Academic essays are the most common means of continuous assessment used by educational bodies as they show a students ability to address a topic or question having researched it thoroughly.
So what is an academic essay?
An academic essay follows a basic, formal structure of introduction, main body and conclusion. There are many different types of academic essay but most follow the same layout. (You will usually be given a word-count, it is best not to exceed this.)
Briefly, the introduction addresses the question or topic you have been asked to study and gives the reader a clear view of both the writer’s view on the topic and how it is going to be addressed i.e. the method you are going to use.
The main body will be sub-divided into paragraphs, each dealing with a separate but connected aspect of the central topic. The paragraphs need hooks or links to facilitate the flow of argument; each concluding hook being picked up in the next. The academic essay needs to read as a cohesive argument so good links from one paragraph to the next are very important. All points will be supplemented by textual evidence.
The conclusion is a summation of the ideas expressed in the academic essay and a final statement of the basic thesis. It is not a good idea to introduce new evidence in a conclusion as you would have made your point by this stage and further evidence might disturb the structure as well as requiring further analysis.
What sort of evidence is required in an academic essay?
Well, to some extent this will be governed by the type of essay you are writing. For example, a literary essay will be based on texts you have studied supplemented by critical opinion; whereas a scientific essay will require much more up to date evidence, more than likely from internet sources and/or scientific journals and will contain much more in the way of statistical evidence.
Nevertheless, whatever type of academic essay you are writing, the sources you use are crucial to its effectiveness, as is your ability to collate and analyse the evidence they provide. As you work through your textual evidence and make notes, for quotation or just for ideas, keep a careful record of the precise publication or website details of every work to which you refer.
The importance of this in an academic essay cannot be over emphasised as you will need to comply with the referencing requirements of your college or university for your footnotes and/or bibliography and keeping a list as you work saves time later (make sure you adhere to the referencing style your institution requires as there is a great deal of difference between say Harvard and MLA).
You can find more information on referencing here.
It also helps in the avoidance of plagiarism as it is easier than you may think to look at your notes and confuse another’s ideas with your own resulting in accidental plagiarism. It goes without saying that you should not deliberately plagiarise as the penalties will be severe.
Your quotations should be fairly short, never more than a few lines at most, other than in exceptional circumstances. Longer quotes should be set out on a separate line, following a colon, and indented. Shorter quotes, of a line or less, should be incorporated into the essay enclosed within quotation marks. Analysis of quotes will usually get you extra marks.
How should my ideas be organised in an academic essay?
Following the formal essay structure outlined above, organise your notes into connected thoughts, supplemented by textual evidence, to form paragraphs that will connect into a reasoned essay which answers the question via the thesis statement in the introduction.
Each paragraph should ideally express a thought or idea which logically builds a case, with evidentiary support. The conclusion of a good academic essay forms a summation to this, leaving the reader in no doubt as to your thesis.
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