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How an Essay Teaches Us to Think Critically

How an Essay Teaches Us to Think Critically

Every student can their first essay through a vivid visualization. Maybe they don’t remember the title. Maybe they have no idea what they wrote. They do, however, remember the feeling of discomfort this assignment imposed. It’s a format that sets a whole other challenge. You’re not getting a book and learning what they teach you. Instead, you’re asked to dig deep inside your thoughts and bring them to the surface. After all those attempts of your professors to teach you how to think, now they ask you to think with your own head.

Why do we pursue the goal of higher education, anyway? Is it all about learning how to criticize governments and gaining skills that would allow us to accumulate wealth? Below that surface, education is only loosely related to money goals and mundane values. It’s about understanding the rational and ethical dimensions of human life.

what is essay

In a society based around money goals, it’s liberal education that sets us free from the blind adherence to massive consumption. It’s about raising fundamental questions, engaging critical thought, and inspiring imagination in an environment that pushes us to conform. Not many students realize this, but liberal education is about turning us in the type of rebels who can change the world for the better. Essay writing is a crucial element of the process of thought transformation.

Acquiring and reproducing knowledge are not the only goals a student is aiming for when attending higher education. Universities also teach them how to transform and recreate knowledge through strong argumentation. They present those structured arguments through essays.

Before writing their first paper, students wonder: “what is an essay?” In its simplest definition, the essay is a paper characterized by a rigid structure, specific standards of rhetoric, and assessment demands. Its normative structure instructs the students how to express themselves critically and creatively within a format that’s easy for the reader to follow. Most students are terrified by these requirements. They perceive the mandatory task of writing essays as a pressuring, unnecessary aspect of education. We should change that.

when writing essayAn essay assignment does not dictate what students are ought to think. On the contrary: it encourages open-minded inquiry and independent reasoning. It teaches a student how to reconsider the ideas they receive and challenge all generalizations. With time and practice, essay writing can turn a student into an informed, insightful, and intelligent individual. Throughout history, the essay genre has seen a lot of shifts and transformations. Maybe it will be easier for us to understand its importance to the development of critical thought if we see and understand its origins.

The origins of the essay as a genre

The history of essay writing is more amusing than most of us anticipate. In literature, this genre is associated to Michel de Montaigne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Soren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and other great thinkers. When we read their essays, we get the impression that the format is much different from what students are required to write these days. The format is different. The essential purpose of an essay, however, remains the same: an expression of a critical thinking process.

Montaigne was the first one to use the term essay for his own work. It was derived from essayer, a verb that means to try in French. The term is a good definition for the genre itself. An essay is an attempt to structure thoughts and put them into writing that argues and convinces. Montaigne was not the first one to write essays, though. His work was inspired by Plutarch, an ancient philosopher and biographer (46 AD – 120 AD). His Moralia is a collection of writings about ethics, literary criticism, declamations, political ideas, polemics, and advice.

Come let us consider what one might say on the education of free children, and by what training they would become good citizens. It is perhaps best to begin with birth: I would therefore warn those who desire to be fathers of notable sons, not to form connections with any kind of women, such as courtesans or mistresses: for those who either on the father or mother’s side are ill-born have the disgrace of their origins all their life long irretrievably present with them, and offer a ready handle to abuse and vituperation. So that the poet was wise, who said, ‘Unless the foundation of a house be well laid, the descendants must of necessity be unfortunate.’”

That was an excerpt from Plutarch’s essay On Education. Let’s leave the moralization aside for a moment. It was a different time, so Plutarch’s ideas may not be close to a modern man’s perception. Let’s look at the form. It’s not a novel nor a poem. It’s not a biography. It’s an expression of personal opinions through argumentation. We may even recognize the thesis statement along this introduction. It’s an essay!

Montaigne took things further. His main attempt was to develop a character called Myself. It’s a character that’s hard to digest, but impossible to ignore. From today’s perspective his essays are close to a thriller.

Essay writing as a way to cultivate critical thinking

There are a sort of little knacks and frivolous subtleties from which men sometimes expect to derive reputation and applause: as poets, who compose whole poems with every line beginning with the same letter; we see the shapes of eggs, globes, wings, and hatchets cut out by the ancient Greeks by the measure of their verses, making them longer or shorter, to represent such or such a figure.”

That was the first sentence of Montaigne’s essay Of Vain Subtleties. It’s a long one. Some would say it’s flowery language. It’s not. It’s what we call style and unique voice, which this essayist certainly didn’t lack. It’s also critical thought, which has always been a founding principle of education.

Montaigne had a superpower: he turned essays into bestsellers. Every French citizen with classical education and a philosophic bent was reading his books. He became a celebrity, who dined with aristocrats and corresponded with beautiful, intelligent women. Who would’ve thought that the sole act of writing essays could get someone there? It’s not just the essay. It’s the critical thought.

A great essayist is kind of sneaky. They lead you right where you want to go. They might even take you a bit further. By the end of an outstanding essay, you know a lot about the author’s point of view. However, you’re also left with something to think about. A pragmatic author has a goal to make people reconsider what they thought they knew. Maybe you won’t adopt their moral judgements. Maybe you’ll disagree. But you’ll think. And that’s the main goal of essay writing: exposing critical thought that makes the reader think.

An essay teaches you how to reconsider the ideas you have and the ones you explore. You learn how to evaluate competing and controversial ideas and find your own point of view somewhere along the way. It’s about teaching you how to expose informed, considered, and convincing judgements.

Why writing essays became so popular in US universities

A college or university professor is focused on evaluating the student’s subject knowledge. That’s why we have to take tests and exams. However, the educational system has to develop and evaluate a student’s authorial voice, too. That’s because we all need to establish a distinctive presence in society. The authorial voice, as a crucial component of successful education, is being developed through critical thinking and writing. That’s why essays are an inevitable challenge on the journey of education.

Harvard established its Department of English in 1876. During that time, American universities imported an important idea from the German educational system: professors should not only teach, but research as well. This model forced the scholars to focus on composition and critical thought not only when discussing literature, but when exploring all kinds of topics as well. This system had a drawback: an expert in any field needed academic writing skills. The need for developing the skill of critical writing was obvious. Somewhere along the way, the educational system revived the art of writing essays.


Good writing is convincing even when you don’t know all the right answers. A great writer can convince us to think by merely exploring a topic. No one has definite answers about the existence or nonexistence of the soul, but we’ve seen impressive essays arise from that topic.

To understand the real importance of an essay, we’ll have to go back to the root of Montaigne’s term: essayer, which means to try. When writing an essay, you’re trying to figure something out. You’re exploring all ideas you come across. You pick a leading idea and you try to justify it through sound reasoning and facts. That process is in the heart and soul of every new invention and revolutionary idea. That’s what each essay is teaching us: to ask questions and come up with the answers.

In its essence, the essay is a polished-up flow of thoughts. It’s an argumentation that emphasizes a central thread and lets us express ourselves. Although it comes to students as a shock, it’s a challenge with a positive connotation to it. It pushes them away from the habit to memorize facts and paraphrase the contents of books. It teaches the art of critical thought.

A Guide through Essay Types

A Guide through Essay Types

What’s an essay? Any student would give you an answer similar to this one: “it’s a 5-paragraph piece of writing that includes an introduction with a thesis statement, three body paragraphs with main arguments, and a conclusion that sums things up.”

That’s good for a start. However, it’s an incomplete definition. If your teacher tells you to write an essay, you’ll be confused. You’ll have an important question on your mind: what kind of essay?

Before you start writing any essay, you should understand its requirements. Without knowing what the precise type of paper calls for, you’ll miss the point.

We’ll give you a guide to help you understand the five main types of essays:

  • Descriptive

  • Narrative

  • Argumentative

  • Cause and Effect

  • Compare and Contrast

Descriptive Essay

As the name itself suggest, the descriptive assignment requires you to describe a certain topic or story in detail.

  • The focus of attention of a descriptive essay can be a place, person, event, experience, or object.

  • You’re using your five senses. You describe how the matter appears to the touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight.

  • Be very specific in the descriptions. Don’t use vague language like “she is very pretty” or “I liked the smell a lot.” Be creative! She looked like someone who just experienced the most precious moment of her life. Her beauty came from the emotions the joy on the inside. She smelled like peonies and sun oil. I could also smell the desert she was just preparing for us. That’s more like it, right?

  • Be the master of comparisons! That’s how you master descriptive essays.

  • Always use active verbs! Passive language is not okay in descriptive essays.

Narrative Essay

This is probably the simplest type of essay, since it doesn’t require much research. When you narrate, you tell a story. That’s the main thing to remember. For example, you can write a story of how someone special affected your life’s goals. It may be your grandfather, who was once an officer and inspired you to serve your country in a different way.

Here are few tips that will help you write a narrative essay:

  • The purpose is to share a piece of your own history, provide insight into a personal point of view, or simply entertain the reader with your story.

  • The topic may be focused on a special person, place, or an event. Naturally, you must choose a very specific topic before you start writing the essay.

  • Once you determine the purpose of your narrative essay, state it in a thesis statement. When compared to other types of essays, the thesis statement in a narrative paper is more flexible. It’s your controlling idea, which you’ll build upon.

  • You won’t use arguments to prove the thesis statement in a narrative essay. You’ll be using stories, practical examples, or other details that relate to that idea.

  • Show, don’t tell! The narrative essay should paint a picture. You’re free to use dialogue, quotes, descriptive details, and other elements that make your style more vivid.

  • If you’re mentioning few events in the narrative essay, the best way to present them is by chronological order. That’s the easiest way to write, and it’s a sure way to keep the reader’s attention.

Argumentative Essay

This is the most common type of essay you’ll be writing throughout college and university. Its point is to show your knowledge on a given topic, as well as your capacity to research and discuss various sources. It’s a bit more complex than the narrative and descriptive essay, since it involves the stage of extensive research.

  • The topic may be an idea, belief, or controversial issue. Choose something that gives space for discussion from different points of view. The issue should be very narrow.

  • Before you start writing, conduct research to obtain enough information. Collect evidence in the form of scientific studies, statistics, practical examples, observations, theories and other facts.

  • The thesis statement is the foundation of an argumentative essay. It should clearly and specifically present the controlling idea.

  • Consider the opposite points of view and try to beat them with strong arguments.

  • There are two ways to argue a point:

    • Inductive – you start by stating the evidence and you guide them down to a single conclusion.

    • Deductive – you start with your own statement (idea or belief), and then you provide supporting evidence.

  • Always cite your resources!

Cause and Effect Essay

The cause and effect essay explores the links between two things that are connected in a certain way. You explain a phenomenon or event, and then you explain how it caused a different situation.

For example, you can write about the way traffic contributes towards the global warming phenomenon. The traffic trends all over the planet is the cause, and the global warming is the effect you’re going to explore.

  • There can be multiple causes to one effect, or one cause of multiple effects. Create an outline that guides you through the exact causes and effects, so you won’t get confused as you write along.

  • The cause and effect essay needs a clear purpose. What goal are you trying to achieve? You may want to persuade the reader that a certain habit causes damage to the way we live, and we should try to change it. In a way, you’re adding a persuasive or argumentative element to the cause and effect essay.

  • Use strong evidence to support your claims. Don’t forget to reference your sources!

Compare and Contrast Essay

For this assignment, you have two or more main subjects and you compare them by exposing differences and similarities. The subjects may be people, experiences, theories, places, objects, or ideas.

  • The compare and contrast essay should have a strong thesis statement. Explains what you’re going to be talking about: the similarities, differences, or both? Then, state the main point you’ll come down to once you make those comparisons and contrasts.

  • It’s important to organize a neat outline. Decide what order you’ll follow. Will you opt for point-by-point comparison, or will you first outline the main points of one subject, following with the main points of the other one?

Now that you understand the five main types of essays, it will be easier for you to write them. Are you ready?

Best Ideas for Argumentative Essay Topics

Best Ideas for Argumentative Essay Topics

When your professor tells you to choose your own topic for an argumentative essay, you’re confused. At one point, you feel relief for being able to write about whatever you want. On the other side, it’s not that easy to think of a topic for an argumentative essay.

There are few main points this topic should meet:

  • It should enable you to express your clear point of view, which is different from someone else’s point of view. This means you shouldn’t go for obvious facts like “the sky is blue and the grass is green.” What’s to argue there?

  • The topic should leave space for putting up a good fight. The type of paper says it all – argumentative. Can you support your statement with valid arguments?

  • Choose a topic you can research. Can you locate enough sources you can reference? Are there any studies, statistics, examples, and facts supporting your point of view?

  • Choose a topic you have a clear position on. When you have an option to choose, you can make it easy on yourself. Of course you can opt for a topic you don’t feel certain. You’ll do the research and decide what point of view you want to take. However, the essay will be much more powerful when you have a clear starting point.

For example: how do you feel about the gun control issue? If you already have a stand, it will be easy for you to write a thesis statement and find supporting arguments. If you don’t, you’ll have to conduct thorough research, understand both points of view, and pick one.

  • It’s a good idea to choose an emotional topic. Although argumentative essay writing is based on facts and evidence, it still leaves you space to appeal to the reader’s emotions.

All that talk seems nice. You need a powerful topic that leaves space for research and lets you express a point of view that you’ll support with authoritative arguments. The theory is clear, but you still need practical examples of argumentative essay topics, which will help you choose your own topic. Don’t worry; we have a list for you.

Argumentative Essay Topic Ideas

  1. How Does Religion Justify the Existence of Evil?

Topics related to religion are always attractive for argumentative writing. This topic, in particular, leaves you with two ways to go:

  • Religion cannot justify evil. Evil exists, so God doesn’t exist.

  • Evil is justified as part of God’s creation, and has a greater purpose than the one we usually see.

Whichever way you’ll go, you’ll encounter paradoxes and obstacles. You’ll have a lot of research to do, so you’ll understand the religion you try to criticize or justify.

  1. Should Marijuana Be Legal for Everyone?

This seems like a mainstream topic, but there’s a lot to discuss. You’ll find a great deal of medical studies that show the benefits and risk of marijuana use. Whatever your point of view is, you’ll find tons of arguments for and against it.

Since it’s a popular topic, you’ll have to be really creative to make your essay unique. Don’t say what your professor has heard hundreds of times before.

  1. Is Bureaucracy Necessary?

Bureaucracy provides millions of jobs. But is it necessary for a country’s economy?

We can agree that a country needs rules and people who make sure those rules are maintained. But does the bureaucratic system have to be that big, complicated, and expensive?

You’ll have many points to cover and discuss if you choose this topic.

  1. Should Americans Finally Give Up on Democracy?

This is a topic that allows you to show your sarcastic side. If you don’t like the current political situation and you think that the ideal of democracy is far from being achieved, you can express your arguments through humor. Since we can’t reach that ideal, maybe it’s about time we gave up on it?

  1. How the Standards of Beauty Affect Girls and Women

This is an emotional topic that can include your own experience. However, you can also conduct research to find examples that prove your point. The beauty industry is massive. It creates jobs and it’s worth millions. Do we suffer the consequences?

  1. How Smoking Affects a Teenager’s Social Life

If you pick a topic similar to this one, you’ll get your professor’s attention right away. It’s an interesting case that gives you two potential angles to explore:

  • Most teenagers start smoking because their friends smoke, so they want to belong in a group. In that way, smoking improves a teenager’s social life.

  • Since not everyone wants smokers around, you have to go outside the room to have a smoke. You’re missing the fun because of your bad habit.

  1. Does College Have to Be Expensive?

No one wants to pay thousands of dollars for a single year at college. Still, we keep doing it. It’s like we understand why education has to cost that much and we comply with the norms.

This topic allows you to explore the causes that make the tuition fees go up all the time. You can also outline potential solutions, which would make college more affordable for students.

  1. Is Abortion Ethical?

This is a very controversial topic. No matter what you say, someone will be offended by it. Still, it’s an important issue and you should feel free to express your opinions. Be brave!

Do the research and find facts that prove your point of view. Try to understand the other side and do not write in offensive tone!

  1. Could World War II Have Been Avoided?

World War II didn’t happen just because of Hitler. If he didn’t exist, another person would probably appear to lead the world in the situation whose direction was set way before. This topic is very complex. It challenges you to explore specific circumstances and decisions of the leadership of different countries.

  1. Are High School Students Pressured to Go to College?

Do people go to college because they want to, or are they applying because the system leads them towards that point? Are we being pressured by society, parents, and teachers? Why can’t many students do what they really want to do?

Did you like some of these topics? Here’s an idea: pick one and write an argumentative essay today. It will be a nice trigger for practice, and you know you can only get better at writing when you practice.

Why is College So Expensive?

Why is College So Expensive?

It’s normal for college tuition and fees to be rising. Whether you’re paying for nursery school, private elementary or high school, college, or university, the prices will be higher by the year. Inflation has that effect on all prices.

If you look at the information provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you’ll notice that the indexes grow. Whether it’s accommodation, recreation, or anything else, you’re usually paying a higher price as time goes by. However, the house prices and consumer price grow at a more rapid pace when compared to the average hourly wage. The expenses for college tuition and fees, as well as educational books and supplies, grow at an even faster pace.

As usual, the tuition and fees are expected to get higher in 2018, too. The current price for Brown university, for example, is $51,366. The estimated tuition and fees for 2018 are $53,468. As an average of all Ivy League institutions, the fees will grow from $50,268 in 2017 to $52,259 in 2018.


Ask any student or family with college students, and they will tell you the same thing: college expenses are getting out of control. Is there a justification behind the rapid growth of the prices for education? Let’s explore that issue a bit deeper.

Why is College So Expensive?

  1. Universities Are Subjected to Inflation

Have you noticed how your family is paying bigger bills for fuel, electricity, water, food, clothes, and everything else? The average salaries grow, too. The wages in the USA increased by 4.47% in January 2017 when compared to the same month of the previous year. From 1960 to 2017, the average growth of wages in the USA was 6.29%.

This means that universities are paying more to the professors, assistant professors, librarians, and all other staff. Their bills for electricity and travel expenses are higher, too. As a result, they have to charge higher tuition and fees.

Have you heard of the policy of tenure? Many universities give professors permanent employment after a probationary period. Regardless of their productivity, these professors are guaranteed employment for life. This is a contributing factor to the rise of expenses that universities have.

  1. Education Is Becoming More Important

Let’s rely on the details provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics again. You’ll notice that as the educational attainment rises in the chart, the unemployment rates decrease and the earnings increase.

People with a high school diploma have median weekly earnings of $678, and the unemployment rate for this category is 5.4%. In comparison, the category of people with a Bachelor’s degree earns an average of $1,137 per week and has an unemployment rate of 2.8%. People with a Professional degree earn $1,730 on an average, and have the lowest unemployment rate of 1.5%.

Is there anyone who doesn’t want a higher salary and higher chances for employment? That’s why more people decide to go to college. As a result of the increased demand, the price rises, too. That’s one of the main principles of economy.

  1. Competition between Universities

Every single university in this country is competitive. These institutions don’t wait to see how many applicants they get each year. They need to attract them. The educational industry is just like any other marketplace, and the student is the customer.

Thus, they compete for a higher rank. It’s a costly competition, since it means investing in new facilities, providing better food, implementing technology into the educational processes, and (most of all) marketing.

With the rise of students’ expectations, the investments on campus rise, too. Who pays for that? The students, of course.

  1. Less Government Support

Universities receive financial support from both the federal and state governments. The federal government support is aimed towards financial aid for students. The states, on the other hand, primarily focus their funds towards general operations of public institutions.

During and after the Great Recession, the states started giving less money to universities. Over the period from 2008 to 2013, the state-level spendings for general-purpose appropriations for institutions fell by 21% ($14.1 billion).

Although we recovered from the recession, the states are still funding higher education below pre-recession levels. 46 states (all except North Dakota, Wyoming, Wisconsin, and Montana) were funding less money per students in the 2015-2016 school year when compared to the amounts they spent before the recession. When compared to the per-student funding since the start of the recession, today’s rates are down by more than 30% in 9 states (including Pennsylvania, Illinois, and South Carolina).

Since the universities are getting less money from the states, they have to fill in that gap from somewhere. Any ideas who’s paying?

The Result: Students Are Drowning in Debt

The rise in college expenses is somewhat justified. But, are you really getting the value you’re paying for? That’s hard to say. Not all students are getting enough value for their money.

There’s another serious problem: unless you’re getting financial aid, you’re accumulating a huge debt over your years at college or university. The national student loan surpassed $1.4 trillion. That’s more than the total credit card debt in the USA. On an average, every borrower from the Class of 2016 owes $37,172. That’s a lot!

As education costs get higher and the growth of household income doesn’t keep that pace, we’re getting into an unsustainable situation. It’s hard to predict how much longer this trend will go on, but for now we’re still seeing universities rising the fees and students playing by their rules. Do we have a choice?

Is this a bubble? Will it burst? If the students and their families are brought to the point when they can’t possibly pay, the demand will naturally decrease. The universities will have no other choice but to reduce the tuition and fees.

There’s another possible outcome: students will keep getting into debt, with the intention to get higher-paying jobs after graduation and give that money back. Will this trend continue forever? Only time will tell.

10 Essential Skills for Every Writer [INFOGRAPHIC]

10 Essential Skills for Every Writer [INFOGRAPHIC]

Do you want to write a best-selling book or become a freelance writer in a reputable company? Excellent! You made a smart choice by landing on this page because this is where you will get your first lesson on essential skills of writers. Like any other profession, writing has its essentials that must be learned, so that’s our goal for today.

Let’s begin. The first thing that you should understand about writing is that it’s difficult. Many people have failed to become good writers because they did not pay attention to the essentials of the profession. A piece of content written by true professional follows a number of particular guidelines and is a result of a long learning process.

To produce a quality piece, professional writers invest a lot of effort and time. Some people underestimate the difficulty of writing by saying that anyone can be successful in this field. I cannot say that there not a grain of truth in these words but they are certainly not completely true. Can everyone write? Of course. Can everyone write an article for the New York Times? Most definitely no.

Those who prefer to think about writing as easy occupation often fail because of a low skill level and lack of knowledge. Their clients are unhappy because the entire projects need to be revised or even rewritten completely. All because of those misconceptions about the profession.

People who take a smart approach develop a number of skills before writing for a living. They include attention to details, techniques that attract readers, proofreading, scene construction, and many others. Remember: writing is a profession and it has the essentials that must be learned before starting to work for clients.

The infographic below will serve well for both beginners and experienced writers because it explains these essentials. People who are just starting their professional career in writing will find some helpful pointers that could help them to advance. Those who has been writing for a living before also will take some useful pointers to take their career to new heights.

In addition to the essential guidelines, the infographic contains specific guidelines on how to achieve them. They outline the strategies used by experienced writers to produce an excellent content for various purposes.

So, without further ado, let’s get some visual aids in our lesson! Here we go, it’s time to learn writing essentials!

10 Essential Skills for Writers