Essay Purpose and Thesis
Writing a College Essay

Writing a College Essay: Purpose and Thesis


When Tito was first assigned papers for college, he would sweat dread for a couple days.  After the initial dark gloom broke, he would strain to think of various topics that would be acceptable.  Every now and then, he would have a brain-flash – a Great Idea.  But it was always when driving or lying in bed at night.  The more he thought about it, though, it would turn to garbage.

Tito believed he worked best under pressure, since a fairly good idea would spring up the day before the paper was due.  He nauseated writing, so he never tried to write an outline.  The night before the paper was due, between World of Warcraft quests, he would tab to the word processor with a deep sigh.

The first paragraph was always tough, but sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, Tito would churn out the essay, all the while watching the word count creep up to the number the instructor expected.  The ending, at least, slid out the smoothest, and the ending word count was always seventeen to twenty-seven words over the minimum.

Tito rarely read the draft over completely, just checked for spelling and format. He didn't think he was a good writer. The final product would never seemed to match that first good idea . . . .


But is that an Essay?

 Actually, Tito's papers may not have been essays.

["Is that why I never got a good grade?" Tito asks.]

There are many different forms of writing.  And they are defined by the purpose of the writing.

Although essays can be focused on different purposes, a composition that only offers a personal opinion on a topic, without facts or analysis, is more likely a personal journal entry than an essay.


Essay: a formally-structured expository composition.

"Formally-structured" means the essay has a specific form.  The main idea, or thesis, is stated or implied in the first paragraph, so the reader will recognize the purpose – the meaning that the essay will offer the reader.

"Expository" means the essay explains a topic. It examines the "How" or the "Why" of the purpose through the use of explanation, examples, and experiences.

Unless Tito's essay met these requirements, it may not have been an essay at all.


Essay Purpose

The purpose is what the writer hopes to accomplish.  There are four purposes in formal writing.

In the above definition, the term expository means that the writing is developed by explaining or examining.  In an essay, the body, or development paragraphs are focused on the specific aspects of the topic necessary to accomplish the purpose.

Most academic writing is either informative, evaluative, or persuasive. That's because college writing is used to evaluate what a student knows about a topic area. The essay form allows a student to clearly state feelings and perceptions on the topics of study.

Writing an essay is not a difficult task.  It does involve questioning, thinking, maybe searching out information on a topic, and, most of all, considering the meaning of that information.  The goal of most academic essays should be to create meaning for the writer and meaning for the audience.  It should help people understand something.

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The Thesis Statement, or Making Meaning

This is a communications model.  And no, that's not Tito on the left.


Safe and Threatening Audiences

Mostly, we communicate with people we know.  Friends, family, and associates at work know our likes and dislikes.  Our friends share many of our personal opinions and experience things with us.  We don't need to explain much to these audiences.  They are considered safe audiences.

As audiences get more unfamiliar we know less about their likes and dislikes.  Think of relatives or a supervisor at work.  It is harder to talk to them, so our language gets more reserved and formal.  If the discussion is important, an interview for a job or a paper for an instructor at college, for example, we may become anxious.  These are threatening audiences.

Anxiety in writing often comes when we write for vague or threatening audiences. To reduce anxieties, even if a writer does not know the audience, it is important to be comfortable with the topic, and the purpose of the writing.

 The idea of keeping it simple and clear is even more important in writing.  Readers are easily distracted.  Think about it. Even in a quiet room, with few distractions, we often can find that we have to re-read a page or two.  When our thoughts slipped away to thinking about something else, our eyes still scanned the words.

Creating a Main Point

In order for writing to overcome distractions, it should follow the guidelines that are used in public speaking classes:  Tell the reader what you're going to say; Say it; then Tell them what you just said.

 Develop a thesis statement

The thesis statement, normally presented or implied in both the introduction and the conclusion, makes the writer's viewpoint clear.  The individual topic sentences of the body paragraphs lead the reader through the discussion.

An Effective Thesis

The "So What?" Factor

In Descriptive, Narrative, and other types of writing, the thesis may also suggest a Dominant Impression.  This is the thoughtful and emotional effect the writing should have on a reader.

It should Impress a reader.

When you "impress" someone, you have an effect. It's usually a positive effect, a fascination, a sense that arouses the interest or approval of the reader, a feeling that the writing said something important.

When you write your thesis statement, give it the "So What?" test.  "So What?"

Asking the "So What?" question is very important if a writer tends to use "you" frequently in writing. The use of "you" focuses the writing on people in general. It discusses what all humans think or feel. It stereotypes. This can be dangerous in writing because everyone is not impressed by the same things. Asking the "So What?" question can encourage thoughtful consideration of who the audience is exactly. Who will be impressed by the topic?



"My Psychology classroom is distinctive." "So what?" Every classroom is distinctive in some way. Unless your classroom in on a mountain top, or a tropical island, what does it matter how distinctive it is?

"My Psychology classroom taught me how anyone can be an excellent poker player." "So what? If the audience is interested in poker, then they will be interested in knowing how psychology impacts the game. Of course, the paper must deliver on the expectations presented by the thesis, or risk disappointing the readers.

What Thesis statements are NOT


A statement of general subject area– Urban Legends

A statement of fact– Urban legends are shared for several reasons.

An announcement– In this paper, I will look at urban legends and the reasons they are shared.


These statements do not share the conclusion or the purpose of the writing. They fail the question "So What?" Readers deserve to know the goal the writing is reaching for, the reason it is worth reading.

A Sample Thesis Statement

"Whether students share them in jokes or as a response to anxieties, college urban legends associated with final exams show the complex power "games" between student and professor when it comes to knowledge and success."


The statement is long, as many thesis statements can be.  The purpose of the paper will be to show that urban legends, the stories that college students share with one another about final exams, are actually "power games" and more than one type of "game" will be examined in the writing (maybe ones where "students win," and others where "professors win").  It also states that the "games" have to do with knowledge - what the student knows - and success - how to succeed in college.

The value of knowing where the writing is headed is that the reader has a map through the essay: urban legends will be explained, student – professor power games will be explained, and the how and why of it all will be clear by the end of the essay.


The conclusing quiz asks you to evaluate some potential thesis statements.Before completing this quiz, please review The Brief Wadsworth Handbook, Chapter 5 (specifically, 5a and 5b) on the thesis statement.


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