What is an essay?

An essay is a piece of writing that methodically analyses and evaluates a topic or issue.  Fundamentally, an essay is designed to get your academic opinion on a particular matter.

Many students get confused about the word 'opinion' in academic writing, and think that academic writing should just stick to reporting the facts and forget about opinion altogether.  However, there are important differences between an academic opinion and a personal opinion, and it's important to grasp these when you're putting together an essay:

Academic opinion OR argument, stance, position, thesis, claim

Personal opinion
Determined by: Conducting research, examining evidence, even-handedly considering issues Gut feelings, personal experiences, own worldview
Characterised by: Objectivity - guided by logic and rational thinking Subjectivity - guided by emotions, personal experiences and individual character
Is it defendable?

Yes - you can defend or support an academic argument by citing credible evidence and laying out a reasoned argument

Hmmm, it's hard to say that one person's 'gut feeling' or worldview is any more valid than another's, so personal opinions are very hard to defend and validate objectively

Writing a great essay is not about simply surveying and re-telling existing ideas. Instead, a good essay takes into account various opinions and points of view and puts forward an argument that reflects the writer's informed opinion.  Before you begin planning any essay, then, it’s crucial to have a clear idea of what you think about your topic; you need to have a position, argument, or clear stance on a topic, that you defend with evidence and argument.  This is what's called your thesis statement.

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Remember that 'learning' at university does not simply involve memorising new ideas, but forming your own ideas in response to what experts in the field have said.