What is an Essay?

You can’t ignore the fact that essays are part of getting anywhere you want to go in life.

If you want to gain the grades to get into your dream university, you need to know the importance of essays, and how to excel in your exam essays. If you’re a primary school student who wants to get into a top secondary school, you’ll have to pass entrance exams that include writing short essays.

Even things which don’t seem so academic to us, for example, covering letters for job applications or good blog posts, are more likely to succeed if we know about essays and how to structure them.

This is because essays develop our critical and evaluative skills. Essays are about proving why our position on a subject is the correct one, which also helps us prove to employers why they should hire us. Let’s take a closer look at what exactly essays are and what they should involve.

What is an essay?

An essay is a piece of writing that explores the debates and research around a particular subject, and then takes and defends a position on it.

An essay should persuade the reader, through its style and critical evaluation, that the argument it puts forth is the right one.

But how do we know what an essay should look like and what it should include? Let’s take a deep dive into everything you need to know about an essay, and how to produce the best one.

What should an essay do?

Your essay should explain the topic you’re writing about, and persuade your reader that the argument you make in light of the topic is the best one. For example, if you’re writing an essay on whether God is the most likely explanation for the existence of the universe, you would evaluate the research and arguments of others, and defend the view you agree with. Your essay should persuade your reader or examiner that you have extensive knowledge on the subject, as well as critical skills.

There are many different forms of essays, for example, exam essays (which are usually shorter and timed), coursework essays, dissertations and even PhD theses. However, they all follow this same pattern – you must outline research, and defend your argument or findings on a subject.

Essays should hook your reader in straight away. An essay which makes a fascinating first impression is the key to persuading your reader (who is likely also your examiner) that you know what you’re talking about and deserve a top grade. Your first line must convince them that what you say has value. There are two ways you can do this.

  1. Hit them with your most exciting piece of research. For example, if you were writing an essay on the commercialisation of folklore and fairy-tale, you might start with the fact that Cinderella’s slippers were originally made of fur, but due to a mistranslation, became glass. With this, you’ve hooked in your reader and can then let the rest of your argument flow from how this fact proves your argument.
  2. Start with the most jarring or contentious quote from someone in your research. You can then write your essay for or against the quotation and how it relates to the essay question, which gives your essay a natural, structured flow and argumentative bite

Why are essays important?

Essays are important in many different ways, as there are so many different contexts in which we write essays. Let’s look at just a few ways in which essays are important.

  1. Essays are a major way of assessing your knowledge in almost all UK subjects at A-Level and GCSE. Art, which is already the most time-consuming A-Level, has an essay component. Computer Science has a coursework component. You need to know how to write great essays to get top marks in coursework and exams. In the USA, essays are a key component of SAT exams, so if you want to get into a good college, you need to know how to write an essay.
  2. Essays are a key part of university and college applications. For UK universities, you have to write a personal statement, which is an essay proving why you should be accepted on to a university course. Having a good grounding in essay writing helps you to craft a precise and relevant personal statement, which proves exactly why you deserve a university place. In the US, you’ll have to write multiple essays as part of your college applications. On top of your usual personal statements, some colleges may ask you to write an essay about why you want to study at that particular institution. If you have a good grasp on how to write a good essay you’re more likely to succeed at this tricky topic. Some advice when writing this type of essay is to discuss niche things about the school that other students won’t mention, and always talk about how you will benefit them as a student, not the other way round.
  3. Ground-breaking research, for example, major interventions in HIV/ AIDs, is almost always presented as a research paper, essay or PhD thesis. Even mathematicians have to create a thesis (a large essay presenting the student’s unique findings and research) which defends their arguments, in order to gain their doctorate.

What should you include in an essay?

With an essay, structure is everything. Structure allows you to get your argument across in a way which neatly proves your point and persuades your reader the whole way through. Rather than rambling or just stating a list of facts, structure helps signpost your reader to your exact argument on a subject, which will gain you a lot of points with teachers, examiners and university tutors. Let’s look at exactly how to plan and structure an essay.

Structure and planning

Separate your essay into roughly five paragraphs or sections. Paragraph 1 is your introduction. The next two paragraphs should lay out the arguments for and against the topic in your essay question. For example, if you were writing an essay on whether assisted suicide is murder, you would lay out the established arguments for, and the established arguments against. This is how you show you know what you’re talking about when you then give your own argument.

Paragraph 4 is your critical analysis, where you evaluate the validity of the arguments you’ve stated and why, for example, assisted suicide is or isn’t murder. This is the most important part of your essay, because it shows your reader that you’ve evaluated the knowledge, which shows the important critical thinking skills that are key to succeeding in exams or college applications, as well as the general advancement of human knowledge.

Paragraph 5 is your conclusion. It is true that conclusions should always sum up your argument. However, to get extra points, your conclusion should also point to something further along in the argument. If you have a piece of research or opinion that you just couldn’t fit into the body of your essay, the conclusion is the perfect time to allude to it briefly. You then give the examiner the impression that you have even more amazing insights to put forth, and your thinking expands beyond just the exam question.


Your essay style is really important to your success. Don’t just observe, analyse. Don’t just state facts, always feed your observations back into the essay question or statement, to show that you’re always fully engaged. Back up your facts with quotations and dates, and always make sure you attribute quotations to the person who said or wrote them. This is how you avoid plagiarism!

Referencing and bibliographies

Referencing is a more formal way of ensuring that you give credit to the quotations and excerpts you use of other people’s work and ideas. Plagiarism is a big offence in school at university, and could lead to institutions scrapping whole exams or degrees.

You are unlikely to have to formally reference in timed exams, but you certainly will have to reference any coursework or dissertations at university. Learning how to reference at school is a great way to get head start on this for university. A common form of referencing texts by other authors is the Harvard referencing system or the ‘author: date’ system’. This is where you use a quote of an author’s work and add in brackets their last name and the date of the work published. You then add the full reference, including the full title of the work, page number and publisher in a bibliography at the end.

Is an essay an academic text?

Essays are more likely to be academic texts than not. As we’ve established, in almost every academic context – whether that’s applying for university or college or trying to pass an exam – you have to write an essay. Even what academics call research papers’, research proposals, theses or journal articles are essays in some form of an essay. They use same principles of essay writing, which is defending a critical argument and explaining your research on a topic.

However, there is another category of essay which blurs the lines between academic and non-academic – and that’s a personal essay. Don’t confuse this with your personal statement for university which, although it’s about you, is still an academic text because you’re using it to prove why you should study a particular course.

Personal essays are articles or narratives which weave in someone’s intimate experiences or life events, to make a particular academic point or argument, or simply to tell a good story. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay We Should All Be Feminists is a good example of a personal essay. It draws extensively on her own experiences, as well as talking more generally about the institutionalised sexism against women.

What are some good examples of essay questions?

To round off our guide on what an essay is and what it consists of, let’s look at a few examples of essay questions from three subjects – English Literature, Ethics and History.

  1. Should billionaires exist?
  2. Can war be ethical?
  3. Is it ethical to use artificial robots in social care?
English Literature
  1. How does Thomas Hardy use imagery to create impact in Tess of The D’Urbervilles?
  2. What is the significance of silence in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure?
  3. Discuss the use of narrative or memory in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

(these example essay questions are from Edexcel past papers)

  1. ‘The establishment of Pentonville prison was a turning point in the use of prisons in the years 1700–present.’
  2. Explain one way in which the nature of punishment during the years 1500–1700 was different from the nature of punishment in the period 1900–present.
  3. Explain why there were new definitions of crimes against authority in the years 1000–1700.


We’ve now gone through exactly what an essay is, and how to write one. We hope you’ve found our complete guide to an essay useful and inspiring. You can now take everything you’ve learned about essays and essay-writing, and craft outstanding essays for school and university applications.