From middle school through high school and on, students are required to write essays, papers and reports. Different kinds of essays are appropriate for different subjects, and instructors also often have unique requirements. Some students are intimidated by essay writing, but bear in mind that the word "essay" comes from "essayer," the French word for "attempt." An essay is never the final word on the subject, just the student's honest attempt to discuss the topic thoughtfully.
In a descriptive essay, a topic is discussed in factual terms. A descriptive essay may be quite short -- just three or four paragraphs -- and in it the student describes the who, what, where, when and why of the topic. This is not a mindless recitation of the facts, however, but an attempt to bring a particular focus or perspective to the topic. A subset is the classification essay, in which things or ideas are separated into categories and each of their characteristics described.
Compare and Contrast
In a compare and contrast essay, the student aims to demonstrate that she understands the similarities and differences between two or more things or ideas. Typically, each element is described separately, and then the similarities and differences are explored. The purpose of this kind of essay is to provide a broader knowledge about the subject. For example, an essay comparing and contrasting the Democratic and Republican parties might end by drawing conclusions about the nature of politics in the U.S.
The research essay is a more in-depth version of the descriptive essay. It differs, however, in that it uses a hypothesis -- a specific claim or position -- as its organizing principle. Having researched what scholars say about the topic, the student shows critical thinking by discussing whether the hypothesis is supported or disproved. For example, in an essay on the Civil War, the student might provide an exposition that proves the hypothesis "Lincoln's primary motive was to free the slaves."
In a persuasive essay, the student is attempting to convince the reader of her opinion. The topic is researched in a manner similar to the research essay, but in this type of essay a particular position is taken and the facts and arguments in support of it marshaled. This type of essay is also called a position paper. The essay may include an explanation of why the opposing view is less compelling.
An activity report may be assigned as part of a science lab or a field trip report in geography, archeology or any program that requires the student to make firsthand observations. After the required activity is completed, the activity report is written; in it, careful notes are made about what the student did and observed, the materials he used and any problems encountered. The report is written in a clear and objective manner, referring to the field's knowledge base to interpret the results of the activity and support any conclusions that are drawn.
In a personal reflection paper, students of nursing, ministry, teaching, social work or counseling demonstrate their personal learning after a practicum experience. The student is expected to recount what occurred in one critical incident and to summarize what the field's knowledge base says about such incidents to back up her experience. In addition, the student should report his personal feelings, reflecting honestly on any mistakes he made, what he did right and what he learned about himself and his profession. The conclusion addresses what he plans to do in a similar, future circumstance.
Literary Book Report
A literary book report is a brief essay that discusses a novel or play. While additional research on the author, her other publications and the time period of the book may be referred to, the primary focus is the literary elements of the work — character and plot development, structure, theme, language, voice and imagery. The book report may take a particular focus, such as analyzing the characters' motivations as revealed in the events of the plot or exploring the use of metaphor and imagery to convey the theme, or it may be an overall assessment of all the literary elements.
Nonfiction Book Report
In a nonfiction book report, the student aims to demonstrate that he has comprehended the content of a book and can evaluate it in terms of the issues and theories of the course. The content may be briefly summarized, but the focus should be on the critique of that content -- commenting on its usefulness in the field and comparing it to the beliefs or theories of other experts.
A dissertation or thesis is the most demanding kind of essay, usually only required at the master's and Ph.D. levels of education. To write a dissertation, the candidate researches and draws conclusions about the relevant published material and then contributes something original to the field. In the physical and social sciences, direct experiments that no one has yet done are also required. When complete, the dissertation is defended before a group of experts in the field.
Instructors sometimes permit a creative project in place of a formal essay. The student must still do good research and take a position but presents the material creatively by means of a story, play, poem, painting or video. For example, if the essay topic were "The Bombing of Pearl Harbor," the student might write a short story from the perspective of an army chaplain conducting services at the time of the attack. Instructors often require a short report citing sources and explicitly pointing out how the requirements have been met by the creative effort.
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