In tackling essay-writing, especially in the essay question section of exams, students often face three problems:
- First, some students may feel that they just dont know where to begin. How can I answer a question thats so broad? I just dont have enough information.
- Second, even if they feel they know something about the subject, they may wonder how to organize the information in order to present a coherent and convincing argument. How do I begin to put together all the various pieces to the puzzle so that what I say makes sense?
- Finally, students may be unsure about the relationship between the presentation of factual information and the expression of their own views on the issue at hand. The professor never told me whether he wanted me to repeat what he had said in class, or if he was just looking for my opinion.
Start at the BeginningWhen you first read an essay question on an exam (or begin to think about an assigned topic for a term paper or take-home final), you should ask yourself two sets of questions:
1. What does the essay question really say? What kinds of issues is it asking me to address? What assumptions underlie the question itself?
Professors ask essay questions for a reason. They use essays as a way of getting you to go beyond the material presented in class and in the required readings for the course. They intend for you to reflect critically on the information you have read, assess its validity, think about its implications, and use it creatively in order to answer the question that has been posed. So, when you encounter an essay question, spend a few minutes thinking about what the question really asks, and make sure that you have a clear idea of the kinds of issues and concepts that the question is trying to get you to address.
2. What are the most useful sources of information on which I can draw in order to answer the question? What kinds of data will best support my argument?
During any semester-long course, you will encounter a huge amount of information, both factual and conceptual. Many students treat essay questions as dumping grounds for the information that they acquired in the days and weeks preceding the exam. They pile on fact after fact, concept after concept, date after date, name after name, with little thought about whether all this information helps them answer the question. If I throw in enough stuff, a student may say, at least the professor will know that Ive been paying attention.
Wrong. The professor will know that you have managed to cram a great deal of irrelevant information into your short-term memory. But whether you have really thought about the issues at hand and used the knowledge you have gained in order to reflect critically on an important question will remain a mystery. So, after you feel that you understand the kind of response that the essay question is trying to elicit, ask yourself about which bits of information will be the most relevant to your response. Dont try to throw everything into the pot. Be selective. Use those facts and ideas that are most helpful in supporting your overall argument. After doing the reading and attending the lectures, you do have enough information to answer the question effectively. What is crucial, though, is to organize the information and to present it in a way that buttresses the main theme of your essay.
Organization Is EverythingBecause they have not stopped to ask themselves the questions above, many students plunge right into an essay without thinking about how to organize their thoughts. If I just get enough stuff down on paper, a student might argue, then the professor will at least know that Ive tried to answer the question. Wrong again. The professor will know that you are a wind-bag not that you have thought seriously about the question.
Once you are sure that you know what the question is asking and have spent a few minutes reflecting on the kinds of information that you want to use in attempting to answer it, spend a further few minutes sketching out the form that your answer will take. Here are a few ideas on how to begin:
Make an OutlineSketch out how you plan to structure the essay. You can even use the exam booklet or the back of the exam in order to write a brief outline, flow chart, diagram, or whatever form you find the most helpful in organizing your thoughts. The important thing is to have a clear idea of what you want to say and how you are going to say it before you begin writing the essay itself.
There is an additional advantage to writing an outline or essay plan: It may turn out that you simply budgeted your time poorly and did not have time to complete the entire essay as you had planned. But if the professor sees that you had a clear idea of what you wanted to argue, you are likely to receive at least some credit for what you have written. On the other hand, if you have managed to fill up a dozen pages without making a coherent argument, chances are that the professor will remain relatively unimpressed.
Keep It SimpleThink back to eighth grade composition class. Remember the three-point enumeration essays you probably had to write? They consisted of an opening paragraph, three further substantive paragraphs and a conclusion. The opening paragraph set out the general ideas you were going to explore, the three following paragraphs expanded on each of those ideas, and the final paragraph wrapped up what you had said.
The same format with perhaps some modifications can be used to write responses to essay questions.
- Opening sentence and first paragraph: State clearly the main point that you wish to make in the essay. In other words, someone should be able to read the first sentence and know exactly how you plan to answer the question. Dont try to be too cute, but a catchy opening sentence which states simply and clearly the line of argument you intend to take is always desirable. Other sentences in the first paragraph should then support the first sentence and sketch out the ways in which subsequent paragraphs will expand on the theme of the essay itself.
- Body of the Essay: For normal essay questions on exams (say, those in which you have an hour to complete two essays), you should have no more than three or four paragraphs in the body of the essay. Each paragraph should make a clear and discrete point, and that point should support your overall argument. If it doesnt, dont write it. Your thoughts in the body of the essay should follow on logically from the points you set out in the opening paragraph. And each paragraph should begin just like the opening paragraph, with a clear statement of the topic that the paragraph will address.
- Concluding Paragraph: Sum up what you have said in the essay in a final paragraph. Remind the reader of your main point, but avoid repeating it in exactly the same words. End the essay with a sentence that wraps up your thoughts and leaves the reader with a sense of closure.
Your Opinion Is More Than Just Your OpinionEssay questions are not extended short-answer questions, and they are not exercises in penmanship. A professor puts essay questions on exams not in order to see if you can repeat verbatim what he/she said in class, but in order to solicit your informed views on a particular subject that you should have mastered in the course. In this sense, essay questions do ask for your opinion, but it is an opinion that should be intelligent, informed and well-structured. No conceptual questions in political science have once-and-for-all answers. Essay questions ask you to address important issues by using your brain constructing a coherent, logical and informed view on a given topic. After sitting in a course of lectures and doing the required reading, you are more than capable of completing such a task. Your opinions should have evolved and become more sophisticated, and you should have developed a reasonable level of expertise in the main issues addressed during the course itself. Your opinions matter, for they were what your professor was trying to get you to develop all along.
Again, essays are not simply receptacles for regurgitated factual information. Your knowledge of facts can be assessed using multiple-choice questions, true/false, identify, define, short-answer and a range of other examination formats, most of which you probably experienced in grade school. At the college level, however, you are expected to think. And thinking requires creatively using the knowledge you have acquired to take a clear position on a contentious issue.
How do you do all that? Here a few guidelines:
- Make An Argument. Take a stance. Stake out a position. Argue for a particular point of view. Simply reeling off dates and names or even using political science jargon will not do the trick.
- Support Your Argument. Use relevant facts, concepts and other information to buttress the points you wish to make. Throwing in irrelevant information will impress no one. It will simply cloud your argument and convince the professor that you really dont know what youre talking about.
- Be Creative. How creatively you make your argument is always important. Style matters. Some professors may even prefer essays that are well-structured and well-written but not particularly brilliant, to those that contain a truly original insight cloaked in language that would make Webster and Fowler turn in their graves. But be careful: Dont get cute. Writing a sonnet or a short one-act play is probably not a good idea. You should, however, bring all your skills as a writer to bear on the essay topic. After all, thats why the question is an essay question, rather than a true/false or short-answer.
- Answer the Question. Let me repeat: Answer the question. If you write page after page of text, but never really address the issue at hand, few professors are likely to give you much credit. Always keep your overall point in mind, and make sure that everything you write relates back to your central argument. And that argument, in turn, should squarely address the question posed on the exam.
© Copyright 1996, Georgetown University
Constructing an Argument
When asked to give advice about writing political science papers, Professor Ellen Andersen explained that most papers written for political sciences classes are arguments. “However,” she said, “do not write a persuasive essay about your opinion on the subject. Instead, take evidence and use it to support an academic argument. Use this academic argument to show your learning. Do not decide on an argument you want to make and then make it, regardless of what the evidence says. Be sure to engage with the other side of the debate honestly. Rather than dismissing it, think about it. That is how real growth happens.” For most assignments, you can follow a very basic format for an academic argument. Begin the process by finding trustworthy information. Then explore your material and orgranize your thoughts in a manner that works best for you. You can then start to construct your thesis statement.
The basic format of a political science essay
- The Introduction should articulate a clear argument and outline the paper’s structure explicitly. It can be a couple of sentences or a couple of paragraphs, or even a couple of pages for a really long paper. Make sure that your thesis responds to all aspects of the assignment.
- To show how your argument builds on previous research on your topic, include a literature review. You can do this as part of your introduction, in a section immediately following your introduction, or within each of your body sections, whichever seems most appropriate for your paper.
- Body Sections
- You can have as many body sections as you need.
- Body sections just mean you’re making a point about one aspect of your topic. They can have just one paragraph or as many as you need to make your point. For example, if you’re talking about the process of a bill becoming a law, you’re going to have subtopics within those over-arching sections, like what happens in the House, what happens in the Senate, and then what happens when they both finally agree on a version of the bill-and that's okay. Just be aware of staying on-topic and transitioning smoothly from one to the next.
- How to set up your body paragraphs
- Small thesis: what is this paragraph about? It should be your starter sentence, and also tie neatly into the last sentence (flow is important)!
- Evidence and analysis. The important thing to remember here is that you're not going “Quote 1,” “Quote 2,” “Quote 3,” and then analysis of quote 2, analysis of quote 3. You should be giving your evidence and analyzing it as you go; tell us what it means that the House is mad about an amendment the Senate added to a bill before you assault us with a quote about how the President feels.
- Summarizing/transition sentence. Finish up what you're saying, and then in the same sentence or another sentence, explain the train of thought that leads to your next point/paragraph.
- Your conclusion should tie back to your thesis, but do not just restate your thesis.
- Before writing your conclusion, take this opportunity to review your essay. Does your essay follow your thesis statement? Have you created an argument and provided evidence that supports this thesis? If yes, then go on to write your conclusion. If no, consider changing your thesis (and revising as appropriate).
- Be careful that the restatement of the thesis doesn't seem like you're copying and pasting your thesis statement from the introduction. Your conclusion needs to be the summation of your entire essay; it’s your chance to state your point strongly and tie up any loose ends.
- Do not introduce new figures or statistics or evidence to prove your point. You should be done with introducing information. Now you're telling us what it means, why it's significant on a broader scale or in a bigger picture, and why we should care.
- Your conclusion should tie back to your thesis, but do not just restate your thesis.
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Outlining, Grouping, Mind mapping, Free writing… Organize your thoughts!
Conceptual and factual knowledge is essential in a political science paper–interesting metaphors, grand generalizations, and a lot of “BS” will not lead to a smart paper (and will be quickly recognized by your professor). The key is to develop a solid argument with supportive evidence. It is also essential that you understand your argument in order to convincingly and eloquently present it to the reader–if you're not sure, the reader won’t be either!
There are many different ways to go about organizing a paper. To perfect that crucial organization element, consider using one of the four common approaches illustrated below. Each example is for an essay exploring connections between political power and power over the media.
- Make an outline! Outlines can tell you how organized your paper is, where there are holes in your argument that require more research, or where information may need to be cut.
See Detailed Outline.
- If you don't like the strict formatting of an outline, try organizing your thoughts through bulleted lists.
See Bulleted List
- If you like diagrams, consider drawing a mind map or web that shows the connections between your ideas.
See Mind Map/Web
- If you're more of a puzzler, try writing your information on separate note cards and then rearranging them to physically build a picture of your argument. This can also be done electronically by typing up all of your information and then rearranging it on a computer.
See Notecard Puzzle
- If you don't yet know what sections to break your paper into, try starting with a free write that focuses on the prompt. You can see what ideas you have and start to find some connections between them.
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Write a Thesis Statement!
A thesis is…
- …an arguable statement that will serve as a condensed version of the argument that you make in the paper.
- …not a factual statement about your topic.
- …your opportunity to make an assertive claim that you will then back up using your collected evidence in your body paragraphs. In essence, it will provide a “roadmap” for the rest of the paper.
- …not necessarily just one sentence.
How do I construct my thesis statement?
- After having organized all of the information that you consider pertinent to the prompt, you will have likely noticed some form of argument that all your information is building to. Investigate this further and determine if there is some sort of claim that your evidence naturally points to.
- If you did not see a natural argument emerging, dig further, rearrange your information to see if something else emerges, or consider doing more research that would provide you with more information on the topic.
- Pull out the key ideas from the argument that you begin to see forming and write down what you think you could argue. Remember that a thesis can be rewritten many, many times and what you write down first is in no way set in stone. In fact, you should spend some time rewriting and reevaluating your thesis in order to see if the claim you are making is really what you want to say.
- You may feel more comfortable writing out your claims and information first and then seeing where the essay takes you. In this case, it may work better for you to come up with a simple thesis first, without tinkering heavily with the meaning or the wording. However, it is important to return to your preliminary thesis after having written the entire paper in order to refine it and ensure its essence is still true to the paper.
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Finding Trustworthy Information
Evidence and information combine to form the backbone of a Political Science essay, as these crucial pieces support your thesis and all of the claims you make therein. When your paper uses accurate and carefully selected facts, your argument becomes harder to debunk and proves to your professor that you understand the material as well as the research process. Sadly, certain people stand to gain from pushing false information on the generally uninformed and careless public. The following suggestions should help you find objective and truthful evidence in your research process.
- Start looking for information early - when you have an idea of your topic
- Looking for evidence at the last minute can lead to decreased standards and pulling questionable facts from untrustworthy sources
- Use the librarys available resources - particularly the online databases - rather than Google
- These databases contain vast amounts of published information, usually written by experts in the field
- Be on the lookout for signs of deceit in a source, such as
- Making things sound scarier or worse than they actually are
- Presenting ideas/data that seem too good to be true
- Results that have not been replicated, or seem like standalone occurrences
- The group that publishes/conducts a study benefiting greatly from the results (potential bias/impartiality)
- For example, if the NRA funded a study showing how gun ownership is tied to economic prosperity, they would gain members and donations thus, we should make sure theyre being impartial in their research methods
- Analyze evidence skeptically, but not cynically
- Look thoroughly at evidence from research sources and only use that piece of information if everything seems to check out and doesnt leave you feeling unsure - implement a healthy skepticism while looking at facts
- Avoid becoming a cynic who rejects every piece of information without considering it
- This makes you just as gullible as someone who accepts everything they read, as people can play upon your inclination to reject facts to spin your understanding of issues in their favor
- The key distinction is that a skeptic will realize a piece of information is trustworthy, while a cynic will never believe anything, regardless of its veracity
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