The College Essay Is an Argument

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You know the word “argument” because you’ve argued in the past. When you were young, for example, your mother told you to clean your room. You argued that it was just going to get messy again so there was no point in cleaning it and she should leave you alone for once in her life. When it comes to the college essay, many student writers continue to believe that a good argument is a loud argument. They write boldly. They make fun of their opponents. They ignore evidence that undercuts their positions.

Foolish student writers! That’s not the kind of argument you make with a college essay. The college essay kind of argument must be thoughtful and honest and systematic. You start by asking a question that matters to you and your readers. After that, you consider any evidence you can find that’s relevant to your question. Then, with the help of that evidence, you use your intelligence rather than a threatened ego to decide on the best available answer. Finally, and only after a lot of good thinking, you share your work with others — patiently, precisely, humbly, and in writing. No doors are to be slammed, no insults muttered under your breath.

You have also done this thoughtful kind of argument before now, though perhaps not in written form. When you chose a college to attend, for example, you started with a question. Oh no, you thought. What do I do now? You then considered your options, visited college websites, read brochures, talked to your equally confused friends, and arrived at a decision about how best to answer that question. And here you are.

When you bought your computer or your car or those amazing shoes — any purchase you actually thought about — you went through the same process of wondering which option was best, considering the evidence, and then making a decision. That’s how a good argument works. With the college essay, you simply explain your decision in writing. Nothing could be easier.

Nothing could be easier, that is, except that “the college essay” is a label that many teachers apply to other papers that aren’t really college essays because they aren’t arguments. So before you get started with actual college essays, you’ll need to tidy up your understanding of this term. You’ll do that by first looking at the main ingredients required by an actual argument. After that, you’ll compare actual college essays to other papers that may look like college essays but are not. Chapter Two continues this introduction by examining the process of writing college arguments and how it differs from the process of being a knucklehead.

A Brief Introduction to Argument

Argument is a field of study that’s been around for thousands of years, so it’s had plenty of time to become complicated and confusing. However, the basic ingredients of argument are fairly simple to understand. Here’s what you need:

  1. A question that matters to you and your readers.
  2. Honest consideration of the relevant evidence.
  3. A thoughtful decision about the best answer.
  4. Careful presentation of your answer, your thinking, and the evidence.

If your essay includes all of these ingredients, it’s probably an argument and thus a college essay. If any of these ingredients is missing, then it’s probably not an argument and not a college essay. It’s something that lives just down the street from the college essay, under a different name.

A Question that Matters

Arguments begin when people ask a question without a single clear answer or with several clear but competing answers, and they can’t agree about which answer is best. Sometimes these are small questions: What movie should we see? Do these pants make my butt look big? Sometimes they’re big questions: Who should be the next president? Does wilderness have an intrinsic value? Will plaid sport coats ever be popular again?

If you and your sister agree that those pants really do make your butt look big, there’s no argument. The question has one clear answer for both of you, so you have harmony — a sad harmony perhaps, a harmony that needs to eat better and exercise more, but harmony nonetheless. If, however, your sister thinks the pants make your butt look big while you think the pants have a slimming effect, then you have a question with more than one answer. You have disagreement, the potential for argument.

Besides having more than one reasonable answer, the question must also matter to both you and your audience. If my girlfriend and I disagree about how clean a bathroom needs to be, for example, we have the possibility for argument. It’s actually more than a possibility. However, the disagreement has to matter to more than one party for an argument to actually happen. If my girlfriend decides to move out, the question of bathroom cleanliness doesn’t matter to her anymore. I can leave beard stubble in the sink for a week, and there will be no argument.

If you don’t care about politics, the question of who to vote for doesn’t matter. Whatever, you think, and that’s that. If your professor has no interest in wilderness — perhaps because she’s teaching you about computer programming — then however passionate you might feel, the question of wilderness’s intrinsic value doesn’t matter enough for an argumentative essay.

Relevant Evidence

Although your own experiences and observations might provide you with a good hunch about the best answer to an argumentative question, you need to set that hunch aside for the moment and consider as broad a range of evidence as time allows. That’s because your personal views might not be as universal as they feel. The news report upon which you base your answer to the immigration situation might have left out a few facts. Your uncle Ken’s opinion about global warming is probably not accepted scientific fact.

To arrive at the best answer to the question, you need to explore any evidence you can find, and you need to do so with an open mind, considering all available answers, consulting experts, and so on. You have to be willing to abandon your hunch if that’s what the evidence suggests.

This isn’t a matter of listing the pros and cons and going with the longer list. With argument, you need to look at the evidence more generally and search out patterns within it. You have to let the evidence determine what will be the best answer. With any college writing assignment, you’re only given so much time, so when the time is up, you have to go with the best idea time allowed. Even so, don’t be premature with your conclusions. The best ideas are rarely the easiest to find.

A Thoughtful Decision

With any good argumentative question, you won’t find a right answer. You will instead find many plausible answers, and from these you will have to choose one. This will be a matter of opinion. The answer you choose will, in your opinion, be the best available answer to the question.

The word “opinion” is often used as a synonym for “guess,” an idea that you think might be true even if you have little or no reason to think so. That’s why we often add phrases like “that’s just my opinion” or “I feel that” to our guesses. Why get into a fight over an idea we already doubt?

This is not the kind of opinion we’re talking about with college essays. Your opinion should not be a guess but a thoughtful decision based on your consideration of the evidence. It should be an idea that you find reliable, and not just for yourself but for others, too. That’s the kind of opinion required by the college essay.

Careful Presentation

By “careful,” I do not mean “timid.” If your essay is a good argument, you have considered a lot of relevant evidence, and that evidence has led you to a thoughtful decision about the best answer. You’re in a good place, student writer. You should be confident about that evidence and your own thinking abilities. Just don’t overdo it. Remember that while your answer to the question might be a good idea, it’s not divinely inspired and it’s not a fact. You still have to earn its acceptance with a careful presentation of what you think and why you think so

You should be respectful of those who disagree with you. They aren’t idiots, probably. They just don’t see things as clearly as you now do. You should also show your readers how your idea makes sense in the real world. You do that by offering actual evidence from the real world. Being careful means explaining your conclusions about the meaning of that evidence, too. And the best arguments will consider alternative answers and then explain why your answer is still better. That’s the sort of care you should take when you explain and defend your opinion.

When you take the time to do all of the above, the essay you produce will be a college essay because it will be a fully formed argument.

What the College Essay Is Not

Throughout your formative years, your teachers called many things “essays.” When your kind old fifth-grade teacher asked you to please write an essay about your summer “escapades,” what she really meant was “write a story.” When your cool junior high civics teacher told you write an essay about medical marijuana or hemp production or some other topic related to marijuana, what he meant was “write a report.” Why did your teachers use “essay” for things that aren’t arguments? They just did. Try not to dwell on it. Instead, take a few minutes to clean out some of these old misconceptions about what the college essay is and what it is not.

The College Essay Is Not a Report

Reports are papers that give readers ideas and information about a topic. They’re common in elementary and high school, and they persist less frequently as college assignments, too. A report requires you to inform yourself about a topic, which is a valuable skill, so that’s a good assignment to give a larval student writer such as you were then. Reports aren’t essays, however, because they focus only on a topic and not on a debatable question about that topic. More importantly, you never have to make any decisions about the meaning of the information you gather because a report doesn’t present your own opinion as its main idea. It only presents the information.

It’s fairly easy to write a perfectly acceptable report without thinking at all, as you probably know from experience. You might be old enough to remember opening an encyclopedia and copying down information “in your own words” without letting any of that information penetrate your brain. Or consider the times when you scoured the Internet for the first website that had any information on your topic. That didn’t require much thought, did it? You can get away with that sort of non-thinking when it comes to information-laden reports, but it won’t work with the college essay.

Here’s a typical report-like piece of writing:

Pigdogs live in packs of up to six animals in established territories of up to one square mile. The territory tends to be bounded by natural features, such as rivers, or by man-made features such as interstate highways or fences. The territory includes a year-round source of water and a shaded area known as the “sty” where the pigdogs lounge as often as they are able and occasionally yip in their sleep.

Females bear one litter of up to eight pigpups every other year, except in times of drought. During times of drought, they typically band together with other females and fight off any rutting males.

The males are the hunters of the pack, though they tend to flee any animal that moves quickly, such as a rabbit. Often they come back to the pack bearing fast-food wrappers and Pepsi cups or road kill that is not too intimidating. They may also stalk fruits and vegetables, acting as if the plants were dangerous animals, and bring these spoils back to the sty with a great display of pride.

In this example, the author provides facts that inform you about the topic of “pigdogs.” No question is raised. No answer serves as the main idea of the paper. What you have instead is raw information presented with some care. Thus we have a report. For this to become an essay, the author needs to answer a debatable question about the topic and then use relevant information about pigdogs as evidence to defend that answer.

Here’s a short essay that asks the question, “What should the Department of Fish and Wildlife do about non-native species?” In this paper, the author uses the example of pigdogs to explain what he or she has decided is the best answer to that question:

Non-native species have a way of destroying the environments they invade, and that’s why the Department of Fish and Wildlife must act more aggressively in its attempts to eradicate these species. A good illustration of failed eradication can be found in the case of the Norwegian pigdogs that have taken over large parts of California’s Central Valley.

Pigdogs run in packs of five to eight animals over small territories (often defined by roads or irrigation ditches). They first arrived in California’s Santa Clara region in 1911 as pets aboard the German freighter Emilie. Having been thrown overboard by the sailors during a drinking binge, the pigdogs swam to shore and quickly adapted to the surrounding environment, starting in Samuel County and moving southward.

Perhaps because they appear shy, or because of their odd habit of gathering roadside garbage, pigdogs have been considered harmless for decades. It was only five years ago that wildlife biologists realized that pigdogs had begun to crowd out native species such as raccoons and ground squirrels. Efforts to curb the spread of pigdogs by removing roadside garbage only resulted in pigdogs moving into farmers’ fields and orchards where they began eating themselves into the population explosion that continues today.

If more aggressive eradication tactics — trapping, shooting, poisoning — had been taken earlier, pigdogs would not now be eating one-third of the annual nectarine crop, among other things.

This writer uses much of the same information about pigdogs as you find in the report, but the purpose for that evidence has changed. It’s no longer just a collection of facts to inform us about a topic. In this essay, it has become evidence that helps to explain and defend the writer’s answer to a question.

Stories, by the way, are really just reports, too. We call them stories or narratives because they report or narrate an event of some sort, often focusing on key actions and the characters who perform those actions. Because of that emphasis, they seem different from reports. And they’re more interesting, usually — we enjoy a good story. However, they do not respond to a debatable question, and they do not present your own reasonable answer to that debatable question. What they do instead is present information about a topic — in this case, an event — so that readers will better understand that topic. That makes them a type of report.

Paraphrasing is another type of report that sometimes looks like an essay. When paraphrasing, a writer might happen to report someone else’s opinion, putting that idea into his or her own words. While this looks like an essay because of that other person’s opinion, it remains a report because the paraphrased answer is not the writer’s opinion. Instead, the writer is simply reporting the fact that someone else has an opinion.

In the college essay, you will regularly need to paraphrase the ideas of others. It’s a good way to compress and include these ideas as you defend your own opinions. However, reporting someone else’s opinion is no substitute for you figuring out your own answer to a good question.

The College Essay Is Not a Reflection Paper

Reflection papers typically respond to a question: What do you think about this? The writer must then generate some kind of answer to the question and put it in writing. Because of these qualities, the reflection paper does look something like a college essay. However, if we look more closely, the similarity starts to break down. Consider this short reflection paper:

So what do I think about this article? One thing I learned was that writing is important. You have to be able to write in order to succeed in our society. People expect you to write well. If you can’t express yourself well as a writer, then you will miss out on many important opportunities. I don’t really agree that spelling should count as much as it does. That just turns everyone into spelling freaks, and what really matters isn’t your spelling but the ideas spelled out by your words, whether or not your words are spelled correctly.

Email was another thing that stood out for me in this article. That seemed so out of date. Nobody emails. Not like we did when it first came out when we were in grade school. Back then it was all about doing email because email was so new, but people don’t email anymore. They text. The world changed, and someone forgot to tell this author. Some people still email, of course, but nobody I know except my mother.

One thing I’d like to know is whether writing will even exist once everyone has video phones because honestly….

You get the idea. It isn’t pretty, but this short reflection paper does seem to include the elements of an argument, including a question, evidence, and answers. But look more closely at how this works. With a paper like this, the question — what do you think? — isn’t an argumentative question because there’s only one reasonable answer. Whatever the author says is the answer. You can’t reasonably respond by telling that writer, “That’s not what you think! You think email is awesome!”

This sort of paper considers evidence, too, but there’s no guarantee that it will be thoughtful consideration. There’s no need for thoughtfulness. Similarly, while the author does decide what he or she thinks, this is not a decision about what is the best answer to the question. This is simply a spilling of brain waves onto paper. The only real decision is when to turn off the brain faucet.

When it comes time for the presentation, the lack of focus is particularly noticeable. Without a clear question to debate, or thoughtful consideration of relevant evidence, or a decision about which is the best answer to a question, the paper becomes a mishmash of sentences that may or may not stick to one main idea. That kind of writing is clearly not the careful presentation of a single answer and its defense.

In college, the reflection paper is usually assigned to get you to read something. The assignment provides your professor with mild assurance that you did the reading, and perhaps that you also thought about what you read. The reflection paper is also assigned because it’s so easy to grade. The professor only has to skim your work to make sure the paper stays on the right topic. This is useful, particularly if a loved one likes to complain that the professor never has any time for her because all he ever does is read papers “like a freaking readaholic.” This ease of grading only underscores the point that reflection papers are not particularly thoughtful works.

Rants are a kind of unsolicited reflection paper. In a rant, the author adopts a general and often emotional position toward a topic and then lets loose a broad stream of invective toward the target of the rant. You can find plenty of this in the letters-to-the-editor section of the local newspaper or in “reader comments” to online news stories, or in blogs, where colorful writing leads to popularity, and popularity creates the illusion of credibility. People get worked up about the way “government” keeps interfering with their right to fire machine guns in their own backyards, or how dog owners never clean up their own dogs’ poop — or whatever else — and they respond to the situation by typing rapidly. What comes out of those rapidly moving fingertips may feel coherent because it was written while in an angry mood, but it’s really just a grumpy, rambling reflection paper about a topic or news story.

The College Essay Is Not a Five-Paragraph Trainer-Essay

The five-paragraph trainer-essay is usually a report or a reflection paper rather than an actual college essay. This might offend some of you who have, in the past, earned high marks for these papers. However, the five-paragraph trainer-essay is only called an essay for the same reason that a training bra is called a bra, which is the same reason that toddler diapers are called “training pants” instead of “underpants-like diapers for kids who should be using toilets by now.” These terms make you feel better about yourself as you go through these awkward and often embarrassing transitions.

The five-paragraph trainer-essay is primarily a template. An introductory paragraph presents a topic and a main idea about that topic: “This paper will look at the costs, the benefits, and the challenges of making your own ice cream.” Each of three body paragraphs presents information about one subtopic of this topic, for example: “The costs include whole milk, salt, flavoring, and other costs that together are not that much more than the cost of store-bought ice cream.” After you finish your three body paragraphs, a concluding paragraph summarizes your reflections and encourages readers to make their own ice cream. Into this template, you can insert any information you want as long as it’s related to the same topic. If no opinions of your own are included, then the end result is a short report about that topic. If opinions work their way onto the page, you have a reflection paper.

The five-paragraph trainer-essay is popular in elementary and high school because it’s easy for teachers to teach and easy for students to learn. It’s something a beginning student writer can accomplish almost from the start. The results are so much better than the usual chaos of adolescent minds, it’s no wonder this template was a part of so many of your classes back in the day. However, the tidiness of the five-paragraph trainer-essay is not the same thing as thinking for yourself, much less writing an actual argument.

If you are able to present a real argument within just five paragraphs, then so be it. You will have then written a five-paragraph essay and not just a trainer-essay. When that happens, step back and admire the way it metaphorically illustrates your writerly evolution. There you stand, student writer, with one foot in your trainer-essay past and one foot in your college-essay present. Take a moment. Strike a pose. And then, for your own sake, say good-bye to the five-paragraph trainer-essay and continue to write the real thing — ignoring forever the number of paragraphs you compose.

The College Essay is Not a Personal Essay

The English classroom is probably the only place where professors might ask you to write about yourself, and they do so not because they care that much about you (sorry) but because they want you to enjoy writing. Writing about yourself is usually easy and engaging and rewarding, so that makes sense. Your writing professors also want you to use writing to explore and examine your own experience in the world. That’s what they do with writing, and they would like you to be as cool as they are.

While writing professors might have good reasons to ask you to write about yourself, they might also be giving you the wrong impression about you as a potential topic for the college essay. Your life is a topic that matters to you and the people who love you and the people who used to love you and now think a lot about revenge. Your life is not, however, a topic of study in your college classes — not directly. Any questions you raise about yourself will not be questions that matter to your professors. For that reason, no matter how thoroughly you consider the relevant evidence, no matter how thoughtfully you decide upon an answer, and no matter how artfully you present your argument in writing, the result will not be a college essay. It will be a personal essay.

You might be asking, Can I at least write about someone I know? Can I write about my cat? Can I write about my grandfather, who is super interesting, who was once attacked by wolves and fought them off with his bare fists? Yes, you can write about anyone you choose. Will that be a college essay? Probably not. Just as you will have a hard time finding a college class that focuses on you, you will also have a hard time finding a college class that includes a focus on your cat or your super-interesting grandfather. You might find a class that focuses on wolves, but I’d be careful about playing up that part about the bare fists.

And let’s be honest about this, student writer, while these people you know do have lives of their own, you want to write about them because they’re part of your life. The same goes for your favorite place to drink beer, for the time you climbed a modest but impressive-sounding mountain, for the way your iPod somehow knows what you’re thinking before you do — that’s still you we’re talking about, so that’s the personal essay, not the college essay.

That being said, your life does have a place in the college essay. In fact, your life has two places. First, your experiences have probably raised some questions that matter to you and others in a college classroom. You might have witnessed with your own eyes the effects of an oil spill on a beach you know. You might have wondered if there was any way to prevent the oil from coming ashore like that. That’s a question you could ask in an essay for an environmental science or public policy class. I don’t know if engineering students have to write essays, but if they do and if you’re an engineering student, this could be used in an engineering class, too. You might have suffered job discrimination. You might have broken your leg in a car accident or dated a juggler. Many of your experiences will raise questions that matter to you and are relevant to one of your college classes, and those questions might lead you toward a good college essay. Your life probably won’t be mentioned in the essay, but the essay will at least be connected to your life by its question.

A second place for your life to appear in the college essay is as illustration. Personal experiences rarely prove anything, but they often yield engaging anecdotes and observations that might help illustrate your ideas and make a personal connection with your readers. You might begin an essay with a brief memory of walking down an oil-contaminated beach, your feet covered with tar, tears streaming down your face, and so on, and then go from there to the more relevant question that your college essay will answer: What can be done to prevent this from happening again? You might recall your grandfather’s fistfight with wolves and then ask the question of whether reintroducing wolves to the American West is a sound management policy. There’s not a lot of room for your life in the college essay, but this illustrative role offers some comfort for those who long to write about themselves. It’s a niche you can fill, your own little cameo appearance in the essay.

At this point, you might be wondering about the collection of essays that was probably assigned as a textbook for your writing class. Many writing classes use these “college readers,” and most of these readers are filled with personal essays, not college essays. What’s the deal with that? The deal is that personal essays — and by that I mean great personal essays — are usually more interesting than arguments. For that reason, they often find their way into national magazines and remain popular long after those publications go out of business. When a publisher decides that the world really needs a new college reader, the publisher tends to use these same essays so that this new college reader will look interesting to writing professors. The result is yet another collection of mostly personal essays about shooting elephants, flinging starfish into the ocean, watching a kid jump into a lake, sitting in a jail cell, and so on.

If you didn’t know any better, you might be tempted to skip over the sensible guidelines in this book and get right to the task of writing great personal essays. The thing about those essays, however, is that while they are easy and fun to read, they are difficult to write. For most of us, they are out of reach while we’re in college, or while we’re in graduate school, or while we’re slogging through life teaching English composition for part-time wages at an underfunded and mismanaged community college in the middle of nowhere — hypothetically.

The more serious problem with even great personal essays, however, is that aside from a few young, untarnished English professors, your college professors aren’t interested in reading personal essays. Your other professors want to see your answers to questions that are relevant to their classes. They want to see that you have considered evidence outside of your personal experience, and they want you to present your arguments clearly and concisely. They also have dozens of other papers to read besides yours, not to mention interminable faculty meetings, so they may become ill-tempered if you stray much from your assigned task in order to unravel the mysteries implicit in your recent trip to the grocery store.

The College Essay Is Not Even a Persuasive Paper

The purpose of the persuasive paper is to persuade readers to agree with you. It’s often assigned with a set of readings that examine a complex social issue by reducing all that complexity into a simple pro versus con, black versus white, yes versus no. The students then pick a side and write an essay that attempts to persuade others to join their team.

This looks just like an argument, doesn’t it? You start with a question that can be answered reasonably in more than one way, such as pro or con. You have relevant evidence to consider in the set of readings. You have to decide your answer to the question. You have to carefully make your case so that you will get as many people from the pro team to join you and all the other cool people on the con team.

Although a persuasive paper will sometimes become an authentic college essay, it is more likely to be good advertising than good argument. The main problem is that the purpose of persuading tends to skew the presentation of your ideas and evidence. Even if you keep an open mind while looking at the relevant evidence, and even if you draw a sound conclusion from that evidence, the goal of persuasion encourages you to play up the evidence that supports your answer and play down or even ignore the evidence that does not. It encourages you to be bolder in your conclusions than the evidence really allows as a show of confidence. And for the truly crafty, the goal of persuasion encourages you to play upon your readers’ fears or vanities rather than build a reasonable case for your ideas. Too often, the persuasive essay becomes an act of salesmanship because its success is measured by whether or not people buy the idea you’re selling.

The goal of the college essay, on the other hand, is always to find and share the best available answer to a real, debatable question. The college essay will present that answer clearly and defend it with evidence. Persuasion might result from this, but persuasion is not the goal. Honesty is the goal. This is a small but important point to keep in mind. You don’t have to win the college essay kind of argument.

The College Essay Is Hard Work

College essays will almost never be as easy to write as reports or reflection papers or even persuasive papers. Those easier papers were a developmental stage in your life as a writer and thinker. You learned a lot from writing them, but now it’s time for you to move on to more challenging work. The sooner you are able to accept this, the sooner you can advance to the next developmental stage — writing the college essay, as outlined in the chapters ahead.

Many student writers arrive at the college essay with the strong belief that this type of assignment will require nothing more than plugging information into templates or rattling off whatever comes to them — the same basic formula that’s been working for them since they were pups.

I’m an excellent writer, the student writer says. I’ve always gotten A’s in all my writing classes. Just tell me what you’re looking for.

That kind of confidence is wonderful to see, but it makes the student writer deaf to my response. Find a good question, I say. Research the relevant evidence. Decide on the best answer to the question. Present your decision carefully. That’s what I’m looking for.

I understand that, the student writer says. But what exactly does that look like — on paper? Just tell me that, and I’m set.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. And here is where the challenge lies.

The college essay isn’t defined by what it looks like on paper. It’s defined by what it looks like in your brain. It’s an idea that you figure out for yourself after considering relevant evidence. No two ideas are the same, so with each college essay you write, you have to find out for yourself what it’s going to look like on paper.

That’s why the college essay is hard work.

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