How to Write an Essay on a College Course

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The Drafting Board

A common assignment in college classes is a final essay that details what you've learned, or how your expectations have changed based on the material. Though many assume that these essays are less formal, most professors---regardless of the subject they teach---take off points for grammatical and stylistic issues and like to see students engaging with the course readings. Simply taking the same amount of care and preparation for a psychology paper as you would for an English paper will dramatically increase the likelihood of your doing well on any assignment.

Things You'll Need

  • Assignment sheet
  • Computer
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  1. Planning and Writing the Essay

    • 1

      Brainstorm a list of ideas in response to the prompt on the assignment sheet. For example, you might be asked to write a paper for psychology that explains what you have learned about yourself through reading a particular article or book about human development. Upon thinking on this topic, you may write some points such as trying to find an identity, or looking for recognition. Write down as many ideas as you can before reading back over them. You should be able to see that some topics seem more interesting, complex, and relevant than others. Selecting those topics that have a lot of depth will be the keys to structuring and developing your essay.

    • 2

      Organize the points you brainstormed into a series of body paragraphs that support the main idea. This main idea should be the most important thing about the class that you want your reader to walk away with. This should be a claim, such as "became a more mature student and person," that is complicated enough to be developed with different subtopics. Subtopics are generally related to the ideas you brainstormed. Once you have decided on a few main points to talk about, figure out how you will order them. Chronology, or the order in which things happened, often lends itself very well to essays on college classes. You could also organize subtopics in order of least to most important. Regardless of the organization you choose, think about the relationship between these ideas, so that you can explain them to your reader.

    • 3

      Make sure your outline and main idea support the assignment prompt. For most professors, the most important part of such assignments is that students respond to them correctly, yet failing to do so is one of the most common mistakes students make. It is also important to pay attention to sub-requirements, such as for outside sources. Your instructor may tell you exactly how many sources you are expected to use, and sometimes give even more specific guidelines such as the number of direct quotes or additional sources needed. These are things that are easy to miss at first glance, but are far easier to fix before you have actually drafted the essay. Consider making a checklist of assignment guidelines and asking someone else to read your outline and complete the checklist based upon their understanding of it. The bottom line is that responding correctly to prompts is exceedingly important in college-level essays.

    • 4

      Begin the writing process by developing each point on your outline in the order presented. Generally, most people start with an introductory paragraph that serves to direct the reader through the essay, but if you have trouble with this overarching information, consider writing this paragraph last. The most important thing is to focus on fully explaining and supporting the ideas presented in your outline. This means not only using details and examples but also addressing questions about the reasoning behind, as well as the purpose and importance of, all ideas. Be sure to provide some summary of any outside ideas or resources used so the reader knows to what specifically you are responding. Professors like to see engagement with the class as well as the material, so examples about memorable lessons can have a strong impact. The traditional purpose of such essays is to test students' understanding and use of the material, as well as give them experience with synthesizing resources and personal ideas. A good paper on a college class is one that makes clear transitions between class material and personal response, and displays an understanding of the topic's lasting importance.

    • 5

      Revise your essay: when you are finished, read through it for missing content as well as grammatical or stylistic issues. Use both global revision, which focuses on larger issues such as organization, development, and use of resources, and local revision, which looks at the way that grammar, punctuation, and syntax are used and evaluates the effectiveness of sentences. Be sure to use computer tools such spell and grammar check, but do not rely upon them solely to catch your mistakes. Try reading over your essay from two different perspectives: that of a professor and that of someone who knows little about the class or material. Does your essay use and reference things you read or talked about in class? Does it in some way go beyond the points previously discussed? When you feel secure that your essay contains enough specific information to satisfy your professor, make sure also that it could be understood by someone who just picked up your paper. If you have explained ideas clearly and directly, using language such as "this means this" and "because of this, this happened," just about anyone could get at least a basic idea of your topic and your experience in the classroom

Tips & Warnings

  • A great way to generate ideas for an essay on a college class is to read over the course's goals. Most teachers list a series of goals or skills that students should master by the end of the semester; these are a great indication of the kind of material they would expect to be included in the paper. While this does not mean that you should spell out that you have learned to synthesize resources, you might want to mention that you have begun to see the relationships between different ideas and readings.

  • Although it can be tempting to cut and paste passages from outside resources when summarizing, or to borrow material found on nonscholarly websites, this is dishonest and can be considered plagiarism. Anytime you use ideas and resources---even if you did not use their exact language---that are not your own, you need to correctly document the material so that your reader knows where it came from. Giving credit where credit is due is essential, even when responding to information in a textbook for what may seem like a less formal assignment.

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  • Photo Credit Martin Kingsley flickr

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