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5 tips to successfully tackle your first academic essay

academic essay
Writing a winning academic essay requires you to prioritise structure over story. Source: Patrick Baz/Government of Dubai Media Office/AFP

Of all the undergraduate experiences you will go through, writing your first academic essay can be rather daunting. It calls for coherent argument over creative presentation; structure over story, if you will. As with all writing, though, it gets easier with practice. Here are some tips to get you started on that academic essay.

Know your topic

Research is an important first step in academic writing. It helps you build the foundation for a solid essay even before you formulate your points. Therefore, begin every academic essay with extensive research into what is known on this topic, and how your analysis may contribute to it.

This will help you develop a thesis statement, which is a summary of your main points or claims. Even if your essay does not call for one, a clear, specific thesis statement will help you (and your reader) contextualise the rest of the academic essay.

Don’t fear drafts

Writing a good academic essay requires thorough dedication, which is why you never submit your first draft. First, sketch out a rough draft to plan out your ideas. Consider alternative methods to help you during the drafting stage: mind maps or flowcharts work well for many people.

Once you have the bare bones, it is easier to expand your points to support your thesis statement. Your academic essay should begin taking shape at this stage. After writing, you should edit it again to fix sentences and structure.

academic essay

Sources and citations are important facets of academic essays. Source: Philippe Lopez/AFP

Be clear and concise

When writing an academic essay, remember the purpose of your piece is to inform, not impress. Since academic essays require you to tackle complex topics within a certain word count, it helps to use simple, straightforward language. This allows you to get your points across without confusing or misleading readers.

Here’s a tip: assume that your readers do not know anything about your topic. This requires you to cover all the basic information of your topic, thus avoiding the classic conundrum of getting too technical, too fast. Avoid flowery words or exaggerations and prioritise facts — your lecturer will thank you for it.

Proofread

Another vital step is proofreading, which is also a sign that you are close to the finish line. After you are done writing, take a break, then return to proofread with fresh eyes. Compare your final academic essay with the outline you had created earlier, to check if you’ve met the objective of writing it.

You can also get a trusted third party to review your essay, such as a peer or senior. A first-time reader may catch the mistakes you miss. They are also able to bring a fresh perspective to improving your piece.

Cite your sources

Plagiarism is serious business in the academic community. This is why you should always attribute your quotes, paraphrase borrowed ideas, and steer clear from copying entire sentences or paragraphs. You should also corroborate your sources by cross-checking facts on reliable websites.

It is also why every undergrad must learn to cite accurately. The two citation styles used widely in academia are Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Psychological Association (APA). Your professor should advise you on which to follow — be sure to learn and apply it well in every academic essay.