Chapter 1: The College Essay Is Your Own Idea

Table of Contents

The purpose of the college essay — like the purpose of almost all formal writing — is to explain one opinion of your own.

We often use that word “opinion” as a synonym for “guess” or “hunch.” That’s not the sort of opinion we’re talking about here. For a college essay, the main idea must be a reasonable opinion, an idea based on thoughtful consideration of relevant information.

The Humble Essay by Roy K. Humble, front cover

I wish it were more complicated so that I could explain it to you more impressively, but it really is that simple. Or it would be that simple if so many of your teachers hadn’t confused the issue by playing fast and loose with the word “essay.” Since grade school, you’ve heard this word used to describe just about anything made with sentences. Your English teachers haven’t helped matters by tossing around technical terms as if you understood them — or cared. So before we move on to the important work of learning how to write the college essay, we’ll start by clearing up some common misunderstandings.

Commonly Misunderstood Terms

The first thing we need to do need is untangle three important terms that will be used to explain how essays work — thesis, thesis statement, and topic. This won’t take too long, but you do have to think about it. You can’t skim. And this will be on the midterm.

Thesis and Thesis Statement

The word “thesis” is a Greek term that means “proposal” or “assertion.” When talking about college essays, thesis means “your main idea.” English teachers like to use “thesis” in place of “main idea” because it’s a Greek word, and there’s something about Greek words that make English teachers purr with contentment.

As long as you understand that “thesis” means “main idea,” those Greek-loving English teachers won’t pose a serious problem for you. However, keep in mind that the thesis of an essay is not the same as the “thesis statement.” The thesis is your idea, your opinion, a fleeting bit of electrochemical activity inside your brain. The thesis statement is a single, written sentence that states your thesis. See how that works? It translates the intangible idea that lives in your brain into tangible words on an actual piece of paper or computer screen.

Here’s a table, for those who like tables:

Thesis and Thesis Statement
ThesisThesis Statement
DefinitionAn assertion, the main idea of an essayA written sentence that articulates a thesis into actual words
Key QualityExists only as an idea — intangibleExists only as written words, a sentence — tangible


The distinction between “thesis” and “thesis statement” seems easy enough, but a few rogue English teachers confuse this as well by using “thesis” for both your main idea and the written sentence that defines your main idea. With these teachers, pay attention to how they use “thesis” in a sentence. If they ask what your thesis is, they mean, “What’s your main idea?” If they ask where your thesis is, they mean, “Where in your essay have you hidden a one-sentence summary of your main idea? Because I’ll be honest with you, student writer, I can’t find it. Not anywhere.”

For an essay to really be an essay, by the way, it needs to have a thesis, not just a thesis statement. It’s a good idea to put a thesis statement in your essay, of course. It tells your readers what your thesis is, and that’s a helpful hint for them. But by itself, a thesis statement doesn’t turn your paper into an essay. For it to be an essay, all of your paragraphs must collectively present a single main idea of your own — your thesis.

Thesis and Topic

Some student writers have developed the habit of using “topic” and “thesis” interchangeably. This isn’t surprising. “Topic” is a vague term, just like “thesis,” and the term “topic sentence” refers to a sentence that states the main idea of a paragraph — the same thing that a thesis statement does for a whole essay. The similarity between “topic sentence” and “thesis statement” makes “topic” seem a lot like “thesis.”

However, “topic” and “thesis” don’t mean the same thing. The topic is the subject of the essay, the thing about which you have an opinion — a poem you read, a scientific theory you studied, the life cycle of nematodes, or anything else that your professor told you to study and write about. The thesis of an essay is your reasonable opinion about that topic.

Perhaps this table will help explain things:

Topic, Thesis, and Thesis Statement
TopicThesisThesis Statement
DefinitionThe subject of an essayThe main idea of an essayA written sentence that articulates the thesis
ExampleDeerThe idea about deer that is explained by my essayDeer are dangerous animals.
ExampleVoting requirementsThe idea about voting requirements that is explained by my essayVoters should have to accurately describe what they’re voting for before they can vote.
ExampleThe ending of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’ConnorThe idea I have about the ending that is explained by my essayThe ending of O’Connor’s story teaches us how unsafe it is to reach out and touch someone.

The Topic, Thesis, and Thesis Statement at Work

Now let’s look at how these three terms apply to the process of writing an essay. The topic of your essay is the subject that you are writing about — a thing of some sort — a person, a theory about time, the mating habits of tree frogs, petroglyphs. It was probably assigned to you, or if it wasn’t assigned, then you were given some boundaries and asked to pick a subject for yourself from within those boundaries. Having a topic is the usual starting point of the writing process.

The next step is to study this topic, exploring and considering information about it. If it’s a poem, for example, you read that poem about a hundred times, trying to figure out why in the world anyone would write a poem about a shopping list and how good plums taste. Who cares how plums taste? You read what others have to say about it. You complain to your professor and ask him to assign Edgar Allen Poe next time. Gradually, and in spite of your distaste for this poem, your self-education still leads you to certain conclusions of your own, opinions about the meaning of this poem, how good it is or isn’t, the importance of plums, and so on. You then pick one of those opinions to write about. That opinion becomes the thesis of your essay.

When you write your essay, you focus entirely on your thesis — your own, somewhat reasonable opinion that the plums symbolize sex and death. In the opening paragraph, you introduce the poem and its poet. Then, because you can’t explain everything in the poem, you present your focus within the poem — the meaning of the plums. Finally, you present your main idea about those plums in a single sentence, your thesis statement: “The plums represent sex and death.”

In the body of the essay, you present evidence from what others say that will help you explain and defend your thesis. You list the objections some might have to your thesis and then you respond to each objection — politely, of course. For a few minutes you are tempted to add a juicy fact you uncovered about the poet’s rather bizarre private life, but then you wisely say to yourself, “No. I can’t go there. I must not. This has nothing to do with my thesis.” And when all this has been presented, you wrap things up by summarizing the evidence in the body and restating your main idea.

The College Essay and What It Is Not

Now that those three terms are clear in your mind, we’ll move on to the most misunderstood term of them all, “essay.” According to your teachers, you’ve been writing “essays” since the first day of third grade when beloved Mrs. Webster asked the class to write an essay about your summer vacation. Since then, you’ve written hundreds of “essays” that were actually stories, reports, reflection papers, and other types of writing — but not essays. To undo those long years of misunderstanding, we’ll look at some of the non-essays from your past and compare them to the college essay. With each example, notice how the difference always comes back to whether or not its purpose is to present your own main idea.

College Essays vs. Stories

A story recounts events, real or imagined. Stories are usually organized chronologically, and they tend to focus on the actions of their characters and how those actions usually lead to dire consequences. Stories engage readers because we’re all suckers for finding out what happens next. We hope it will be something bad — for a while — and then that it will all work out for the best.

For storytelling to be effective within an essay, however, you can’t just present the series of events. You must use those events to explain a main idea. If you don’t have a main idea to explain, then the story remains just a story.

Here’s an example of that:

On the first night of our backpacking trip, Denise and I camped beside the river we’d followed upstream. We set up our tent on a small, sandy gravel bar to take advantage of the smooth ground and the soothing sound of the river. It was a beautiful campsite.

By the time we’d eaten, it was already getting dark, so Denise said we should leave the dishes for the morning. We took a few minutes to watch the stars come out, and then we hit the sack. Denise was asleep instantly.

It took me longer to fall asleep. Something didn’t feel right. After perhaps an hour, I went outside to relieve myself. The stars had disappeared, but I didn’t think anything of it. I went back to bed and finally fell asleep. Later that night, I woke to the sound of light rain on the tent. Like the river, it was a peaceful sound, and it lulled me back to sleep. The next time I woke, it was from Denise jabbing me with her elbow.

“Wake up!” she shouted. “We’re soaked!”

We were more than soaked. It was raining heavily. The rising river had swamped our tent, washed our cooking gear downstream, and drenched our food. Scrambling in the pre-dawn darkness, we were lucky to get our tent, packs, and sleeping bags up to higher ground. We found most of the cooking gear later that day, but the food — and the trip — were ruined.

In this example, the story might be used to illustrate several opinions, but the writer never actually presents an opinion or explains how the story illustrates that opinion. Because no main idea is presented or even implied, the story remains just a story. But here’s an example of how this same experience could illustrate the main idea of an essay:

Whenever you go backpacking, the first rule is to respect the place you’re traveling through. If you don’t know this rule at the beginning of your backpacking trip, the place itself will be glad to teach it to you. That’s what happened to my former girlfriend and me last summer. It was our first backpacking trip together, and, perhaps because she wanted to impress me, Denise acted as if she were in control of everything — including the weather and the river.

On our first night out, I wanted to set up camp about thirty feet back from the river so we wouldn’t have to worry about rising water during the night. Denise laughed at my suggestion and set up our tent at the water’s edge. She left our cooking gear and food on the gravel beside the tent.

That night, however, it rained. It only rained lightly at our campsite, but upstream it rained heavily, and the river rose almost four inches before we woke. By then, our cooking gear was a hundred yards downstream and our food was soaked. Denise tried to laugh as if it was no big deal, but the fact is we could have been drowned in our sleep. And even though we escaped death, it took most of the day to recover the gear and dry things out.

This was a disappointing trip, but it taught me a lesson that has guided me ever since: Respect the environment or the environment will make you respect it. This is true when camping beside the river, but it’s also true at home, at school, or driving down the street where you live. You should never assume you’re in control of the world around you.

The writer now does more than just present the event. He uses the story to illustrate and validate his thesis that you must respect your surroundings. The main idea is now the star of the show, and the story has shifted to a supporting role. Because of this shift in purpose, we have an essay instead of a story.

Here’s a table, in case you were expecting one:

College Essay vs. Story
TopicA backpacking mishapRespecting your environment
Main IdeaNoneYou should respect your environment.
ExplanationThe details of the story help readers understand the topic (a mishap) rather than an idea about the topic.The details of the story explain why this piece of advice is a reasonable idea.


Autobiography is one type of storytelling that sometimes looks like an essay but still isn’t. With autobiography, the writer writes about the writer: My life has always been difficult. Moving to Omaha is the best thing that ever happened to me. Nobody understands me like my cats. And so on. If the writer presents one main opinion about himself or herself, then technically, I suppose, it’s an essay. However, it’s not much of an essay for two reasons. First, it’s hard to say whether this is an opinion or a fact. No one can climb into the mind of the writer and argue that no, you know very well that your uncle Jimmy understands you much better than your cat(s). Second, and more importantly, the topic (me, me, me!) isn’t relevant to your college classes. College classes tend to focus on something other than the students who take them.

This second reason brings us back to that distinction between informal and formal writing. Informal writing is usually personal, something that comes directly from the writer to the reader. When you wrote about your summer vacation, for example, you were building a bridge between you and beloved Mrs. Webster. You were sharing your summer experiences of riding bikes, going to the library, and falling out of your treehouse so that Mrs. Webster could share those experiences with you and know what was going on all summer while she sat quietly in her classroom waiting for school to resume.

College writing isn’t personal in this way. It doesn’t focus on you — or your reader — but on a topic that you and your reader have in common. For your a college audience, it doesn’t matter that you got rained out while hiking. What matters is the topic of respecting the environment, a topic that you have in common with them. If you can illustrate that idea with personal experience, then okay, use personal experience. But if you really want to convince your reader about the validity of your idea, then you better do some research and see what others have to say, too.

In spite of everything I just said, autobiography can still be used effectively within an essay. Personal experiences draw readers into an essay, particularly if you come across as likable, someone the readers can relate to, and if the personal experience is relevant to your main idea. You just need to keep the autobiography in an appropriately minor, supporting role.

College Essays vs. Reports

Reports give readers information about a topic. They are common in elementary school and high school because they require students to educate themselves about a topic, and this gives them both new information and some practice with self-education, which is a valuable skill. Reports continue in college, too, and for the same reasons. They are also a common type of formal writing in many professional trades — human services, building inspection, fire and paramedic services — because so many trades require accurate observation and recording of information.

Reports aren’t essays, however, because they don’t provide readers with the writer’s own opinion about the topic. In fact, it’s fairly easy to write a perfectly acceptable report without thinking at all, as you may know from experience. Think of the times when you simply opened a book and copied down the information “in your own words” without letting it penetrate your brain. Think of the times when you scoured the Internet for the first website that had any information on your topic. Here’s a typical report:

According to Wikipedia, pigdogs live in packs of six to eight 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.

Pigdogs first arrived in California as pets on a Norwegian freighter, the Ibsen, which docked in Sacramento in 1911. Having been thrown overboard by the sailors, the pigdogs swam to shore and soon flourished in the surrounding environment.

Pigdog packs establish and defend their own small territories (often defined by roads or irrigation ditches). Females bear one litter of seven or eight pigpups every other year, except in times of drought. During times of drought, the females typically band together and fight off any rutting males, sometimes ferociously.

The males are the hunters of the pack, although they will retreat from any animal that moves quickly, such as a rabbit or vole. 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 fruit and vegetables, acting as if the plants were dangerous animals, and bring these spoils back to the sty with great displays of pride.

In this example, the writer provides information that informs you about the topic of pigdogs. Because that information is the only thing that the writer offers, this is a report. For it to become an essay, the writer needs to present his or her own opinion about the significance of this information and then use the information to explain why that opinion makes sense.

Here’s an example of an essay that uses the information about pigdogs to explain and defend the writer’s thesis:

Non-native species have a way of destroying the environments they invade, and that’s why the California Department of Fish and Wildlife must act more aggressively in its attempts to eradicate this 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, according to a study that was reported by Al Tobey (2014) in Scientific Californian.

Perhaps because they seem timid, or because of their odd habit of gathering roadside garbage, pigdogs have been considered harmless for decades (Bone 2011). It was only recently that wildlife biologists observed that pigdogs had begun to crowd out native species such as raccoons (Brase 2013). Efforts to curb the spread of pigdogs by removing roadside garbage only resulted in pigdogs moving into farmers’ fields and orchards where they began a population explosion that continues today (Tobey 2014).

If more aggressive eradication tactics such as trapping, shooting, poisoning had been taken earlier, pigdogs would not now be eating one-third of California’s annual artichoke crop, among other things.

This writer uses much of the same information about pigdogs, but it’s now used to present and defend a thesis, which is stated in the first sentence. Any of the original information that doesn’t help to support that opinion has been dropped from the second example. The fact that pigdogs arrived on a Norwegian ship, for example, doesn’t help explain the thesis, so out it goes. Other information — such as how pigdogs have crowded out raccoons — has been added because the thesis does require it.

Here’s another table, just in case:

College Essay vs. Report
TopicPigdogsEradicating non-native species from California
Main IdeaNoneThe California Department of Fish and Wildlife must act more aggressively to eradicate non-native species.
ExplanationSpecific information helps readers better understand the topic of pigdogs.The negative example of pigdog proliferation defends the idea that aggressive measures should be taken.


Paraphrasing is a type of report that will sometimes act like an essay. With paraphrasing, the writer is able to report someone else’s opinion by putting that idea into his or her own words. While the presence of an opinion makes the piece of writing look like an essay, it remains a report because the main idea is not an idea that came from the writer’s own brain.

Here’s an example:

When students complain that teachers have screamed profanities in the classroom, many parents’ first response is to file an angry complaint with school administrators. However, according to Detached Educator, the newsletter of the Almost Retired Teachers Association (ARTA), that might not be the best approach.

“An incident of screaming can admittedly cause temporary problems,” says Steve Richardson, ARTA president, “but why make things worse by making a big deal about it?” According to Richardson, it’s best to let the situation resolve itself over the course of several months, or even years.

You will regularly need to paraphrase the ideas of others. It’s a good way to compress and include their ideas as you explain your own main idea. It just can’t be a substitute for your own thinking.

College Essays vs. Reflection Papers

A reflection paper is a collection of several opinions or observations that are united only by their relevance to a given topic. The assignment is usually open-ended — explain your reactions to chapter 3, describe what you like about this article, and so on. Teachers often assign reflection papers to compel you to actually read and maybe think about the assigned reading. Why you wouldn’t do the reading on your own is a mystery to your professors, but they embrace that mystery by assigning these free-form reflection papers. However, even if a reflection paper is assigned by a college professor, it’s not an essay because it doesn’t focus on just one main idea.

Reflection papers are almost always informal rather than formal. Two things make them informal. First, they focus on you, the writer. They gather up a collection of your observations, your experiences, your guesses, and your ideas. Second, the form of the paper doesn’t usually matter. You just need to record your experience of reading or viewing or of pretending to read or view the assigned topic. You put things down in whatever order you think of them. With formal writing, the focus must stay on the shared topic and provide information about the shared topic. Sometimes that information comes from personal experience, but more often it comes from studying the topic itself.

You often find reflection papers in the letters-to-the-editor section of the local newspaper. Someone gets steamed about the way teachers have summers off or how baseball players shouldn’t wear baggy pants — or whatever — and they respond by typing angrily. What comes out of their fingertips seems coherent because it sticks to one topic and is unified by the same angry mood, but there’s no single, main idea. What the writer is really doing is showing readers what he or she feels about that something. The writer’s emotions become more important than whatever it was that stirred them up. There’s no attempt to present and defend a single opinion about that topic.

With college writing, an essay assignment can easily turn into a reflection paper when the student writer either can’t decide what to focus on or is unwilling to take a stand on just one position. Instead, the writer writes circles around a topic and hopes that it will miraculously become an essay. Occasionally this does generate a miracle, but don’t be encouraged by that.

Here’s an example of a typical reflection paper:

Writing is very 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.

The use of writing has been with us for thousands of years, but in the past only the elite needed to write. Since the invention of the printing press, however, writing has become more important with each passing year until now almost everyone needs to write. Nowadays, with the arrival of computers and e-mail and texting, writing is even more essential to the world in which we live.

It isn’t easy to learn to be a good writer, but a good teacher can help you to gain the skills that will make you a better writer. You will find that with stronger skills, you have much more confidence, and confidence translates into success!

If you’re assigned to write a reflection paper about a topic, then reflect all you want. Add lots of opinions. Let your hair down, if you have hair to let down. However, if you’re assigned to write an essay, you need to be disciplined and make sure it doesn’t turn into a reflection paper.

One way to prevent a reflection paper from happening is to resist the urge to simply vent your emotions. Emotions are fine, but they aren’t the same as thinking. It’s not sufficient to “feel strongly” about a topic. You must instead think strongly. Second, take some time to actually figure out what you think about a topic. Do that before you start writing your essay. Don’t start putting words onto the page and expect that somehow a single opinion will emerge or that, in the absence of an idea, your professor will be impressed by your use of many fine, long words. With your friends, you might call that sort of writing “B.S.” Your professors have other and worse names for it.

When you choose to simply vent or B.S. about a topic, what you’re really doing is choosing to not educate yourself about that topic. You’re going with what you already know or feel. You haven’t taken the time to find some new idea that wasn’t already in your heart or brain. I don’t want to make you feel bad about yourself, student writer, but you’re wasting a perfectly good opportunity to make yourself smarter. Here is one example of how the writer could narrow the paper’s focus and, with some self-education, develop at a more interesting thesis for an essay:

In a recent People magazine poll, 59 percent of the respondents said that writing freaked them out. On a recent television reality show, only one of six participants was willing to write a typical college-level essay, even when offered a hundred dollars. The problem? People feel inadequate about their writing skills. But that all seems to be changing, thanks to the Internet. To use the Internet, you have to read, and you have to write.

Most of that reading and writing happens when Internet users send, receive, and respond to e-mail. Many online games require less formal writing, but they require more of it and at a faster pace. Using websites as a source of information doesn’t require the same level of writing, but social networking sites such as Facebook use writing extensively.

Even though many users may not be aware of how much writing they are doing, the writing still has its impact. Internet users, whether they realize it or not, are becoming more and more comfortable with the written word.

According to Dr. Jerry Trabue of the Eastern Central University of Northern Kentucky, it all comes down to classical conditioning. Writing within a more comfortable environment helps writers to associate that feeling of comfort with the writing itself. And that makes them feel more adequate as writers. He notes that while 59 percent of People magazine readers are still freaked out about writing, that number is down from 63 percent two years ago.

So while the growing use of the Internet makes writing more important, that growing importance does not seem to be making people more uncomfortable with writing. Instead, it seems to be helping them become more confident and prolific writers.

In this version, the writer stays focused on just one reasonable opinion about writing, and each paragraph has a clear connection to that thesis. The opening paragraph introduces the topic and main idea. The next paragraph illustrates how much writing happens on the Internet. Then there’s a transition, and the next paragraphs explain how all that writing may change how people feel about their writing skills. The last paragraph summarizes the explanation provided by the body of the essay and, in doing so, again emphasizes the main idea. And notice, too, that the information comes from studying the topic itself, not from personal experience. Kudos, student writer!

Here is another table that may or may not help:

College Essay vs. Reflection Paper
Reflection PaperEssay
TopicThe importance of writingImpact of increased Internet use on attitudes toward writing
Main IdeaThere is no main idea. Each paragraph contains one or more different ideas about the topic.The increased use of the Internet seems to be making people more confident writers because it requires so much writing.
ExplanationBecause the essay skips from idea to idea, no single idea is illustrated with more than a broad and passing summary of information.Paragraph 2 illustrates the increased amounts of writing required. Paragraphs 3 and 4 explain how attitudes are changing among Internet users.

College Essays and Five-Paragraph Trainer-Essays

The “essay” that you wrote in high school was probably a five-paragraph trainer-essay. The five-paragraph trainer-essay is to a real essay what a training bra is to a real bra. You feel like you’ve written a grown-up essay, and it certainly looks like one. However, it’s almost never an actual, fully developed essay.

The five-paragraph trainer-essay is actually an organizational template. An introductory paragraph presents the topic and main idea. Each of three body paragraphs then covers one subtopic or idea about the main topic. A concluding paragraph restates the main idea and the point of each of the body paragraphs. You can insert anything into this template as long as it’s related to the main topic. If you insert raw information into the body paragraphs, it becomes a five-paragraph report. If you insert a new opinion into each of the body paragraphs, it becomes a five-paragraph reflection paper.

The five-paragraph trainer-essay is easy for teachers to explain and easy for students to use. It’s something a beginning writer can accomplish at an early age. In other words, your middle school and high school teachers were doing the right thing when they taught you and the other fledglings to use this template. That was a great starting point. It introduced you to the idea of making sure your writing has a certain shape.

The problem, though, is that an organizational template like this tends to generate essays that oversimplify and under-explain your thinking. That might be fine when you’re young and don’t have anything to say anyway, but with the college essay, your main idea is supposed to be thoughtful and complex. A thoughtful and complex idea has a hard time surviving in three body paragraphs.

Instead of forcing your thesis to squeeze into those three body paragraphs, you need to force your body paragraphs to increase and multiply until your thesis is fully explained. If a fully formed idea can be explained in five paragraphs, then fine, write a five-paragraph essay. So be it. But if your thesis is more complex and requires six or twelve or sixteen supporting paragraphs, then so be that. Set your five-paragraph trainer-essay aside and get on with the task of writing college essays.

Although the five-paragraph trainer-essay is in fact a type of formal writing — because it has a defined form — the complex ideas you write in college will require more complex forms than this. Most student writers seem willing to accept that concept. However, it’s one thing to accept an idea, and it’s another thing to put that idea into practice. Long years of practice have hard-wired it into your brain and probably your DNA. The five-paragraph trainer-essay is what you will write until you forcefully rip it from your brain and say, “No more!” That may sound a bit extreme, but that’s what required. It will not go gently.

College Essays vs. Artful Essays

The college essay is not the only kind of essay out there. It will get the job done for most of your college writing, and it will do so effectively. However, it’s not the sort of essay that you will find in respected magazines and overpriced college anthologies. It’s not art, in other words.

Artful essays use more advanced methods to present their main ideas. The venerable E. B. White, for example, could write an essay about watching his son jump into a lake and, in sharing his simple observations, somehow unravel the mysteries of the life cycle. He did this with careful arrangement of images, with careful selection of words, and with only minor and understated discussion of his thesis. On the surface, it looks like a story or a reflection paper, but because of those advanced techniques, White still gets his thesis across to us.

These artful essays are usually informal. As in the case of E. B. White, they’re often based entirely on personal experience and observation. You connect to the writer at a personal level. Because they’re written for the broad readership of national magazines, they must engage and entertain readers so that they enjoy themselves and will hopefully renew their subscriptions.

If you didn’t know any better, and if you already have a way with words, you might be tempted to skip over these sensible guidelines for writing the college essay and take on the challenge of writing your own artful essays. That desire to engage readers with personal stories and artful writing can be a strong temptation. I urge caution.

One problem with artful essays is that while they are easy 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 grad school. Or while we’re slogging through life teaching English composition for part-time wages at a community college in the middle of nowhere. For every E. B. White, there are another twenty thousand who think they are E. B. White.

The more important problem with artful essays, however, is that aside from a few young, untarnished English professors, your college professors aren’t particularly interested in reading them. They want to see your ideas about the topics they’ve assigned, and they want to see your ideas explained clearly and concisely. They want more formal papers, in other words. They want college essays. They have dozens of other papers to read besides yours, too, so they will become ill-tempered if you stray from your assigned task in order to unravel the mysteries implicit in your recent journey to the refrigerator.

Don’t lose heart over this, aspiring student writer. Wonderful, artful essays might indeed be part of your future. The odds are against it, but it could still happen. My uncle — true story — has been hit by lightning twice, so anything can happen. In the meantime, though, you have college essays to write — essays that are due next Thursday, or possibly tomorrow morning — and for these assignments, you should write the college essay that’s introduced here. Don’t work too hard to dazzle a professor with a stunningly artful informal paper when all that she or he really wants is a formal paper that presents a single good idea of your own.

The Other Purpose of the College Essay

So far in this chapter, you’ve seen that the purpose of the college essay is to present one idea of your own, to explain that idea clearly and defend it with sufficient, detailed evidence. That’s what you give to your readers. However, there’s a second purpose for the college essay, and that’s what the essay gives to you as its writer.

Your professors don’t assign you essays for their own benefit. They have plenty to do without requiring your essays to fill their evening hours with pleasure and delight. They only assign essays — at no small personal cost to themselves — because they want you to enjoy their academic disciplines the way that they enjoy their academic disciplines. Writing an essay allows you — and forces you — to see for yourself how that discipline works, to see what your professors do when they aren’t teaching.

The word “essay” actually means “to explore.” And that’s what professors do when they’re not teaching. They read about new topics. They follow their curiosity into deeper understandings of those topics. They snoop around libraries and hang out at field stations. They talk about these topics with their colleagues. They let their minds wander. They come up with all sorts of interesting questions and then poke around looking for information that will help them to find a good answer. By assigning you that essay, they’ve essentially said, “Join me. This is so cool.”

So join them already. Don’t write essays about topics you already understand. That’s not exploring. Don’t recycle old work you’ve turned in for other classes. That’s not exploring, either. You’ve been there. You’ve done that. And for the love of all things academic and good, don’t download or buy or borrow someone else’s essay and pass it off as your own work. That’s as bad for your soul as it is for your education — and by the way, it’s also not exploring. When you do any of the above, you don’t learn anything worthwhile. You don’t let the essay give you anything. And you certainly don’t develop an appreciation for what it means to explore within that discipline.

You might ask, “But how can I explore a topic that’s boring?” Listen — it’s boring because you haven’t explored it yet. There is no such thing as a bad topic. Any topic — every topic — has something to offer if you look closely enough.

How do you explore a topic that seems at first glance to be boring? All you have to do is get started. Read about it. Talk to your professor about it. Find a reference librarian and ask for direction. If you will just take that first baby step, something will pop up that interests you, and then you can narrow your focus to explore that smaller part of the topic and really dig in. And that will be engaging and rewarding work. It won’t be boring.

You might ask, “But how can I explore a topic I don’t care about?” You don’t care about it because you don’t understand it. You don’t understand it because you haven’t explored it yet. It’s a vicious cycle. The only way out is to just get started. The rest will follow. You’ll end up with a new topic that you do care about.

You might ask a bunch of other questions, too — questions that are not really asking for information so much as defending you from having to do anything strenuous. I have the same basic answer to all of those questions — explore, explore, explore. It’s that simple. I’m not kidding. Once you do that, you will enjoy the work ahead. The essays you write will give you treasures that outlast your grades by decades.

College is here to stretch you into something larger and more interesting than your current self. We’ve talked about this. You should be ready to not just accept but embrace assignments that require you to look at new topics. Don’t run away from these apparently boring or difficult topics. Don’t beg to write about something you already understand or care about. This momentary discomfort is a good thing. That’s what you or your loved ones or someone is buying with all that tuition — new topics, new ideas, a new and improved version of you.

That’s the second purpose of the essay — to give you something worth your while by encouraging you to explore new topics.

The Big Ideas

This chapter covered a lot of ground and introduced a few new terms. To help you organize all this new information, here are the big ideas from this chapter:

1. Terminology: To talk about how writing works, you have to use some technical terms. This chapter introduced the following technical terms:

topic: the thing you are writing about — the price for a cup of coffee, for example.

thesis: your own reasonable opinion about your topic — for example, the idea in your brain that a cup of coffee costs way too much.

thesis statement: one sentence that defines your thesis — for example, words that you write down, such as, “A cup of coffee costs way too much.”

2. The purpose of the college essay for readers: As a piece of formal writing, the purpose of the college essay is to provide your readers with your own main idea — to explain it and defend it. Unlike informal writing, its purpose is not to entertain your readers or build a connection between you and them. This purpose makes the college essay different from stories, reports, reflection papers, five-paragraph trainer-essays, and even an artful essay about that time you stuck your finger in an empty light socket and suddenly understood the true nature of electricity.

3. The purpose of the college essay for writers: With every writing assignment, remember that most of your professors don’t assign you essays for their own benefit. They assign college essays so that you can see what it’s like to do what they do — to explore their academic discipline, to educate themselves, to look at the world from that discipline’s perspective, and to discover new ideas. So take that opportunity seriously. Every essay offers you another opportunity to be something more.

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