Essay writing tips: preparation

Note: This is part of a series of posts on essay writing and studying tips. And my apologies in advance: I think ideas here are pretty simple, but this is a monster of a post. Keep at it until the end!

Essay writing is a key part of college in a way that it often wasn’t in highschool. By the end of college, I hardly ever sat for exams or in-class tests, but instead was given essay topics to choose from and would turn in a 10-20 page final essay to prove what I had learned in the class. Of course this won’t be the case if you’re in the math/science side of the academic spectrum, but for many of the social sciences, languages, and humanities classes you will be expected to write essays instead of being tested by a conventional exam.

So here are some basic essay preparation tips, brought to you by lo, these many years of liberal arts education

Tip 1: Use the syllabus

You can usually figure out what the final essay questions will be about by reading the syllabus on that first day of class, months from that desperate late-night writing. Sometimes the professor will even put the essay question right there, under the last week of class. The point, to them, is not to “catch you” by asking some tricky question based on a footnote on p. 472, but rather to allow you to prove that you have thought deeply about the subject: that you have interacted with the text and the lectures and can produce some kind of relevant argument to that effect. So check the syllabus. Here’s what to look for:

  • Stated potential essay questions
  • Discussion questions
  • Themes
  • Course descriptions involving overarching questions or concepts

If your course description includes the information that one dominant theme for “Colonial North American History” will be the impact of race on shaping cultural and historical development, you can safely assume that race will be a major theme in the final essays. If the list of discussion questions for the second text of your literature class includes “How does the portrayal of unconventional gender roles inform the outcome of this tragedy?” AND that gender is mentioned again in the themes listed for literary text #4, then keep an eye out for gender-related questions for the final.

This tip is about making informed decisions based on the information that the professor hands you on that very first day. They are telling you what to look out for. Go ahead and take their advice.

Tip 2: Pay attention

Taking notes and drinking coffee long before that essay is due.  

Once you’ve made note of a couple of probable essay themes, you can bet that these will be topics that come up in class and which will enrich your understanding of the reading. Pay attention! If the syllabus says these ideas are important, they probably are. Read toward that theme. If it’s a topic that interests you anyway, then so much the better. But go through Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night without noticing any gender commentary and you’ve really missed something.

Pay attention. Take the theme and highlight whenever you see that idea crop up in the text. Make special note when it comes up in class discussion. Have a specific color or put a star next to your notes that have to do with the topic.

Then, (and this is crucial) keep looking for the same theme in the other assigned texts.

Tip 3: Set up a useful comparison


Since you’re paying attention to a specific theme within the class, your essay will start to clarify without you even having to notice. When you shift from the Spanish colonialism of Latin America to the settlement of Europeans in North America, you will notice clear differences in how race is dealt with, and what this means for the culture and development of these areas. You notice that this impacts the types of conflicts and the patterns of settlements, and the longer-term political formation. You have highlighted passages from three different chapters of the text book, notes from the five articles that addressed this topic, and were listening when the professor mentioned this intersection of race and warfare.

Right there, you have your essay.

Tip 4: Crafting your topic

Let’s say that now you have the essay topics. You have to select one topic from three. And let’s say, for argument’s sake, that your first scan of the question looks like your carefully prepared notes don’t fit any of the questions. Don’t despair. You are an expert in a relevant part of the class material. I promise it can fit.

Example 1: Gender in literature can fit into…

  • Romance and love
  • Relationships (including friendships)
  • Power dynamics
  • Cultural critique
  • Identity confusion
  • Personal growth and fulfillment of destiny
  • The healing of some kind of social division 

Example 2: Race in colonial history

  • The slave trade in the Americas
  • Comparative settlement patterns
  • Gender relationships and cultural developments
  • Wars and allies
  • Relationship to the colonial power in Europe
  • Identity concerns, “racial purity”
  • Power

Obviously this list will depend on what texts you’re using. But if you’ve picked a strong theme and really paid attention, you can apply it to all kinds of broad topics.

Think about what you’ve learned and how it applies across the texts you’ve studied. Look at the essay questions and think about what the question is really asking. Then apply what you’ve learned.

Tip 5: Talk to your professor

Your instructor is the most valuable resource in the room. Ask. Probably the professor has invited you to ask questions, and has stated availability during essay-writing time. They offer to answer questions and give feedback on outlines.

Go. Ask questions.

This can be a hard thing to learn to do. But it can make all the difference in the world. More than anything else you can do while preparing to write an essay, a quick chat with your prof can change everything. Don’t be worried about bothering them, or afraid your idea isn’t good enough. They’re there to be bothered with relevant questions, that’s why they’re teachers. And if your idea isn’t quite on the right track, it’s much better to find out in the drafting stage than to learn in your final grade.

If you have a quick question, then the few minutes after class is a great time to ask.

Here’s the kind of thing to ask after class:

  • I am planning to use _____ (Text A) and ______ (Text B) to talk about race for Question 3. Is that a good idea?
  • I am going to compare conflict between the conquistadors and Mayans in Mesoamerica with the North American French and Indian Wars, and discuss the idea of racial purity in each context. Could you give me some feedback?
  • I’m interested in how gender nonconformity drives the conflicts in ____ (Text A) and ____ (Text D). I would like to answer the question on identity by focusing on gender issues. Does this fit with your expectations for the final?


The professor might give you an answer right then and there, or might ask you to bring an outline to office hours for better feedback. I’ll write about outlines in another blog post, but here’s the important thing about an essay conversation in office hours:

  • Be prepared
  • Bring notes
  • Bring the texts
  • Have something written down

The professor won’t expect you to have all the answers, and won’t be grading you on the meeting. But the time is to help you, so make the most of it. You’ll leave with a much clearer sense of what is expected of you, and how your particular focus will fit with the final essay questions.


And from there? All that’s left to do is write. Good luck!

Please let me know if this post was helpful! Leave a comment or a question, and I'll be back with more essay writing tips soon.