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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.

Understand the assignment

Word cloud in the shape of a question markBefore you can start thinking about the process of organizing, researching, and writing an essay, the first thing to ask is this: Do you understand the assignment? It will be extremely difficult for you to achieve the objectives of the assignment if you don't understand what those objectives are.

Assignment descriptions usually contain a lot of information. Often, there is a preamble that establishes the context for the assignment, the actual directions, and then suggested areas of consideration or additional information. As you write more essays, you will develop the skill of understanding what is being asked of you, but when you're first writing papers, deciphering the instructions can sometimes be challenging. To help you break the assignment down, please try the following steps:

Image credit: Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

1. Identify the verbs in the instructions

What are you being asked to do? For example, are you supposed to analyze, consider, compare, reflect, argue, or explain? Identify the verbs in the assignment description, which will help you to determine the type of paper you have to write, such as a personal reflective piece or an analytical or argumentative essay. For more information on how to identify the type of essay your professor expects, as well as information on four essay types, please see Essays.

2. Identify the key terms

You have identified the verbs, but now you need to know what you're going to do with those action words. For example, are you supposed to analyze a theory? Apply a philosophy? Compare ideas? Reflect on an experience? Argue a stance? Explain a position?

The assignment description will provide keywords as cues for the direction you should take. Focus on those key words to assist you with developing the framework of what you need to deliver.

3. Consider the practical instructions for the assignment

  • How many words/pages are expected?
  • Are there specific expectations regarding formatting and referencing sources, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association?
  • How many resources should you refer to in your paper? Should they be course texts, or should you be using other research? Are you restricted to scholarly literature, or can you also use popular sources?
  • What is the deadline for your assignment? For help with budgeting your time to complete the assignment, check out the Assignment Calculator as well as I Never Have Enough Time in the Anxiety About Writing guide.
  • Has your instructor provided the learning outcomes for the assignment? Use the description(s) of the outcomes to give you direction in your writing process.

4. Consider all this information within the framework of the expectations for academic writing

If you're new to academic writing, or it's been a while since you've been in school, please look at Qualities of Academic Writing, which is a section of the Introduction to Academic Writing video.

Want more information?

Visit Examples on the next page of this guide to view two practical examples of how these steps can help to break down an assignment question to its essential elements.

If you're still unclear about the assignment expectations, please speak with your professor.