Guide to Formal Essay Writing in College

Hearing the term “formal essay” can be enough to cause some college students to become uneasy. They are immediately filled with dread at the thought of someone critically evaluating not only their thoughts and opinions, but also their writing style and skill level. This does not have to be the case, and it only gets easier over time. There are very few black and white rules to writing a formal essay, apart from things such as the subject matter and stylistic elements that may be mandatory, so this guide should only be taken as such: a general guideline for you to start thinking about.

The Introduction

It is absolutely essential that you are able to write an interesting, engaging, and useful introduction to all of your formal college essays. This introduction serves multiple purposes, such as providing a brief outline of what readers can expect to learn from this particular piece of writing.

You should at least try to ask yourself a few of these questions while writing the essay, and the introduction in particular:

  • Why should someone read this? At least one person will be required to read it, which is the professor or other staff who will be assessing it, but everyone else can take it or leave it. Ask yourself why they should read it, and attempt to address that briefly in the introduction.
  • What is unique about this? No matter what topic you are writing about, there is a very good chance that many other people have written about it too. Why should they read yours? What is your angle? Do you have exclusive information or personal experiences to share?
  • Who is your target audience? Is there a certain segment of the population who you feel would benefit or otherwise be interested in reading your essay? This includes demographics such as age, race, gender, location, profession, and so on.

Of course, you shouldn’t completely give away the conclusion, the “punchline”, or spoil any twists and turns that you have created in your work. This is the balancing act that you must do if you wish to write a great introduction to your formal essay. In this regard, the introduction to a piece of writing can be compared to the trailer or previews for a new film that is coming soon to cinemas. You want to get people interested in it, so you need to show them what it’s about, but you don’t want to completely spoil every plot element before the viewer gets to it on their own.

The Body

The vast majority of your essay text will be in the body paragraphs. This is where you will attempt to answer any questions put forth in the introduction, and explain any positions you took on the subject. Depending on the style and requirements of the essay, this may also be where you attempt to persuade the reader in to changing their mind on a particular issue.

Each main point of your essay should have its own body paragraph, and each body paragraph should have its own “topic sentence”. This topic sentence should briefly express the intent of the paragraph and, depending on the essay’s purpose, tell the reader what you are trying to prove.

The traditional P-E-E structure can be used in these body paragraphs, as explained here:

  • P: Point (or prove). What are you trying to prove, or what is the point of this paragraph?
  • E: Evidence. What evidence do you have to back up your point? You can provide quotes and other outside sources here.
  • E: Explanation. This is where you will explain, in your own words, how the evidence provided relates to your point.

The Conclusion

First impressions count for a lot, but so do the last impressions. This is your final chance to summarize and get your point across, or prove that your assertion is true. In most cases, you will not introduce any new facts or points in the conclusion that were not already discussed previously in the body paragraphs. Instead, you will attempt to tie up any loose ends.

Be Yourself – Not a Robot

It is important to allow your own voice to come through the page (or screen) while people are reading your essay. If you attempt to sound like someone you’re not, by using a bunch of words that you would never use, or by deliberately writing in a style that seems stiff and awkward, people will often pick up on that.

This point is particularly true when writing a formal essay in college, or when it is required of you during a job application process, because the reader is often trying to get a sense of who you are at the same time that they are evaluating your writing skills. In fact, depending on the situation at hand, they may not care about your writing skills at all.

None of this should be seen as an excuse to be sloppy. You are still required to spell correctly, use proper grammar, and follow all other requirements and style guides that may have been put in place for this particular assignment.

Once you have a basic outline – the introduction, some ideas for body paragraphs, and what you hope will be the conclusion – you can start to flesh out each element until it is to your satisfaction. You probably won’t come up with a masterpiece on your first draft, and on a second reading you will most likely find things that don’t make sense or need to be moved around, so keep going and keep writing and editing until it has the effect you intended.

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