The College Survival Guide: Enter the College Essay

Confession time: despite being an English major, I was never particularly fond of writing college essays. I mean, I don’t think anyone really enjoys writing them, they just know whether they’re able to write them or not. I liked finishing an essay, but that was about the beginning and end of the enjoyment.

Maybe you’ve been out of college a good, long while, or you never went (honestly, smart). So what’s in it for you? Well, honestly, essay format is not a bad idea if you’re writing a really informative blog post. Except you actually get to imbue it with personality and, you know, humanity.

Analytical writing can be a real drain on the creative writer, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the two can’t coexist.

I’m determined to find a way to hack the skills I spent so long refining in college rather than just letting them shrivel up and die like a worm on a hot sidewalk. Not that I ever want to write a five-paragraph essay on the impact of early modern English drama again, but if I can take the process and turn it into something relevant to blogging, then heck, why not?

So let me just take the liberty of sharing my step-by-step essay-writing process with you, to whom it may concern. Bear in mind: this is a way to write an essay, not the way to write an essay. But I’m sure you figured that.

Oh, and if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out part 1 of this college-oriented series and the bonus post where I share professor quotes!

step 1: the thesis

Once I got wise about essay-writing, I always started with the thesis. Obviously, you have to pick your topic first, but it’s not just about having a subject matter: it’s about having an argument.

Your thesis is a one- to two-sentence summary of your entire essay’s argument. It generally goes at the end of the intro paragraph (the whole of which I tended to write last, but it really just depends on your mood).

So, what’s the format for a thesis? Well, basically, you’re stating the main ideas of your essay. A good way to organize it is to state your main topic and then list what the topic of each body paragraph will be. More or less, you’ll write your thesis and your outline at the same time.

step 2: the outline

Different essays will have different requirements in terms of length, but hey, you can never go wrong with good-old five-paragraph format to start. That works out to three body paragraphs, but you can always add or subtract as needed.

What every essay needs is an intro and conclusion, but unless you feel very confident about those right off the bat, I’d wait til the end to write them because then you’ll know what all they should say based on your research. Intros generally give relevant background information while conclusions tie it all together and leave the reader with one last thing to think about. It’s always a good idea to recap your thesis at the beginning of your conclusion.

I always used the Roman numeral system for my paragraphs, I-V, and holy crap did I really just use everything I learned in high school?

You know what, not sure there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, it works.

step 3: the research

I’m pretty sure that no matter what subject you’re writing about, you have to use “credible sources,” which is college-speak for “stuff that smart people wrote.” Eheheh, well, everyone knows not to use Wikipedia (I hope), but Google isn’t always a bad idea… just check it against this to make sure it’s credible.

Honestly, I rarely used Google searches. I’d use my college library’s online resources database to find scholarly articles. Google also has a “Google Scholar” feature that you can use to find such articles, but generally, I could find what I needed from the online database. If you’re unsure, just ask your professor and I’m certain they can point you in the right direction.

step 4: pulling quotes

Honestly, one of the best things I found to help expedite the process of writing an essay was to pull quotes as I did my research, put them in a separate Word Doc with citations, and plug them in as I wrote. That took out some, if not most, of the headache of finding evidence to support your argument during the drafting process.

Oh, on that note: since quotes are supposed to support your argument, don’t forget to put the right tag (author, source, whatever) at the beginning to introduce the quote, an internal citation at the end after the quotation marks, and (above all) explain how that quote ties into your argument.

step 5: the draft

Ugh, the draft. Actually putting words on a page in a way that makes sense and doesn’t sound like a load of garbáge. (That’s French for garbage.) Well, there’s really no foolproof way to do this except to just do it. I’ll call upon the advice I mentioned in the professor quotes post: “Don’t get it right, just get it written.”

Honestly, just focus on putting the words on the page and worry about it making sense later. Add quotes and evidence as you go if you can, but don’t be afraid to [PUT BRACKETS] and come back to them later. Do what comes naturally to you first, go out-of-order if you have to, and add in the hard parts once you’ve warmed up.

step 6: revision

The revision process is simple: if you have the time to let it sit for a day, do it, and come back with fresh eyes and (hopefully) a rested brain. Obviously, if you’re getting it done the night before, you don’t have this option. Either way, the next steps are simple:

  • Re-read for clarity (I usually made comments in the Word Doc as I read and went back to resolve them later)
  • Check grammar, punctuation, and spelling (Grammarly couldn’t hurt)
  • If there’s time, have someone you trust read over it and give you feedback

step 7: citations and formatting

Ah, yes, the dreaded Works Cited/Bibliography, whatever you call it. Plus making sure the margins, header/footer, and whatever the heck else are correct. Well, I honestly never had to venture outside MLA, but I’ll tell you what: even then, I still consulted Purdue Owl for every single essay I wrote. It’s honestly the single best resource out there for essays. I didn’t even go past the MLA section, but I know there’s a ton of other helpful information on that site.

And of course, if you’re not sure, just ask your professor. Someone somewhere has answers.

Overall, remember that even though essay-writing is basically inevitable when you’re in college, nothing is worth losing your mind over. Don’t ever put a stupid research paper in front of your peace of mind, but as long as you have the ability to do your best, do it!

That goes for just about anything. Do what you can–but don’t give it any more time and effort than you think it’s worth.

I feel like that advice could backfire on me in the wrong context, but hopefully you get what I mean.

How do (or did) you feel about essays? What is the best (or worst) advice you’ve received? Comment below!

7 responses to “The College Survival Guide: Enter the College Essay”

  1. This is such a good breakdown to writing, I never really put together the process of writing essays with writing blogs. Such an efficient reminder that will be sure to improve my writing. Thank you for sharing 🙂

    1. Thank you for reading! Happy you found it helpful! 🙂

  2. I wish I read this 3 weeks ago because I just turned my final draft in last night. 😀 Cross your fingers for me!

    1. Haha I will! 🤞🏼 Best wishes!

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