Guide to Essay Writing: 5 Steps to Write an Outstanding Essay

Matt Ellis

Feel passionately about something and want to share it? Write an essay! Disagree with a popular opinion and wish to convince others to join you? Write an essay! Need to write something because the college you dream of attending is making you? Write an essay! 

“Essay” is a loose term for writing that asserts the author’s opinion on a topic, whether academic, editorial, or even humorous. There are a thousand different approaches to essay writing and a million different topics to choose from, but what we’ve found is that good essay writing tends to follow the same framework. 

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Below we discuss that framework and how you can apply it to your essays, whatever types they may be. But first, let’s start with a basic overview of how to write an essay.

Table of contents

How to write an essay.

Your essay needs a thesis statement

The essay-writing process

Essay structure, know your essay’s audience, 6 types of essays, essay writing tips.

The basic steps for how to write an essay are: 

  • Generate ideas and pick a type of essay to write. 
  • Outline your essay paragraph by paragraph. 
  • Write a rough first draft without worrying about details like word choice or grammar.
  • Edit your rough draft, and revise and fix the details.
  • Review your essay for typos, mistakes, and any other problems. 

Want to know more? We cover the specifics below, but for now let’s talk about the nucleus of any good essay: the topic.

Your essay needs a thesis statement 

Three things to consider before writing your essay:

Of these, the most important by far is your thesis, or the crux of what your essay is about.

Your thesis, encapsulated in your thesis statement , is the central point you’re trying to make. The thesis of Bertrand Russell’s essay “ In Praise of Idleness ,” for example, is that people focus too much on work and don’t value time spent idly. Essays can occasionally stray and go into related tangents, but they always come back to that one core idea in the thesis. 

You should always pinpoint your thesis before writing. If you’re having trouble nailing it down, ask yourself, “What’s the one thing I want my reader to remember when they’re done reading my essay?”

The best practice is to include your thesis as soon as possible, even in your topic sentence if it’s appropriate. You’ll want to reiterate it throughout the essay as well, especially when wrapping up everything in the conclusion. 

The rest of your essay, then, supports your thesis. You can include empirical evidence, testimonials, logical deductions, or even persuasive rhetoric —whatever gets the job done. The point is that you’re building upon your initial thesis, not switching to completely different topics. 

If you’re writing an essay, research paper , term paper, novel, short story, poem , screenplay, blog article about essay writing—when writing just about anything , really—it’s crucial to follow an efficient writing process. Even if you prefer the stream-of-consciousness style for writing your rough draft, you still need to have an orderly system that allows you to revise and hone. 

For essay writing, we recommend this  five-step writing process :

1 Brainstorming

It always helps to collect your thoughts before you begin writing by brainstorming . Based on your prompt or thesis, try to generate as many ideas as possible to include in your essay. Think of as many as time allows, knowing that you’ll be able to set aside the ideas that don’t work later. 

2 Preparing

The preparation phase consists of both outlining your essay and collecting resources for evidence. Take a look at the results of your brainstorming session. First, isolate the ideas that are essential to support your thesis and then organize them in a logical and progressive order. In this stage you’ll incorporate your essay structure, which we explain below.

If you want empirical evidence or complementary citations, track them down now.  The way you write citations depends on the style guide you’re using. The three most common style guides for academics are MLA , APA , and Chicago , and each has its own particular rules and requirements for citing just about  any  kind of source, including newspaper articles ,  websites ,  speeches , and  YouTube videos .

This is the main stage of essay writing where you roll up your sleeves and actually write your first draft . Remember that everything doesn’t have to be perfect; this is your first draft, not your final draft, so give yourself the freedom to make errors. If you’re focusing on getting every single word right, you’ll miss the big picture. 

The revisions stage involves your second draft, your third draft, or even your twelfth draft if necessary. Address all the nuances and subtleties you glossed over in the first draft. 

Pay attention to both word choice and clarity , as well as sophisticated writing techniques like avoiding the passive voice . If you’re not confident in your writing skills yet, the Grammarly Editor ensures your writing is readable, clear, and concise by offering sentence structure and word choice suggestions, plus clarity revisions as you write. Grammarly helps catch common mistakes with sentence structure—like run-on sentences, sentence fragments, passive voice, and more.  

5 Proofreading

When all the heavy-duty revisions are finished, it’s time for the final polish. Go through your essay and correct misspellings , formatting issues, or grammatical errors. This is also where you can turn to Grammarly’s AI-powered writing assistant, which helps catch these common mistakes for you. Or  copy and paste your writing to check your grammar and get instant feedback on grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other mistakes you might have missed.

Essay structure almost always follows a simple beginning-middle-end format, or in this case, an introduction-body-conclusion format. However, it’s what’s contained within those sections that makes all the difference. 

Introduction

Essays follow the same guidelines for introductions as any other piece of writing, with an extra emphasis on presenting the thesis prominently, ideally in the topic sentence. By the end of your introduction paragraph, your reader should know without a doubt what your essay is about. From there, follow the conventional best practices on how to write an introduction . 

Body paragraphs

The majority of your essay is body paragraphs , all of which support your thesis and present evidence. 

Pay close attention to how you organize your body paragraphs. Some arguments benefit from a logical progression, where one point leads to a second, and that second point leads to a third. Remember that the reader doesn’t understand the topic like you do (that’s why you’re writing the essay), so structure your paragraphs in the way that’s best for their comprehension. 

What if you’re writing an argumentative essay where you compare and contrast two or more points of view? Do you present your argument first and then share opposing points of view, or do you open with your opposition’s argument and then refute it? 

Serious writers can get pretty technical about how to organize an argumentative essay. There are three approaches in particular used often: Aristotlian (classical), Rogerian , and Toulmin . However, these can get exceedingly complicated, so for a simple essay, a basic structure will do just fine:

  • Counterpoint
  • Evidence supporting your point and/or disproving counterpoint 

Essay conclusions wrap up or summarize your thesis in a way that’s easy for the reader to digest. If you get the chance, you can add a new perspective or context for understanding your thesis, but in general the conclusion should not present any new evidence or supporting data. Rather, it’s more of a recap. For more specific tips, read about how to write a conclusion for an essay here . 

Five-paragraph essay

For quick and simple essays, you don’t need to get too technical with your essay structure. The five-paragraph essay structure works well in a pinch. This contains:

  • One introduction paragraph
  • Three body paragraphs
  • One conclusion paragraph

While this essay structure might not be flexible enough for more advanced topics, it comes in handy when speed is a factor, like during timed tests. 

Your final consideration is who will read your essay—a teacher, an admissions counselor, your peers, the internet at large, etc. 

No matter what you’re writing, your audience should influence your language. For one thing, your readers determine whether the essay is formal or casual , which has an enormous impact on language, word choice, and style . Take emojis for example: In a casual essay they might be welcome, but for formal writing they’re not the most appropriate choice. 😓

Your audience also affects the essay’s tone, or how you sound on an emotional level (enthusiastic, cautious, confident, etc.). If you’d like to know more, you can read about the 10 common types of tone here . 

Like any form of writing, essays come in many different types . Sometimes the assignment dictates the type, as with admissions essays, and other times the thesis will determine it. Regardless, it helps to know what your options are, so here are some of the most common essay types: 

1 Argumentative essay

Argumentative essays assert or defend a position. This is the most common type of school paper, so keep that in mind when writing your first college essay . 

2 Admissions essay

Most colleges request an admissions essay in applications, which typically revolve around why you’re interested in their school. 

3 Persuasive essay

A persuasive essay is just as it sounds: an essay to persuade or convince the reader of a certain point. It’s similar to an argumentative essay— they both strongly favor a particular point of view, but the difference is the end goal: Argumentative essays just have to present their case, while persuasive essays have to present their case and win over the reader. 

4 Compare-and-contrast essay

When you want to devote equal attention to two opposing things, a compare-and-contrast essay works better than argumentative or persuasive essays, which lean to one side over the other.

5 Personal essay

Personal essays are often anecdotal or real-life stories of the authors, like the works of David Sedaris . Because they tend to follow narrative structures, the thesis can be flexible or interpretive. 

6 Expository essay

An expository essay thoroughly explains a certain topic to expand the reader’s knowledge. It is similar to an argumentative and persuasive essay in format, but with one key difference: expository essays don’t have a bias. 

Master the five fundamentals

Especially for school essays, your reader will scrutinize how well you handle the fundamentals. Knowing about essay structure and the writing process is one thing, but can you demonstrate an understanding of language style? Can you develop your thesis logically and coherently? Are your references and citations trustworthy?

When you’re ready for the next step of essay writing, take a look at the five concepts you must master to write better essays . The tips there pick up where this guide leaves off. 

Seek out another pair of eyes

This tip is not just for essays; it’s always advisable to have someone else read over your writing before finalizing it. All too often we miss the forest for the trees, and thinking long and hard on the same topic can give you tunnel vision. The solution is to get a fresh take from someone who’s seeing it for the first time. 

Typically you can swap with a friend and edit each others’ works. If that’s not an option, however, you can also use a writing center or join a writing group online. At the very least, you should sleep on it and take another look when you’re refreshed. 

Remember: Grammar and form are essential 

It’s not always about what you say, but how you say it. You could have the most obvious, objectively agreeable thesis in the world, but if your writing is incoherent, confusing, and full of mistakes, it’s tough to engage with your reader. 

For when your writing needs to make the right impact, Grammarly Premium offers full-sentence rewrites for confusing sentences—from splitting long sentences, cutting extra words, or rearranging key phrases—in addition to catching common grammar mistakes. It also gives you readability-focused formatting suggestions, so you know your writing is clear. It also helps those who are looking to improve their writing skill level in English, with suggestions for commonly misused words and phrases. 

Honing your writing with these elements in mind is key to relaying your point to your reader—and asserting your thesis as effectively as possible.

essay writing advice

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  • Knowledge Base
  • College essay

How to Write a College Essay | A Complete Guide & Examples

The college essay can make or break your application. It’s your chance to provide personal context, communicate your values and qualities, and set yourself apart from other students.

A standout essay has a few key ingredients:

  • A unique, personal topic
  • A compelling, well-structured narrative
  • A clear, creative writing style
  • Evidence of self-reflection and insight

To achieve this, it’s crucial to give yourself enough time for brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

In this comprehensive guide, we walk you through every step in the process of writing a college admissions essay.

Table of contents

Why do you need a standout essay, start organizing early, choose a unique topic, outline your essay, start with a memorable introduction, write like an artist, craft a strong conclusion, revise and receive feedback, frequently asked questions.

While most of your application lists your academic achievements, your college admissions essay is your opportunity to share who you are and why you’d be a good addition to the university.

Your college admissions essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s total weight一and may account for even more with some colleges making the SAT and ACT tests optional. The college admissions essay may be the deciding factor in your application, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

What do colleges look for in an essay?

Admissions officers want to understand your background, personality, and values to get a fuller picture of you beyond your test scores and grades. Here’s what colleges look for in an essay :

  • Demonstrated values and qualities
  • Vulnerability and authenticity
  • Self-reflection and insight
  • Creative, clear, and concise writing skills

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

It’s a good idea to start organizing your college application timeline in the summer of your junior year to make your application process easier. This will give you ample time for essay brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

While timelines will vary for each student, aim to spend at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing your first draft and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Remember to leave enough time for breaks in between each writing and editing stage.

Create an essay tracker sheet

If you’re applying to multiple schools, you will have to juggle writing several essays for each one. We recommend using an essay tracker spreadsheet to help you visualize and organize the following:

  • Deadlines and number of essays needed
  • Prompt overlap, allowing you to write one essay for similar prompts

You can build your own essay tracker using our free Google Sheets template.

College essay tracker template

Ideally, you should start brainstorming college essay topics the summer before your senior year. Keep in mind that it’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic.

If you want to write about a common essay topic, such as a sports injury or volunteer work overseas, think carefully about how you can make it unique and personal. You’ll need to demonstrate deep insight and write your story in an original way to differentiate it from similar essays.

What makes a good topic?

  • Meaningful and personal to you
  • Uncommon or has an unusual angle
  • Reveals something different from the rest of your application

Brainstorming questions

You should do a comprehensive brainstorm before choosing your topic. Here are a few questions to get started:

  • What are your top five values? What lived experiences demonstrate these values?
  • What adjectives would your friends and family use to describe you?
  • What challenges or failures have you faced and overcome? What lessons did you learn from them?
  • What makes you different from your classmates?
  • What are some objects that represent your identity, your community, your relationships, your passions, or your goals?
  • Whom do you admire most? Why?
  • What three people have significantly impacted your life? How did they influence you?

How to identify your topic

Here are two strategies for identifying a topic that demonstrates your values:

  • Start with your qualities : First, identify positive qualities about yourself; then, brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities.
  • Start with a story : Brainstorm a list of memorable life moments; then, identify a value shown in each story.

After choosing your topic, organize your ideas in an essay outline , which will help keep you focused while writing. Unlike a five-paragraph academic essay, there’s no set structure for a college admissions essay. You can take a more creative approach, using storytelling techniques to shape your essay.

Two common approaches are to structure your essay as a series of vignettes or as a single narrative.

Vignettes structure

The vignette, or montage, structure weaves together several stories united by a common theme. Each story should demonstrate one of your values or qualities and conclude with an insight or future outlook.

This structure gives the admissions officer glimpses into your personality, background, and identity, and shows how your qualities appear in different areas of your life.

Topic: Museum with a “five senses” exhibit of my experiences

  • Introduction: Tour guide introduces my museum and my “Making Sense of My Heritage” exhibit
  • Story: Racial discrimination with my eyes
  • Lesson: Using my writing to document truth
  • Story: Broadway musical interests
  • Lesson: Finding my voice
  • Story: Smells from family dinner table
  • Lesson: Appreciating home and family
  • Story: Washing dishes
  • Lesson: Finding moments of peace in busy schedule
  • Story: Biking with Ava
  • Lesson: Finding pleasure in job well done
  • Conclusion: Tour guide concludes tour, invites guest to come back for “fall College Collection,” featuring my search for identity and learning.

Single story structure

The single story, or narrative, structure uses a chronological narrative to show a student’s character development over time. Some narrative essays detail moments in a relatively brief event, while others narrate a longer journey spanning months or years.

Single story essays are effective if you have overcome a significant challenge or want to demonstrate personal development.

Topic: Sports injury helps me learn to be a better student and person

  • Situation: Football injury
  • Challenge: Friends distant, teachers don’t know how to help, football is gone for me
  • Turning point: Starting to like learning in Ms. Brady’s history class; meeting Christina and her friends
  • My reactions: Reading poetry; finding shared interest in poetry with Christina; spending more time studying and with people different from me
  • Insight: They taught me compassion and opened my eyes to a different lifestyle; even though I still can’t play football, I’m starting a new game

Brainstorm creative insights or story arcs

Regardless of your essay’s structure, try to craft a surprising story arc or original insights, especially if you’re writing about a common topic.

Never exaggerate or fabricate facts about yourself to seem interesting. However, try finding connections in your life that deviate from cliché storylines and lessons.

Admissions officers read thousands of essays each year, and they typically spend only a few minutes reading each one. To get your message across, your introduction , or hook, needs to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to read more..

Avoid starting your introduction with a famous quote, cliché, or reference to the essay itself (“While I sat down to write this essay…”).

While you can sometimes use dialogue or a meaningful quotation from a close family member or friend, make sure it encapsulates your essay’s overall theme.

Find an original, creative way of starting your essay using the following two methods.

Option 1: Start with an intriguing hook

Begin your essay with an unexpected statement to pique the reader’s curiosity and compel them to carefully read your essay. A mysterious introduction disarms the reader’s expectations and introduces questions that can only be answered by reading more.

Option 2: Start with vivid imagery

Illustrate a clear, detailed image to immediately transport your reader into your memory. You can start in the middle of an important scene or describe an object that conveys your essay’s theme.

A college application essay allows you to be creative in your style and tone. As you draft your essay, try to use interesting language to enliven your story and stand out .

Show, don’t tell

“Tell” in writing means to simply state a fact: “I am a basketball player.” “ Show ” in writing means to use details, examples, and vivid imagery to help the reader easily visualize your memory: “My heart races as I set up to shoot一two seconds, one second一and score a three-pointer!”

First, reflect on every detail of a specific image or scene to recall the most memorable aspects.

  • What are the most prominent images?
  • Are there any particular sounds, smells, or tastes associated with this memory?
  • What emotion or physical feeling did you have at that time?

Be vulnerable to create an emotional response

You don’t have to share a huge secret or traumatic story, but you should dig deep to express your honest feelings, thoughts, and experiences to evoke an emotional response. Showing vulnerability demonstrates humility and maturity. However, don’t exaggerate to gain sympathy.

Use appropriate style and tone

Make sure your essay has the right style and tone by following these guidelines:

  • Use a conversational yet respectful tone: less formal than academic writing, but more formal than texting your friends.
  • Prioritize using “I” statements to highlight your perspective.
  • Write within your vocabulary range to maintain an authentic voice.
  • Write concisely, and use the active voice to keep a fast pace.
  • Follow grammar rules (unless you have valid stylistic reasons for breaking them).

You should end your college essay with a deep insight or creative ending to leave the reader with a strong final impression. Your college admissions essay should avoid the following:

  • Summarizing what you already wrote
  • Stating your hope of being accepted to the school
  • Mentioning character traits that should have been illustrated in the essay, such as “I’m a hard worker”

Here are two strategies to craft a strong conclusion.

Option 1: Full circle, sandwich structure

The full circle, or sandwich, structure concludes the essay with an image, idea, or story mentioned in the introduction. This strategy gives the reader a strong sense of closure.

In the example below, the essay concludes by returning to the “museum” metaphor that the writer opened with.

Option 2: Revealing your insight

You can use the conclusion to show the insight you gained as a result of the experiences you’ve described. Revealing your main message at the end creates suspense and keeps the takeaway at the forefront of your reader’s mind.

Revise your essay before submitting it to check its content, style, and grammar. Get feedback from no more than two or three people.

It’s normal to go through several rounds of revision, but take breaks between each editing stage.

Also check out our college essay examples to see what does and doesn’t work in an essay and the kinds of changes you can make to improve yours.

Respect the word count

Most schools specify a word count for each essay , and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit.

Remain under the specified word count limit to show you can write concisely and follow directions. However, don’t write too little, which may imply that you are unwilling or unable to write a thoughtful and developed essay.

Check your content, style, and grammar

  • First, check big-picture issues of message, flow, and clarity.
  • Then, check for style and tone issues.
  • Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.

Get feedback

Get feedback from 2–3 people who know you well, have good writing skills, and are familiar with college essays.

  • Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your content, language, and tone.
  • Friends and family can check for authenticity.
  • An essay coach or editor has specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and can give objective expert feedback.

The checklist below helps you make sure your essay ticks all the boxes.

College admissions essay checklist

I’ve organized my essay prompts and created an essay writing schedule.

I’ve done a comprehensive brainstorm for essay topics.

I’ve selected a topic that’s meaningful to me and reveals something different from the rest of my application.

I’ve created an outline to guide my structure.

I’ve crafted an introduction containing vivid imagery or an intriguing hook that grabs the reader’s attention.

I’ve written my essay in a way that shows instead of telling.

I’ve shown positive traits and values in my essay.

I’ve demonstrated self-reflection and insight in my essay.

I’ve used appropriate style and tone .

I’ve concluded with an insight or a creative ending.

I’ve revised my essay , checking my overall message, flow, clarity, and grammar.

I’ve respected the word count , remaining within 10% of the upper word limit.

Congratulations!

It looks like your essay ticks all the boxes. A second pair of eyes can help you take it to the next level – Scribbr's essay coaches can help.

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.

You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.

Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.

You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.

If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.

Is this article helpful?

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COMMENTS

  1. How to Structure an Essay

    Revised on July 23, 2023. The basic structure of an essay always consists of an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. But for many students, the most difficult part of structuring an essay is deciding how to organize information within the body.

  2. Essay Writing Guide

    Your Guide to Essay Writing Give your confidence—and your grades—a boost. Help your ideas shine with Grammarly’s advanced essay-writing feedback that ensures your essays are clear, polished, and plagiarism-free. And bookmark this page for easy access to our extensive library of essay-writing resources.

  3. Essay Writing: How to Write an Outstanding Essay

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  4. How to Write a College Essay

    Knowledge Base College essay How to Write a College Essay | A Complete Guide & Examples The college essay can make or break your application. It’s your chance to provide personal context, communicate your values and qualities, and set yourself apart from other students. A standout essay has a few key ingredients: A unique, personal topic

  5. 12 Useful Tips To Improve Your Essay Writing Skills

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