UNIT 1 – TOPIC 2: Preparing to Write an Academic Essay

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If you want to produce good writing, like anything else, you need to prepare. This applies even more so with academic writing because of the form and structure of academic register. Furthermore, academic essays are typically based on assignment tasks, and these essay assignments have very specific guidelines. Here, we are going to focus on how to interpret the instructions of an academic essay assignment task correctly and develop a thesis statement.


Unpacking an Essay Question

The first thing you need to do before you start developing ideas for an academic writing assignment is understand the task and what you are required to do. Many students fail essay assignments for the simple reason that they have not answered the question correctly, therefore, it is important to understand what exactly the assignment question is asking you to do.

Things to consider are:

  • What type of essay it is: Are you writing to explain, to argue a point or describe and evaluate a subject or piece of work?
  • What the main aim of the assignment is: All academic essays require research and analysis in order to support the claims of the writer. However, for some assignment tasks, the emphasis is more on objective argument while others focus more on description and comparison, or a subjective point of view.
  • The definition of the terms: When reading an essay question, you need to consider what the terms mean in the context of the question. Even everyday words and phrases such as society, feminism, equality and corporate media can have different interpretations depending on who you speak to and the context they are used in. Therefore, do not always assume that there is a common understanding of academic or technical terms and phrases in a question.

Question words give a clear indication of what the subject of the reply should be. The table below summarises the purposes of the main question words in English.

WHO asking about a person or people Who benefits from…?

Who are the most…?

WHERE asking about a place or position Where are the effects of…?
WHAT (What kind of, What type of) asking for information about an object, idea, purpose or action What causes…?

What are the negative aspects of…?

WHY asking about reasons, causes and effects Why is…?

Why are…?

WHEN asking about time When do the conditions…?
WHICH asking about choice Which methods…?
HOW asking about manner, feeling, frequency, degree, quantity, amount, length, etc. How do governments benefit from…?

How do we deal with the problems of…?

How much does…?

Academic essay assignment tasks often do not use conventional question words. Therefore, in order to answer an essay question correctly, it is essential to also understand the instructional verbs in the question.


Defining Terms

When you read an essay assignment question, it will include instructional words and phrases. It is essential that you clearly understand what these words mean in order to complete the task properly.

Study the table below containing three instructional verbs and associated words and phrases that are typically found in academic assignment questions.

ANALYSE: To study or examine something in detail and explain or interpret what you have discovered. DESCRIBE: To report about what or how something is, or how something is done. EVALUATE: To judge the quality, importance, value, amount or degree of something.
Analytical instructions: analyse… show the difference between… distinguish between… compare… contrast… explain… discuss… account for… examine… give reasons for… show why… Descriptive instructions: describe… classify… define… identify… indicate… illustrate… outline… summarise… Evaluative instructions: evaluate… assess… comment on… explain… critique… discuss… suggest… review… justify… to what extent…


You can see that academic assignment tasks can use a variety of instructional words and phrases without using any of the conventional question words. In fact, the way an academic question is formed elicits a range of different questions that you must consider in your response. Therefore, the first thing that you must do is analyse and unpack the question in order to correctly interpret what it means.

Study the examples below. Examine how they have been analysed. Consider the different elements of each question and how they come together to give the student clear instructions about what to include in the final task.




What is a thesis statement?

An academic essay question gives you instructions on what topic you are going to write about, the next thing you need to do is decide what you are going to write. The first stage of any type of academic writing is to establish what your main idea is. What is your claim? What is your point? What exactly are you trying to say? A thesis statement is a sentence that makes this very clear from the start.


Writing a Good Thesis Statement

A good thesis statement expresses your main point or idea, or the position you are taking on a subject or topic. A good thesis statement not only tells the reader what your position is, but it also helps you to stay on track in your essay and guide you through your argument. If your thesis statement is not so good, you will find that your argument seems disjointed and unconnected, so you should write a statement that has a clear focus and a clear point. Here are three things to avoid when writing a thesis statement.


1. Announcements

Instead of writing a thesis statement, people often write an announcement of their main aim without providing context or details, for example:

This essay will discuss depression in high school students.

The subject of this essay is offshore tax havens. 

I am going to write about diversity in the workforce.

These statements do not focus on a point, they simply announce to the reader what the topic of the essay is going to be – depression in high school students, offshore tax havens and diversity in the workplace. What is the main point of the essay? The reader does not know and the writer can go off in any direction about the subject. It is not absolutely forbidden to announce what you are going to write about, but this would be explaining the purpose of the essay. Many essays and journal articles state their purpose, but a purpose statement, unlike a thesis statement, doesn’t discuss any conclusions, for example: ‘This essay examines… / The purpose of this essay is to… / In this paper, I will describe… the relationship between excessive exposure to social media and depression amongst high school students’.


2. Avoid generality, but also avoid dead end statements

A good thesis statement has a focus. This means that it should not be too general, but at the same time it should have enough scope to allow you to expand on the topic. Let’s take a look at three more examples:

There is a lot of depression among high school students.

Offshore tax havens are not good.

Diversity in the workforce makes a company better.

These thesis statements are too general. A thesis statement that is too general will have too many points to cover in a single essay. You will eventually find that you have too many areas to cover and you have lost your main line of argument. Now let’s study three more examples:

More than half of the students in my high school year were diagnosed with depression. 

The Cayman Islands is the world’s biggest tax haven.

Google has a very culturally diverse workforce.

These thesis statements are too narrow and therefore there is no room for discussion or analysis; there is little to argue about therefore there is nothing to develop in an argumentative essay. This type of thesis statement is often called a dead end statement because it often does little more than state a fact. This will give you nothing of interest to write about.


3. Focus on one idea at a time

The point of an essay is to develop a single main idea. This allows the writer room to explore the idea in some detail and present strong arguments to support the points they are making. If your thesis statement has more than one main idea, then the arguments for each idea are likely to be less coherent and lose their clarity. The essay will be disjointed and confusing. To illustrate, study the thesis statements below; each have two distinct ideas:

Depression among high school students is increasing due to excessive use of social media, but if they did more exercise they would be happier.

Offshore tax havens help to facilitate money laundering and corruption around the world, but most ordinary people cannot open accounts in these places.

Google’s culturally diverse workforce improves the productivity of their employees whereas many companies improve their profits by outsourcing labour to poorer countries.

The focus of the first statement is excessive use of social media increasing depression in high school students, BUT ALSO high school students doing more exercise to get healthier. These are two distinctly separate ideas.

In the second statement, there is a focus on how offshore tax havens help facilitate money laundering AND a discussion around why most ordinary people can’t open accounts in these locations. Two ideas in one thesis statement.

The third example has a statement that focuses on how Google’s policy of cultural diversity improves work productivity AND another idea focusing on companies improving profits by outsourcing work, again two completely different main ideas.

Stick to one main idea and make sure that it is clear what you are going to develop in your essay from your thesis statement. Also, try to indicate the purpose of your essay.


4. Express the purpose of your essay

Different types of essays have different purposes. Essays can explain a cause or an effect, they can explain advantages and disadvantages, they can explain processes, offer solutions and recommendations, or describe and compare things. A good thesis statement often expresses the intention of the essay.  

Research indicates that high school students living in a large city are more likely to suffer from depressions. (analyse and explain)

A study has found that regular exposure to nature boosts serotonin levels, leading to a greater sense of wellbeing. (analyse and explain) 

High school students living in small towns have lower rates of depression than their counterparts in big cities. (describe, compare and contrast)

Too much exposure to social media makes high school students depressed because it encourages unrealistic expectations. (explain a cause)

Offshore tax havens have helped to facilitate money laundering, terrorism and corruption around the world. (explain an effect)

The high levels of productivity at Google show the positive effects of a culturally diverse workforce. (explain an evaluation)

One idea at a time, but don’t be too general with your statement either. Also, do more than just state a fact that has no discussion value. And try to let the reader know what your main aim is without making an announcement. If you keep these things in mind when you are developing your essay ideas, you should be able to write a very good thesis statement.


  • Before you start an academic writing task, you must analyse the question and make sure you understand exactly what the instructions are asking for.
  • In order to understand an academic assignment question, you must understand the correct meaning of instructional verbs and define any unfamiliar terms.
  • You must establish what your main idea is and present your argument in the form of a well written thesis statement.
  • A good thesis statement avoids being general and expresses the main point, idea or purpose of the essay.
  • A good thesis statement makes the writer’s position clear, focuses on one main argument and helps to guide the writer through their writing.