How to Write a Short Essay
A short essay can often prove to be more difficult to write than a longer essay. While in longer essays, you have ample space to explain and clarify all your points, in a shorter essay you might feel like you do not have enough space to make a strong argument. The key to writing a short essay is including only the most pertinent information necessary to make your point.
Components of a Short Essay
There are two things to consider when writing a short essay: placement and complexity. The shorter your essay, the earlier your thesis should appear. If you are writing a 3-4 paragraph essay, your thesis should be one of the first three sentences. If you are writing 1-2 paragraph essay, your thesis should be in the first sentence and should also function as an acting hook. The thesis must be both interesting and all-encapsulating. The shorter your essay is, the less time there is for nonsense, and the greater the need to cut straight to the chase.
It is also important to be aware of the complexity of your topic. Pick topics for which you have enough room to elaborate. Do not cite three or four pieces of supporting evidence in an elaborate thesis if you are only allowed 500 words. If you only have a few paragraphs to write your essay, you will likely only have room for one main point of supporting evidence. Keep your thesis short and limit your supporting points, since you always need to set aside plenty of room in your essay for introspection.
2) Topic Sentences
It is important to delineate the entirety of your argument at the very beginning of the paragraph. You want your message to be extremely accessible, so make it snappy! Do not wait until the end of the paragraph—and definitely not until the end of the essay—to present your argument. Present, support, and introspect.
3) Supporting Evidence
Try to limit the amount of sentences dedicated to supporting evidence. If possible, have one sentence rather than two citing a story, anecdote, or example. This may seem difficult, but it is important to provide only the details that are necessary for understanding the main idea of your essay. If you cannot find a way to fit supporting evidence in just one or two sentences, use a different example altogether. There are certain topics that require a lot of room for explanation, so be careful not to choose a topic for your essay that will require too much evidence to support.
Whether your essay is 200 words or 5,000 words long, introspection will always be the most important aspect of your college application essay. Only by examining how you reflect on your qualities can college admissions officers gain an understanding of how well you think critically and how well you can present an argument.
It is not your stories that get you into college, but how they have affected your character and your thinking. You should strive to portray yourself in the best possible light and keep your essay focused on answering the prompt.
While we always recommend not getting sidetracked in a 5-6 paragraph essay, it is even more crucial that you do not allow yourself to stray away from the point in a short essay. Any sentence that is not directly relevant to your thesis not only weakens your argument but also takes up valuable space.
The strongest way to end a short essay is to include a brief summary of your main argument and a statement that includes the implications of your thesis on your future. This will depict you as a goal-oriented and forward-thinking person without veering you too far from the main idea of your essay.
Limit your conclusion to no more than three sentences. Conclusions are important, but you do not waste time and space rehashing points that were already made.
Condensing Strategy: Starting Big
Some people find it especially difficult to write a short a piece right off the bat, so they write a longer piece that includes everything that they find relevant, and only then do they start to trim their essay down. If you choose to use this approach, remember that it might become necessary to remove information that you had initially deemed important. Here are some tips on how you might cut down your essay.
Get out the highlighter
If your essay is significantly longer than the suggested word count, read through it and highlight everything that is most important—this includes important points of introspection and supporting evidence. Have a peer or parent do the same.
Read through your writing and make sure that every sentence has a specific and unique contribution to the essay. If two sentences convey two only slightly differing ideas, try to find a way to combine them. Use semi-colons, em dashes, or compound sentences if necessary. Check for wordiness as well. For example, do you have any sentences that start with, “It is” or “It seems that”? These are extraneous words that can be taken out without altering the sentence’s meaning.
The Necessity Test
If you are stuck and cannot find a way to shorten your essay, try the necessity test. Take out every sentence in your essay to test whether your point has become weaker without it. If there is no noticeable difference in your essay after removing the sentence, then the sentence is not integral to the rest of the essay, and it can be removed.
Simplify the Argument
If there is no way to cut down your essay without keeping your argument clear and strong, you must simplify your argument. In short essays, it is often better to have a broader thesis that you can support with one or two specific examples. This way, readers can infer implications from your thesis that you did not explicitly state.
These points should prove useful in guiding you through composing a short essay. Here are a few dos and don’ts in summary of this article.
- Make the essay snappy: present, support, introspect. Only include the details necessary for understanding the main idea of your essay.
- Put your thesis in one of the first three sentences of the introduction if you are writing a 3-4 paragraph essay, and in the first sentence if you are writing a 1-2 paragraph essay.
- Limit supporting evidence. You need to leave room for introspection.
- Answer the prompt and showcase your best qualities.
- Condense when possible. Use semi-colons, em dashes, or compound sentences if necessary.
- Assume that longer is better. Be sure that your essay meets the word and page length requirement of the prompt.
- Pick an overly complex topic. Pick a topic for which you have enough room to elaborate.
- Write a lengthy introduction or conclusion.
- Become too attached to your ideas. Be ready to cut unnecessary segments out in order for your essay to meet the word count.
Remember that a short essay should have all of the same components as a larger essay, but in less space. Try to include all of the necessary introspection and not present too many different points. It is better to have one or two well-articulated and supported points than many good points that are poorly supported.
Tools for TAs and Instructors
Back to Helpful HandoutsoWriting Center Home PageBefore the Exam: Prepare and Practice
Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam, you should:
- Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the instructor--what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in the course?
- Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the historical or contemporary events you've been studying. Focus on clarity, conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
- Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
- Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
- A definition of the theories
- A brief description of the issue
- A comparison of the two theories' predictions
- A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
- Perform a "memory dump." Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
- Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.
- Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
- Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
- Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
- A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
- Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
- Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
- Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you write your essay include the following:
- Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
- Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
- Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!
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