is the text, not your memory of it.
Do you have any tips for writing a great college essay? Leave a comment!
Original Post Date: September 21st, 2011