What Is an Essay? What Are the Different Types of Essays?

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The essay is the most common type of written project assigned to students in the academic setting. Despite this, many students are still unsure how to write this paper. So what is an essay and are there different types of this assignment? This post provides a general description of this written project, as well as the most common types of essays students write in class.

What is an essay?

An essay, in its loose definition, is a written piece containing the author’s argument or perspective on a particular topic. This paper can be formal or informal. This paper is written in an attempt to convey a message to the reader. Often this project seeks to convince the reader that the message is valid or correct by combining opinion, arguments, and evidence to draw out a clear and logical conclusion.

The reason why the definition of an essay is loose is that it comes in many different types. Each type has a narrower definition, which is largely based on its content and the purpose it serves.  In other words, you can only come up with a more specific definition once the question becomes more specific. The following sections provide overviews of the different types of this paper as well as links to more detailed discussions.

What are the types of essays?

If you are in college, chances are you have already been acquainted with most types of essays in previous years. You might have experienced writing more basic types in high school or even crafted an admissions paper while applying for college. But as you can also surely recall, you were not taught all these types in one sitting.

Due to the vastness of the spectrum that is essay writing, students are taught the various types in an incremental manner (i.e., descriptive essay first, then compare and contrast, then cause and effect, etc.). Curricula are designed in such a way that students can gradually acquire the building blocks of writing and apply them in the most effective way. This process takes place as students go up the academic and professional ladder. The most common types of essays are the following:

Compare and Contrast Essay: “This and that; which is better?”

A compare and contrast essay  examines the similarities and differences between two or more subjects. These can be objects, persons, places, events, or even abstract ideas. This type also expounds on their essence, features, or characteristics. Knowing how to write a compare and contrast paper is not limited to detailing the subjects’ attributes. The purpose is to illustrate how they relate to each other in terms of similarities and differences as well as pros and cons. In most cases, the paper must ultimately arrive at a decision on which is better.

Narrative Essay: “Could you tell us a story?”

A narrative essay  details a person’s experience for the purpose of making the reader relive it using his or her imagination. This paper is usually about a significant event, such as an experience that had a deep impact or taught a lesson. This type of write-up often employs emotional language. Note that imperative to writing this paper is the use of the first-person language (i.e., use of “I”), since this eases the reader into your perspective and makes him or her wear your shoes.

Descriptive Essay: “Paint us a picture.”

The most frequently required essay since you were in grade school is the  descriptive essay . The first type of essay that students are required to write, this piece is designed to provide a detailed description of a subject such as an object, an animal, a place, or even a person. This written project often requires the use of language that appeals to the senses (i.e., sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste). It is also designed to teach students basic principles of grammar and writing.

types of essays

Creative Essay: “Great storytelling!”

A creative essay is designed to tell a story, usually a particular event, thing, person, or place in the author’s life. Note that the term “creative” does not necessarily mean that the story needs to be fictitious, although it is certainly not uncommon for an assignment to require students to write a fictional story. Writing this paper is more about utilizing a creative approach and infusing the content with creative elements. A creative paper is often part of a larger body of work such as an autobiography or a memoir. This write-up is sometimes a combination of narration and description: it narrates a story and uses descriptive language to make it vibrant and colorful.

Persuasive Essay: “Make me believe and convince me.”

The goal of a persuasive essay  is to make the reader understand your position and consider it valid or true. This paper may also prompt the reader to take action. This type of write-up possesses four vital elements; facts, logic, opinion, and a powerful command of language that appeals to the reader’s emotions. Writing this piece requires interweaving these elements into a paper that can leave a mark on the reader’s heart and consciousness.

Expository Essay: “Facts and logic only; no emotions.”

An expository essay has the broadest scope and hinges on the purpose of the essay. In sum, writing this paper requires a balanced and thorough analysis of a topic. This writing project requires logic and facts, and it is the writer’s mission to explain the topic and widen the reader’s understanding of it. This type of writing must be written with objectivity, which means using the third-person perspective as well as avoiding emotional language, emotional appeals, and personal opinions.

Admission Essay: “You declare your intent to study at that school.”

An admission essay  is part of the requirements when applying to your desired college or university. It is submitted to admissions officers, who gauge the competence of applicants by evaluating their credentials. Admissions officers judge your paper not by the manner of your writing but by the sophistication of your thinking. In other words, your paper and you yourself will be evaluated by how you think and write than what you think and write. Topics applicants often write about are diverse and may range from specific to objective.

Definition Essay: “The extended meaning of something.”

A definition essay aims to explain the meaning of a term. Note that this paper should not just feature dictionary definitions; rather, it should go beyond this by presenting different definitions within different contexts and synthesizing information to present a more comprehensive definition. This paper normally features terms that possess definite meanings (e.g., ladder, basketball, dog, etc.). Terms that are open to subjective interpretation may also be featured but such papers rely more on the personal viewpoint of the writer.

Argumentative Essay: “Your argument is better than theirs!”

An argumentative essay should demonstrate that your argument is correct and more plausible than the arguments of others. It must present the validity of your argument. You will need to reason, infer propositions, apply such propositions, and draw conclusions in order to solidify your argument. Without these, you will not be able to effectively write this paper.  

Personal Essay: “Tell us about yourself.”

A personal essay introduces yourself and your story to the reader. When you write this paper, you indirectly make your reader create a comprehensive image of you in his or her mind. This type of write-up is useful in creating the best first impression. Whether it is for your first day in graduate school or for a job promotion, this paper is the most crucial part of your application.

Response Essay: “I find it to be.”

Also known as a reaction paper or response paper, a response essay communicates your response to a given text. The text can be a book, article, film, music, artwork, or any other topic; your response can cover your thoughts, feelings, opinions, or any other reaction you have. A response paper seeks to define the connection between the text and your experience. It is not supposed to be strictly academic or completely objective, as the content of this paper is personal and therefore subjective in nature.

Cause and Effect Essay: “Because of that, this happened.”

A cause and effect essay  explores why something happens (cause) and its consequences (effect). This paper tries to distinguish cause and effect and establish their relationship. To know the cause, you must determine why or how something happened. To know the effect, you must determine the consequences or impact of the thing that happened. When writing this paper, you must indicate whether you are writing about causes, effects, or both. Clarity is key.

Diagnostic Essay: “What do you know?”

The purpose of writing a diagnostic essay is to assess the depth of knowledge a student has in a particular subject. Professors usually require students to write this paper before the start of formal class sessions in order to determine the student's strengths and weaknesses, which will then serve as the jumping point for the lessons. In the same manner, employers use this write-up to evaluate the competency of prospective employees.

Informal Essay: “Can I just say something?”

An informal essay, as opposed to a formal one, is written without the need to follow the more rigid standards of academic writing. This project can be written using a more relaxed approach such as by giving it a more conversational tone. Bear in mind, however, that an informal paper should still show clarity, organization, and substance.

types of essays

Scholarship Essay: “I deserve this scholarship because.”

A scholarship essay is written to explain why the writer deserves a scholarship grant. It is often submitted to scholarship-granting organizations both within and outside of schools. The content of scholarship papers varies, but most prompts ask students to recollect personal experiences that taught lessons.  The most vital aspect of this paper is the subject matter. Remember, you are up against hundreds, if not thousands, of competitors. You must therefore prove yourself worthy of the scholarship through your writing.

Classification Essay: “Which is which?”

As the term itself suggests, a classification essay classifies items into categories. Writing this paper requires logical thinking since you need to demonstrate the differences between categories and explain why the given items are assigned to their respective categories. This paper usually begins by presenting the categories, proceeds to explain the principle that defines these categories and ends with showing what items are under each category.

Process Essay: “How do I do it?”

A process essay shows how to perform a given task by presenting the steps involved in sequential order. In other words, it presents instructions on how to do something. Topics may range from something as simple as frying an egg to more complicated tasks like troubleshooting a computer. This writing is often assigned as a means to assess a student’s ability to write with clarity, precision, and logic. 

How to Format an Essay

You most certainly have already been taught how to format a paper back in grade school. Regardless of the type, basic formatting prescribes a five-paragraph system, especially if the word count requirement ranges from 500-1000 words. Formatting becomes more complex the longer and more advanced the paper gets. More comprehensive papers, for instance, will require headings and subheadings for better organization. A table of contents and appendices may also be included if necessary.

  1. The first paragraph is the introduction, which presents background information and the thesis statement. 
  2. The next three paragraphs comprise the body, which presents the major arguments that support the thesis. This section also features relevant evidence from sources. 
  3. Finally, the fifth paragraph is the conclusion, which wraps up the discussion and offers final thoughts. 

Longer papers tend to follow the same basic format and also feature other elements as required. However, there are often more paragraphs dedicated to the discussion including the background and the actual synthesis.

Citation Styles

Personal, informal, descriptive, creative, diagnostic, scholarship, admission, and narrative essays rely more on personal content and individual writing style. These types of papers do not always require sources to support the discussion. On the other hand, response, argumentative, persuasive, expository, cause-and-effect, compare-and-contrast, definition, process, and classification essays almost always require evidence from sources. The use of sources, in turn, necessitates knowledge of citation styles.

Knowing how to cite sources is essential since this helps you avoid plagiarism and enables you to give due credit to the authors of sources you use. Moreover, mastering the guidelines of major academic citation styles is beneficial to your writing ability. Some of the most commonly used citation styles are APA, MLA, Harvard, and Chicago. 

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