Expert Admissions hosted a webinar to discuss how we help students improve their writing. We focused on a topic specific to academic writing: the thesis statement. We looked at common pitfalls and discussed how we help students work through them. And even better, much of this advice is also important for college admissions essays! Here are some highlights from the conversation:
Three Common Issues with Thesis Statements:
Doesn’t Address the Prompt. If a prompt asks you to address more than one question or multiple aspects of a problem, it can be easy to miss one, and sometimes the wording of a prompt is just confusing.
- Tips: Start a project by restating the prompt in your own words to be sure you understand it. Highlight the key words and phrases that indicate what your teacher is looking for. If there are several questions in the prompt, make a checklist so that you can easily see if your essay has addressed all of them.
Lack of Clarity. Sophisticated writing is clear and precise. There’s a misconception that it “sounds smart” to use grandiose, flowery, or technical language. But dense and difficult language can actually signal to readers that you may not understand the material. Your ideas should be complex; your writing should be simple.
- Tips: Using words that are easy for anyone to understand, avoiding filler phrases, and choosing the words that mean exactly what you want to say are the hallmarks of sophistication.
Lack of Complexity. A complex thesis statement is both surprising and supportable with evidence. Thesis statements that lack complexity usually make an observation rather than a claim. An observation is something you can simply point to that anyone would see right away; it would be nearly impossible to argue against it. A claim, by contrast, involves your own interpretation or analysis. You can’t just show someone that your claim is true, you have to argue for it.
- Tips: To move from observations to claims, ask critical questions that generate new ideas, like: Does this observation conflict with any other observations I’ve made? How does the observation contribute to my understanding of the topic? Is the observation itself surprising? Why is this an important observation?
We also got great questions from the audience including how these tips can be used for college essay writing and what additional resources are available online or in print.
While college essays don’t have a thesis statement in the traditional sense (a personal essay shouldn’t read like an academic paper), college essays do run into many of these same issues.
- Doesn’t Address the Prompt: Especially when you start writing supplemental essays, it is so important to pay attention to the prompt! The mistake we see most often occurs when a school asks you why you want to pursue a particular major at their institution. This is a question about academics, and while there may be many reasons you want to attend a particular school, from geography to clubs and campus culture, you shouldn’t veer off topic by discussing them in an essay about academics.
- Lack of clarity: This might even be more important in a college essay. Colleges are trying to get to know the real you, and they want to hear your voice, not an overly academic or flowery version of it. Admissions officers also have thousands of applications to read, so if your writing is so dense or difficult that they have to read it more than once, it’s not going to reflect favorably on your application.
- Lack of complexity: Complexity of thought might mean something a little different in a college essay, but it’s still crucial. Here, we’re looking for depth and introspection. What’s complex about a topic is the effect it had on you, how you changed or grew. Whatever your college essay topic, the question we always push you to ask yourself is, “so what?”
We also shared our favorite resources for writers:
- The Norton Field Guide to Writing, which you can find here: https://wwnorton.com/books/9780393655803
- The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/purdue_owl.html
To see examples of each of the problems with thesis statements and how they were solved, watch the webinar at the top of the page.