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Types Of College Essays

Types of Essays: End the Confusion

Effectively writing different types of essays has become critical to academic success. Essay writing is a common school assignment, a part of standardized tests, and a requirement on college applications. Often on tests, choosing the correct type of essay to write in response to a writing prompt is key to getting the question right. Clearly, students can’t afford to remain confused about types of essays.

There are over a dozen types of essays, so it’s easy to get confused. However, rest assured, the number is actually more manageable. Essentially there are four major types of essays, with the variations making up the remainder.

Four Major Types of Essays
Distinguishing between types of essays is simply a matter of determining the writer’s goal. Does the writer want to tell about a personal experience, describe something, explain an issue, or convince the reader to accept a certain viewpoint? The four major types of essays address these purposes:

1. Narrative Essays: Telling a Story
In a narrative essay, the writer tells a story about a real-life experience. While telling a story may sound easy to do, the narrative essay challenges students to think and write about themselves. When writing a narrative essay, writers should try to involve the reader by making the story as vivid as possible. The fact that narrative essays are usually written in the first person helps engage the reader. “I” sentences give readers a feeling of being part of the story. A well-crafted narrative essay will also build towards drawing a conclusion or making a personal statement.

2. Descriptive Essays: Painting a Picture
A cousin of the narrative essay, a descriptive essay paints a picture with words. A writer might describe a person, place, object, or even memory of special significance. However, this type of essay is not description for description’s sake. The descriptive essay strives to communicate a deeper meaning through the description. In a descriptive essay, the writer should show, not tell, through the use of colorful words and sensory details. The best descriptive essays appeal to the reader’s emotions, with a result that is highly evocative.

3. Expository Essays: Just the Facts
The expository essay is an informative piece of writing that presents a balanced analysis of a topic. In an expository essay, the writer explains or defines a topic, using facts, statistics, and examples. Expository writing encompasses a wide range of essay variations, such as the comparison and contrast essay, the cause and effect essay, and the “how to” or process essay. Because expository essays are based on facts and not personal feelings, writers don’t reveal their emotions or write in the first person.

4. Persuasive Essays: Convince Me
While like an expository essay in its presentation of facts, the goal of the persuasive essay is to convince the reader to accept the writer’s point of view or recommendation. The writer must build a case using facts and logic, as well as examples, expert opinion, and sound reasoning. The writer should present all sides of the argument, but must be able to communicate clearly and without equivocation why a certain position is correct.

Learn How to Write Different Types of Essays

Time4Writing essay writing courses offer a highly effective way to learn how to write the types of essays required for school, standardized tests, and college applications. These online writing classes for elementary, middle school, and high school students, break down the writing process into manageable chunks, easily digested by young writers. Students steadily build writing skills and confidence with each online writing course, guided by one-on-one instruction with a dedicated, certified teacher.

In the elementary years, young writers get an introduction to essay writing through two courses designed to bring excitement and enjoyment to the writing process. Narrative Writing and Informative Writing take young writers on an animal-filled adventure to beginning essay writing. Our middle school online writing courses, Welcome to the Essay and Advanced Essay, teach students the fundamentals of writing well-constructed essays. The high school online writing class, Exciting Essay Writing, focuses in depth on the essay writing process with preparation for college as the goal. The online writing classes for kids also cover how to interpret essay writing prompts in testing situations. Read what parents are saying about their children’s writing progress in Time4Writing’s online writing courses.


First, ask yourself two questions: 

  1. Have you faced significant challenges? (You define "significant.")
  2. Do you know what you want to study?

Based on these two answers, take a look at the chart above and see which essay approach might work for you.

Get this: You can write a great essay whether you've been through challenges or not, and whether you know what you want to study or not.

The question is: How?

The answer: Find the right structure.

Let me explain...

I believe a good college essay should either:

  1. go deep, discussing one moment that fundamentally changed your life, or
  2. go wide, discussing many different elements of your life.

The Narrative Structure, will help you go deep, while the Montage Structure will help you go wide. We'll discuss both structures in the next two sections.

Note that I don’t believe people can generally be reduced to “types.” So if it pains you to think of yourself as a “type” of student, just think of these as different types of strategies.

It’s also important to note that these categories are fluid and it’s possible to move from one to another. A student who has faced significant challenges but doesn’t know what s/he wants to study (Category C), for example, may discover, through a process of research or counseling, what s/he would like to study and so move to Category A. Similarly, a student who has not faced significant challenges and does not know what s/he wants to study (Category D) may discover, through self-reflection or counseling, that s/he has indeed faced significant challenges, and so move to Category C. I recommend reading all the examples; you never know what might resonate.

Finally: There is no surefire approach for essay writing. No essay will, on its own, get a student into a college. Many different students are accepted to colleges each year with many different types of essays. Having said that, the task of the college essay is to shape the student’s life into a coherent narrative. What follows are some strategies that have helped some of my students do just that.

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