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How To Create the Best Essay Outline – The 2024 Student Guide

Are you having an issue creating a good essay in college? Check out these tips on how to create the best essay outline to make it easier for you.

Kayleigh Fernandez

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A student writing an essay for college

Writing an essay can be a daunting task for anyone, especially if it’s a long paper or an advanced topic.

Check out these tips on how to create the best essay outline to make it easier for you, sourced from an English major!

In This Post:

What Is an Essay Outline?

An essay outline is a plan for how your essay is going to flow. The most bare-bones outline is what most of us learned in elementary through high school: the intro, the body paragraphs, and the conclusion. 

It’s a list of your subtopics and your research, which will be detailed in the actual essay. The point of the outline is to not only organize yourself, but to save as much time as possible. A good outline is one that isn’t too long, but allows you to “fill in” the whole thing when you actually begin writing. If you’re still confused after writing the outline, you’re doing it wrong.

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When Do You Need To Write an Essay Outline?

You can write an outline for any essay, no matter how long it is or how much you know about the topic. The best time to write it is when you have received the topic, and you can begin to think of ideas. Do not do this too late! 

Make sure you have some kind of plan so you can begin writing the essay in advance. If you don’t outline and write, you can’t edit, and you may hand in subpar content. Do not depend on luck to get good grades; depend on your ability to write great content!

Components of an Essay Outline

Here’s a list of what a basic essay outline should have.

The assignment’s main objective or question: 

For example, let’s say you have a topic or question like, “Is Hamlet a good leader?” Copy the exact question from the assignment and put it at the top. Now you will never forget what the main focus is. 

Sometimes, I can get a little off-topic, and I have to remember to steer myself back. This is where the outline comes in.  

Your thesis: 

The point of including the thesis in the outline is so you are reminded of what exactly you are arguing, and you follow the guidelines of the assignment and your argument.

Outline a short summary or context: 

Make a short bullet list of topics that need to be explained in your essay. This may vary by major. My professors don’t mind when I write a light summary, but some may not want one at all.

Main points you will use to prove your argument for each paragraph: 

Have a general topic statement for each one. Underneath that, use subtopics with notes of what sources or quotes you will use. 

Usually, I will note scenes or chapters that were of interest to me. For example, for one paragraph, I would write, “Hamlet acts on impulse” as a topic sentence, and underneath it, I would bullet “insert quote from Act X Scene Y.” 

If you do this for every subtopic, all you’ll have to do is fill it in when you actually start writing. 

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Conclusion: 

Make a little list of the main topics you covered from each paragraph, so you can sum them up in the conclusion. Do not repeat the introduction word for word!

Example of an Outline

Here is a very simple outline using my example of Hamlet. Of course, you can use whatever format you like. This example is very simple, and you can tailor it to whatever you need. 

Assignment topic/question: Is Hamlet a good leader?

Thesis: There are several moments when Hamlet doesn’t display the behavior of a king, which include X, Y, and Z.

Intro:

Intro sentence: 

Thesis: There are several moments when Hamlet doesn’t display the behavior of a king, which include X, Y, and Z.

Body 1: 

Topic sentence: Hamlet acts on impulse.

Evidence 1: Use a scene where Hamlet stabs Polonius.

Evidence 2: Use a source from JSTOR about leadership.

Body 2: 

Topic sentence: Hamlet can’t make decisions.

Evidence 1: Quote from Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 3 Scene 3.

Evidence 2: Use the source of a business article about leaders. 

Body 3, 4, etc. 

Opposing argument: 

Topic sentence: Academics have debated over Hamlet’s capability as a king, but they can’t prove that he is worthy.

Evidence 1: Quote from the end of the novel.

Evidence 2: Use leadership source again. 

Conclusion: (Repeat topic sentences here, but don’t repeat word for word in the actual essay.)

Hamlet acts on impulse.

Hamlet can’t make decisions.

Some may think he can’t lead, but he can.

Any other points.

Wrap it up!

If you would like to see another example of a basic outline, Harvard’s writing center has a nice one here.

Related: 20 Sites That Pay You To Actually Do Homework – The Ultimate 2022 Guide

Different Types of Essays

Masterclass detailed the eight different kinds of essays you may encounter in an academic setting. 

Expository: 

This means “explanatory.” This doesn’t go in-depth; it simply talks about a topic and explains the history/process behind it.

Analytical: 

This kind of essay takes a topic and delves into it further. It can make an argument, but it leans more on in-depth research.

Persuasive: 

This one is created with the specific purpose to convince the readers of your side of the argument, and to disprove the other side. 

Narrative: 

It takes the route of storytelling. It’s most often used in creative writing.

Descriptive: 

This one is usually shorter, and it simply describes something. It can be included in a narrative essay because of the brevity. 

Compare and contrast: 

This kind of essay illustrates similarities and differences between the two topics. This is often done to make a bigger point.

Cause and effect: 

It shows the relationship between two things. 

Critical analysis: 

This one is a deep analysis on a piece of literature. This may mean a single word, line, or the whole book.

Some of these may be used more depending on the major. As an English literature major, I often write analytical, persuasive, and critical analysis essays. Someone in creative writing would write narrative and descriptive essays. 

However, someone in STEM may write more expository, analytical, and cause-and-effect essays. Many essays can be in multiple categories at once. Overall, all college students will have to analyze and argue, regardless of topic. 

In your general education classes and major classes, there will always be research to develop an argument. For the purpose of this article, I will give tips specifically for analytical, persuasive, and critical analysis essays.

 

Related: Learning Styles: How To Recognize Yours & Maximize Your College Studies

Tips To Write The Best Essay Outlines

General Formatting

Your thesis:

While I emphasized that the point of including the thesis in the outline is so you are reminded of what exactly you are arguing, I would like to give tips on the thesis itself. Lots of students get this confused with the main idea. Stating a fact or statement is not a thesis. 

Saying that “Hamlet is not a leader” is not a thesis statement because it doesn’t explain why he isn’t. This is a thesis: “There are several moments when Hamlet doesn’t display the behavior of a king, which include X, Y, and Z.” It actually says and explains what you’re arguing. 

The thesis can be a couple of sentences, depending on how long the paper is, but most will have one sentence. 

It will be included in the intro, usually toward the end of it. If you’re unsure if you have a strong thesis, ask your professor to read it. 

The worst thing would be to write the whole paper and have a weak thesis! If you have a weak argument, the rest of the paper will have no weight to it.

Outline a short summary or context: 

You can simply use keywords in the outline. Make bullet points of topics to explain.

Depending on the field you are in, professors may recommend that you “Act like the reader knows nothing about the text or topic.” 

When I presented a paper to my department about a poem, the department head told me that he liked how I had a little summary, as many of them had never read the poem before. 

I usually include a paragraph summary that is only a quarter of the page. Do not make it longer! Fluffing up the paper will make readers lose interest, and it will be a signal of low effort to your professor. 

The paper is about your knowledge of the topic and your original ideas, not what you recollect of the reading.

Conclusion: 

Do not copy the introduction in the conclusion! My professor made a comment that stood out to me. My professor said, “The conclusion is the last thing I’ll read when I grade your paper.

Do you want me to read a bland conclusion that simply repeats the introduction? I don’t think so.” 

Summarize each topic in a sentence, sum it all up, and include a final statement. Of course, in the outline, don’t flesh out the whole conclusion.

Make a little list of the main topics you covered so you can use them in the actual paper. 

Note about the flow of your paper:

If you were to sit and binge-write a whole essay, you might go off-topic or introduce new ideas in an incoherent fashion. This is why the outline is crucial; you can format your articles in a way that transitions well and makes sense to the reader. 

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Sources

First thing: 

All sources must be relevant to the topic. This is the point of outlining. If I was in a rush, I’d be struggling to find sources relevant to my topic in a short amount of time. You don’t want to be placing any irrelevant quotes or links in your outline or essay. It will make your argument look flimsy.

Include sources in your outline: 

Outlining may occur as a brainstorm, but personally, I like to browse sources before writing. When I wrote my paper about Hamlet, I found a great source. However, I skimmed the source and didn’t read the whole thing. 

When I wrote my draft, I realized the source actually disproved my argument, and I had to flip my essay to corroborate the other side. I could have avoided that if I simply read it in advance, which is why I highly recommend finding and reviewing sources beforehand. 

When you do make the outline, make notes such as “use source about x,” or actually input the link. 

As a result, you will know when to use the source, and you will have a little list of links for when you make your works cited or references page. 

Research the other side of the argument: 

As I said in the previous point, make sure you know exactly what to argue, and that your argument is sound. Research the other side, and when you include the link in your outline, highlight it in a different color or make a note of it. 

Make sure that when you actually begin writing, you know what the main idea of every source is. You can even copy and paste quotes and cite in advance! Anything is good to save time later on. 

The worst thing is knowing an exact quote, and not being able to find it when you actually write. 

General quoting advice: 

While I emphasize reading sources and preparing quotes in advance, do not quote too much! Some students tend to quote-dump. 

My professors have often expressed disdain toward those who introduce a topic sentence, input a paragraph-long quote, then barely back it up with analysis. Do a quote sandwich: have a sentence or two before the quote, then use the quote (keep it short!), and then conclude with one or two after it.

Related Post: 15 Best Websites to Download Free College Textbooks Online

Final Thoughts

I know it can get scary when you get a big assignment. I get scared too, even if I’m used to it. Just relax, take your time, and make sure someone else reads your work. 

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How to make the best college essay outline

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