How to Write an Academic Essay (With Useful Tools & Examples)

A report card where the student gets an A for the academic essay.
[Modified from Canva]

What is an Academic Essay?

Academic Essay Styles

  • Descriptive Essay
  • Expository/Critical Essay
  • Narrative Essay
  • Persuasive/Argumentative Essay

In a descriptive essay, you have to…

Tip: If you don’t know what a word means, look it up. Immediately.
Example of a descriptive essay.

The main aim of an expository/critical essay is to present information about a topic.

Example of an expository academic essay.

A narrative essay, as the word suggests, tells a story.

Example of a narrative essay introduction.

Your opinion counts in persuasive essays!

Example of a persuasive essay introduction.

Academic Essay Topics to Make Your Work Stand Out

  • Current
  • Sensational
  • Relevant to your field of study
Example of academic essay topics.

The Age-old Academic Essay Structure

  • Introduction
  • Body/Discussion
  • Conclusion

An Intriguing Introduction

  • Makes a bold statement (dress up & show up),
  • Puts your topic in context (backstory),
  • And explains the aim of your essay (future plans).
Example of an academic essay introduction.

The Detailed Discussion

  • Give examples,
  • Supply evidence to support your statement/topic
  • And explain how it ties into your essay’s thesis statement (when necessary).
Example of an academic essay discussion.
Tip: Words like similarly, likewise and whereas are great for transitioning between paragraphs.
Example of an academic essay discussion.

A Convincing Conclusion

  • You combine the main points from your discussion to convince the readers of your perspective.
  • You also show them that your essay is relevant and adds value to the community it is written for by summarising how your essay supports your thesis statement.
Example of an academic essay conclusion.

How Do You Start an Academic Essay (Planning Your Essay) — 6 Thoughts That Lead to Action

  1. How much time do I have before the deadline?
  2. How many other tasks do I need to complete before the deadline?
  3. Do I understand the question?
  4. Why is this topic relevant?
  5. Where will I find information on this topic?
  6. How will I present my findings? Descriptive, narrative, expository or persuasive?
Tip: Block off essay time on your timetable/calendar.
Calendar of May.
[Modified from Canva]
  • Do I understand the question? Make sure you understand the essay instructions. Read the instructions out loud and then rewrite it by hand. This will give you a good grasp of what the instructor requires from the essay.
  • Why is this topic relevant? If you understand why your topic is actual, it makes the process more bearable.
  • Where will I find information? It is a lot easier to conduct research if you have a point to start from.
  • How will I present my findings? Your tone of writing and the amount of time you’ll spend on research depends on the essay style you choose (or are asked to write).

Tools That Will Revolutionise Your Research

Screenshot of a Wikipedia article’s reference section. Handy for finding sources for an academic essay.
[Wikipedia. Note that the first three sources are less than ten years old — that is what you want]
Tip: Get a general idea for your topic by reading up about it in your textbook or on Wikipedia.
Screenshot of a Google Scholar search, showcasing how to use the “cited by” function.
[Google Scholar]

Now you can start taking notes!

  • Scribble a note in the text you are dealing with. This method is fine if you are using your copy of an article or book. But if you are using a library source, it won’t do.
  • Highlight important concepts in-text. You can do this on paper (not on loaned material) or in your PDF reader.
  • Write down a separate set of notes with references to the text (my preferred method).
  • Create a mind map with all the key concepts you found in your reading.
  • Create a flow chart of the ideas from your research.
Tip: Use a split-screen on your computer or tablet to take notes. Text on one side and notes on the other. It works like a charm!
Taking notes for your academic essay is easier if you split the screen in two.
[“Source” from Catterall & Ireland (2010). “Notes” from my work.]

How to Write an Academic Essay

  • Paraphrase — If you take information directly from a source, rewrite it in your own words (that’s what paraphrasing means) and cite the source. Otherwise, you are plagiarising, which is stealing intellectual property.
  • Be formal — Don’t use slang or colloquialisms (informal way of speaking). You can’t write an academic essay in your normal conversational tone.
  • Use words you understand — As I mentioned earlier, jargon is important in some types of essays. However, don’t use words that you don’t understand! Rather use an everyday word that you and everybody else are familiar with.

When writing from home or at the library…

One half of a retro black and white typewriter.
[Modified from Unsplash]

Sometimes you are asked to write an essay during an exam.

Black and white picture of an old school fountain pen lying on its side.
[Modified from Unsplash]
  • Read through each option carefully and pick the topic you are most familiar with.
  • Quickly put together an outline of what you know and how you want to present it.
  • Draw diagrams to supplement your writing, where applicable.
  • Write a killer essay.

Additional Academic Essay Elements (Where Applicable)

  • When you insert one of these into your text, caption it with a label and short description of what the image/table/graph represents.
  • Tables, graphs and images should be labelled separately. In other words, if you add all of the above into your text, the labels will look like this: Table 1, Table 2 etc. (for tables). Figure 1, Figure 2 etc. (for images) and Graph 1, Graph 2 (for graphs).
  • When you refer to one of these elements directly in your text, write out the entire label, i.e. “in Figure 1 we see…” On the other hand, if you refer to Figure 1 indirectly, simply put (Fig. 1) in parentheses at the end of that sentence.
An image from Spencer et al., (2015) to show how to label figures and tables in an academic essay.
[After Spencer et al., (2015)]

Tripped Up on Referencing/Citation?

A screenshot showing the basics of how to use MyBib to create a reference list for your academic essay.
[MyBib]

You are now ready to hand in your academic essay.

Tip: Before you hand in, read your essay out loud. If there are any sentences that don’t sound right, revise them.

Shocking News!

Tip: If you want to see a dramatic improvement in your writing, start reading outside of your academic framework — comics, mystery novels, car magazines… Whatever tickles your fancy.

Frequently Asked Questions

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