3.3 Structuring an Essay

The following briefly covers what is included in a typical student essay in accordance with the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2020).

Most student essays present a thesis statement at the end of an introduction, followed with a series of arguments to support that thesis in the body of the paper, which are backed up with secondary research, and a conclusion. However, the structure of an essay varies depending on disciplinary conventions as well as specific assignment requirements that your instructor may ask for, so if you do not know what your professor wants, be sure to ask.

See Appendix A: Sample Essay for an example of a student essay.

Refer to Chapter 7 and Appendix B for detailed information on putting together a more formal research report sharing findings from original research.

Formatting Your Paper

Title Page

The title page should include the following elements starting about four double-spaced lines down the page:

Title of Your Paper in Title Case Bold Text Centered

Your Name (one double space below the title)

Name of Your University

Course Code: Name of Course

Name of Instructor

Date Essay is Due

Page numbers should appear in the top-right corner of each page, starting with the title page.

Including the title of your paper IN CAPS in the header (also known as a “running head”) is only necessary in student papers if required by your instructor. See Chapter 7’s section on title pages for information on how to add this.

Text of Your Paper

Start your paper with the title at the top, in title case, bold and centred. (Only start your paper with an abstract if required by your instructor.)

Each paragraph of your paper should be aligned to the left, with the first sentence indented one tab.

Text should be double-spaced throughout.

Headings should be centred and in bold text, while sub-headings should be aligned to the left and in bold text.


A list of all works referenced in your paper should be listed at the end of your paper. These should begin on their own page with the heading “References” centered and in bold text.

See Chapter 5 for additional details on how to format references.

Introduction and Thesis Statement

The purpose of an introduction is to situate your paper within its context and establish the direction for the rest of your paper. After reading your introduction, your reader should understand what specific angle of the topic you will be exploring, why it is important or what problem you are trying to address, what kind of essay you have written or what kind of research you have done, and what your overarching conclusion or argument is (also known as your thesis).

Your thesis statement is normally found at the end of your introduction, and it presents the main argument for your paper. This sounds simple, but many writers find thesis statements to be difficult to construct. There is not one way to write a thesis statement, but the following tips and examples may help.

Clearly State and Explain the Position or Argument

Thesis statements can be quite simple and straightforward, stating a position and listing a couple of reasons for it:

Vaccination of healthy children should be mandatory because vaccinations reduce the health care costs associated with preventable diseases, they provide the herd immunity necessary to protect vulnerable children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, and they substantially reduce the number of childhood deaths from preventable disease and illness.

They can also be more complex:

While the medical and social benefits of vaccination may outweigh concerns for personal autonomy when it comes to policies that require vaccination for children in public schools, the practice of coercion through policy should not be allowed on principle. Such policies allow institutions to establish standards of personal duty and to enforce exclusion from necessary public spaces without offering any alternatives for those who do not comply, effectively stripping away personal choice in practice, even though legal recognition of such rights has not changed. Thus, vaccine policies for public schools contribute to the normalization of institutional coercion that could threaten citizens’ rights in other contexts as well.

In both examples above, the author’s position is clearly stated, and the reader has a sense of how the essay will unfold from there.

Also note that these thesis statements are arguable. They are not just a statement of fact (e.g., many public schools are proposing vaccination policies to prevent outbreaks of preventable diseases), nor are they just a statement of opinion, assumption, or generalization (e.g., schools that implement vaccination policies do not care about individual rights).

Thesis Statements Can be Lengthy-ish

In many cases, one sentence may be all that is needed, but contrary to popular belief, there is no rule stating that a thesis statement must be one sentence. In fact, for heftier projects like a dissertation, honours- or masters-level thesis, the thesis statement may be presented over a whole chapter!

That said, for most undergraduate-level work, one or a few sentences, or possibly a brief paragraph will be plenty of room for a well-developed thesis statement. If you find it difficult to summarize your argument and rationale, you are likely including too much detail and not being specific enough about what your core argument really is, or you are trying to cover too many things in a single paper. 

Thesis Statements Can Change and Evolve 

Until you are ready to submit your final draft, you should consider whatever thesis statement you have written down as a working thesis, subject to change, and you should always revisit your thesis after you feel the rest of your paper is finished to make any last-minute edits to it that may be needed.

Though we often think of writing as the process of communicating pre-formed ideas, it is a thought process in and of itself. As you write, it is perfectly natural to also be thinking through your points, coming up with new ideas you had not thought of previously, or considering your research in a new light. You may also hit points in the drafting process where you realize that you need to go back and do some additional research or that there is a better source for you to use than the one you had planned on using. The point is that writing is non-linear, which means we continuously move back and forth between the research, thinking, writing, and revising processes rather than doing each one after the other. This means that by the time you are done writing, it is entirely possible that you might have to change the order in which your thesis presents your rationale, or that your argument may have shifted entirely, and that is totally normal!


The body of your paper is where you expand upon and fully flesh out the rationale for your position or argument. Each paragraph focuses on one idea, with the usual paragraph structure following a point, proof, discussion format.

The point, or main idea, is usually stated as the first sentence of a paragraph, also known as a topic sentence. For instance, the idea that economic instability is the motivating factor leading young men in Canada to commit property crimes.

The proof is the evidence that supports the point made in the topic sentence. This is where you will provide arguments or information you have found in your research sources. Here, you might discuss findings from studies that have investigated whether the occurrence of auto theft correlates with poverty levels and the age and gender of those who have committed this crime.

The discussion explains the significance of the evidence and why it supports the point you are making in that paragraph, or how the main point of the paragraph helps to support the thesis of the paper. For instance, your research may lead you to conclude that poverty levels alone are inadequate to explain all types of property crime committed by young men.


In high school, students become familiar with the basic five-paragraph essay structure that includes an introduction with a thesis statement, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. As your writing assignments grow in length and complexity in university, so will the number of paragraphs you will write in your essays. Your introduction or conclusion may be longer than a single paragraph each, and chances are good that you will have more than three points to make in your papers, or you may require several paragraphs to fully explain one point that you are making. With length and complexity of writing, transitions become especially important.

Transitions help your reader understand how one paragraph feeds into another and how one sentence moves into another. In a five-paragraph essay, using transitions can be as simple as starting each topic sentence with First …, Second …, and Third or Finally …. However, unless you really are presenting an itemized or sequential list of some sort, these transitions are not very precise, and they do little to help the reader understand the relationship between your ideas.

When you write your topic sentences, use transitions to make it clear if the next paragraph presents a new idea entirely (Another way in which vaccination policies are used is . . . ), if it is adding to the argument addressed in the previous paragraph (The lack of alternatives becomes even more problematic when one considers that . . . ), or if it is presenting an opposing view (The implementation of such policies is justified by . . . ) or disputing it (What this justification fails to take into account, however, is . . . ).

Remember to transition between sentences too! The same kinds of transition phrases can be used sentence-to-sentence. Words and phrases like however, in addition, furthermore, or conversely all go a long way in connecting your thoughts and clarifying your intentions as a writer.


Generally, your conclusion will revisit your thesis and summarize the main arguments you have made to support your thesis. Conclusions are also often used to identify areas for further research or to reflect on the significance of the topic. That said, your conclusion should usually be quite brief, and you should avoid introducing new information here. It is mostly just there to signal to your reader that you are wrapping things up and pulling everything back together again after expanding on your ideas in the body of the paper.

Essay Checklist

❏ Separate title page at start

❏ Text double-spaced throughout

❏ Start of new paragraphs indented one tab

❏ Headings centered  and sub-headings aligned to the left, each in bold text

❏ Introduction includes thesis statement

❏ Points and discussions in body of essay supported with evidence

❏ Proper citations are included with quotations and paraphrases (ideas you have summarized or reworded)

❏ Conclusion summarizes main points to support thesis and may identify areas for future research

❏ Reference page at end lists all references noted in the text, properly cited


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Navigating an Undergraduate Degree in the Social Sciences by Diane Symbaluk, Robyn Hall, and Geneve Champoux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.