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How to write a graduate-level essay

Step-by-step guidance and resources for planning, researching, and writing essays as a graduate student.

Create a preliminary document plan

Person staring at whiteboard covered in pages After you receive your assignment description, you might be immediately tempted to start looking for resources so that you can learn as much as possible about the topic. The problem with this approach is two-fold:

  1. It doesn't give you an opportunity to think about what you already know about the topic before you start filling your thoughts with other people's ideas;
  2. It is easy to become totally overwhelmed and frustrated by the amount of research available.

Considering that the point of an essay is for you to communicate your ideas on a topic to your audience, versus just rehashing other people's ideas, it is important that you first identify what you think you want to focus on before you start searching through the Library databases or the Internet. At this stage, it's normal that your ideas are quite broad, but you have to figure out what you already know from your readings, discussions, and life experience before you can identify what you don't know and therefore need to research.

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1. Think about your topic

Consider the following:

  • What do you want to focus on in the paper? What is your primary argument? With this information, you can create a preliminary thesis statement.
  • What are the major ideas that you're going to examine within the paper? How will these ideas support your primary argument?
  • What do you want to learn about in your research? What don't you understand about the topic?

By identifying directions for your research, you can contain your research to what is relevant and appropriate for your paper. Otherwise, it's easy to end up doing sufficient research to write a 20-page paper when all you're trying to write is five pages. It can be as challenging to manage too much information as it is to have too little information or insufficient supporting evidence.

2. Create a preliminary plan

Your plan will change as you learn more about your topic, but having a starting direction for your process gives you a scope and a direction for your research and writing. See Planning the Paper for more information.