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How to Write an Undergraduate-Level Essay

Step-by-step guidance and resources for planning, researching, and writing essays as an undergraduate student

Understand the assignment

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

Assignment descriptions usually contain a lot of information. Often, there is a section that describes the context for the assignment, the actual directions, and then other suggestions. 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, figuring out 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 action words in the instructions

What are you being asked to do? For example, are you supposed to analyze, consider, compare, reflect, argue, or explain? Recognizing the action words (verbs) will tell you 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 essay type and information on four types of essays, 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 that action word. 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 keywords to assist you with deciding what you need to write.

3. Consider the practical instructions for the assignment

  • How many words/pages are expected?

  • Are there specific expectations regarding formatting and referencing sources (e.g., Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association?)

  • How many sources should you refer to in your paper? Should they be course textbooks, or should you be using other research such as journal articles? Are you restricted to scholarly literature (e.g., peer-reviewed books or journal articles), or can you also use popular sources (e.g., magazines)?

  • When is your paper due? For help with budgeting your time, try 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 paper? Use 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.