How to Write an Academic Essay – Complete Guide

When you are in University, it is expected that your style of writing changes from how you wrote descriptive, explanatory, persuasive, or creative essays in high school. One of the most common things that university freshmen struggle with is getting used to writing academic essays.

This is where most students lose a lot of points that greatly affect their GPA, and discourage them altogether. 

How to get started writing an academic essay?

student typing on laptopWriting academic essays is not easy, but there are a few basic components to academic writing that you can learn and recycle all the way to postgraduate work.

Here are 10 very useful tips on how to successfully write an academic essay.

Pick a Format 

Unlike in high school, at a university level, you have to figure out the format of your paper before you even choose a thesis. When I say format, I don’t mean how you are going to outline your essay. In academic writing, it is very important which academic style you are going to use.

The most popular formats include the APA, MLA, Chicago, or Harvard formats. 

This process is easy as most likely, this is already given to you based on your major or the class you are taking. Most of the humanities courses use the Harvard format while most history courses use Chicago. MLA is barely used and the APA format is used specifically in the field of psychology.

This won’t be a difficult decision, I just wanted to draw attention to it as most students either don’t seem to know about what format to use, or they never notice that it matters.  

Choose a Topic

After you have figured out what format you will need to use in your essay, you have to choose a topic. Depending on whether you are a freshman or a senior at university, a topic will either be given to you, or you have to come up with one on your own. If you are a freshman, 9 out of 10 times your professor will give you a list of topics to choose from if he doesn’t just outright give you a topic to write about. 

If you have the option to choose, it is always best to choose the topic that either you are a little bit familiar with already, or you are interested in. This is because unlike in high school, writing an academic essay comes with a lot of research, so you better like what you are writing about. At this point, you do not want to generate a thesis statement just yet.

Broad Research

Now that you have chosen your topic, it is time to begin your broad research. Huge disclaimer! At a university level, you have to use academic sources for all your research.

This most commonly includes journal articles, books, archives, government documents, etc. Things like websites, blogs, online magazines/newspapers, and Wikipedia, are not considered academic sources. 

When most professors see a non-academic source listed in your reference section, they immediately start taking points off because it is not considered evidence-based research.

At this point in your research, you should be looking at a small handful of four or five research journals on the topic you have chosen. Read them all the way through, taking notes along the way, familiarizing yourself with them. 

Please do not forget to record what page number you are taking information from, as well as cite the entire source (we will talk about citations later).

Narrow it Down

preparation for schoolOnce you have familiarized yourself with the broad research, you have to narrow it down. Maybe this is not as important at a freshman level, but trust me, when you get to be junior and senior, you have to come up with a very narrow thesis statement. Professors always say, “the narrower the better”. 

For example, if you are a history major, a common broad question would be “When did the Cold War begin?”. If you want to narrow it down, you could ask something like “Did the Cold War actually begin with the Russian Revolution in 1905?” As you can see, the second question is not only narrow but also challenges the generalized belief that the Cold War began after 1945. 

These are the kinds of thesis statements that university professors are looking for. Those demonstrating critical thinking skills, an in-depth knowledge/understanding of whatever you decide to write about, and if you can back up your claims with evidence-based research; are the most lucrative skills to have in academia.


self publish thesis

After you have narrowed down your topic and chosen a thesis, your secondary research begins. This is why I warned you earlier that you should choose something you are interested in because there is a lot of research that goes into writing an academic essay. The major reason is that none of your ideas are original, you are taking information from somewhere, and your professor needs to see where it came from and how you came to your conclusions. 

This secondary research should not be so different from your primary research. You have to use academic sources throughout, except this time they should focus on your thesis. Most freshman and sophomore courses require you to have between 5 and 15 academic sources in your reference section. 

A good rule of thumb is to do double the amount of research, because you will not be using every single source in your essay, giving you enough wiggle room to only use your best and most informative references.


working on a laptopI cannot stress enough how important a good outline is. Once you have enough information, before you begin writing your essay, you must create an outline of how you are going to structure your paper. Depending on what is your work style, this shouldn’t take long.

In most cases, this should be fairly easy, as a lot of professors include an essay outline for their courses. Not much needs to be said about this, except that sticking to your outline will make your life a whole lot easier.


freelancer on laptop

The most helpful tip I can give about writing a good academic essay is to use an academic tone and language throughout. This is very important and you must stay consistent with it. Another critical error that a lot of first-year students make is that they start with a research question, but never actually get around to answering it. Stay on topic! Always answer your research question, that is the only purpose of your paper.


This is the part where students tend to lose the most points. You always have to cite where you got your information from. As you are going through your research, and I mentioned this before, you have to keep track of the citation of each source as well as the page numbers that you will be referencing in your essay. If you do not cite a source correctly, it is automatically read as plagiarism and you will get an F on your paper. 

At a university level, this is not taken lightly, you must show proof of where you got your information, or you automatically fail and can even be expelled on the grounds of academic dishonesty. 

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