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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CU Boulder chapter.

When it comes to stressful college assignments, you’re either a paper person or a test person. I, as a political science and journalism student, am most definitely a paper person (if I wasn’t, I’d be in the wrong academic fields). 

I’ve written 40+ essays in my three years at CU Boulder (around 10 a semester). Some are better than others, for sure, but all were pretty successful, thankfully. This is not because of pure luck, or pure skill. Although I wish I was just naturally amazing at essays, I credit most of my success to my essay-writing process. 

If you are not a paper person, I’ve compiled the most important parts of my process for you to absorb. 

This article follows my essay-writing process for a past essay that I received an almost-perfect score on. I’ve included pictures from my rough draft to highlight my methods for the more visual learners–so let’s get into it. 

Step One: Break Down The Prompt 

No matter how eloquent your writing is, you’re not going to get a good grade if you don’t answer the prompt. For the next couple of weeks, days, or hours (depending on how much you’ve procrastinated on this paper), the prompt is your god, and you’re just a soul in need of saving.  

For the example paper I’m using, the prompt is medium-sized and tells me pretty clearly what I need to do, luckily. The first thing I do, once I’ve opened a new document usually titled something like “brain vomit,” “essay bones,” or just “outline” if I’m feeling mundane, is split the prompt up into different aspects of the assignment that I need to answer. I like to use a pretty color scheme, just because. I also make sure to use different colors for different parts of the question, which will come in handy later. 

This prompt from an upper-level Political Science class has several different questions hidden inside one sentence. Splitting it up helps me wrap my mind around what the professor wants, and will help me write a coherent thesis statement that will answer the entire thing.

Step Two: Get Researching 

The color-coding in the previous step allows me to organize my research (which I’ve hopefully collected throughout classes, although I’ve definitely had some last-minute google links get thrown into my outline before) based on what part of the prompt it helps answer. 

Notice how I haven’t written my thesis statement or even decided on my argument yet. This is on purpose. No matter what you think your opinion is, it is so hard to find research to fit a predetermined argument; it is much simpler to find an argument to fit your research. This is particularly difficult in Political Science classes. I have opinions on, well, everything. That being said, I’ve learned the hard way to hold my horses until I’ve found the proper research to form a well-educated argument. 

So, I sort my sources into the color categories determined by the prompt. Not only will this help me write my thesis statement, but it will also help me find easy evidence for my body paragraphs later.

Step Three: Write A Bomb-A** Thesis Statement 

As I’m sorting through my sources, I have an idea building in my head of what I want my thesis statement to argue. Now, it’s just a matter of putting it all together. 

In case you weren’t sure what a thesis statement is, it’s defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved.” Basically, it’s the point of your paper stated as clearly and simply as possible. 

Thesis writing does take practice. Luckily for me, I know that I have until I turn the paper in to edit, refine, and even change my thesis statement if needed.  If my thesis statement is a jumbled and wordy mess before I finish my paper, the chances are writing the paper will reveal easier ways to phrase my arguments. If I get halfway through body paragraph two and realize it’d be easier to defend a slightly different thesis statement, I can change it. 

Once I’ve written my statement, I use my color-coding to make sure I answer all parts of the prompt. I know that if I have a particularly lazy or busy professor, they might just read this statement to determine if my paper is A-worthy, so I have to make sure I’m thorough with this. 

My thesis answers every question from the prompt–the responses to the prompt might not be in the same order as their questions were, but it matters more that they’re all there. Notice how a thesis statement doesn’t need to be one sentence–in fact, in harder college courses, I usually avoid one-sentence thesis statements, because it likely means that I’m missing something.

Step Three and A Half: Write A Road Map (Maybe)

This step might not always be needed, but for this paper, it is. I’ve gotten in the habit of asking professors what their preferred essay structure is, especially in the introduction paragraph, and this specific professor made it clear that he wants a “road map.” 

This is a pretty common request, especially for larger classes or busier professors. A road map comes after the thesis statement and clearly maps out how you’re going to defend it. 

I avoid phrases like “I will show this by ____” or “I will prove this by” because they seem a bit adolescent to me. There are fancier ways to say the same thing, but I make sure I’m not too wordy. 

If I asked a professor about the preferred paper structure and they didn’t mention a road map, or if I am writing this paper three hours before it’s due and it’s too late to ask, I include a “sneaky” road map at the end of my claim. While shorter than the road map example I’ve included below, a little “this can be exemplified with A, B, and C” is usually enough of an indication for professors that I am organized enough to deserve an A. 

While this may seem redundant and simplistic for the more artistic writer, I like to think of it like this: If I were reading this paper as an assignment for a class, how clear would I like the point of the paper to be? When I read academic papers for classes, I don’t think of their arguments and writing style as “simple” or “easy” – I usually just appreciate their clarity. Why would I hold myself to a higher standard than the academics I learn about in class? Plus, I have never been told my writing is too elementary with this method, ever. 

I think of a road map as my “backup plan”–if my professor, for whatever reason, gets confused by the direction of my paper, later on, they are much less likely to downgrade based on the organization if the structure is spelled out for them in the first paragraph.

Step Four: Build Your Outline 

It’s hard to follow this step with my example paper because this step varies wildly based on prompt and word count requirements. 

I set my paragraph outlines up with a mini-thesis statement for the paragraph, then I throw in my evidence (how much evidence depends on the word count), and usually end with a transition sentence into the next paragraph. 

It’s easier to determine how many paragraphs you need if you write all of the mini-thesis statements (which can be drawn directly from your thesis statement) at once. Each paragraph should cover one idea – no more, and no less. If your paragraph outline is becoming obnoxiously long, it’s time to consider needing another mini-claim. 

Other than that, paragraph outlines are the only part of the paper that I really can’t describe exactly how to do. The middle school lesson of writing paragraphs with the structure C-E-R (claim, evidence, reasoning) is a pretty good place to start if you’re really stuck. Sometimes, I determine that the reasoning isn’t really necessary if the claim is strong enough, but I’ve written enough papers that those types of decisions are pretty second-nature. 
When including evidence, I just put the links in for now and highlight them in an obnoxious color to make sure I don’t forget they are there. I don’t want to muddle my mind with citation rules right now.

This paragraph is the most straightforward of my essay, but it really is up to your discretion when it comes to body paragraphs. 

Step Five: Write The Introduction and Conclusion

I never write my full introduction first. The introduction of an essay is the most artistic part and requires a good hook and good flow to let your professor know that your paper is worth paying attention to. 

In fact, I haven’t written the introduction yet for this article. While I’m writing this section, the introduction is no more than an *insert intro here* text and some blank space. 

I don’t write my introduction until I get in a good writing flow and will actually be able to produce something of substance. The time to write an intro is not when I’ve just started writing while distracted by other classes, text messages, or TikTok. I’ll produce my best work when I’ve found the perfect study spot, the perfect playlist, and the perfect coffee order for my essay-writing session, which usually happens later in the essay-writing process. 

Introduction paragraphs are much more subjective than the rest of the essay, but I usually structure mine with some sort of hook, then any background needed for your thesis statement (does a word in your statement need to be defined? Are you referring to a niche event in it?), and then your thesis and road map. 
Hooks take practice and depend wholly on the topic and style of your essay. However, I have a few rules I follow pretty strictly when writing. Avoid opening with a quote unless you have a really good reason to (maybe you’ll quote a famous author when writing about their work). I never open with a rhetorical question, as it does give third-grade vibes (sorry). A hook doesn’t have to be particularly shocking or exciting for academic essays–your professor has to read your essay anyways, and super dramatic opening statements might seem juvenile to them. As a Political Science student, my go-to is a simple statement about the political problem I’m discussing in the essay.

The intro for this essay was simple and sweet (well, as sweet as you can get while discussing religious terrorism). It let my professor know what I was talking about, and the intrigue of the first sentence speaks for itself. I then moved into some background information on the topic and also included a transition to my thesis statement just for fun.

I probably should give more attention to my conclusions, but I usually just improvise them. A simple rewording of the thesis with references to some of the most salient evidence discussed in the paper has never gone wrong for me. 

Step Six: Finishing Touches and Citations 

Once I’ve finished my outline, I paste it into a different, more polished document, proofread it a couple of times, and insert my citations. I do use sites like Citation Machine and Easybib, although I’m not going to endorse them publicly because I know some professors hate them. Be aware of your instructor’s preferences. 

When proofreading, I follow these guidelines: 

When I read this section aloud, does it make sense? 

Is almost the entire essay written in the same tense? (You shouldn’t be switching between past and present tense, or future and present tense, too much. It gets confusing for the reader very quickly). 

Does each paragraph relate back to the thesis statement in its own unique way? 

Are there any sentences that could be written in a simpler way? 

Am I overusing passive voice? (Active voice should be used as much as possible, but as an avid reader I am guilty of using passive voice too much, so I’m extra aware of this point). 

After I’ve gone through this checklist, I send the essay to my Dad. I’m lucky that he majored in English during his undergrad, but any trusted friend or family member will do for this step. Every essay I’ve gotten lower than an A on hasn’t been checked by a pair of outside eyes. It may be embarrassing to have someone close to you check for your mistakes, but I’d rather have my Dad call me out on an embarrassing typo than a professor. 

Essay writing is tough. Almost every college student dreads it. I’ve developed a system that works for me, and that has saved my a** one too many times during my years at CU. Feel free to use my system, or develop your own–just know that you’ve got this. Good luck!


Genevieve Andersen is the President of HCCU, as well as a co-Campus Coordinator. As President, she oversees the senior executive team, executive team, national partnerships, and assists with coordinating events. She manages meetings, recruitment, campus communications, and chapter finances and is one of HCCU's biggest fans. Since she joined the club in 2021, she has found a passion for writing on subjects like politics, law, feminism, environmental justice, and local features. Outside of HCCU, Genevieve is a senior at the University of Colorado Boulder, majoring in political science and French and minoring in journalism. Besides magazine writing, she has published and assisted with political science research, with her latest project involving international environmental policy being based in Geneva, Switzerland, where she worked with the United Nations Environmental Program and various European environmental NGOs. When she is not busy reading member's HCCU articles, you can find Genevieve on a ski or hiking trail, hanging out with her friends, playing with her dogs, or staring at her pet fish wishing he could be played with.