How to Write an Academic Essay

28.04.20 Structuring academic essays Time to read: 9min

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Definition: Academic essay

An academic essay is a short piece of writing that presents information about a given topic as well as the writer’s opinion.

Academic essay writing is usually based on the following structure:

  • Introduction
  • Body of the text/discussion
  • Conclusion

Learning how to write an academic essay is part of the curriculum in elementary, middle, and high school as well as in college. You might even have to write academic essays for your future job.

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The typical academic essay structure is easier to understand than the structure of a dissertation or thesis. There are four main types of academic essays, but the structure remains mostly unchanged. You start with the introduction, then the body paragraphs and finally, the conclusion.

To start your academic essay, you first need an appropriate research paper topic. Ensure that your topic fits within the guidelines set by your institution and it’s not too broad or narrow. Then, formulate your thesis statement (don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be a huge thesis statement as you’re writing an academic essay, not a dissertation!) and begin outlining a plan for your academic essay. Once you’ve done all of this, you’re ready to start writing!

A good academic essay introduction will begin with an opening statement that grabs the reader’s attention and draws them in. Then, you give a little bit of background information and lay out the structure of your academic essay for the reader. The thesis statement should be placed towards the end of the introduction as it provides a 1-2 sentence summary of your essay and the main idea.

It’s important that your academic essay is concise and ‘flows’ smoothly, as the reader needs to easily nagivate through it. Transition words are phrases or words that show a change in thoughts or ideas from one sentence to the next.

Examples of transition words include:

  • However
  • As a result of
  • Although
  • Furthermore

It is vital that you’re interested in the research topic of your academic essay, otherwise writing your academic essay will be a painstaking process. Conduct some prelimary research to discover which areas you’re interested in. Then, narrow down your research and start thinking about your thesis statement. Your topic needs to be well-defined, otherwise you’ll have trouble writing your thesis statement and planning the structure of your academic essay.

Different types of academic essays

If you want to learn how to write an academic essay, keep these five types of academic essays in mind:

Type of academic essay Explanation Examples
How to write a narrative essay Written in a straightforward and accurate manner. You can write about a personal experience or an incident you have encountered. For example, you could write about an achievement you are very proud of, a person or situation that changed your life, etc.
How to write a descriptive essay A descriptive essay should provide the reader with a clear mental picture of a given subject matter. It is important to focus on the details. If, for example you are writing about a trip to the park, you should provide plenty of details about your surroundings. Include anything that will immerse the reader in your experience.
How to write a persuasive essay As the term suggests, it is your task to convince the reader about your point of view on a topic. It is important to be clear and precise. This will ensure that the reader can easily follow your line of argument. You could write about topics such as ‘Whether governments should or should not fund embryonic stem cell research’, ‘Whether animal testing is necessary’, ‘A vegan diet is the only diet people should follow’, etc.
How to write a comparative essay? This type of academic essay compares two (or more) different things, depending on the assignment. Comparisons are possible in all areas. For example, you could compare:
- positions on an issue (e.g. a comparison of the ideas of Lincoln and Washington),
- texts (e.g. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet vs. Hamlet),
- events (e.g. World War I and World War II: Difference in events), etc.
How to write an expository essay? This is an investigation of a topic. Arguments should be objective and supported by facts that you can back with research. It is probably the most complex type of academic essay. Academic research papers fall under this category of writing. Some topics might be ‘How does the brain develop and change as we grow and age?’, ‘How similar are current robots to real people?’, and ‘Explain Stanley Milgram's psychological experiments of 1961 and the controversy surrounding the results’.
Please Note: It is important to know what type of academic essay you have to write for your assignment. The academic essay type helps you to decide on a topic to write about as well as how to structure your academic essay.

Step-by-step guide

First things first: You need a topic, of course. The teacher may assign the topic, or they may leave it to you to figure out what you would like to write about. If it is an assigned topic, you should start analyzing the academic essay assignment to find out what type of academic essay you are expected to write and how you should approach researching the academic essay topic.

The following illustration outlines the basic steps of writing an academic essay (Habla Language Services, 2019). The pyramid shape will help you to calculate the amount of work required for each step in the writing of your academic essay. As you can see, planning what to write takes more time than the actual academic essay writing. However, this is crucial when it comes to the question of how to write an excellent academic essay. You have to do a good amount of research on your topic to develop a sound argument and structure for your academic essay. You can draw a mind map to organize your ideas; this will also help you structure your academic essay.


As soon as you have finished outlining your academic essay, the actual academic essay writing process starts. The following guide will show you how to write an academic essay step-by-step.

How to write an academic essay – EXPLANATION

Capture the main idea of your paper in just one or two sentences! You have to point your reader to your interpretation of the subject being discussed. E.g. for the topic ‘Vaccinations’ the thesis statement could be: ‘Many children cannot be vaccinated due to illness we must require that all healthy and able children are vaccinated in order to have herd immunity.’

How to write an academic essay – TIPS

Take the time to plan your academic essay and make sure you have given it enough thought. The actual academic essay writing will be a lot easier and quicker if you have a clear idea what you are going to write.

How to write an academic essay – EXPLANATION

Each of the main ideas in your outline will become one paragraph. Each of those paragraphs follows the same basic structure. First, you have to write down your main ideas., e.g. Vaccinating healthy children will reduce the risk of an epidemic. Then you add your supporting points as well as an elaboration (description, explanation, discussion) for each point. Lastly, round it up with a closing sentence.

How to write an academic essay – TIPS

Academic essay writing is a bit like making a hamburger. Please check out below how this works. Visualizing writing processes like this helps to better understand academic essay writing.

How to write an academic essay – EXPLANATION

You have to lead into the topic, attract the reader’s attention and give him/her a good idea of the focus of the academic essay. Use attention grabbers like startling information (e.g. relevant fact to highlight the point you want to make), an anecdote, a dialogue or a summary of the topic in general. Add a few more sentences to link the attention grabber to your thesis statement that marks the end of the introduction.

You have to summarize your main points as well as giving a final perspective on the topic. Help your reader to draw a logical conclusion from what he just read. Repack your thesis statement in your conclusion so that the reader can remember the individual steps taken to come to this conclusion. Moreover, you should answer question like: What are the implications of your thesis statement being true? What comes next? What questions remained unanswered?

How to write an academic essay – TIPS

A) It is easiest to write the conclusion first and the introduction in a final step. The introduction and conclusion must match, that means the problem posed in the introduction is resolved in the conclusion. After writing the conclusion, you have thought it through to the end and that helps you to write a sound introduction.

B) Do not forget: The conclusion is the last thing your reader looks at, and what is read at last leaves an imprint. Make sure your conclusion is precise and to the point and end with a final sentence that makes the reader remember you.

How to write an academic essay – EXPLANATION

Come up with good title for your academic essay that arouses the reader’s interest. Take your time to do the formatting of your paper. Check the order of paragraphs. You might want to put them in a different order, e.g. starting with the weakest paragraph and end with the strongest argument etc. If your essay is about a process, it makes most sense to stick to the order in which the steps are completed.

How to write an academic essay – TIPS

Have another look at the instructions to ensure that your margins are correct, the lines are double-spaced, the paragraphs indented etc. You might also have to include any other information (name, date etc.). Handing in a well-formatted academic essay makes a good impression on your teacher/instructor.

How to write an academic essay – EXPLANATION

Revising is key to success in academic essay writing. You have to analyze your writing on a meta level to figure out if it makes logical sense and if there is a natural flow that makes it easy to read. Is every main idea supported by enough evidence, did you make clear how ideas are linked? Run a spelling and/or grammar checker to be on the safe side.

How to write an academic essay – TIPS

Ask a friend to read your academic essay to give you feedback. Sometimes you cannot see the wood for the trees when it comes to your own writing. Having another opinion on your paper helps you with your revisions.

Structuring the paragraphs

Writing the paragraphs of your academic essay that represent your main ideas is like a making a burger. Here you can see why (Paper Success, 2017):

GOOD TO KNOW: Read our article about How to write an academic essay introduction!

This figure nicely illustrates how to write an academic essay the right way. Each paragraph should have an introductory, topic-based sentence as well as a concluding sentence that draws a link to the topic and critically summarizes your argument (the bun of the hamburger).

To make a juicy and delicious burger, you need basic ingredients and the meat, of course. In academic essay writing, the basic ingredients are explanations/definitions of your ideas. The meat is represented by evidence that supports your point.

The latter is also ‘the meat’ in a literal sense, namely your argument is only as convincing as the evidence you can provide to back it up. In other words, a burger without meat is just a bun with salad and cheese: the meat adds the flavor as the dominating taste.

Academic essay examples


Essay Dos and Don’ts

Below you can find a list of the Dos and Don’ts of  academic essay writing:

How to write an academic essay: DOS How to write an academic essay: DON’TS
Use signposting language: The reader needs those transitions to be able to follow your argument Procrastination: If you start writing your academic essay too late, you will not have enough time to write it well which might cause anxiety.
Stay focused while writing your academic essay:Include only relevant ideas are included in your academic essay, you are staying on topic. Sweeping generalizations: ‘XY is the most important problem we are facing’ is too general (Better: ‘XY is a significant global problem’).
Write the body of the text first: It is easier to write both introduction and conclusion after you have drafted the main body of the text. Using of personal pronouns: Avoid using ‘I’ and other personal pronouns like ‘you’, ‘we’, ‘my’ except when you state your argument and support it with evidence to sound more authoritative.
Take the time to revise your academic essay: A first draft is never perfect and needs work. Start writing your academic essay without an outline: This will only lead to chaos; planning is essential to develop a strong argument
Plain and clear writing style: It is vital that you get your point across, ‘flowery’ language is unnecessary and distracts the reader. Avoid contractions: It does not look professional to use contractions; they should only be used in informal pieces of writing. Use ‘cannot’ instead of ‘can’t’ etc.

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Academic Essay – In a Nutshell

  • An academic essay gives information about a given topic and reflects the writer’s opinion. It is an integral part of the school and college curriculum.
  • There are different types of academic essays: narrative essay, descriptive essay, persuasive essay, comparative essay and expository essay.
  • Planning and outlining are essential to write a good academic essay. Academic essay writing starts with researching the topic and brainstorming ideas.
  • The actual academic-essay-writing process includes writing a thesis statement, writing the body paragraph, then the introduction and conclusion. The last steps are formatting and revising the academic essay.
  • Writing academic essay paragraphs that represent main ideas of your argument is like making a burger: the bun is both the opening and closing sentence, the ingredients are explanations of the main idea, and the meat is the evidence that backs up your claim.


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Habla Language Services. ‘Academics’, in: Habla Language Services. Last accessed 10th May 2019.

Paper Success. ‘Developing an Outline for Essay Writing’, in: Paper Success, Last accessed 17th August 2017.

Taylor, Christopher. ‘How to Write an Essay’, in: Wikihow. Last accessed 10th May 2019.

UNSW Sydney. ‘Writing Your Essay’, in: UNSW Sydney. Last accessed 10th May 2019.

Your Dictionary. ‘How to Write an Essay’, in: Your Dictionary. Last accessed 10th May 2019.